Exploring themes in your sketchbook

Up until this point, we’ve explored how to harness the way we see and interpret it into sketches by using a variety of strategies. Now, we’re going to explore how to take all the sketching tactics we’ve learned up until this point, and push them further into a body of work.


By exploring themes!

Sooner or later, if you haven’t done so – you’ll discover the value in doing a series of sketches exploring a single theme. Exploring a theme is one of the best ways to advance your artistic vision. It’ll get you sketching away from self-critical concerns about your technical abilities.

It’ll get you thinking of exploring themes as not just an exploration of “things”, but rather, exploring ideas. This is how to really take your sketches beyond.

With a single drawing you’re barely getting warmed up, but when you’re drawing in a series, you can get more in-depth from drawing to drawing. One sketch will shine a light on the next sketch. As you’re exploring themes, you’re taking on an entirely different direction with your sketches – a direction determined by the supporting ideas of your theme.

Exploring themes are one of the best ways you can let your imagination take over as your sketch.

But what makes a theme worth exploring? Let me break this down into two parts. First, it must drive your curiosity. Grabbing your interest so much that it acts as an engine for your sketches. Second, your theme selection should have boundaries and limitations.

A theme is a thread that holds everything together – a powerful enough idea that is seen throughout the body of your work. The number of ways you explore as you draw can be indefinite – your theme should act as the core mission statement.

For example, you may explore your idea in a dozen or so sketches in an hour, or you may spend years doing thousands of sketches on just a singular theme. Whichever you prefer, your theme is what’s going to deliver the most focus in your work.

Once you’ve chosen a theme, I want you to be specific with it by giving it a title. Let’s say you’re going to do a series of self-portraits of yourself every day for 12 days each morning. You could create a title such as 12 Self-Portraits Every Sunrise. This way you can give your theme a cohesive shape.

You’ll find that as you explore your theme, it will evolve the more you work on it. I suggest giving it the time it needs to take its own direction. If you do a dozen sketches in one day and come back the next, you’ll deliver a new perspective to your work. Just as we did in the multiple imaging lesson.

What matters the most as you are exploring your sketching theme is that you’re genuinely curious and interested in it so you’ll embrace it fully.

The best way to choose your theme is to draw what you’re naturally interested in. Sketching what you like. You’ll discover that the subjects that interest you, may not interest others, but that’s okay. I want you to draw what excites you.

The best themes are the ones with the most possibility for image-heavy explorations – subjects with countless interpretations but still fall into a controlled foundation.

Earlier in this course, we discussed the elements of the story in our sketches. How essentially the story is broken down into two parts. Every creative thought and imaginative idea involves putting together at least two elements in a unique way. Juxtaposing the two core elements of your theme in as many visually interesting ways possible.

As you search for a theme to explore, it will help to merge two interesting elements together. Making it easier to get started on your first new series of sketches.

Here are some theme idea samples:

  • Dreams and science
  • Self-portraits and the morning
  • Nude figures and mythology
  • Cafe sketches created with your opposite drawing hand
  • Cats and space exploration
  • etc…

Are you starting to see how simply merging two elements, sometimes weird elements can give you a push into a new sketching theme to explore?

When you combine two of anything in a sketch, an “interesting“ idea is created. Propelling you to continue your creative play as you explore your unique theme.

TIP: Remember to keep a loose and exploratory attitude as you’re sketching. Just because you have a theme doesn’t mean you have to have a plan for each sketch. Keep the curious and exploratory attitude.

If you’re feeling stuck trying to come up with a theme, self-portraits are an easy first theme to explore. All the greats turned to self-portraits during slow times. Of course, sketching yourself can feel a little awkward at first, but it’ll go away after your first five minutes of sketching.

There is a unique relationship between an artist and the themes they’re exploring. Awesome themes will give the energy to create each sketch. As you finish one sketch you can’t wait to start the next. As you’re sketching one sketch, a new idea for the next sketch will pop into your head before you even finish.

Everyone has a unique set of interests and experiences to draw from. Resulting in unique perspectives and voices. 20 artists could all have the same theme, but each will explore it in a truly original way. It’s your mission as an artist to bring to life the themes you choose to explore.

Sketching is one of the best ways to discover yourself. By doing things we didn’t think we knew we could do. Or by expressing ourselves in ways through subjects we don’t fully understand. When you start to develop your sketching themes it’s okay if you don’t know what the outcome will be. We never know what the ending of things will be like. Which is what makes life and sketching exciting.

This is what the core of taking your sketches beyond is, to let curiosity and exploration drive your sketching.


  1. Come up with a theme by merging two unique subjects or ideas together. Make sure it’s something that’s going to hold your interest over time.
  2. I want you to create 12 sketches for exploring your theme. Making sure you relate each sketch visually while falling under the umbrella of your theme. Essentially, creating a cohesive body of work that feels as if they belong together. If you were to drop these 12 sketches into a pile of hundreds of sketches by hundreds of other artists, anyone would be able to pick your sketches out of the pile.
  3. As you’re creating sketches for your theme, put them up on a wall so you can see all of your work together.
  4. Seeing your work develop over time and altogether like this will help you create a cohesive body of work.

Does it feel like its always a struggle to fill your sketchbooks?

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