September 23, 2013

The Ins and Outs of Starting a Convention Sketchbook

I first heard of convention sketchbooks from an artist friend. He did free pencil drawings and if anyone came up with a book for him to draw in, he'd always say "Sketchbooks get more love" Sure enough, those pieces always got more details and time. It was cool, but I wasn't sure what the point of sketchbooks was until a little while later when another artist, Cat Staggs, showed me her gorgeous Batwoman themed sketchbook. Flipping through the pages was like going through a treasure box where artists had left different gems. I couldn't wait to start my own and begin collecting drawings from artists I admired, but I didn't know where to start.

It seemed straightforward - get a book, pay artists to draw in it - but I was concerned about getting a book with the right kind of paper and the proper size, let alone communicating what I wantd to artists. Luckily, it turns out that it's not too hard. I've started a few different sketchbooks over the past seven years and have picked up a few tips and learned some from artists along the way. In case you'd like to start a sketchbook, this information will help.

Let's define sketchbook. It's a book or notepad you take to conventions or sometimes mail to artists (I don't recommend doing so but we'll come back to why) to get drawings. Tada, simple. You leave the book at their table, and you get art. It's a fun way to collect different styles and unique drawings and sketches, I love going back through my sketchbooks and showing them to others.

Buy a sketchbook.
You need to think about paper, size, binding, and number of pages. I like Canson books and in particular like this 8.5" x 5.5" style. I've also used Cachet books.

  • Paper - Choose a book with thicker pages. No newsprint or notebook paper. It needs to be able to to take ink and marker. This should go without saying, but no lined paper. If you don't feel comfortable choosing one, go to an art store and tell them you need a sketchbook with paper for inks and markers and they'll give you guidance.
  • Size - Bigger is not always better in this case. With a smaller canvas, you're likely to get more detail and a background. A bigger piece of paper means more space to fill and when an artist wants to make sure to get your book back to you in a timely manner, you don't want them to worry about filling in an 11" x 14" area. As a general rule, I'd stick with 9" x 12" or smaller.
    • As mentioned, mine is 8.5" x 5.5" and I've found it to be a good size. Because of the smaller size, I've had two artists lower the commission rate from what's printed on their table since they are used to doing larger drawings on their own paper. 
  • Binding - I recommend a hard bound sketchbook over spiral bound. It's less likely you'll lose pages with a sturdier binding.
  • Number of pages - Are you the type of person who wants to finish one sketchbook before you start another one? Are you forgetful and won't remember to take the book to half the conventions you attend (like me)? If so, consider getting a book with less pages.
Once you've chosen a sketchbook, put the following in the inside cover in case it gets lost: name, email, Twitter name, and your cell phone number. Bonus: the artist can also grab your number and text you when your commission is done. 

Also, cut a piece of cardstock or Bristol the exact size of your sketchbook to use as a bleed sheet so when artists add ink and marker it doesn't go right through four sheets of paper.
Choose a theme (or not).

You have a sketchbook full of beautiful blank pages. What do you want on them?

One way to go is an overall theme. It can be specific or broad. For example, I have a sketchbook that is all Captain America and only Captain America. I just started a Daredevil one encompassing anything Daredevil related so that instead of just a bajillion portraits of the Man Without Fear I can also include Elektra, Black Widow, Stilt-Man, etc. I've seen a Doctor Who themed sketchbook which leaves the doors wide open for aliens, the TARDIS, companions, and more. I've seen Disney villains, women of Marvel, cats, zombies, DC villains, and the list goes on. Think about your favorite movies, books, and comics. Can you see yourself filling up a whole book with the characters?

If not, no worries. It's your sketchbook and it can be completely random. Don't be afraid to ask for obscure characters either. Artists usually enjoy drawing something off the wall.

Whichever way you go, make a reference sheet that stays with the sketchbook. Asking for Electric Blue Superman is awesome but print out an image of the character just in case the artist doesn't have access to the internet. Signals aren't 100% reliable at conventions; tons of people are using the network and sometimes conventions happen in basements or several stories underground. Include references for your themed books too. I'm making a sheet with a whole cast of Daredevil characters just to help provide some inspiration.

