What is a Commonplace Book?
Studio Visit #10: Art with my Three-Year-Old, What Works for Us

How Would a Visual Artist Use a Commonplace Book?

As soon as I fell in love with the concept of commonplace books, I knew that I had to figure out how I could use one as an artist.  While a commonplace book is typically associated with writers and thinkers, there are various ways in which a visual artist can use a commonplace book to enhance their creative process. 


Here are a few ideas:

  1. Inspiration and Reference Collection: Artists often gather inspiration from various sources. A commonplace book can serve as a repository for collecting visual references, ideas, and images that spark your imagination. You can include sketches, photographs, magazine clippings, or even printed copies of artworks you find intriguing.  Kind of like an analog Pinterest.

  2. Documentation: You can document your progress, successes, and failures, which can serve as a valuable learning resource.

  3. Idea Development: A commonplace book can facilitate idea generation and development. You can jot down initial concepts, sketch thumbnails, or outline project plans. By visually organizing your thoughts and concepts, you can explore different iterations, connections, and variations. This process can lead to the evolution of ideas and the creation of more refined artworks.  In one video I watched the creator said he found that a commonplace book allowed for an enormous amount of cross-pollination between ideas and information.

  4. Creative Prompts and Challenges: You can use a commonplace book as a personal prompt generator. You can compile lists of words, quotes, or themes that inspire you and use them as creative challenges. You can randomly select prompts from your commonplace book to stimulate new ideas or push your artistic boundaries.

  5. Artistic Analysis and Critique: You can use a commonplace book as a space for critical analysis of your own work or the work of other artists. You can write down observations, critiques, or interpretations alongside sketches or copies of artworks. This practice helps you develop a deeper understanding of your own artistic process and can inspire new directions in their work.

Remember, there are no hard and fast rules for using a commonplace book as an artist. It's a personal tool, so feel free to adapt and customize it to suit your artistic needs and preferences. The goal is to create a space that nurtures your creativity, captures your ideas, and supports your artistic growth.


So then how is a commonplace book different from a sketchbook?


While a commonplace book and an artist's sketchbook share some similarities, they serve different purposes and have distinct characteristics:

  • Function: A sketchbook primarily serves as a visual diary for an artist to practice, explore, and develop their artistic skills. It is a space where artists create sketches, drawings, and other visual representations. On the other hand, a commonplace book focuses on collecting and organizing a wide range of ideas, inspirations, and information, not limited to visual content.

  • Content: In an artist's sketchbook, the emphasis is on visual expression. It contains sketches, studies, experiments, and finished artworks. The content is predominantly visual, with minimal text or annotations. In contrast, a commonplace book can include visual elements, but it is not limited to them. It can incorporate written notes, quotes, ideas, clippings, and other sources of inspiration that go beyond direct visual representation.

  • Organization: Sketchbooks often follow a chronological order, showcasing an artist's progress and development over time. They may be filled sequentially as new ideas and sketches are added. Commonplace books, however, can be organized thematically or by topics. Artists can arrange the content based on their interests, projects, or creative explorations, allowing for non-linear organization.

  • Source Material: Sketchbooks are primarily filled with an artist's original creations, generated during their artistic process. The sketches and drawings are usually the artist's own work. In contrast, a commonplace book can contain a broader range of source materials. It can incorporate references, clippings, quotes, or even copies of other artists' work that inspire the artist. The purpose is to collect and organize diverse sources of inspiration, not necessarily limited to the artist's own creations.

  • Focus: Sketchbooks are often centered on the artist's personal artistic development, experimentation, and exploration. They serve as a private space for the artist to practice and refine their skills. In contrast, a commonplace book has a broader focus. It can encompass various aspects of the artist's creative process, including inspiration, ideas, research, and reflections, extending beyond the artist's own practice.

In short: a sketchbook focuses on the artist's visual expression and development, a commonplace book serves as a collection of ideas, inspirations, and information that extend beyond visual representation.


So then what about the Studio Notebook that I've kept for years? Would a Studio Notebook be more like a commonplace book or a sketchbook?  Or is the perfect melding of the two?  Or is all of this semantics and who really cares?!

We will chat about that later this week!  Thanks for stopping by!