Inside the Sketchbook of Frances Ives

Frances Ives is an illustrator who works with a large range of materials across lots of different formats, including paints, inks, coloring pencils, monoprint and pastels. One of her favorite ways to develop her practice is to draw out and about in sketchbooks. She tells us more about how she gets the most out of them.


Frances Ives Takes us Through her Sketchbook Practice

I’ve been a sketchbook person for a very long time, but it wasn’t until the last three years that they became essential for my practice. I started the MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art, and for the first three months, drawing from observation in our sketchbooks was our only assignment – ​​and for me, it’s been the central point of my practice ever since.

I don’t have one specific way of using my sketchbooks – they are a place to explore media, try different drawing techniques and make a lot of mistakes! They are a place where I draw full scenes from observation alongside little snippets of the world, where I thumbnail ideas and write thoughts, and sometimes where I create finished artwork for illustration projects.

They’re a visual notebook and a final canvas, but they’re also a comfort blanket. I know I can retreat back to them, and they’re a safe creative place that I can physically shut to the world, and only be seen if I choose to share it. They give me the freedom to make mistakes, and there’s something reassuring about that for me.

These days, I feel far more comfortable in sketchbooks than I do with a blank sheet of paper. I used to be quite precious with sketchbooks – I would worry about starting and ruining the first page, and in the past I have even torn out pages, to keep the sketchbook looking ‘good’. My main advice to anybody wishing to use sketchbooks is to NOT do that!

Sometimes, those pages that you ‘messed up’, or that one you spilt ink over, or even the ones that are technically fine but you feel underwhelmed by – they are the ones I think you can learn the most from. If I had ripped every page out of my sketchbooks I wasn’t happy with, I would be left with a few nice drawings and nothing that really gets me thinking. Now my sketchbooks are full of quick drawings, timed life drawings, drawings of things I would never usually try from fellow creators patreon varied classes and tasks… it can lead to a really sketchbook!

I’ve had many ‘favorite’ sketchbooks over the years, but currently I keep going back to Royal Talens Art Creation and Pith Sketchbooks – an odd combination because they’re completely different. I use them in different ways, too.During the first UK lockdown in 2020, my most used sketchbooks were the very small Royal Talens. When everything felt so uncertain, the small scale made the task of drawing feel so much more manageable — a small space of solace, where I could try something new and not feel overwhelmed by the page. I think this is when my love of drawing nature really took off. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by it and, when the whole world seemed to slow down, I could observe the changing seasons through my drawings.

I tend to use my Pith sketchbooks for larger double page spreads, or very painterly work. They hold water based paints really well, and have a softness to them which changes the overall feel of my work. I think the scale of my sketchbook can also be reflective of how I feel, and how I feel about my work. By the summer of 2021, everything had begun to feel more hopeful, and my confidence in my image making had.

I had a lot of fun in a large A3 Moleskine creating large landscapes on holiday in the beautiful South West with a friend, using everything from acrylic markers to glitter glue to play and make work. Effectively doubling the size of my drawing also presented challenges, (‘how on earth do I fill that much space?!’) but it encouraged me to find new ways of working, and be more free with the marks I was making.

I need my sketchbooks to be able to put up with a lot of media, both wet and dry, and a fairly heavy hand. At Christmas I bought myself an Etchr sketchbook, which I recently took to the Bologna Book Fair, and I am so impressed with it. Next on my list is the Fabriano Venezia sketchbook that a lovely friend gave to me – the paper feels wonderful, and I’m going to struggle to follow my own advice and not be too precious with it! I’d never describe myself as a purist when it comes to materials. When I studied for my BA, a tutor told me I should never use a pencil with watercolour because it wouldn’t look good – I think I’ve been fighting these ‘rules’ ever since. I love to use watercolor and gouache with wax or oil pastels, inks under pastels, and coloured pencils on top of all of these things. I’ve learned a lot through experimenting with materials that wouldn’t typically be used together – there are so many textures and marks to explore.

I try to curate a location drawing bag for when I go out drawing, and add a few extra materials depending on the weather and light and temperature. It normally consists of a few water based markers, some paints (I favor watercolor or gouache), a couple of inks, some pastels and a heap of coloured pencils. I like to layer materials down in quite a traditional paint way – starting with light washes or sweeps of colour, and gradually building textures and depth. I try to capture the atmosphere of a place or mood behind an illustration, and to always create a ‘feeling’ for the viewer, and the range of textures and marks I make through mixing different materials help me to achieve this. I hope that people can feel familiar with the work that way.

I go back to my sketchbooks a lot when I’m working up illustrations. Sometimes for direct reference, sometimes just to see how I might have used color combinations, or how one material works with another. Mostly, I return to them for a little bit of inspiration and to remind myself what I like. In a world that is so visually overstimulating, sketchbooks can be a reminder of what you are automatically drawn to, and what you enjoy looking at. Drawing in sketchbooks can feel cathartic for me. Some of the subjects I choose to draw might look quite specific, but they also remind me of a time, or how I might have been feeling whilst making a drawing. I guess they’re a little bit of a time capsule, or a memory.

Materials I use (regularly):

Colored Pencils (Derwent Lightfast and Inktense, Faber Castell, Caran D’Ache Luminance)
Caran D’ache Luminance pencils
Holbein Gouache
Acrylic Gouache (Turners and Holbein)
ShinHan Pass watercolor gouache
Watercolours (Daniel Smith, Schmincke, Holbein, Roman Szmal – own curated palettes)
Soft Pastels (Unison and Jacksons)
An assortment of inks
Caran D’Ache neocolor
Waterbased brush pens (ecoline, faber castell and tombow)
Refillable Brush Pens. The Derwent push button ones are my favorite.
Sablene brushes

Less regularly but still very much there:

Golden Fluid Acrylic
Acrylic ink.
Schmincke liquid charcoal
Low tac masking tape
Sennelier oil pastes
Conte pierre noire pencils
Pastel pencils


About Frances Ives

Frances Ives is a freelance illustrator and artist, currently based in Cambridge whilst studying on the MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art. She spends a lot of time out working from her sketchbooks outdoors, and her main source of inspiration is the sky and all of it’s colour. Prior to discovering her love of capturing narratives after her first picture book was picked up by Michael O’Mara, she also studied at Kingston University and Camberwell College of Art.

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