This article provides tips and guidance to help you produce an outstanding high school sketchbook. It contains an online collection of sketchbook pages from different qualifications from around the world, including IGCSE / GCSE Art, A Level Art, VCE Studio Arts, NCEA Level 3 Scholarship and IB Visual Art. Many of the sketchbook pages shown below are from projects that achieved full marks. These examples illustrate a wide range of possible approaches to sketchbook content, annotation, and page layout. We hope to inspire those studying within any visual art discipline, including drawing, painting, mixed media, graphic design, sculpture, three-dimensional design, architecture, printmaking, photography, textiles, and fashion.
A sketchbook is a creative document that contains both written and visual material. It may include teacher-guided sketchbook assignments or self-directed investigation. A sketchbook provides a place to think through the making process: researching, brainstorming, experimenting, testing, analyzing and refining compositions. It offers a place to document the journey towards a final solution, providing a depth and backstory to the accompanying work. The sketchbook is an important part of many visual art courses.
For convenience, most students select a sketchbook that is A4 (210 x 297 millimeters / 8.27 × 11.7 inches) or A3 (297 x 420 millimeters / 11.7 x 16.5 inches) in size. An A4 sketchbook fits within schoolbags and is less likely to be lost or damaged during transit. An A3 sketchbook fits more work per page and provides space for larger individual artworks. If a sketchbook is to contain all of the preparatory material submitted (without larger accompanying sheets of developmental work), an A2 sketchbook may be appropriate. Often this decision is set by a qualification, teacher or school. Non-conventional sizes and electronic submissions may also be possible.
Regardless of the format, work primarily in portrait or landscape orientation, rather than alternating from page-to-page (consistent orientation makes it easier for an examiner to flip through the pages and view the work). If electronic submission is required, horizontal pages are preferable, as these display better upon a computer screen.
Four possible sketchbook formats are summarized below. These are just a few of the options available (these may not be appropriate for all examination boards).
It is essential that pre-bound sketchbooks used by art students contain quality artist paper, suitable for both wet and dry mediums (ideally 110gsm or greater). Different paper types may be glued to pages as required. A minimal appearance is optimal: choose a sketchbook with a plain cover, absent of distracting logos and ornamentation. Consider whether a spiral spine is desired, allowing removal of pages without difficulty. The primary disadvantage of a pre-bound sketchbook is that it is difficult to use wet mediums upon several pages in one session (working concurrently across pages saves time, aids the development of ideas and facilitates connections between pieces). Nonetheless, pre-bound sketchbooks are the most common format of sketchbook used.
Two examples of pre-bound sketchbooks are illustrated below. These brands have been thoroughly tested in a classroom situation, by experienced teachers.
NOTE: The links to Amazon and Dick Blick below are affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase after clicking these, a percentage of the sale price goes towards supporting the Student Art Guide. This is a way for you to help support this site, without any extra cost to you. Dick Blick is an international art supplier used by many schools around the world.
Loose sheets of paper presented within a plastic clear-file
This method can be less daunting than using a pre-bound sketchbook, as there is no fear of ‘ruining’ a page. Creating a sketchbook from loose sheets allows easy integration of different paper types, encouraging a broad range of media. You can easily work on different pages at once, without waiting for work to dry. On the other hand, loose sheets may become damaged and misplaced. Displaying work within transparent sleeves also hinders the viewability of surface quality and texture. Finally, if work is posted away for assessment, the clear-file adds unnecessary bulk and shipping weight. If choosing this method of presentation, you may wish to use an inexpensive clear-file for the duration of the course, shifting to a clean, non-reflective presentation display book (or manually binding pages as described below) immediately before assessment.
Loose sheets of paper bound into booklet before submission
Many schools own a manual binding machine, which punches a series of holes along one side of a document, inserting a spiral to secure pages together. Other binding methods are also possible if these allow the sketchbook to lie open flat at the spine. Adding a clear plastic sheet protects the cover (this may contain typed candidate details or identification labels).
