Teaching with Contemporary Art

Mining Ideas


Getting students into good habits early in the year, such as regularly working with sketchbooks and journals- in the classroom and at home, is a way to help students “mine” ideas, save developing ideas, and stay organized to create art that merges techniques learned with starting points that help define the larger story or inspiration behind their work. Sketchbooks can serve, as Marlene Dumas puts it, as “image banks”- places for students to store and organize images for later use.

Students in my introductory studio art class have used sketchbooks in the first two weeks of this year to organize experiments with different drawing media, take some initial notes about our upcoming work together, and begin a new unit that asks them to work with imagining possibilities and combining objects to form something entirely new. They are getting used to referring to their sketchbooks and jotting down possibilities. They’re also getting used to using the sketchbook for things other than what’s assigned in class. For the first time, a majority of my students are regularly using their sketchbook daily instead of storing it in the classroom when we’re not working together. This, as far as I can imagine, is largely due to reinforcing (A LOT) that the sketchbooks are theirs to design and develop. It’s not just a place for assigned work.

Season 4 artist Ursula von Rydingsvard and Season 3 artist Krzysztof Wodiczko both incorporate the use of sketchbooks to “mine” ideas and work through the planning stages of their large-scale works. Students can draw inspiration from these and other Art:21 segments as they actively look for evidence of planning and ways of planning.

How do you incorporate sketchbooks or journals in your classroom? If you’re not already doing so, what kinds of challenges do you face? How might sketchbooks be used in different ways?


  1. Sketchbooks in the classroom are as important as a #2 pencil. They provide all of the above noted plus a place where a student can refer back to their own ideas when they are blocked on a project. As artists and art educators, we are all very acquainted with the appearance and disappearance of the creative spark, and often our sketchbooks and journals serve to reassure us that even if the inner Picasso doesn’t shine everyday, he/she is always there within us. So the “Big Book” is part of a greater function – that of the MUSE – a source for inspiration and meditation of the works we have accomplished or will accomplish.

    I have used sketchbooks in all my art classrooms, as well as in yoga classes I teach. Students become keenly aware of their insights as individuals when given a journal to reflect in after a yoga practice. If I am lucky, they also clue into their inner artist – off the mat, out of the class room, and into the world…

  2. Eric Scott says:

    As a high school art educator, I have all of my students keep visual journals. Much more than a sketchbook, the journal incorporates all media, all styles, and all ideas. It becomes an “Everything Book” where students take notes, experiment with media and technique, plan projects and works of art, reflect on their art, their lives, and their world, and explore images, ideas, and concepts important to them.

    The journal is really a place for young artists to connect with the materials, with ideas and concepts, and most importantly with themselves. And, many of my students come to love the journal, pouring themselves into it because it is very open with few limits. And just as with a traditional sketchbook it becomes a great resource to mine ideas for work. Of course, some students find it difficult to connect to the journal and want to limit themselves and are afraid to take risks, but after working in them for a while, most students begin to loosen up, and become more experimental.

    As an artist and an educator, I personally keep a visual journal, and always have them available to my students so they can see how I keep a journal. The journal has become an extention of my life so it is also an extension of my teaching. My journal goes with me evrywhere, and I encourage my students to take theirs everywhere as well. As an artist and an educator, I beleive the visual journal is one of the most valuable tools any artist can have.

  3. Joe Fusaro says:

    Sketchbooks, as Jennifer points out, can lead to learning more about the students we’re working with. It gives them the chance to share aspects of their lives or their thinking that may not surface in a whole-class situation. As Eric mentioned, it can also become an “Everything Book” where students are doing more than drawing and recording ideas. They are attaching references for other projects down the line, adding quotes that stimulate thinking, etc.

    Are there other kinds of exercises or assignments that we can give students to help them use their sketchbooks in a variety of ways?

  4. Sue says:

    Sketch books go in and out of fashion at my school. Right now they are very ‘in.’ The confident advanced student/artists at our school carry them around – hence making them almost a fashion statement for everyone else. Now many kids carry them and use. These advanced kids are our ‘football players’ and are referred to as the art jocks. As an artist myself, I don’t use one often. In class we talk about the initial ‘energy’ that goes into a preliminary drawing or project, and how that energy can dissipate when the ‘real’ drawing/project is attempted. We talk much about ‘project’ oriented vs process oriented work. One of my students is now using his sketch book to design fantasy installations. He then collects the materials and builds these installation in our school gallery. Each student uses his sketchbook differently. I stay out of it.

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  6. Alisa says:

    As a sophomore working on my BFA in VisCom (University of Arizona), I’m struggling with how to organize my sketchbooks. I keep a personal journal that I lug around everywhere with me. It has blank pages that I tape found objects and letters in, doodles, thoughts, spiritual notes, personal project development — basically anything but lecture notes. The problem is that some of my classes require me to have sketchbooks that are just for that class. Sometimes the notes in my personal sketchbook would be relevant if they were in the class sketchbook, but I hate that I have to copy it over. Also, how can you copy sketches and doodles?

    It’s a little aggravating.

    Sue: At my school, everyone carries at least one sketchbook around, most have multiples, but it’s not a status symbol. That’s kind of sad that it’s turned into that at your school. Like a Luis Vuitton purse or something…..

  7. Joe Fusaro says:

    Alisa, Is it possible to have a sketchbook with “tabs” so you can keep all your work in one place? We have students at our school keep one sketchbook for different classes and if necessary just divide it into sections so students aren’t lugging around multiple sketchbooks. Also, ideas from one course or project often influence others.

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  11. nona orbach says:

    As an artist, therapist and an art teacher in a college, I find the sketchbook a best intimate friend. I encorege my students to use it all the time but to keep it for themselves, since it is very intimate!
    Since I live in a multicultural country [Israel]- I also suggest they might want to use their mother tung language [Hebrew, Arabic, Russian etc.]
    I encorege them to be acurate and choose carfully what and to whome they show it including me!
    This freedome of being able not to share the sketchbook brought much deeper usege of this tool

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