The Sketchbook Project: The Beginning






This was my question:

Would a self-guided approach to art-making work with my 6th grade class?

I always wanted to offer my students their own sketchbooks to bring to art class. They could be used for practice drawing, experimentation with paint-mixing and free choice. But when you have a small art program (15 weeks a year), there isn’t enough opportunity to justify the purchase of a product that would consume a third of your art budget.

But, what if the sketchbook was the only thing you offered the students? Then it began to make sense.


After discussing the idea with the 6th grade teachers, they agreed to partially fund the sketchbooks. This was huge. I could now proceed with the Sketchbook Project without compromising the art budget for the rest of the grade levels.

The idea was for each student to have his own sketchbook but they would leave the sketchbook in the art room. I cleared a few drawers to make room for the 75 books and dove into creating a few starter projects to engage the kids.

This is the brand of sketchbooks I used: Sketch for Schools


If a student owned his own sketchbook, my hope was this:

  • Take more pride in their work
  • Be able to see their efforts throughout the year
  • Have a place to record art observations
  • Work on past projects

Would students like a sketch book compared to a larger piece of art?

Turns out they did. At the end of the year, after we filled up the pages in the sketchbooks, most students reported that they enjoyed working on their own sketchbooks compared to the larger format papers that we typically used in art class.

Some students missed the larger pieces of art (I know I did) and some students were non-committal with their opinions. The classroom teachers were the ones who reported the biggest benefit: they claimed the students talked about their sketchbooks and art class more than in the previous year.

Over the course of 15 weeks of art (50-minute classes) these are the projects we did:

The Sketchbook Project Lesson #1

Lesson available: Students learned how to make tints and shades using 2 hues plus white and black

The Sketchbook Project Lesson #2

Lesson available: Inspired by images of our national parks, students practiced drawing landscapes and used value when coloring their art

The Sketchbook Project Lesson # 3 Trees

Lesson available: A quick project that played with organic lines and black markers 


The Sketchbook Project Lesson #4 Delauney

Lesson available: Playing with color, composition and shapes inspired by artist, Sonia Delauney  

The Sketchbook Project Lesson #5 farm animals

Lesson available: Self-portraits and personal journaling in one funky collage

The Sketchbook Project Lesson #6 line art

Lesson Available: Combining color, line and pattern


The Sketchbook Project Lesson #7 farm animals

Lesson Available: Learning how to draw farm animals by observing illustrations and pictures

The Sketchbook Project Lesson #8 Animal Eyes

Lesson Available:A close-up look into the eyes of reptiles and other animals


Each week I will post the lessons above so that you have the opportunity to see how I approached the lesson, what the children experienced and how I might approach a lesson differently.

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The 6th grade teachers encouraged me to store the sketchbooks in the art room as they suspected that if the students were expected to bring them to art class every week, they might forget them. I agreed.

When the students entered class, I had the sketchbooks on a table in the back of the room. They would find their book and sit at their table. The art supplies that we would need for the particular lesson would be on each table with one exception. I would add the supplies needed for previous lessons on another table in case students finished the current project and wanted to work on an old project.

I soon got tired of this extra prep and trained the students to get their own supplies and put away the supplies. Most of the class LOVED this self-serve approach. I found that although many art projects weren’t the frame-worthy finished art piece, most children took a great deal of pride in their pieces and were thrilled to be able to use whichever art supplies they felt they needed.

The drawbacks to this approach is that there is no specific steps for each art project. I would outline a technique, drawing concept or guidelines, but the students needed to be self-guided and motivated to complete their own art subject. This didn’t happen for every lesson, but for the most part, I needed to be very active making sure that each child was progressing forward.

Often a child was stymied with having to choose what subject he wanted to use. If I noticed this happening, I would sit next to the student and work through a few solutions or starters just to get the ball rolling. I’ll talk more specifically as I work through the lessons each week.



Do you use sketchbooks in your art room or home art studio? Do you use them exclusively or for another purpose? I’d love to hear how you use them. Leave a comment in the section below and share your thoughts and ideas.

Next week: Project #1-Creating Value 


Missed the last installments of the Sketchbook project?

IntroThe Sketchbook Project: The Beginning 

Week #1: The Sketchbook Project: Creating Value + Free Worksheet

Week # 2 The Sketchbook Project: Atmospheric Perspective (Landscapes)

Week #3 The Sketchbook Project: Tree Line Drawings

Week #4 The Sketchbook Project: Sonia Delaunay Circles

Week #5 Expressive Self-Portraits

WEEK #6 Line Drawings

WEEK #7 Farm Animals

WEEK #8 Animal Eyes



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  • Laurie

    Patty, I’m along time follower and love DSS lessons.This is a great post about sketchbooks. I have always used sketchbooks/ journals with my upper grades 6-8. The kids love them. It gives them a sense of personal space. We not only use it to draw and have small projects for art elements and design principles but for artist statements, doodling, weekly art quotes, poems, writing thoughts, planning outlines, etc… It is usually a 5×7 (50lb) paper book, what size and paper weight do you prefer? Thanks again.