Individual pages may be stored in a plastic clear-file for the duration of the course or individual drawers within the classroom, keeping the pages in good condition, before binding. As with the previous presentation method, you can integrate different paper types and work upon multiple pages at once.
This method is more time consuming than others and is prone to user error (such as holes punched along the wrong side of the pages). Nonetheless, it is an inexpensive way to create a high quality, personalized document.
Digital Sketchbooks / ePortfolios
A digital ‘sketchbook’ typically takes the form of an online portfolio website, created using a free or paid website design tool. Students organize images, videos, and typed annotation upon website pages, using hyperlinks, menus, and categories to make connections between work. Digital sketchbooks do not have size restrictions and have the advantage of displaying audio and moving image. These are growing in popularity, particularly for students who specialize in film, photography or digital media.
The creation of a digital sketchbook relies on access to high-speed internet and an appropriate digital device (when the internet is not available, hand-generated work may be scanned and uploaded later). The website platform itself needs to be selected, signed up for, and set up (this is much easier than you might imagine). Our article about how to create an art website discusses some of the options.
As a precaution, digital files should be stored locally, upon your computer, within organized and labeled folders, with additional backup copies kept upon a memory stick or cloud server (an automatic backup service, such as Dropbox, is highly recommended). It is wise to print copies of digital content, submitting these in hardcopy format for classroom assessments. Articles published in your online sketchbook may be printed and bound to accompany the final presentation. There are also benefits to keeping a traditional sketchbook to support an online sketchbook, such as to verify the authenticity of online work; allow spontaneous transfer of ideas by hand drawing and writing; and strengthen and consolidate practical art-making techniques.
It is worth remembering that long hours online, combined with the distraction of social media and other internet activities (such as online gaming), has been shown to affect mood and sleep, compromising productivity and quality of work overall. We highly recommend that you consider installing an app and website blocker on both mobile and desktop devices, so that online activities do not interfere with well-being, productivity, and sleep.
Although digital sketchbooks do not feature within this article, the recommendations below apply to digital as well as traditional sketchbooks.
What should a sketchbook contain? (Sketchbook Checklist)
First-hand engagement with the subject matter
You should include evidence of a clear personal connection to the theme/s explored, such as original photographs; observational drawings; documented visits to design sites, historic places or museums; and explanations of the personal context surrounding the work. A project based solely upon secondary sources (such as images from the internet, books or magazines) may lead to a lack of personal engagement, plagiarism issues, and superficial, surface-deep work (relying upon second-hand imagery is one of the Top 10 Mistakes made by art students).
Exploration of composition, visual elements, and design principles
An important role of the sketchbook is to aid the planning and refining of larger artworks. This might involve: composition studies, thumbnail sketches or layout drawings (exploring format, scale, enlargement, cropping, proportion, viewpoint, perspective, texture, surface, color, line, shape, form, space and so on); design ideas; photographs of conceptual models or mock-ups; storyboards; photographic contact sheets; analysis of accompanying portfolio work; and many other forms of visual thinking.
Original drawings, paintings, prints, photographs, or designs
Fill the sketchbook with your own visual material – particularly that which is exploratory, incomplete and experimental (as opposed to finished illustrations). Images should support the theme of the project and should not depict a random collection of unrelated subject matter.
A wide range of mediums and materials
The sketchbook should contain a range of mediums and materials, as appropriate for the project and area of specialty. Photograph three-dimensional exploration for inclusion. A broad list of possibilities appears below (this list is not prescriptive or restrictive):
Drawing and painting surfaces: colored and textured paper of varying weights, such as tissue paper, watercolor paper, newsprint, and cartridge; transparent sheets, plastic overlays or tracing paper; discarded wallpaper, patterned paper and printed pages; matt and gloss photographic paper and other specialized printing paper; cardboard; painted and prepared grounds; masking tape; collaged surfaces; dried textures created with acrylic pastes; canvas sheets, hessian and other fabrics; other appropriated materials.
