Page layout for sketchers

After five wonderful weeks in France and Portugal, it’s great to be back in Montreal, seated at my computer, typing on a full keyboard with my trusty scanner at my side. I have piles of scanning to do but thought it would be interesting to go back a few weeks to write about a subject that came up in one of my workshops in Provence at the beginning of July.

After many days of sketching in quiet villages and crowded markets, near the end of the week I gave my workshop participants a goal: to complete three small sketches (within a two hour timeframe) that would visually convey our location  — the monastery in St. Remy where Van Gogh spent a year of his life. I sketched along with them, as well as circulated in the gardens to see how they were doing. The group did some amazing work in that short time. Fresh, lively sketches of the sunflower garden, the lavender field, the cloister and the monastery exterior. There’s no shortage of subjects in Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, and sometimes having a time limit generates the freshest results.

The following day, someone asked me for some insight into how I had subdivided my own sketchbook page into rectangles. The question caught me off guard. As a graphic designer and graphic design teacher, dividing a page into columns is something I do without really thinking. Grid systems for text and image placement on a page are hard-wired in my brain. But when I looked at my sketchbook page, I realized that without even thinking about it, I had created a three-column/row grid on both pages, just like I teach my students to do in my Publication Design class.


Here is the same spread with a grid overlay on top.


So how did I create this? I started with the sketch of the sunflowers, first drawing a frame in pencil and then sketching the sunflowers (left) in ink and wash. From there I sketched the monastery exterior (top right). Next I looked for a subject that would fill a vertical space, and found that in the cloister arches (second from left) and finally finished the spread with a horizontal sketch of the lavender field. I could have also filled that space with two or three smaller sketches to balance the larger one at the top.

If you are thinking of trying this on a page in your sketchbook, a good way to start might be to draw the frames in advance in pencil, and then decide what to fill them with. My sketchbook is square so the three-column grid works well, but your sketchbook may have another format, so feel free to experiment with different sized frames.

And if you are interested in seeing sketchbooks by other artists who create interesting page designs (and often incorporate writing too), have a look at Brenda Swenson’s journals, Liz Steel’s sketchbooks, and Jean Mackay’s nature journals.


33 Comments on “Page layout for sketchers”

  1. Ruth Kaldor says:

    Are you still using the same palette you posted in the spring when you cleaned out your tray?


  2. Judy Sopher says:

    Thank you for this. Dumb question-what is the value of a 3 column grid vs. a 2 column or 4 quadrants? I understand the whole concept of thirds if you are doing one picture. I know so little about graphic art and really appreciate this.


  3. Thank you for the post. This is an area I struggle with…layout of a page. Especially when I go into coffee shops to sketch people . I am going to try some light pencil frames. Now I have a new artist to follow Jean MacKay!!


  4. monique says:

    Oh I love this idea!!♥


  5. monique says:

    I would love journal recommendations:)Please..thank you.


  6. Harriet Braun says:

    What size is your sketchbook page in the example?


  7. jo reimer says:

    This is so helpful! And so simple…a great solution for making more interesting pages. Thanks Shari.


  8. TonyU says:

    Lovely to see these Shari. Not just for the grid idea but because when I need my mind to take me somewhere else St Paul’s is where I always go back to.


    • Tony, I can see why your mind who go back there. That place was very special. There was a serenity about it that we did not feel anywhere else that we sketched. Perhaps because it is still a mental health facility… I felt that almost everyone respected the quiet of the place, talked in hushed tones, etc. Wonderful, wonderful spaces to draw in as well.


  9. Thanks for the shout out Shari! I have key focal points for where to place subjects or start on a page ingrained in my head too. And I like the flexibility that grids can offer for doing multiple small sketches on a page. So glad you had a fun and productive trip! These sketches are fun– looking forward to seeing more of your travels.


  10. Fascinating. The question gave you insight into something you do without thinking about it and now I guess we’re all wondering what our hidden art habits are! Beautiful drawings above.


  11. Paul Elton says:

    It was a wonderful day and thank you for teaching us. Canterbury urban sketchers was recently in my village and I used the ‘small vignette’ method to give a flavour of the place.


    • Paul, it was a real pleasure having you in the group! I enjoyed getting to know you, and seeing your watercolours as well. Hope that beautiful water scene is at the framer’s right now.


  12. parikhitdutta says:

    The colours make up for the Monday morning blues 🙂


  13. monique says:

    I tried a small one on a 6×6 page..So much fun.Thank you!


  14. I’m only a student but that seems a great work of art and that’s a great idea!!!


  15. Mayela says:

    That is an excellent tip. I will try that on my upcoming trip to Italy and the Greek Islands. This will probably help me with time management. This is our first trip to Europe and there’s so much to see in so little time and we are travelling with our eight-years-old son. That’s going to be a challenge, so small drawings might be the way to go.


  16. joantav says:

    Great to read your thoughts about your page layouts and see sketches that fit that pattern. I did a similar thing for my sketches at the airport in NYC and then at the Stockholm airport on my way home. Sometimes doing something smaller makes it less intimidating to so something when you aren’t sure how much time you will have. These are really nice.


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