    • Patty Palmer

      Hi Laurie,
      My vision was that the sketchbooks would be filled with all that you said above but I don’t see the kids often enough. I love what you are doing! Sounds exactly what art class should be like. I have only used the 8 x 10 size. The larger format works best for elementary as we did all of our projects in it. 5x 7 would have been too small for my use. Perfect for yours though, right?

    • Laurie

      At times the 5×7 Is limiting. I’m liking the bigger size idea! And la great idea using a bubble wrap envelope for backpack trips!

  • Mary

    My daughter is in 8th grade and her art teacher had her students purchase an 8X10 sketchbook with a bubble wrap mailer (to protect it on trips home in backpacks) at the beginning of the school year. It’s been a great way to see progression in their observational drawing skills.

  • Samantha

    At our K-8 school our students get a 5×7 sketchbook in 4th grade, and they use that same book for two years. Then in 6th grade they get an 8×10 sketchbook that they use for 6th, 7th, and 8th. The books mostly live in the art room, but sometimes teachers take them on field trips for journaling and outdoor sketching. We are making an effort to do more with sketchbooks with our middle school kids. I really like the idea of emphasizing an art that is personal and easy for the kids to continue with at home and after they graduate.

  • Kim Fortin

    Hi Patty,

    I’m a Kindergarten teacher and try to incorporate art in any way I can during the school year.
    I also teach an art enrichment class after school for first through fifth graders. I have been using your wonderful lessons with all of these kids. I love everything that you do!
    I have a question, what is the name of the book that is partly showing in Lesson #8?
    Thanks for all you do!

  • Patty Palmer

    Ho Kim,
    It’s called Eye to Eye by Steve Jenkins.

  • Tery

    I’m piloting using sketchbooks in my 4th grades this school year. Due the fact I don’t have the money for bought journals we made our own. I purchased .17 pocket folders this past summer. The kids designed their front covers, they helped to 3-hole punch 10 sheets of copy paper for each of their folders and secured them using brass fasteners. This allows us to add more pages if we need to. We are keeping practice and brainstorming sheets in one pocket and an envelope with their Artist trading Cards in the other pocket. Each month they have a journal drawing assignment to do. So far the kids love them! The journals are working out so well I am going to be introducing them in my 3d and 5th grades next year! Good luck with yours! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • R Turner

      This is very resourceful! I was trying to figure out a way use a sketchbook and still use a variety of mediums. This will allow me to use different types of papers as well. Thanks for sharing.

  • Brannan Lawson

    This year was the first year I was able to purchase sketchbooks for my art majors class (mixture of 4th and 5th graders). I had big dreams to use them as extension activities from our main project connecting to the elements of art. As the year began I realized time was not allowing us to complete our project and the sketchbook activities. I have a few early finishers that do get to both but now most students use it to sketch in when they finish. I am okay with that because they are using their own imagination which can be hard for kids these days. I did notice when our school was able to purchase a nice sketchbook the students took pride in it and love having them. I would just buy a spiral notebook but they didn’t treat it as a sketchbook and never really used it. I would live to have small sketchbook challengers as bell work but since it’s my first year incorporating sketchbooks I will do what I can do.

  • Donna Freeman

    I love this idea!

  • Lucy

    I’ve been using sketchbooks with 4th and 5th grade for a while now. We make them from legal paper folded in half. I make a different colored construction paper cover for each class and the kids put them together with a long arm stapler. I would love for the kids to use them for their own ponderings, but we rarely have time for that. At this point, we just use them for sketching our ideas before starting a project – either thumbnail sketches or actual size if we’re doing smaller works.
    A parent artist gave her son’s class of 2nd graders a class set of sketchbooks. It is so wonderful to see those kids take their sketchbooks out to recess! It would be great for all students to have them in class for when they finish other assignments, but I don’t know how to get them from their classrooms to the art room without losing way too many precious minutes of instructional time. It so often comes back to time, doesn’t it?!