Drawing and painting mediums: graphite pencil; colored pencil; ballpoint pen; ink pen; calligraphy pen; marker pen; chalk; charcoal; pastel; crayon; drawing ink; printing ink; natural and manmade dye, such as from commercial pigments, walnut skins, coffee stains and food dye; gouache; watercolor; acrylic paint; oil paint; spray paint; house paint; shellac/varnish; fixative; wax; painting mediums, such as thinners, gel/gloss, glazes, drying retarders, textural pastes/modelling compounds.
Threads and textiles: natural fibers, such as cotton, wool, silk, flax and raffia; synthetic threads, such as nylon, acrylic and polyester; textiles of different weights, weaves, patterns, prints and colors; upcycled fabric, including those from non-traditional sources, such repurposed woven plastic bags; elastic; sewing threads; embroidery threads; string; rope; beads; foam; furs and leather.
Sculptural materials: clay; cane; wire; wood; stone; plaster; plastic; fiberglass; metal; water/ice; other organic and manmade found materials.
Tools and technology: brushes; sponges; scissors; paint rollers; palette knives; craft knives; engravers; chisels, woodworking tools; metal working tools; traditional and digital cameras; video cameras; darkroom equipment; photocopiers; scanners; paper trimmers; needles, sewing machines; overlockers; looms; printing presses; computer-aided design (CAD) software, such as Adobe Photoshop, InDesign and SketchUp Pro; computer-aided manufacture (CAM), such as 2D and 3D printers, laser cutters / CNC paper cutters.
A wide range of art-making techniques, processes, and practices
The techniques, processes, and practices explored within a sketchbook should be appropriate for the project and area of specialty. Both traditional and contemporary approaches are encouraged. These should be informed by the study of relevant artists and first-hand practical experimentation. Complex processes may be recorded and documented within the sketchbook, for example, diagrams outlining construction processes; annotated computer screenshots; or photographs of sculptural work in progress (this can help to prove the authenticity of your work). Avoid indiscriminate documentation of every technique at every stage of production, as this becomes a space-filling device that pushes out more relevant content.
The Student Art Guide contains a range of ideas for students in various disciplines:
The sketchbook is an excellent place to document the study of artist work. Critical analysis may include whole or partial copies of artwork from exhibitions, websites, books, and magazines, as well as original exploration inspired by an artist. Reproductions must have a clear purpose. Accompany these with critical commentary and practical experimentation, where appropriate. Do not use the sketchbook as a dumping ground for pamphlets, fliers, brochures or other printed material from secondary sources.
Some examination boards do not require annotation; however, this is a great way to clarify ideas and intentions. Annotation tips are provided below.
How to annotate a sketchbook
Generate personal responses
Aim to record personal reflections, evaluations, judgments, and responses (rather than regurgitating facts or the views of others), providing insight into your thinking and decision-making processes. Art examiners do not want to read lists of facts or chronological sequences of events. They do not want long-winded descriptions of technical processes, extensive artist biographies, or the inclusion of broad periods of art history. Cut-and-pasting or transcribing information from other sources is not acceptable (small portions may be quoted and referenced, as appropriate).
Communicate with clarity
A sketchbook should not contain endless pages of writing; this wastes the examiner’s time, as well as your own. Communicate in a succinct and clear manner. Thoughts may be recorded in any legible format: mind maps, scrawled questions, bulleted summaries or complete sentences and paragraphs. In most cases, a variety of approaches is appropriate. Whichever format you choose, avoid ‘txt’ speak and spelling errors; these indicate sloppiness and suggest that the work belongs to lower caliber student.
Demonstrate subject-specific knowledge
Aim to communicate informed and knowledgeable responses, using a range of art-related vocabulary and terminology. This learning may be the result of formal classroom lessons, individual research or personal art-making experience.
