I never believed in sketchbooks until I worked for Barbara Nessim | Tara Barnett
As a new Parsons graduate, I was: A. thrilled to be hired and
B. to be working for the renowned illustrator Barbara Nessim
On my first day, I was given a tour of Barbara’s West Village studio. I was in awe of her working space and views of the Hudson, but the most spectacular sight was her shelves upon shelves of nearly one hundred hand made sketchbooks. With no two books alike, individually numbered and signed, her space emanated years of creativity and inspiration. That day, Barbara asked me if I kept a sketchbook, I gave a weak, “yes”, and reminisced about my true feelings about keeping a sketchbook.
Completing sketchbook pages always felt like a chore, it was not enjoyable for me. It felt forced and I felt confined to tiny pages sown together in a small book. I always felt pressure from other accomplished artists and professors, that sketchbooks were essential instruments for an illustrator. I distinctly remember my artist peers carrying two at a time, one large, one small, some that were hand made and sown together with various toothy pages and string. Others just had a mess of papers with splotches of paint and charcoal gesture drawings placed in a folder. One day for a drawing and painting class, we spent an hour looking through each other’s sketchbooks, discussing ideas and thoughts that culminated in “A+ sketchbook work”. Although my peer’s and professor’s sketchbooks were inspiring, I failed to produce my own inspiration that flooded the pages in a book.
So, after that class, I scoured Utrecht for the “right” sketchbook. I meticulously felt the weight of the pages, the binding, the cover, the size and number of pages hoping to find an “aha” moment when I found the right one. Finally, I brought one home and started to sketch. For awhile I found myself trying to create like my peers and professors, but it just didn’t feel natural, so I put the sketchbook down and returned to painting large canvases.
Fast forward to working with Barbara — While working at her studio I was a part of a team that organized her retrospective at The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, as well as her publication An Artful Life which celebrated 50 years of her work. My job tasks ranged from high energy running around the city to correspondence with photo editors, publishers, museums and the like- to the more slower paced scanning and editing of her artwork images.
One chapter of An Artful Life, is purely dedicated to Barbara’s sketchbooks. I was given the job to scan and edit select sketchbook pages. While scanning, I took notice of a smaller, white leather sketchbook of Barbaras, one that was unlike the rest. When I opened the book- I was drawn to the way she used a simple black pen and wavy, delicate strokes that glided across her page and dipped into the binding and completed on the other side. She did not allow for boundaries. She effortlessly captured a moment without hesitation and without the fear of confinement. Her illustrations allowed me to see from her perspective and feel within the space she created in this small book. Each page told a story, and I felt like I was there experiencing her story with her.
Suddenly, the idea that art is truly something that you do for yourself hit me. I let my fears and anxieties about the “essential tool for illustrators” go- and instead, allowed myself to create in a space of my own with a subject of my own choosing. I didn’t have to fit the New York artist style mold for sketchbook creating – I just had to keep my hands loose in what I felt to be right. I still use Barbara’s principles in my own work:
“When you sit down and do a drawing just for yourself, it is just free flowing … There are just 3 rules for these books: 1) must have beginning and end pages with dates 2) must work page after page 3) no page is torn out
It wasn’t until I worked for iconic illustrator Barbara Nessim that I picked up a sketchbook, found my style and allowed it to create a story of its own.