How to Finish a Sketchbook

Most artists have done something like this:

You get a nice sketchbook and you never use it, or you get a nice sketchbook and you draw in it twice and then never again, or you get a nice sketchbook and make some decent progress, then put it somewhere where you promptly forget about it, and you find it again five years later, after you’ve accumulated a dozen more similar sketchbooks.

And so, you’ve never finished a sketchbook, but you have a bunch of them.

That’s a shame. Sketchbooks are great! And it can be incredibly satisfying to finish one, and another, and then to have a pile of finished ones instead of unfinished ones.

So here are six steps to finishing a sketchbook. If you can make it through one sketchbook, the rest will be easier!

Stack of finished sketchbooks with dates on the spines
My finished sketchbooks from last year and the current in-progress one.

1. Understand that the sketchbook isn’t precious

This is the first hurdle.

You don’t want to “waste” or “ruin” pages, so you just never draw in them. Can’t mess it up, if you don’t try! Haha! But look, why did you even get the sketchbook if you aren’t going to use it? You could’ve bought ice cream instead.

Even if your sketchbook was kinda pricey, it doesn’t do you much good as a bulky desktop ornament or paperweight. All sketchbooks are more charming once used anyway, so if you like the look of a fancy, leatherbound, laser-etched sketchbook with a belt bucket clasp — I’m telling you, it’ll look better with wear on the cover and slightly bent pages and dings on the sides from where you’ve dropped it while traveling. And if you fill it, you’ll have a reason to get another!

But if you’re in the habit of never finish sketchbooks, best stick to simpler sketchbooks to start. If pricier sketchbooks intimidate you, get something cheap. There are plenty of options for cheap and simple; sometimes you can luck out with cheap, simple, and decently nice.

Barnes & Noble Punctuate sketchbook
A very nice, simple, and relatively cheap hardcover sketchbook. (RIP)

What if you draw something “bad” in it though?

Well, who cares? No one has to see it. Sometimes it’s nice to go back and look at old drawings and marvel and how far you’ve come.

But if you really can’t stand to look at it, you can cut the page out or draw or paint over it. Tada! It’s gone forever! And you can still use the rest of your sketchbook. Now your sketchbook has a nice little story to tell, too, and you can embellish at will — oh yeah, you definitely just spilled chili all over that page and that’s why you tore it out, yup. Nothing to see here!

Often, the very first page of a sketchbook is the most intimidating. I always use the first page for some quote or song lyric I’ve been into lately, as well as to date the book for cataloguing purposes. That way, the first thing I see when I open it is never a drawing, bad or otherwise.

Sketch opened to first page with song lyrics written.
Lyrics from “Will the Future Blame Us” by Our Lady Peace. The line spacing is terrible! Whelp, can’t ruin a sketchbook that’s already “ruined”!

2. Ensure that the sketchbook is private by default

Don’t feel pressured to show anyone your sketchbook if you don’t want to. Like a journal, you’re more likely to use it if you feel like you can draw whatever you want in it.

This can be difficult in the age of oversharing, especially if you’re feeling pressured to post things to social media to feed the algorithms — but even if you want to share some of the work, your default position should be that you don’t have to. Draw whatever embarrassing or terrible or practice thing you want. It’s fine. It’s just for you.

Keeping a sketchbook private might seem daunting if you live with nosy people, though often, I think it’s easy to overestimate how much others actually care. If it’s not obvious you’re trying to hide something, then most people won’t pry.

If necessary, it’s obviously best to have a conversation about respect and privacy with others in your household, but otherwise, you might try finding something unassuming and discreet for a sketchbook — thinner, spiralbound ones tend to blend in with school or office materials and can be passed off as study or work notes from a distance.

Hell, you might even consider using a plain spiral notebook as a sketchbook. Yeah, the ruled paper won’t be great, but whatever, it’s a sketchbook and it doesn’t need to look amazing. This will also keep you from feeling like the sketchbook is precious.

If it’s between having a “shitty” “sketchbook” and having no sketchbook at all, always go with the former!

A cardboard box full of spiral-bound notebooks and sketchbooks, 2001-2007
My sketchbooks 2001-2007 were all softcover, spiralbounds. The top half were just lined notebooks. The bottom half were Strathmore spiralbound sketchbooks of one sort or another. I switched to hardcover sketchbooks circa 2008.

3. Find a sketchbook that’s comfortable to use

There are a lot of sketchbooks out there that look or feel amazing to the touch, but in practice, they’re difficult or cumbersome to use.

Fancy leather volumes with a belt clasp look very cool, but undoing the buckle every time you want to draw is really annoying. Large sketchbooks can also be heavy and difficult to travel with, so you end up leaving them behind all the time and forgetting about them.

Conversely, paper covers and spiral-binding are easily damaged and smaller sketchbooks can be uncomfortable to use if you feel cramped when drawing in them. Small sketchbooks don’t leave you much space to rest your hand while drawing, which is my big issue with them. They can also be easy to misplace.

Open sketchbook page with a Posca drawing of Gatomon/Tailmon
I use a 5.5″ square Global Art sketchbook for Posca drawings because it takes the paint pen well, but it’s way too small and uncomfortable for general use, for me.

Of course, everyone has different preferences.

Some people love and live by tiny travel-size 4″x4″ spiralbound sketchbooks. My favourite sketchbook of all time was relatively large at 8″x11″ and hardcover. When considering sketchbooks at the store, think about what it’ll feel to draw in it. Figure out what you like as far as hard or softcover, hardbound or spiralbound, lighter or heavier paper, smooth or rough texture, etc.

