by Joe Grunenwald
Convention Season is upon us once again, that magical time of the year when tens of thousands of comics fans have the opportunity to hobknob with their favorite creators. For a lot of fans, this means putting money into said creators’ hands by buying things directly from them. Writers often have copies of the books they’ve written for sale, while artists sometimes sell specially-made prints or original art pages. And then there’s sketches. Artist convention sketches are great for people who want to own a piece of original art but can’t afford published pages. They can also be an opportunity to see an artist you love work on a character they’ve never drawn before.
In recent years publishers have begun to encourage acquiring con sketches by putting out comics with blank cardstock covers. Most artists also come to a convention with their own sketchpad which they can tear pages from and give to their commissioners. But a fun and often unique way to get sketches from artists is in the pages of a sketchbook. I’ve been getting sketches from artists at conventions since 2002, and the vast majority of the ones I’ve gotten have been in a sketchbook. Having new artists add to this sketchbook quickly became one of my favorite things about going to cons, and as I near the end of my first sketchbook – thirteen pages left in a 92-page sketchbook – I can’t recommend the experience highly enough.
But when you want to start a sketchbook, where do you start? There are a lot of different factors to think about, and having been using the same book for over 15 years I’ve given a lot of thought to what the ideal sketchbook should be.
The Physical Book
The first thing to consider when you’re starting out is the book itself. There are dozens of types of sketchbooks out there, and all of them are have their positives and negatives. Here are a few things to consider when picking yours out.
- The Binding: Typical sketchbooks come in either what’s known as case binding (think any hardcover book) or come spiral-bound with thick, double-spirals. The case bind has the benefit of being more durable than spiral binding, depending on the weight of the paper you go with. Spiral binding can open up more flatly on a table or drawing board, though, which can make it easier for an artist to draw in. The amount of wear that a spiral-bound sketchbook can handle, particularly around the spine, is largely dependent on the type of paper it holds. Speaking of which…
- The Paper Weight: A paper’s weight refers to the weight of a ream of said paper. For example, a ream of typical copier paper weighs twenty pounds, so the weight description of a sheet of copier paper is 20 lb. Most sketchbooks contain paper in the 60-70 lb range, which is considered low-grade cardstock, heavier than copy paper and with less (but still some) potential for bleed-through. If going with a typical sketchbook with 60-70 lb pages, keeping a spare piece of paper behind the page being drawn on is suggested, to avoid potential bleed-through issues.
The ideal sketchbook would have pages of Bristol board, which is what most comics are traditionally drawn on, and on which artists most commonly complete con sketches outside of a sketchbook. Named for the city in England in which it was first produced, Bristol board’s weight is 100 lb, making it thicker and much more durable than most paper. There are some sketchbooks on the market that use Bristol. They typically are spiral-bound, have significantly fewer pages in them, and are a little more expensive.
- The Cover Quality: Most sketchbooks are hardback, providing the durability you’ll want for something you’ll be transporting around a con all day. Take care in picking the type of hardback, though, as a hardback with a cloth covering may show wear more easily or potentially fray at the corners as time goes by. A simple hardcover with no cloth is ideal, and not hard to find.
- Book Size: Sketchbooks come in all shapes and sizes, and only you can say what your preferred size is. Most artist commissions come on 9” by 12” paper, and any sketchbook that’s bigger than that is likely to be too unwieldy for carrying around a con. In fact, going with a smaller-sized sketchbook may make it easier to get quicker (and potentially cheaper) sketches from the artists of your choice. Whatever size you choose, make sure it’s a sketchbook that you’re comfortable with transporting for extended periods of time.
So you’ve picked out your sketchbook and you’re ready to have people start defacing it one page at a time. Here are a few things to consider both as you get started and as you progress in filling up your sketchbook.
- A Theme: Pick a theme for your sketchbook. It could be anything. Maybe you have a favorite character or family of characters you want to get sketches of. Maybe the artists you want to get sketches from have characters they’re particularly well-known for, and you want the artists to draw those characters. Maybe you want nothing but sketches of characters reading the newspaper or being abducted by aliens. Your theme could be comic-related, or it could be something from a book, a movie, a TV show, even a podcast you love. It could be zombies or pirates or space ninjas. Or maybe the sketchbook has no theme, which is itself sort of a theme. A theme can be a fun way to tie together the art in your sketchbook, and can yield some pretty unique sketches from artists who might appreciate drawing something a little different from what they’re usually asked to draw.
