Exploring the Creative Process: How Three Textile Artists Use Sketchbooks

Exploring an artist’s creative process is like unlocking a treasure chest of inspiration and insight. Hearing how artists conceive, iterate, and refine their work offers a glimpse into their unique perspective and the passion that drives them forward. Each artist has their path to express themselves. Hearing and understanding their processes can ignite our creative spark and encourage us to explore new techniques, embrace experimentation, and appreciate our artistic journey.

At the heart of the creative process for the three artists featured here lies a simple yet powerful tool: the sketchbook. These three very different fiber artists each share a peek into their visual journey, allowing us to view some of their sketchbook pages. Through their stories, they reveal how their sketchbooks serve as repositories of ideas and catalysts for their work.

Ellen Ramsey
Claudia Lee
Shelley Rhodes

We appreciate tapestry artist Ellen Ramsey from Seattle, Washington; Claudia Lee, paper artist from Liberty, Tennessee; and stitch artist Shelley Rhodes from Liverpool, United Kingdom, taking the time to share their thoughts on this topic. We hope that reading their insights and observing how they utilize their sketchbooks will offer you new avenues to explore within your own creative process. 

Q: How do you organize your sketchbook? Is it chronological, thematic, or more freeform?

Ellen Ramsey: I maintain two different sketchbook practices simultaneously. I keep small journals for workshop notes, jots, and random ideas that flow in  a stream-of-consciousness way. My disjointed ideas marinate in these notebooks, but once I decide that I want to develop one of the ideas into a tapestry, I give that project its own large sketchbook. Everything in a large sketchbook relates to the development of a specific idea or series of closely related works. If I find myself diverging, I tear out the page and stick it back in my ‘random journal’ for the marination process. That idea could eventually graduate to a big sketchbook, or it could fade away into the sunset. Time will tell.

Claudia Lee: My sketchbook/journals are definitely freeform. That may be putting it kindly, and organized is way too strong a word for how I use them. I’ve never had a practice around my studio journals where how they looked was a part of something I considered. Having said that, I do love to see the many beautiful artists’ journals that are small works of art in themselves. My journals are strictly working, functional documents that I use to remember information and ideas. As such, they are an important part of my studio practice. Like so many artists that show up to work in the studio every day, one idea seems to lead to another, and I often wake up in the middle of the night and reach for a piece of paper to scribble ideas on.

Shelley Rhodes: I always have several sketchbooks on the go at any time. I have my daily sketchbook, in which I work every day and date stamp each page in chronological order. Rather than a sketch, the page could be a drawing, a collage, a painting, a stitched sample, an arrangement of a collection, or a manipulated photograph. In fact, anything goes, as long as I do something creative every day. 

I always have a larger A3 workbook in which I explore and develop ideas by experimenting with materials and concepts while working toward finished pieces for exhibitions. This may include reference to other artists, photographs of experimental pieces, notes, and diagrams. Often, there are many ideas that I do not follow through at the time but may return to later. Alongside this, I have a tiny notebook that I try to take with me everywhere I go, to simply jot down words, ideas, reminders, artists to look at. It occasionally has a sketchy diagram, but is mostly contains words or phrases.

I usually have a couple of other ongoing sketchbooks as well. For example, I currently have one with black paper; one specifically for recording marks, patterns, and shapes related to my ongoing coral project; and another for exploring and experimenting with text, gestural, and asemic writing. Also, if I go traveling, I will sometimes make a small ‘book’ specifically to take and fill on my journey. These are usually small scale, so they can easily go everywhere with me.

Shelley Rhodes

Q: How many sketchbooks do you have going at any one time?

Ellen Ramsey: Right now, I have three large sketchbooks going in addition to my journal.

Claudia Lee: I usually have one serious hardback book and a stack of legal pads. For a while, I tried to have a new book for each year, but that’s gone to looseleaf notebooks that I keep on many topics. My notebooks date back about 20 years and it’s fun, and often useful, to go through them once in a while. I often get inspired by ideas I had years ago and might update them and give them new life.

Shelley Rhodes: As I mentioned I work in several sketchbooks simultaneously: Workbook [A3], daily sketchbook [14cm x 14cm square], mini notebook with simple diagrams [10.5cm x 6.5cm], small books for gathering marks around a specific theme [approximately A5].

Q: Is a sketchbook a means to document daily life, spontaneous observations, or to gather specific design ideas?