Having a sketchbook that’s comfy to draw in, unsurprisingly, makes you more likely to draw in it. :P

Figuring that stuff can take time though, so what do you do if you end up with a sketchbook that you don’t really like? Personally, I usually just power through it, but if you really hate the sketchbook, you can tear out* any used pages and give it to a friend or a young kid. Kids don’t care and will absolutely make use of every single page in there.

* Don’t actually tear out pages. Use scissors or a page perforation tool. Tearing out pages can damage binding in hardcover books, and even spirals can be damaged if you’re tearing out pages with great force.

Open sketchbook with an upside down ink drawing of a spider on the left and a marker drawing of a candle monster on the right.
Depending on whether you like drawing on the left or right page better (handedness usually plays into this preference), sometimes it can help to flip the sketchbook over when you draw.

4. Use one sketchbook at a time

There’s nothing wrong with keeping different sketchbooks for different purposes. Maybe one is for comic ideas and thumbnails and one is for studies and one is for a specific medium like watercolor. If you actually use all of these, great! As I mentioned, I use a separate, small sketchbook for Posca drawings specifically.

But if you have a hard time finishing sketchbooks, I really recommend just using one sketchbook at a time.

Having just one sketchbook eliminates lots of unnecessary decisions. You don’t need to decide which sketchbook to take on a trip, which you bring to school or work, or which you’ll use for this or that purpose. If you have a stroke of inspiration, but the sketchbook you have on hand is the “wrong” one, there might be hesitation to use it, even though you should totally just use it.

The more use cases the single sketchbook has, the more likely you are to reach the end!

I have had sketchbooks that were previously for a specific thing — usually, they were specific to a class — but that thing finished without the sketchbook being filled and then I just reclassified it as a general use sketchbook. It doesn’t matter if there’s a bunch of class stuff at the beginning.

My current Posca sketchbook was previously an Inktober sketchbook. There were more pages in it than days in October, and I didn’t feel like using it for Inktober the next year, so.

Open sketchbook with character sketches on one side and an ink drawing of a bengal cat on the other side.
These sketches aren’t related at all, but whatever.

5. Use the sketchbook for everything

This ties in with the previous one because again, the more use cases you have for a sketchbook, the more things you have to put in it, and the more likely you’ll finish it. This also goes along with #1: the sketchbook isn’t precious.

It’s fine if you have life drawing studies on the same page as character drawings or silly fanart or whatever. It’s fine if you have some pages that are warped because you decided to play with watercolors in a dry media sketchbook. Every configuration of content is charming, honestly.

Open sketchbook with character sketches
Bunch of character scribbles.

A finished sketchbook with a cohesive theme is just as cool and interesting as one that switches wildly between a multitude of subjects, and it can look pretty neat to draw on the backs of warped pages or pages with marker bleed, etc. But the end goal shouldn’t be making the sketchbook aesthetically pleasing anyway.

The end goal is to fill your sketchbook because with quantity comes quality, and with practice comes better. (It just so happens that finished sketchbooks filled with whatever are aesthetically pleasing.)

If you don’t have another note-taking system, I think it’s also good practice to use your sketchbook to jot down random notes. Grocery lists, reminders about errands, work notes, and other random non-drawing things occasionally end up in my sketchbooks because it was the most readily available surface to write in at the time.

These notes usually get migrated elsewhere eventually, but I think getting into the habit of reaching for your sketchbook as a first instinct is helpful.

Open sketchbook with random dog sketches, a bunny monster, and ink tests.
This is not an aesthetically pleasing page, but who cares? It’s handy to have everything in one place, too.

6. Return to your sketchbook after breaks

Sometimes you might go a few days or a few weeks or more without using your sketchbook. You just don’t feel like drawing, or you’ve got too much else going on to sketch.

That’s fine. It happens. I’ve done it.

I used to be able to go through a 192-page sketchbook in about 10 weeks, using both sides of each page. I’ve slowed down a lot. My current sketchbook is only 128 pages and I’ve been using it since mid-October, more than three months (~15 weeks) ago. Whatever. I’ll finish it. (I’m almost there, in fact!) Going slow is fine as long as you keep going.

Sketchbook opened to first page with a quote written.
Sometimes, you start over, but you can do that within a single sketchbook, too.

It can be hard to go back to the same sketchbook after an extended break, and it can be tempting to start a new sketchbook if there have been major changes in your life. It’s weird to have a multi-year gap in a single sketchbook, right?

If it’s really emotionally difficult to look at your previous sketchbook and you find that you just can’t continue using it: okay. Date the end of the book, count it finished, get mental closure, and start a new sketchbook–

But in most cases, I think that once you start drawing in it again, the resistance goes away. And it can be handy to be able to easily reference what you were up to when you stopped. Maybe you had some ideas in there you can rework now. If the sketchbook has just barely been started, you can consider the ‘remove or draw over bad pages’ technique, too.

The important thing is to keep going.

If you keep using those pages, you’ll reach the end eventually. :)

Good luck!

It's Okay for Your Sketchbook to Look Like Shit
A design I made a few years ago, available on things here.

About the author

Kiri is a Seattle-based artist, writer, and (brush) pen enthusiast with over 12 years of convention vending experience and a lot of opinions.