  • Carol

    I have grades 1-5 create a sketch book from a 1″ three ring binder. They have three sections: Art Starts; Sketches and Notes. They bring them to class each art day. My classes are 45 min. each with about 25 in each class! I see each class 4 days in a row on a 4 week rotation (so every 4 weeks they come back to art). The 1st 10 min. is an art start: I select a piece of art for discussion. They write about the art (encouraging art terms) and then a few read out. Some sketch the art I put up. They must include the title; the artist; the year; the medium.
    Grades 3-5 are asked to do 3 sketches a week that I look at in class. I am looking for growth, but often only a handful are serious and give some good drawings but it sets a standard. Then there are those who really take off, and never thought they would love drawing. It’s a lot of work, but worth it.

  • Claudia Miller

    Love it!

  • Claudia Miller

    Love it!

  • Elizabeth Neto

    Our Principal ordered enough sketch books for all our 5th graders this year! We love them! We are using them to record important information about famous artists with samples of art inspired by that artist, made by the kids. We have also used them to do observational drawings in our very own school Pumpkin Patch. I am excited to see where the sketch books will take us. It will serve as a record of how much we will have learned, been inspired by and be a wonderful art keepsake!

  • sharon

    hi patty,
    i’m a long time follower of your site as well. i started off as an architect and grew to love sketching and conceptual thinking and planning and experimenting [with a pencil on your hand]. as i grew into being an art teacher [K-8] i brought this idea with me. i give my 4th-7th graders a 9×12 sketchbook and most project start with one lesson having them experiment with the idea, concept and making mistakes. i see the kids every week and really want to drive home the idea of slowing down and engaging with projects. when i started i wanted to teach tehm everything immediately, now i try to push the idea of slowing down, experimenting adn accepting mistakes as part of the growing process. some projects i do ‘double-time’ ie. a simpler version, and then a very similar more complicated one. the only rule i have for the sketchbooks is “you are not allowed to tear out any pages”. thank you for your amazing contributions to all of us!

  • Andrea

    This is wonderful. I am a K/8 teacher and my 6th grade seems to get lost in the shuffle. They need something of their own and I am going to start this asap. I’m curious about the content the students can put in there. Sometime things are turbulent and kids have some negative ideas they want to put down in their art. What do you think about that? Thanks!

    • Patty Palmer

      Great question. If art is the way kids need to express their emotions (both good and bad), I say we let them. Encourage, in fact. It’s really not for us to control their creative energy. That is really the reason we do art. However, we can monitor what they do and if (and only if) there seems to be a serious issue, then it’s something to bring to the attention of parents/admin, etc.
      But if the child is drawing negative things to get attention (you know what I mean)…then gently put a stop to it then refocus on the lesson.

  • dpelosi@paterson.k12.nj.us

    Hi: I made sketch pads for 100 students from very large die-cut shapes and stapled drawing paper and writing paper inside. We had School houses for Sept, pumpkins for Oct/Nov, gingerbread houses for December/January and etc. They worked very well but were very time consuming to make. This year I was lucky enough to get sketch pads for all of my 100 6th graders. I use them for multiple things. As an opening for the beginning of class with a drawing prompt, thumbnail sketches for larger ideas, and practice drawing of an idea. I also keep them in the classroom so they always have them.

    • Patty Palmer

      So glad you were able to purchase the sketchbooks. I cannot imagine making them! You are wonderful for doing so.Thanks for sharing!

  • Tiffanie

    Hello. I just discovered your wonderful site and it’s exciting to know that you’re local too! I am a newer homeschool mom to three and I love your idea of the sketchbooks. This could help reduce our paper clutter. I noticed that the projects are using various mediums. Which paperweight would you recommend while taking into consideration watercolors, chalk pastels, and the other sketchbook projects, etc? I would like to purchase the sketchbooks for the kids for Christmas along with some of the other recommended supplies. Thanks in advance for your help.

    • Patty Palmer

      I’m not sure of the weight of the paper. I included a link to the sketch book I used in the first post of the series. I think it must be about an 80 lb. Certainly good enough for watercolor and tempera.

      • ashley

        how long does it take things in this book to dry…canthey be closed and tossed in the drawer right away?

        • Patty

          A few hours should do it!

  • Raewyn H

    Hi Patty
    I teacher 10 year olds in NZ and have been using a visual diary/journal this year. I started this as parents were concerned when my class began working on Chromebooks and this was a way to be using their fine motor skills and at the same time they have learnt some art and presentation skills – from zentangles to exploring colours and simple journal pages. My hope was that they would end up with a ‘taonga’ which means treasure – something they would be really proud of. I think we have mostly achieved this and I will certainly continue this with my class next year. Thanks for your lessons – they will be a great help.

  • Irene

    Retired this school year. I so admire your site and tecniques, lessons, I want to follow your suggestions for my own pleasure. Always put my art desires on the back shelf, but I am taking my inner child on your art voyage. I enjoy everything about your site and your creative ideas! Thank you so much for sharing.
    Irene S.

