Inside the Sketchbook of Jessica Jane Charleston

Drawing is at the heart of Jessica Jane Charleston’s artwork. She draws from her dreams and her imagination as well as from life, such as self portraits and observational drawings of her son. These drawings act as a starting point for her paintings, prints and clay figures. Her sketchbooks are crucial tools in this process and she has many to share. In this article, Jessica talks us through how using sketchbooks enhances her creative practice and lets us take a look inside some of her favorites from over the years.


Jessica Jane Charleston Takes us Through her Sketchbook Practice

I use one book to draw in and another book to write in. Although, of course, the drawing often creeps into the writing book and vice versa. My relationship with my drawing book/sketchbook has changed over the years. During my time on the drawing year (at the Royal Drawing School) it was pocket sized and on me all the time. I drew like taking notes; in classes, lectures, galleries, on the bus/tube, waiting for anything to happen. It was there, ready to bear witness. But my relationship with it now is much more relaxed. In fact, I love lazy drawing. I love to watch telly and draw in my sketchbook at the same time. Drawing from the screen and the room I’m in but predominantly from my imagination is properly relaxing. I like to believe that something comes up in these drawings that wouldn’t have emerged as easily if I was entirely focused on just drawing.

I’m not that fussy when it comes to the type of sketchbooks I use but I am spoiled. My best friend, Amelie Genestine-Charlton is a bookbinder (AGC Bookbinding) and has gifted me a plethora of ridiculously beautiful hand-bound books. When she gave me my first one, back in 2008, she had embossed my name on the front, and it has taken me years to use it, I just couldn’t get past how perfect it was. I was given a free Moleskine sketchbook with Apollo magazine recently which I’ve nearly finished. The paper is thin and my pen can be seen through it but I don’t mind that and it only encourages me to be more carefree. But my next one has a marbled-paper hardback cover with a leather bound spine made by Amelie. I don’t have any trouble drawing in them now. The paper is thick (taken from off-cuts), it smells nice, and makes the whole ritual even more satisfying. For now, A5 is about the right size for me but that’s because most of the drawing happens on my lap. In the past I’ve preferred them smaller, palm-sized, to sneak drawings down in galleries and trains etc.

I remember someone saying leave a page in-between drawings in your sketchbook so you can cut the drawings out if you need to, but I just couldn’t do that. The sketchbook is the whole drawing. It’s more than the individual drawings. It’s a record, a diary. And also, painting from a drawing or re-drawing a drawing is where it gets interesting.

My work is full of figures and these figures are conjured from my imagination but rooted in drawing from life. These days the drawing from life is all in the sketchbook since I am not going to life drawing classes at the moment. I have been making larger ink drawings of me and my son but since he’s turned more toddler-y it is almost impossible to get him to stay still. I am my easiest model and there are a lot of moody self-portraits in my sketchbook. It’s good to keep looking, looking at how shoulders sit, hands knot, feet flop and then turn these into paintings.

In the last couple of years I have narrowed the materials I use in my sketchbook down to just black and gray pen. I like pens with a thin nib at one end and a brush at the other. I like the feeling that I’m working with brush and ink and I love that it doesn’t smudge. I can get a sense of shade and depth if I want to but usually I’m just trying to get the thing down: The idea, the portrait, quickly. My son is nearly 2 and I have quite a few quick drawings of him sleeping in my sketchbooks. When I was pregnant I imagined taking lots of time to draw him but the reality is when he is asleep I want to focus on myself although he does pop up in my paintings a lot.

I like to use the drawings in my sketchbook as a starting point for other work. I know when it’s the right drawing when I can’t stop looking at it, there’s something exciting about it. Sometimes my sketchbook is simply used as a place to play with ideas and surprise myself. Out of this playing comes more substantial ideas.

Using my sketchbooks is like going home, checking in, resting. It is a place where I can see where I am. The time I have to be in ‘the studio’ (whether that is in the actual studio or 10 minutes at the kitchen table) is very sporadic so having my sketchbook to open up and see where I left off supports that. It’s like a mini studio.

I love to draw from exhibitions, in The National Gallery and at The British Museum. I don’t get a lot of time for these days but I often refer to drawings made from paintings and sculptures. This was really encouraging whilst on the drawing year and I quickly got over people leaning over my shoulder asking me if I was an artist.
Wear headphones.

I think my mistake in the early days of drawing in sketchbooks was trying to make it perfect. I feel so differently now, I see drawing and especially drawing in my sketchbook as one of the places where I must make mistakes. That’s where it gets fun. I like to let my hand loose, to allow whatever wants to come up, come up. To indulge in drawing whatever I like, it doesn’t need to relate to anything I’m painting at the time. In fact, the more variety the better.


About Jessica Jane Charleston

Jessica Jane Charleston is an artist based in London. She graduated from the Royal Drawing School in 2017. In 2020 she was awarded the Young Artist Award from the Royal Watercolor Society. She has exhibited her paintings with Guts Gallery, Kris Day’s Papercuts at The Saatchi Gallery, The London Art Fair (represented by The Nunnery Gallery) and most recently been selected to exhibit in the Artist Support Pledge exhibition A Generous Space at The Hastings Contemporary. Jessica is represented by SEAM Agency and is currently showingcasing nine paintings with Dust and Soul in Madrid.

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Further reading on the Jackson’s Art Blog

Everything you Need To Know about Drawing Paper

Brush Pens: The Definitive Guide

A Hundred Times Looking: Observational Drawing As Meditation

For Those Who Love To Draw: Four Artists Test Our Drawing Materials

Annie Le Santo

As the Editor of Jackson’s Art Blog, Annie commissions and plans features, while also occasionally writing them herself. Her background is in publishing and she has written for a number of creative magazines. She is also a practicing artist with an interest in natural history.

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