Why Sketch?

In Creativity and Inspiration, The Craft, The Life Creative by David24 Comments

I’m a big believer in sketch photographs, making frames you know aren’t working but have some idea in them you want to explore. The alternative is to believe that all the images I make that don’t work the way I had hoped are failures and I don’t believe in the notion of failure in creative endeavors. At least not in terms of failed efforts. Buckminster Fuller said there was no such thing as failed experiments, only experiments with unexpected outcomes. The same is true of our work behind the viewfinder. If an image or series of images doesn’t fully align with your vision or intent, there’s still that thing within it that made you raise the camera. Identify that thing, hold it back in your memory, add it to the bucket of paints you have yet to use. Your brain will do the rest. And then one day, maybe weeks later, maybe years, you’ll see the fuller expression of that thing you tried to capture previously, and the pieces will come together. But not if you’ve written it off as a failure and abandoned the thing. Here’s an example:

When I was in Hokkaido in January I was captivated by the snowy-headed rocks you see at the top of this post. A circle of elders? Something about companionship? I wasn’t sure, but I loved the repeated elements, the way they sat there on the edge of nothing, seemingly waiting together. I loved the circle they formed. But there was much about it that I didn’t love. It just didn’t work for me. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t work for it. I made several frames, played with the shapes, asked myself questions, and then filed it away, not as a failure but an idea I need to work on.

And that’s the power of the red car effect. You don’t notice how many red cars are out there until you fall in love with one. Or buy one. Or are saving to buy one. Then it’s all you can think about, all you can see. So it is with these ideas that sit incubating in our brains, these compositions that didn’t work in one scene but that are out there, somewhere. So when you do see it, you’re receptive – you’re not just looking, but perceiving. It’s why I keep an actual sketchbook of possible compositions, shapes that play together in new ways, new ways of placing elements in the frame to play with scale or balance. The more possible compositions your brain plays with, the more readily you’ll see then when they appear. The red car appears and your brain is more ready to notice it.

So when a week later I was on the edge of the sea in another part of Hokkaido I saw the same composition waiting for me to play with it, to see if this time there was something simpler, without the background chaos. And there was. My five elders waiting in a circle on the edge of the void, this time under a perfect full moon, at dusk. Sketching gets me to these places. It also re-frames my creative play in more positive ways than words like “failure” or “crap” can do.


  1. Perfect. You’re right. Focus on a vision is everything and then things will work out in a perfect way, effortlessly.
    Beautiful images.
    Happy weekend!

  2. This is one of the most important articles I have seen on photography. Profound in its simplicity.

  3. I’ve long gone back and looked at older photographers that didn’t ‘work’ and tried to learn. But this is a much broader way of seeing those photographs. I made the, for a reason; something was pulling me in. Your approach makes me think not just in craft terms about why I didn’t make what I wanted, but also in terms of the idea behind the effort. Sketch images. Great thinking.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thank you for your insightful comments
    about the sketching and then reframing.
    I love the idea of being able to save part
    of the photo.

  5. I love your comment about sketching and then
    reframing so you can use part of the photo.
    Thank you for the insightful tip.

  6. Just one more thought:

    I am much more a musician than a photographer, but there are so many paralles in the way one might approach both art forms:
    * a musicians pracitces scales, rudiments and alike; this is about getting used to the instrument, but also to gain a vocabulary and to become so good technicalyl that this whole technical issue does not get in the way of artistic expression.
    This should sound familiar when it comes to photography, eh?
    * rehearsals! these are (at least to me) the equivalent for the photographic sketch – which is a lot of artistic work! Getting a feeling for the song (situation), being empathic with the music, working out the little loose ends, finding the essence.
    * the concert. Some concerts are great, some mediocre, and sometimes we like to forget about ‘the other ones’. But if the concert was great, then we will have a picture we would like to present to the world.
    See how it does interconnect?

    This might not be a revelation, but I like the feeling being conscious about this. And this approch works for me really well.
    No, I do not have a photographical concert I’d like to share (at least yet – I am still waiting for the slides from France, so this might change in the future), but it makes it much easier for me to cope with frustration when the rehearsal was more on the crappy side, did not mean anything or whatever.

    Last note on this one:
    I hope people understand what I wrote – english is not my first language, and I have difficulties finding the right words even in my native language.