  • Ichina

    Love this — The kids at my school (1-6) all have visual diaries on their booklist at the start of the year. The kids were SO EXCITED to get them back at the end of last year, particularly if they had some pages left! I use it mostly for visual research (grades 5/6, looking for ideas in books and online) and trialling guided ideas before making a good copy. I’m trying to train the kids to not be so anxious about getting ideas on paper and not being too fussed about making mistakes. Most of the younger kids will ask for their visual diary as a reminder of what they’re doing whether they’re just starting their good copy or not.

  • Jeanette Rengel

    for my years 1-6 the students buy a $1-2 scrap book which has 64-72 pages . The paper is a bit like what we call butchers paper or slightly heavier that photocopy paper but it works works for the children to do drawings add notes glue in work sheets . i use small pieces of drawing paper or cartridge or coloured card for the wet on wet work samples so they can glue them into the scrap book / visual diary. The back of the book is for them to do their free drawing in if they finish early. Given that the year 4-6 do 3 major projects and and a couple of small ones there is sufficient pages for them to do a Full years work and less heavier- less bulky to get out and storing them . the typical art sketch book is a minimum of $ 10 -20 . I had upset parents when i changed them over but when i explained the savings it meant they could get items like crayons oil pastels etc with the savings . As my parents supply certain items in their book list . I was able to save quite a bit of money for them.

  • Kris Norman

    Patty, I love the Sketchbook Project! Where can I find the available lessons that are posted? For instance the ‘Eye to Eye’ close ups. I’ve been wanting to do a project of close up animal eyes! Is there a way to get all the lessons in this project? I am a member and a Sparkler and love your beautiful website, projects and creative ideas! Thanks for all you do!

    • Patty

      I didn’t do any extended lessons of this project. Everything is posted here. No plans yet to offer full extensions but you never know!

      • Kris Norman

        Great! Thank you for your quick reply! I think the Sketchbook Project would make a great packet or individual lessons! ? ?


    What type of paints did you use on the value sheets? Thanks in advance.

    • Patty

      Liquid tempera ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Judy schroeder

      Donโ€™t have money for sketch books but have made them from wallpaper books…Wallpaper books for the cover ,copy paper for the pages..then I take the sewing machine and sew down the middle. I also have had the students make them from cardboard ,two page sizes and a small one for a spine, cover with fabric, glue a piece of paper over the folded raw edge of the fabric. Tie a string or yarn around the spine . Kids slip their work under the yarn. They decorate the outside with buttons etc. Look quite artistic.

  • ashley

    If one were using this for also notetaking, etc., and say taking notes on an artist, you want to give the students a sample of the artist’s work, would you have them glue it in?

  • dsewell

    Do you have an updated list of sketchbook list. I saw you mentioned adding it to the store when it was updated but I wasn’t sure how to search for it in the shop. Thanks.

  • Christy

    I have visited the site linked for your sketchbooks. Can I ask which book specifically you purchased (ie. beginner, intermediate, etc)?

  • Becky Dedon

    I love the Sketchbook Projects. Thanks!

  • Angie

    I love it! I will be teaching art again next year , and I will be a Sparkler.

  • seema

    amazing art lessons! thanks

  • Angela Price Rubin

    Patty I need a shopping list to set up an art camp and I thought you had one at one time if you could look around and see if you do that would help me by product so that weโ€™re not wasting money

  • Isaiah

    I do use sketchbooks at home. I like to sketch random things that turn out to look awesome.

  • Alonso Damian Martinez

    I think this is awesome.

  • Heidi Schwandt

    I would like to implement this and had some questions. What paper did you use in the sketchbook? did you go with a mixed media or keep it to a sketch book quality? specifically what paperweight would you use? With that in mind when you did watercolor or painting skills and projects did you simple staple in the sheet once you were done?

    I am a first year art teacher and love your site and have found valuable insights and ideas. Also just bought one of your PD course- excited to get started.

    • Mabre Lencho-Armstrong

      Hi Heidi! Mabre with the DSS Creative Team here. First of all, so glad that you are teaching art and are enjoying the site. We know you will love the course and can’t wait for you to get started! In regards to the sketchbook project, some teachers have a budget and are able to buy sketchbooks for students with mixed media paper, which can be nice, but it can also be nice to have students get involved and make them, instead. We have found that a 12″x18″ colored piece of sulphite with 12″x18″ white sulphite paper stacked on top and a long-arm stapler can do the trick. Students end up with a 9″ x 12″ sketchbook. The white sulphite will hold up well to a decent amount of water-based media but you can always staple or tape special, extra pages (like watercolor paper with technique examples) in too. Your choice! ๐Ÿ™‚ Hope this helps!

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