Wednesday, 25 July 2012

adele flood reviews think inside the sketchbook

Think inside The skeTchbook, gillian robinSon, 
DaviD HulSton anD aliSon Mountain (2011)
London: Harper Collins Publishers Limited, 93 pp., 
ISBN: 978-0-00-743479-4, p/bk, £25.00
Reviewed by Adele Flood, University of New South Wales

It is always a good feeling when you see a book that captures your interest 
from the very first moment. It is often an aesthetic response that leads us to 
take a book off the shelf and it follows that we hope the interior content will 
be just as appealing. And of course it isn’t only about how a book looks and 
feels, it is whether the content meets your expectations, whether it be a cookbook or a piece of travel writing or even a novel printed on fine paper.
Form tends to follow function: cookbooks require food to be glamorized, travel books need to have the landscape photographed in inviting and 
appealing ways, novels are produced in hardback covers evocative of the story 
within. So what was it about this particular book that attracted me upon first 

First, it looks like a sketchbook that would be used in a classroom. It is 
standard A3 in size with spiral binding and strong cardboard front and back 
covers. A colleague, another art educator, came into my office just after I had 
opened the parcel and pounced upon it saying: ‘Oh my God, I’ve been looking for a book like this forever’.
Secondly, it doesn’t disappoint when you open it up: the paper is smooth 
and inviting, with a soft beige background colour upon which the text and 
images sit in harmony. The way the images are reproduced represent several 
modes that various individuals use in diaries and sketchbooks to undertake 
their working of ideas.

As John Steers notes in his preface, this book provides insights into the 
development and thinking processes not only through the eyes of artists 
and designers, but also through a wide range of disciplines that all require 
reflective and creative thinking. I particularly enjoyed his reference to Anton 
Ehrensweig’s description of sketchbooks as ‘tease and worry books’. This 
resonates well with me as I often find myself drawing and scribbling my 
way through meetings to help me focus my thoughts. In fact, I am well 
recognized at InSEA Congresses for drawing my responses to the content 

Now to the content. This book explores the role sketchbooks and journals 
play in the creative process and then it delves into the learning that can take 
place when journals and sketchbooks are used in productive ways in teaching. One of my ongoing concerns is the ways teachers often use journals for 
assessment in the classroom rather than seeing assessment AS learning. This 
leads to journals becoming artefacts of assessment rather than the working 
and teasing documents to which Steers refers. 
The authors suggest this book is designed to ‘capture the spirit’ in which 
sketchbooks are kept (5) and they offer strategies that can be used to employ 
these books to help change attitudes to learning. They also tell us that sketchbooks are visual things and therefore have consciously made an effort to 
present images that both inspire and challenge.

1. To date, the author 
of this review has 
produced in excess of 
80 sketchbooks and 
journals across her 
working life.
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The first chapter engages us in a discussion of the many forms a sketchbook or journal may take. The transformation in action by Karin Mullert 
shown on pages 14–15 is a particularly good set of images to make explicit the 
processes of thinking and creating change through texture and reflect well the 
idea posited: that sketchbooks are active (learning?) spaces.
Chapter 2 asks ‘who needs a sketchbook?’; my answer to this is a simple 
and committed response of ‘everyone’. I find the ensuing pages absolutely 
beautiful in the way they reproduce drawings of architectural features with 
accompanying written notes. These pages are strong documentations of processes that the artists and designers have used to reflect and puzzle upon ideas 
early in development. Other creative areas of exploration of form: jewellery, 
choreography, illustration, practice of an actor and writer, teacher, and school 
students are all represented.

There is a considerable emphasis placed upon the ways in which teachers may employ the use of sketchbooks with secondary school students. They 
follow themes such as recycling, reworking and reinventing. Teachers would 
find these ideas easy to implement and they certainly add substance to understanding the role of these documents in terms of the student’s own learning.
There is a more limited space dedicated to the primary or elementary 
school child; however, the pages contain an essential message to the reader. 
Sophie Merrill outlines ways that she uses sketchbooks for processes such 
as colour mixing, mark making and exploring and so on. Merrill, however, 
makes an important observation: that she expects children to make notes in 
their books about what they are trying to create and the materials used. This 
is then accompanied by commentary by the child about whether they felt their 
efforts have been effective. She also makes it clear that this process is important if we are to develop evaluation skills in our students in the long term. 

As a tertiary educator, I could only hope that more evaluative skills could be 
developed from an early age.

Chapters 3 and 4 investigate the conceptual ideas of sketchbooks as thinking and liberating spaces that enable engagement with emotional intelligences: thoughts, feelings and experience. This is like a breath of fresh air in 
an educational world that seems to be committed to removing any of these 
important human characteristics. 

Quotes from children such as: ‘A sketchbook is a visual diary of my 
most private thoughts, the things you feel but that no amount of words can 
describe’ (67) say everything one could imagine there is to say about introducing these kinds of learning activities into a schoolroom and then beyond into 
their ongoing life.

Finally Chapters 5 and 6 offer some ideas for the way teachers can introduce sketchbooks into their teaching. There are two projects included to 
assist teachers to see how they may follow through on their initial ideas to 
ensure that the learning follows good practice in the application of these ideas. 
In the words of another child: ‘we learned that art is pathways and memories, 
a playground of feelings’ (87).

I would suggest that every school purchase several of these books so that 
teachers can have them in their classrooms, libraries and staff rooms. It is vital 
that we give a voice to these important facets of our lives, that we encourage our students of any age and across disciplines to interrogate their ideas, 
thoughts and fantasies within a truly liberating space that is their own.
The final compelling quote I wish to focus upon comes from a teacher who 
articulates clearly what researchers in narrative enquiry like myself are always 

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trying to express: an individual’s narrative, whether it be written, painted, 
sung or spoken reveals something not only about the storyteller but about the 
human condition at large. As teachers, we are dealing with these concepts of 
self and learning every working day. He or she tells us: ‘The person you didn’t 
know was there, actually comes out’ (87).

Buy this book and allow your students to emerge as the people they can 
and want to be.

Adele Flood has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents 
Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work in the format that was 
submitted to Intellect Ltd.

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