- Choosing Artists: Everyone has their favorite artists. You know who you would want to get a sketch from if you had the chance. Make yourself a wishlist of artists to meet and from whom to try to get sketches. Crossing things off of lists can be fun, especially when each thing you’ve marked off is a new piece of art from a creator whose work you love. That said…
- Branch Out: You may have made a wishlist of artists from whom to get sketches, but don’t limit yourself to just them. Less well-known artists are out there, too, and their sketches are usually cheaper and just as good as the big names. Some of my favorite sketches in my sketchbook are by artists whose work happened to catch my eye in Artists Alley. And who knows, maybe you’ll end up with a piece of art from a future superstar artist.
- Be Specific: Unless the theme of your sketchbook is “the artist draws whatever they want”, you’ll need to tell the artist what you want drawn. Make sure your request is specific enough that the artist isn’t confused about what they’re drawing. If you have a Batman sketchbook, but what you really want is a drawing of Batman with a yellow oval around his chest emblem, make sure you specify that with the artist, and make sure they write it down (they will probably do this anyway). Don’t be so specific that the artist feels like an art robot – Saying ‘I want New-Look Batman, and I want him leaping off of a rooftop with his right foot down and his left leg bent and his arms holding his cape out so it spreads out and looks like a bat’ is a great way to make an artist hate you and/or refuse to do a sketch for you – but do be specific about what character you want, and what version of that character you want.
- Provide Reference Material: Along the specificity lines, it’s a good idea to be prepared to provide reference material to the artist. You probably won’t need to do that is your sketchbook is Batman-themed, but if you’re requesting a sketch of Night Thrasher or Ambush Bug, or if you specifically want Captain America from that one issue where he turned into a werewolf or the Superman of the 853rd Century, you should probably have a few print-outs of what those characters look like handy. Reference material will also especially come in handy if the theme of your sketchbook is non-comics-related – not everyone knows exactly what the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland looks like off the top of their head, so having reference handy is helpful. Don’t assume that the person doing the sketch for you knows what those characters look like, even if they’ve drawn them before. I once requested an artist to draw a version of The Flash that he’d designed, and he didn’t remember what the character looked like. Both providing reference material and being specific in your request are two easy ways to make sure that both the artist knows what you want them to draw and that you get what you want.
- Respect The Artists: This is probably the most important thing to remember, whether you’re getting sketches in a sketchbook or just having books signed. Comic artists are people, too. They’re not art robots, and time moves at the same speed for them as it does for you. As professionals they deserve to be paid accordingly for their work and their time. If an artist’s sketch list fills up before you get to them, or if you find you can’t afford the type of sketch you want from that artist, it’s okay to be disappointed, but not to take it out on the artist. They’re also very busy at conventions – chatting with and signing books for fans, sitting on panels, meeting colleagues whom they typically don’t see in person – so it’s important to be patient. It can be really interesting to watch an artist draw, but sometimes there will be other commission requests ahead of yours, in which case you can leave your sketchbook with the artist and pick it up when they’re done. Handing over your sketchbook, especially one you’ve spent months or years getting sketches in, to an artist for hours or a day can be nerve-racking (Am I speaking from experience? Why do you ask?). An artist may also take more time with a sketchbook drawing – it’s easier for an artist to start over if they’re not happy with what they’ve drawn when they’re working on a separate piece of paper, but what goes in a sketchbook is forever. There may also be added pressure on the artist since the work of other artists is readily available in the book to compare theirs to. Respect the artist and respect their process, and if you’re patient and understanding of the artist’s time, it’ll be worth it.
Having and filling a sketchbook can be an extremely rewarding experience. Ultimately it’s up to you to find the type of book you’re comfortable with, and to get sketches that make you happy. Hopefully the information presented here makes that process a little easier for you. Happy con-going!