"A good artist has less time than ideas.”
“When I’m making finished work, the part of my brain for creative ideas shuts off for a bit. My brain is trying to save me.”
John Owens is a triple threat: singer/songwriter, musician, and visual artist. These identities blend effortlessly in his life, and each plays a vital role in his sketch and lyric notebooks.
The foundation of his sketchbook practice has familial roots. His great-grandfather, a carpenter who took up oil painting later in life, introduced him to a sketchbook. “He’s the only other person in my family who ever investigated making art. From a child’s perspective, he seemed like a serious artist to me. It was so cool that he made paintings that got hung up on the wall with all the other art in the living room, not on the fridge. He was really influential when I was a kid. Always buying me sketchbooks and books on how to draw certain things like dinosaurs.” John’s parents also made sure there were art supplies in the house. “My dad was big on sitting down with my sister and me and saying, ‘Let’s hang out and draw.’” In these family drawing sessions, everyone drew the same item and then showed each other what they did. The show-and-share were instructional and completely non-competitive. It was “a very healthy way to look at art because you did it differently from each other.”
John’s musical life also dates back to childhood. He started music lessons at six, and by middle school had already learned to read music and play piano, cello, and saxophone. Then he picked up the guitar and his songwriting began.
These days John’s process of sketching and songwriting blend on the pages of his main sketchbook, which he calls “a net to catch all of the ideas.” In a Venn diagram, this sketchbook would contain all possible relationships to each of his practices. “My main sketchbook holds a lot of ideas. The ratio of doodles to ‘real ideas’ and in-between drawings/writing is pretty much divided by thirds. If they’re going to be developed further they’ll go off to a different place.”
The why and how to make this transfer out of the main sketchbook are practical and straightforward. For example, John fears losing lyrics and often doesn’t recall where he wrote them down. He decided on an uncomplicated system: “All the songs that are finished are transferred into one notebook. All the songs I’m still working on are moved to a different notebook.” If for some reason his main sketchbook isn’t handy, he has a few strategies to hold on to music. Any lyric written on a loose piece of paper will be placed into a large canary-colored envelope where it will wait to be transcribed into a notebook. (“I’m addicted to these little lined yellow note pads.”)
The act of reviewing these creative gems triggers memories and associations, and can give birth to new work. “When I recently went through old lyric notebooks to consolidate, I found myself saying ‘Oh that’s the way I wrote that line. I think the way I originally wrote it is cooler.’” A recent Google document of lyrics began “when at one point I found a line and was like, ‘Why didn’t I use this!’”
The transfer process isn’t exclusive to John’s songwriting. Drawings for tattoos are filed in a binder. Sketches for further development are simply moved to a new book. The development happens during down time like vacation or stay-at-home orders during the pandemic. For John, the feeling of “no pressure” releases him. He thinks, “’Oh, I have some time to relax.’ It’s a real treat for me when I don’t have anything to do, so I can go back into a sketch with watercolor or inks and color in old drawings. I secretly believe everyone loves coloring.” He was “weirdly very productive during the shutdown. I did a lot of paintings during that time and most of them came from the sketchbook.”
When the urgency is great and a pen and paper require a bit too much time, he’ll employ a text message to himself, a voice memo, and/or a video to capture melodies and lyrics. (American poet Ruth Stone would “run like hell” to stay ahead of a poem coming toward her, hoping to get to a paper and pencil in time to catch it.) For John, these technological forms of notation function exactly like a sketchbook.
John’s sketchbook practice allows him to corral all his ideas in one place. He steadfastly believes in the virtue of including everything: it’s all deserving of space on the page. He will move ideas out of his sketchbook in order to organize them, but he doesn’t stop to edit himself. This ability to rehouse his creativity is courageous. For some, the act of revisiting an idea before it’s had time to germinate can be risky business: the internal editor can rip it apart. But John gently holds each sketch, each word, and musical note as the precious seeds they are.