Practice and Expansion: Dustin Harbin’s Sketchbook
What DO I use my sketchbooks for? Hmm. I think primarily they’re a homebase, a starting point.
I started keeping a sketchbook around 2002 or so.
I started really carrying a sketchbook around and using it as a dedicated storage place and drawing habit around 2006, right as I was starting to draw more seriously and make comics.
I get up in the morning and make coffee and then spend the first hour or two of the day drawing, on good days (not late on something) I just draw whatever I like, fiddle around, make plans, write little diary strip scripts, etc.
I have a really hard time divorcing myself from the images I put in my sketchbook though — everyone knows the worst thing you can do in a sketchbook is be precious about the drawings.
I can’t — and I’ve tried — relax about what the page looks like, which is bad.
My workaround for that is to draw over things until I like how the page looks, then move on. For instance, if I make an ugly drawing I’ll just draw right over it. Or I’ll layer multiple fast sloppy drawings (like say at figure drawing) to make something more interesting on the page.
It’s still a bad habit, but I’m terrible at color and composition, so it’s a way to practice those a little bit, say adding a blue ink drawing over this pencil drawing to make an interesting combination, and not making the page mortifying to look at at the same time.
Relaxing is a thing that’s pretty hard for me.
I use all kinds of tools in my sketchbooks, but this month my go to tools are blue and red mechanical pencil lead, a Hunt 108 and a Tachikawa T-77 nib, assorted colored pens. Occasionally I’ll splash some watercolor around or use some other tools, but I generally come back to these.
I have always drawn small!
I also write pretty small — when I was a kid it drove my teachers bananas. I probably enjoyed that and wrote even smaller, because that was the kind of little brat I was.
When I started making comics and drawing a lot more, I would try to use all the fanciest brushes and big giant pieces of paper. But over the years I’ve continually shrunk my drawing size and each time my drawing has gotten better.
I think there are two reasons why: My natural “stroke” is small, so I actually have more control when I draw small — when I try to draw larger, I lose control of the size and shape of things, as well as the weight of my line, because I’m trying to do something that is unnatural for the way my hands and eyes work together.
And the other thing is, the smaller I draw the less likely I am to fill areas with tons of dumb crosshatching and other ornament.
I love it! I’ll never go back unless one of my eyes pops or something.
I draw a lot of faces, which are probably the easiest thing for me to draw.
Side note: my last six sketchbooks have all been handmade by the great Joe Lambert.
A few books ago he started slipping colored pages into the signatures, which at first was irritating to my internal fussy sense of order, but each time I come to a color page I’m forced to rethink what I’m doing, what tool I can use on that page, how the page looks afterwards, etc.
Looking back through these books, the colored pages, especially the black pages, are the farthest outside of my regular way of drawing, and thus, of course, probably the best pages.
A sketchbook is for practice but also expansion, and I’m grateful to Joe for forcing me to expand, even just a little bit.
Dustin Harbin is a cartoonist working in Charlotte, North Carolina.
His comic diaries have been published by Koyama Press and his dinosaurs by Nobrow.
Dustin is the king of drawing small and has filled eight sketchbooks since 2002