Ellen Ramsey: Specific design ideas. My older sketchbooks have a lot of drawings in them, but these days I do most of my designing on the computer. After a design session, I print out the best digital images and tape them in the sketchbook. I’ll jot down the file name, details about the digital image if that seems relevant, or ideas about how I might weave it. These print outs and notes inspire me to take different approaches the next time I work on the idea. Once I’ve found ‘the one’ that I will use as the basis for a weaving, then the sketchbook also becomes the place where I fully document the execution of the project. This includes everything from the warp calculations to the materials and color blends I will use (based on sampling), and even a record of what I spend on materials as the piece progresses. 

Claudia Lee: My actual journals serve many purposes. For example, they may have lists of books I want to read, recipes scattered throughout, labels and contact info for materials and suppliers, names of artists I want to learn more about, quotes that resonate with me, sketches and ideas for projects, along with notes for future reference, phone numbers, email addresses, etc.

Shelley Rhodes: I use different sketchbooks for different purposes. My daily sketchbook is a form of visual diary in which I document and respond to whatever I encounter or observe that day. My workbook is for recording design ideas as well as material explorations.

Q: Do you see your sketchbook as a private space, or do you feel comfortable sharing it with others?

Ellen Ramsey: I see my sketchbook as a private space. It’s an extension of my brain, a working document. It is not an object to admire.

Claudia Lee: My sketchbook and journals are for my own private use. They tend to be messy, with spelling mistakes and outdated information that only has meaning for me. They are not for sharing.

Shelley Rhodes: Some of my sketchbooks, particularly my little notebook, are private, but I am happy to share the content of my daily sketchbook and I do this on Instagram every day. 

My workbooks are part of a larger design process, whereas my daily sketchbook and small travel books are created for my pleasure with no real intention of development. I think, in general, people are really interested in how artists use sketchbooks in their practice and so I usually take them to workshops to share with participants. I am quite selective about what I share and, while I am happy for students to look through my sketchbooks, I ask them not to photograph the individual pages as this feels like too much of an invasion of my personal thoughts and development of ongoing ideas. The book format sometimes becomes the work of art and can be displayed in exhibitions. The concertina format works particularly well for this. 

Q: Have you experimented with different types of sketchbooks? Do you have a favorite?

Ellen Ramsey: I like an 8.5 x 11 inch hardbound sketchbook with blank pages. Although, I am experimenting with gridded paper, and I am finding that useful. 

Claudia Lee: When I started making books, my first thought was to make my own journals and they varied widely in size and design. My favorite these days is a hardback, spiral-bound book that is about 11 x 9 inches. The only problem is that it doesn’t lend itself to being carried around. I very often will just grab a sheet of loose paper and write or draw on that. I try to put the loose paper into whichever of the many three-ring binders I have for different projects. I guess my journals have diminished from handmade books to scraps of paper! When I traveled to Australia to teach this past September, I knew I would be traveling around, so I made a very small notebook that would fit in my pocket. That worked out really well.

Shelley Rhodes: For more than 40 years, I have worked in many different types of sketchbooks. Now, I tend to use a lot of books from Seawhite of Brighton. I like spiral-bound books, as they allow me to ‘snip out’ the pages, work on them, and then re-insert them. They often become really ‘fat’ as I stick things in, so the spiral-bound books work well. My daily sketchbook has 160 gm cartridge paper. It is slightly lightweight for mixed-media, but it is a compromise as these sketchbooks are inexpensive so they do not feel ‘precious’ for experimental work.

Shelley Rhodes

Q: Can you share an anecdote or memorable experience related to your sketchbook practice?

Ellen Ramsey: As you know, tapestry weavings take a long time to make, so the decision to weave a certain design, or not, must be thoughtfully considered. At a workshop I took with Scottish tapestry weaver Lynne Curran, it was suggested that I devote a whole sketchbook to a single design idea, and I have found that to be a transformative practice.

Shelley Rhodes: I once bought a beautiful sketchbook to take traveling with me. It contained top-quality, heavyweight watercolor paper. The book was gorgeous, but it was slightly intimidating. I felt like I should create a finished work of art on each page, rather than it being a fun, experimental record of my journey. 


Find out more about these incredible artists on their websites:

Ellen Ramsey:
Claudia Lee:
Shelley Rhodes:


Cami Smith is the Fiber Art Now media manager, a contributing editor, and a mixed-media artist.

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