Critically analyze artwork
Art analysis is an integral component of most high school art programs. Aim to analyze work by a range of historical and contemporary artists, from a range of different cultures. Artist work should be relevant to your project and offer valuable learning opportunities, whether in approach to subject-matter, composition, technique or medium. You should also analyze your own artwork within the sketchbook, measuring success against original intentions and assessment objectives specified within the mark scheme. This allows you to gain helpful insights that inform and influence subsequent work. For more advice and a list of questions to help with analyzing artwork, please read How to analyze an artwork: a step-by-step guide.
It is usually helpful to begin a sketchbook by discussing intentions, starting points and design briefs, including any requirements and restrictions set for the project.
Avoid the obvious
Self-explanatory statements, such as “I drew this using pencil” or “this is a shoe” are unnecessary; they communicate no new information to the examiner.
Reference all images, text, and ideas from others
Any content created by others should be formally credited and acknowledged, even when this has been appropriated or reinterpreted, rather than directly copied. It is helpful to cite artists directly underneath the appropriate image (artist name, artwork title, medium, date and image source), along with brief details about any gallery, museum and artist visits. You may also benefit from labeling original photographs, so that is clear to an examiner which work is your own.
Sketchbook presentation tips
Keep it simple
A high school sketchbook should be reminiscent of what an artist or designer might create. It does not need to be over-worked, ‘perfect’ or polished. Write legibly and small (so that spelling or grammatical errors are not glaring) and in graphite pencil or black, white or grey pen. Avoid intrusive lettering; elaborate front covers; decorative borders; fold-out tabs (these add an interactive element to the pages, but risk examiners missing the work); over-the-top backgrounds; or any unnecessary framing or mounting. Do not spend weeks dreaming up inventive layouts or desperately Googling phrases such as ‘A Level Art sketchbook background ideas.’ Presentation decisions should be limited to the sketchbook format (size, shape, and orientation), as described above. Decide upon the sketchbook format (the teacher, school or syllabus may set this) and then focus on what matters: producing quality art and design work.
Your sketchbook can be a straightforward, ordered presentation of your work, research, and insights: Let your images do the impressing. Overly designed pages can often take too long and be a distraction to the viewer. – Chris Francis, Senior Leader Teacher of Art & Photography, St. Peter’s Catholic School, Bournemouth, UK
Use a consistent style of presentation
Some students favor hard-edged, cleaner presentation methods; others prefer a messier, gestural style. Neither is better than the other: both can be executed well. Inconsistency, however (jumping from one presentation style to the next) may result in a submission that is distracting and incohesive.
Vary page layouts to create visual interest
By the time you have finished your sketchbook, some pages should have lots of illustrations; some a single artwork; others somewhere in between. Position items without fear of white space, considering the interaction between image and text.
Order work so that it shows the development of ideas
Although a sketchbook is usually an informal, free-flowing document, it is important to remember that an examiner will pick it up and ‘read’ it in a short length of time. Rather than a pile of disconnected visual exploration, structure the sketchbook in a way that reflects the overall development of your project. This occurs naturally as the year unfolds for most students, however, this issue may arise if you attempt to cobble a sketchbook together immediately before the due date.
More does not mean better
Bulking up a sketchbook (or series of sketchbooks) with poor work is not recommended. Weak work sets off alarm bells for an examiner, alerting them to be on the lookout for weaknesses elsewhere. This does not mean that anything ‘less than perfect’ should be discarded (mistakes provide valuable learning opportunities and cues for how subsequent learning occurred), but you must discriminate. If an image is glaringly worse than your others, consider improving it or distracting from this with the addition of higher quality surrounding work (seek teacher guidance before removal of any artwork; improving existing work is often faster than starting afresh).