  7. Thanks for this one!
    Last year I made the step from a DSLR with a tiny hole (aka viewfinder) to a medium format film camera – so now I actally cann see what’s in the picture! Using film makes it difficult (and rather expensive) to work with sketches, but my ‘eye phone’ seems like a brilliant solution. So, on my latest trip to France (Brittany) I used the phone camera not only for its Apps (like The Photographer’s Ephemeris ), but also as as sketch camera. This helped a lot with finding the right place, musing about the right time to make the picture, predicting tides etc. – but it also helped me with composition and finding the right lens.
    And, just for the record, the phone camera replaced my DSLR completely – even for holiday snaps.
    Thanks for your great blog (and books) and loads of inspiring pictures and words!

  8. This is a article is great fuel for thought. I have been thinking about ways to refocus on photography lately and I think that this is a really important idea to remember. It is very easy to go out shooting and get frustrated because a composition does not work, but it is hard to remember to keep the idea we were trying to make work alive. Thanks for the reminder to keep looking and keep trying.

  9. Hi David,

    Just got my copy of Seven yesterday. It is fabulous, each and every image is a work of art. I love you words here and on your blog, but as I have said before, it’s the images that bring me back again and again…

    I find it interesting how you changed some of the images, such as Plate 61, which appears as B&W, where originally in “Vision & Voice” is was in color, love that image and that smile and it works so well in B&W. Leonard Cohen proves it’s more than OK to continue to change our work over time. 😉

    Although I love all the images, it is possible to have a few favorites, yes? I find the images of Milford Sound very moving and somehow Plate 63, Sapa Vietnam 2009 speaks to me in a way I can’t even describe. Such depth, subtle color and a sense of mystery.

    I will treasure this wonderful expression of your vision and share it with others for a long time to come. Congratulations on a wonderful creation, your hard work paid off in a work of penetrating beauty.

    I find this book an inspiration and I thank you and your staff for the wonderful effort put in to make it a reality. It’s a pleasure to hold it in my hands.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Tom. That means the world to me. I trust you’ve got something you’ll treasure for a long time. That people have my work in prized places in their homes means more than I can express.

  10. Yes! I do this all over the place. My smartphone is a giant photo repository for ideas that aren’t quite there yet but there is something about the scene that niggles at my brain. And as a designer, I have multiple actual sketchbooks scattered all over with doodles and layouts – some for ideas I will use, some just because something in my brain needs to get out be put on paper. Maybe I’ll use it, or refine it or it will spark another idea. You never know. I’ve never ever thought of them as failures though. They’re just…bits and pieces to play with.

  11. Thank you for this. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has to step away from a scene and try again a different day under different circumstances. I was sure it was related to my new-ness to the craft – I’m pleased to learn that it’s part of the process. Probably just happens a lot more for me than it does for you.

    1. Author

      I wouldn’t bet on it, Christine. In fact the longer I do this the higher my ratio of failures needed to get to where I want to go. When I first started out, everything was gold. Now it takes me much, much longer to get there. Our craft improves, but our vision gets harder to attain, I think.

  12. One of the greatest strengths our brains have is the ability to recognize, calculate, and visualize patterns. Keeping a visual record of ideas, whether in drawing or writing certainly helps when creating our art.

  13. I like your idea about failure in a creative process. We all have many ideas, sometimes are clear other times are not so clear. If we wait for the perfection we’ll never start to work, and probably we’ll never get the result we are looking for. Keeping our “failures” as intermediate steps in our process is the key. And sketching will help a lot. Thanks for explaining it so well.

  14. I recently visited a large Turner exhibition & it was fascinating to see how many sketches he made; detail sketches of tiny people, ships rigging, building features & broader sketches of backdrops, landscapes & skies.

    I like the way you reframe “failure” here. Why should we assume that since we’ve executed an idea once, it’s finished & judged forever. Artists in other fields don’t do that.

    Oh & I thought it was the redhead effect, rather than the red car effect…

  15. Amen!
    I remember when I was in school and as an assignment, we were to start keeping a journal, this was in 4th grade, and agin in High School a creative writing teacher did the same. In design school we would keep a morgue file to place little design elements that we liked, to be used later.
    I whole heartedly subscribe to the idea of “sketching” wether with a pencil and paper, scissors or a camera.
    Grab all those ideas you can, and let them stew, then one day you’ll have something you didn’t even know you were working on, LOL.

    Thanks agin, David!

  16. John Singer Sargent said, ‘You can’t do sketches enough. Sketch everything and keep your curiosity fresh.’

    You seem to be saying something very similar. It’s a very interesting perspective you present here and a much more interesting way of looking at the images that “don’t make the cut.”

  17. Lovely image of pattern and simplicity. The practice of sketching, is I believe, something that could be said for every creative endeavour. I’d be much more skeptical if no experimentation was required. Build that palette of taste testing.

  18. Perfect timing… just getting ready to share these pearls of inspiration (link to your blog of course)with a friend…

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