“What moves men of genius, or rather what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.”
“I’m pushing a part of myself off to the side by having the sketchbook.”
Kate Collyer’s sketchbook practice goes back to kindergarten but her strongest bond to sketching comes from her dad. For years he worked nights, so the majority of their communications were through the notebooks they shared. They would each write and illustrate their day for the other; sometimes her dad would treat her with a sketch of the cartoon Yoshi. “I credit my dad for my love of sketching and drawing. He has a keen eye when it comes to observation and the drawn line.”
In her early teens, Kate “would document birds that came up to my window in a notebook. I’d write down all of the information about them – like what type of bird, the date I saw them, and always drew a picture of the bird as well.” Kate has continued to develop her observational skills, building on the foundation of these experiences.
Kate didn’t resume working with a sketchbook until she attended SUNY New Paltz for her master’s in printmaking. “I needed a way to take the things out of my brain and put them down so I had more mental space to cultivate ideas. I dump everything onto paper so I don’t have to remember it.”
During her time at SUNY, she developed a 4-book notebook system that’s still in use.
Book one stands out because of its large size. It’s a general weekly planner, a calendar noting her projects and the dates associated with each undertaking.
Book two is a general notebook. Everything begins in this book, which contains drafted ideas, rough sketches, and notes. The notes might be in the form of questions about materials or construction methodologies, or questions that challenge concepts. Book two also “includes a general overview of each project that I work on. The first burst of an idea is housed here and begins to be manipulated.” Drawing in this book never really goes beyond a rough sketch because her source material comes from trip photography. “I have an idea and search through what I’ve already documented. Then I work from what I’ve rediscovered during the search and take the images directly to the printing plate.”
Kate keeps an archive of these general notebooks. When she revisits them she considers many of the ideas immature, and yet “now they spark a bit more, allowing me the opportunity to develop it. Because I have more experience, I’m able to resuscitate them years later.”
Book three is the workhorse of the group. “Once the project has been manipulated, I break it down into the most minute tasks. For example, buy wood, cut paper, etc. I make little bubbles for each time I have to perform a repetitive task. If I have 5 boxes to make, it would be cut book board with 5 little circles next to it. So, I fill a circle in each time I have to do it. I also notate the date it must be completed by.” This notebook lays out the vast amount of detail and complexities of a project.
The last book is for words and language and is the most private of the books. Kate describes it as a “travel journal of prose. I write in it when visiting a landscape. The writing is always about the landscape and my experience ‘in’ the landscape. Though the book is filled with multiple adventures like my Arctic Circle trip, they’re all relevant in this book. In the words of Martin Shaw, ideas are ‘cooked’ in this book and when ready would transition to my planner. This book is raw and intense. It’s where the creativity happens in the landscape. It happens in place, out there.”
As an educator, Kate shares and teaches her sketchbook practice in general terms. When a student has a similar way of making and processing or is struggling to navigate “multitasking,” she shares specifics. She does talk to students about “the importance of documenting in general. It’s particularly important in printmaking because of the need to look back for the next appropriate action.” She adds that “a sketchbook is a tool and it’s a technique” and “a sketchbook is central to being an artist.”
Kate has three additional sketchbooks in her life. Two are plein air books: one focuses on landscape and the other on sky. Each page is a fully realized drawing, but bound in a book format. “I’ve set them up to remain concise and relevant to each other. It’s a curated approach.” Kate sees the book itself as the work of art. She’ll never break up the band. The last sketchbook contains her draw-down swatches to make prints. “When mixing color, you take a spatula of the mixed ink and swipe it on a plain piece of paper in order to see what the color looks like on the paper you’re going to use. It’s a library of mixed color.” Each strip of paper shows the color development and is not only a remembrance of the print, it’s a memory of place. “It’s the landscape that I saw, my memories plus my hand in it with my artistic choices.”
Fittingly, Kate has created three different styles of travel kits. For long trips, she carries a pen-and-pencil pouch that includes sharpies, micron pens for fine drawing, pencils, and sometimes watercolors and small woodblocks to draw on in the moment, plus a small notebook to sketch and write in. The plein air kit includes soft pastels, cloth rags, sheets of pre-cut glassine, a notebook, and both her landscape/sky sketchbooks. She’s an avid hiker so she always has a small waterproof notebook and pens.
“My sketchbooks have always been a bit scientific. I mainly have process-oriented books, with the exception of my written word book that is quite raw and emotional. All my other books are more sterile. The sketchbook is an outlet. If I didn’t have them I wouldn’t make the quality work I want.”