How can you lead the viewer’s eye to the strongest work or ideas, yet still include the important developmental stages? – Chris Francis, Senior Leader Teacher of Art & Photography, St. Peter’s Catholic School, Bournemouth, UK
Craft the sketchbook with care
The sketchbook offers an opportunity to remind the examiner that you are a hard-working, dedicated student, who cares about the subject. This doesn’t mean you must cram your sketchbook with intense, labored work (sometimes an expressive, two-minute charcoal drawing is all that is needed) but that the sketchbook speaks of your effort, commitment, and passion.
Examples of great art sketchbooks: Our Online Collection
The following sketchbook pages are almost all by high school art students (and one or two university students) from around the world. These exemplars cover a wide range of presentation techniques and layout styles. It is worth remembering that these represent only a fraction of what is possible. These pages are shared so that current students may learn from those who have previously excelled.
Some of these sketchbook pages (and many more) are part of our upcoming book: High School Art Sketchbooks: 100+ Outstanding Examples. This book has high-resolution images, so that fine details and annotation are clear, making it an excellent resource for students and schools. All images within this publication (and within our online collection below) achieved outstanding grades, with many awarded full marks (100%).
Our online collection is continually updated. Please bookmark this page so that you can return to it when needed. If you would like submit your own sketchbook page for inclusion, please contact us.
The collection has been organized into the following categories:
Many high school Photography students are unsure how to present printed photographic images in a creative and visually appealing way. This collection is intended to motivate and inspire students who study high school qualifications such as NCEA Level 3 Photography (Scholarship), A Level Photography and IB Art.
Graphic Design sketchbooks
Many high school Graphic Design students are unsure what to include within their sketchbook or how to present their assignments in an innovative and appealing way. This collection of student sketchbooks has been shared to motivate and inspire those who study qualifications such as IGCSE / GCSE Art and Design, A Level Graphics and NCEA Level 3 Design (Scholarship). It is for those who are working in areas such as illustration, publication design (pamphlets, brochures, websites, magazine and book design, CD / DVD covers), corporate identity, advertising and marketing (logo and branding, promotional merchandise, posters, internet and television advertising), packaging design and/or symbol design.
An excellent discussion of a sketchbook by Henrietta Ross, provided by Tony Pritchard, leader of Postgraduate Design for Visual Communication courses at the London College of Communication:
This video walks viewers through examples of completed sketchbooks, giving invaluable insight into the design process. It stresses the importance of research, which helps to build an understanding of the subject matter and can inspire new and original thinking. The artist’s typographic exploration involves the deconstruction and reconstruction of letters and the observation of shapes and forms. Each page is composed beautifully with a balance of creative pieces and annotation of work.
Textile and Fashion Design sketchbooks
This collection of textile and fashion design sketchbooks is intended to motivate student who are designing fashion garments, personal accessories, wearable art costumes, fabrics, woven textiles, experimental weaving, embroidery, printed textiles (such as block printing, silk-screen printing) and items produced using any other method of decorating or manipulating fabric and thread, such as batik, dye and spray painting.
Sculpture, Architecture and 3D Design sketchbooks
This collection of sketchbook pages that have been produced covers topics such as abstract sculpture, figurative sculpture, installation, architectural design and product design. It is hoped that these examples will motivate and inspire those who are working on their own sculpture or 3D Design sketchbook as part of a high school Art or Design project.
Did you achieve the best high school art results in your year, school, country or qualification? We would love to feature more sketchbook pages within this article. Please contact us!
NOTE: Recommendations made within this publication may not be appropriate for every course or every sketchbook assignment. Examination boards have their own assessment criteria and expectations for the ‘sketchbook’, ‘art journal’, ‘visual diary’ or ‘investigation workbook’. This publication should be used in conjunction with approval and advice from a classroom teacher.
Amiria has been an Art & Design teacher and a Curriculum Co-ordinator for seven years, responsible for the course design and assessment of student work in two high-achieving Auckland schools. She has a Bachelor of Architectural Studies, Bachelor of Architecture (First Class Honours) and a Graduate Diploma of Teaching. Amiria is a CIE Accredited Art & Design Coursework Assessor.