How to Draw in the Dark

Illustration by Emily Carlton

This post originally appeared on emilycarlton.com. Subscribe for updates and get my free guide, “Creating Effective Drawings With 1–3 Lines.”

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There you are, sitting in a room, ready and waiting to take sketchnotes. The lights are dim… the speaker takes the stage… you’re waiting for the lights to go up… Still waiting… Uh oh. The lights never get brighter! The speaker has started! You frantically open your sketchbook ready to take notes but you can hardly see the pen in your own hand. It’s clear to you now that the room is too dark to take sketchnotes. What do you do?

I’ve found myself in an unexpectedly dark room a few times, and I want to share my tips and tricks for taking sketchnotes in the dark:

Tip #1: Get information beforehand

If you’re getting paid to sketchnote: Ask the client what the lighting will be like beforehand. If the room will be dark, ask if they can get you special lighting- a lamp, a spot under a light that *is* on, a book light, or a chair closer to the stage that is well-lit.

If you’re taking sketchnotes for your own personal use: Do some online research. Does the venue have pictures where you can see what the lighting will be like? If not, check out this next option:

Tip #2: Arrive early

If you’re not able to get lighting information beforehand, be sure to arrive before everyone else to scope out the room. Use your best judgement for the amount of time, but I find that 30 minutes early is great. I can make sure I get a seat directly under a light if I get there early. I can place my materials on my chair to claim my spot, then familiarize myself with the venue, use the restroom, etc. before everything gets started. You can also ask the sound booth guys what the room will be like during the event. If you’re not able to get early access to the room, check out this next option:

Tip #3 Always bring your own backup light

This is by far the best option to be prepared. Even if I know the room I’ll be in will be well-lit, I like to bring a light with me just in case. Here are some lights that I have tested during real live sketchnote gigs with my work at The Sketch Effect:

Neck Light:

Pros:

  • Hands-free, not in the way of my work (i.e. clipped on my notebook)
  • Comfortable
  • Compact
  • Rechargeable, not battery operated

Cons:

  • It looks pretty ridiculous, like an “As seen on TV” commercial.
  • Harder to direct light where you need it

Book Light:

Pros:

  • More control over where light goes, more subtle
  • Adjustable light levels
  • Compact
  • The best option for tabletop work
  • Rechargeable, not battery operated

Cons:

  • Clip is bulky, making holding the notebook little more cumbersome
  • You’ll have to move the clip from page to page for the best light

Headlamp:

pros:

  • Hands-free
  • Adjustable brightness (limited)

cons:

  • Not as much control over direction. Light goes wherever your head goes. Don’t look around the room with it on!
  • Not as comfortable for long periods of time. (watch out for that imprint on your forehead!)

“What about my phone flashlight?”

It’s a bad idea to use your phone’s flashlight. It’s bright and distracting to others because you can’t direct the light, you can’t hold onto your phone and write or draw very well, and the battery drain is killer. It’s good in a pinch, but not something you should consider using unless you’re out of options.

So what’s the best light? There isn’t one. It all depends on your circumstances and level of comfort. I like to try a lot of things so I know I’m using the most efficient tool for the job.