“It is a duet between the artist and his medium. Each must speak freely and directly and visibly his own language. One must allow all the fortunes proper to the material to emerge…To try to prevent these vagaries of fortune would be to deprive the work of all vitality.”
“The sketchbook is a visual dictionary for me to refer to.”
For Beth Humphrey, sketchbooks are not inanimate objects; they are active collaborators, as significant and informative as the living artists she has collaborated with.
Her earliest memory of a sketchbook is the three-ring notebook her dad, painter Ralph Humphrey, gave her when she was little. Not long after that gift, she began to “non-consciously intervene” in her dad’s sketchbooks. “I would sneak into his studio, take one of his books, do a drawing and bring it back.”
Nowadays, her sketchbook stands ready to collaborate at all times. She always has several books in process “by my bed, out in the studio…” She began this practice of having a sketchbook always within reach when she was raising her children. It’s similar to an experience of the poet Mary Oliver: “Once I was in the woods and I had no pen, so later I went around and hid pencils in some of the trees. That's the first thing—to have writing equipment with you! I use the same method now.” The importance of easy access ties directly to the “more urgent” expression she brings to each page. “Accidents, spontaneity and intuition are in my process.” She claims to have an aversion to too much organization; instead she listens for and values the unplanned.
She “fill(s) the page with quick concepts and general shapes, not laboring over any of them.” Once images are on the page, “I often have a diving board I’m thinking about. One image catches my eye. I start with that and it creates a domino effect” for further making.
Though Beth will abandon about 90% of what she’s sketched, the books offer a place of respite. She refers to them to work out ideas, help become “unstuck,” play with shapes and, sometimes, try out drawing exercises. During the pandemic, she was stuck. She created a clear and simple exercise: a “squish painting.” Pigment poured on a page and squished by its adjacent page left her with two almost identical images. The immediacy Beth normally likes to work with was slowed by the necessity of waiting for paint to dry so she could draw over the images. “I need something of my own that is spontaneous and that I can’t control and that I have to manage.” In her sketchbook, she was creating order and structure with patience and a practice of restraint, just like she has been living in and with the pandemic.
Beth is also an art educator. Even though she is passionate about her
job, she has also experienced times when going to the studio was not possible
because of its demands. Like other artists, she has made her sketchbook a
portable studio. She doesn’t have to wait for a long stretch of time to sketch,
nor does she have to physically be in her studio. Her book “allows you to go
back to a thought, an impulse. It’s a thread of a conversation that you can
In the words of Mary Oliver, “I used to say, with my pencil I’ve traveled to the moon and back. Probably a few times.” Beth’s sketchbooks are rich personal travel guides of her interior worlds: creation, exploration, observation, and reflection. “I think of the leaving of them. The legacy of them. And at the very core, my sketchbook tethers me to my father.”
Would you like to know more about Beth's work? Visit her website here!