Don't hesitate to ask friends if they have a sketchbook and ask if you can see it. Looking through several of them will give you ideas.
by Cat Staggs
Find artists.
Now for the fun part: start adding art. You can go about this in a completely organized fashion or you can also just see who you find at conventions. Both ways work. If you want to try to get a big name to add a piece though, you definitely want to plan ahead.

Artists only take a certain number of commissions during conventions. Some renew their list every morning and some work through one list for the entire show. Look at the convention website and see who's attending. If you see an artist who you really want a drawing from, visit his or her website, blog, Tumblr - wherever he or she seems to be updating information about convention appearances. Most people post what sort of sketches they'll be offering as well as the price or they'll have it stored in a FAQ. Sometimes they'll give you the option of getting on their list in advance. If they don't have info posted online, send them an email. If they don't reply before the convention, make sure you visit their table as soon as the show opens.

If you'd rather wander and see who has an art style you like (my preferred method), start in Artists' Alley. Remember sketchbooks are different from other commissions in that while an artist is working on your sketchbook, it's unavailable to others. It forces you to be more choosy. If you see an artist who has work you like, see if they have a posted sign about how much they are charging for commissions. People usually have options for pencils, black and white, and colors. Some may charge differently for head and shoulders vs torso. Think about what you want and what you can afford. If a sign's not posted, ask politely.

Once you've agreed on the price and talked the drawing over with the artist (never assume they understood, it's okay to clarify - just be nice), manage expectations about when you can pick it up - especially since it's a sketchbook. Ask when you can come back to pick it up and come back at the agreed time. Expect to pay up front and have cash with you because even if Squares seem to be common these days, not everyone takes cards.

If you can, pay a little more to make sure the first entry or couple of entries in your sketchbook are by someone really good. An artist once told me they're a competitive bunch and if they see amazing drawings, they're likely to up their game.

Speaking of money, set a budget. I set a sketchbook limit per show. I've paid $0-$60 for sketches so far. The neighborhood of $30 seems to be average, and some artists will sketch for nothing but encourage a donation to Heroes Initiative or a similar organization (Amanda Palmer does this). If you're unsure, just ask.

And if you're less shy than I am, you can always ask for a free sketch. You might not get it, but it doesn't hurt to ask.

Finally, I recommend taking your sketchbook only to artists at conventions. I've heard a story about a well known artist who has let fan sketchbooks pile up in his studio for years. Years. Plural. Not okay. You might not get it back and while it's away, you can't get any new sketches added to it. If you really want to order a commission by mail, I recommend letting them do it on their own paper rather than sending your sketchbook.

That covers the important things. Go forth and collect drawings!

Do you have a sketchbook? Please share links to your pics.


  1. Thanks! I am very, very new to fan conventions and I have absolutely no idea how best to interact with the artists, other than gushing over their work. A sketchbook is a great idea, even for introverted ol' me.

    1. It's a cool and affordable way to collect original art, too! :D

  2. Very interesting post, thank you Amy!

  3. Hi Amy that's a well written post you've written about the pros and cons of getting a sketch on sketchbook. I've got quite a few sketchbooks and last year I gave one to a well known DC artist which I thought was going to be done at the convention which we both agreed on. I kept popping down his table to see if mine was done but he kept saying "You're next on the list" but he didn't draw it.

    As the convention was closing, he was going to post off the sketchbook but he took it back with him to America. During this time he had a bad track record of doing commissions for people.
    He contacted me over Facebook two months after the convention finished after I pleaded to offer postage, I just wanted it back he'd managed to draw on my book and he posted it off which was no charge at all I which was quite relieved.

  4. Just wanted to say thanks for an excellent post, it was super helpful for me getting ready to start collecting sketchbooks!

    1. I'm so glad to hear it! Are you going with any themes?

    2. Sorry for the super delayed response. I did 3 separate books, the 8.5"x5.5" Canson you recommended. I've actually had a couple of artists feel a little challenged by the smaller size, but I like being able to tote around multiple books at a con. One of them is a themed one. I went with something silly, just 'pie', and I've had some really cool artists run with it. Still small collection so far, but here's a FB album to what I have right now.


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