Jewelry Design, Inspiration and Ideas: The Value of Keeping a Sketchbook

A rare example of a "whole" design in my sketchbook.

Inspiration comes from everywhere, and lately I'm inspired by the intricacies of antique ironwork and the colors and textures of weathered wood that I'm seeing when I explore my new state, Louisiana. The land is so flat down here, too–very different than the mountains that I'm used to–and I find myself drawn to the cloud formations that fill the big skies. I've taken hundreds of pictures, but sometimes the sights I see spark ideas in my mind that can't be photographed (or put into words), and it's important to be able to capture those fleeting ideas before they flutter out of memory.

If I can't get to the bench to actually start making something or putting some jewelry components together, I make a sketch. My jewelry sketchbook is tiny on purpose, about the size of a small index card–so that I can keep it in my purse if I want. I also have a set of teeny colored pencils that I keep with it, because sometimes the ideas are color schemes more than design elements.

Color schemes for my stick-pearl flower brooch. See the finished design here.

I enjoy learning what inspires artists to work their magic, too, and I love being given a rare peek into an artist's sketchbook to see how their thoughts evolve from a sliver of an idea or even a full jewelry design to the finished piece. I have a friend who has been a professional jewelry designer for about twenty years now (and began working in his family's jewelry shop when he was about five), and his sketches have dotted lines marking vertical and/or horizontal planes. I try to remember those dotted lines when I make my own sketches; they help me remember to capture the piece from more than one angle and to keep elements of design (like symmetry or balance) in mind. They also help me make better sketches in general; it has been a long time since Mrs. Jordan taught me the principles of drawing in middle school!

"I've been drawing these cone shapes for years," Kate says, "and finally, now, they are expressing in my work."

Jewelry Artist Kate McKinnon: Improve by Doing
Another artist's sketchbook I'd really love to peek into is that of metal clay jewelry artist and author Kate McKinnon. It's no secret that her books make me swoon, so I was happy when she agreed to talk to me a bit about her drawing and jewelry design practices–literally.

"I don't draw as much as I wish I did–I wasn't born with the gift of mind-to-pen, and so I have to work and practice to express myself with lines on paper," Kate says. "I've been told by people who do it well that it's simply a matter of practice, but honestly, I think it's half gift and half practice, and then (as the Car Talk guys would say) the third half is how a person works. People 'see' differently; some people see in images, some in film, some in colors, some in concepts. I do not 'see' in finished images. 

Another of the whimsical cone shapes from Kate's sketchbook.

"Practice can help make lines and perspective correct, if you know what you are drawing and what it looks like, and I know that practice helps me render what I see with my eyes, but I'm not sure how well I will ever be able to draw my feelings, or my ideas," Kate says. "I actually think with my hands when I make things, not with the eyes of my imagination, and my hands don't seem to have much in the way of 'seeing.' I have to make, and work, and make some more before I even understand what I'm getting at."

Kate and I have that in common; my sketches are more components of jewelry designs than finished designs. I sit down with an idea for the mechanics of a clasp, a color scheme, or a feeling for a piece, and then make it with my hands. But I still need my sketchbook to help me capture those ideas, schemes, and feelings.

"I'd like to get my drawing down to fewer lines, with more nuance and suggestion, rather than where I'm at now, which is mostly struggling to render pieces and parts in accurate sizes and angles," Kate admits. "I have taught myself to keep a sketchbook, and I do carry it with me, and although I am shy about showing people my drawings (because they aren't ever what I wish that they were), I do admit that I've improved by doing."

What Lexi calls "doodles" from her petroglyph series.

Jewelry Artist Lexi Erickson: Just do it!
While Kate and I are more figurative sketchers, my friend and metalsmithing mentor Lexi Erickson is a literal sketcher. "I have sketchbooks that date back from the 1980s when I started doing jewelry, and they are a source of delight and amazement to me. They contain inspirational quotes, are part journal, along with ideas cut from catalogues and postcards picked up at shows and galleries, and of course, my drawings."  

Some of Lexi's sketchbooks resemble visual diaries, and some are more clearly the work of a professional jewelry artist, but the important thing is she does it. "So many people feel intimidated by simply picking up a pencil/pen and drawing in a new sketchbook. You are not alone. A brand new sketch book terrifies me. There is something 'sacred' about a brand new sheet of white paper glaring at me that makes me just glare back, and my mind just goes as blank as that page."


Lexi's idea book from her archeologist days: "This was my actual field journal from years ago. I am using it for my current series. You never know from whence your ideas will come! I didn’t create this thinking it would be used as a jewelry series, since I wasn’t a jeweler back then."

But, through years of practice, she has developed a solution. "I start out with a series of soft triangles, circles or shield shapes, simple shapes that I use a lot. Maybe I will use a template and just draw circles, and then draw a dangle from that. . . . Whatever you do, no matter how rough the drawing looks to you, make notes, write in stone ideas, and as you practice and do it more, it will get easier, I promise," Lexi says. Once your creative juices are flowing, the intimidation goes away. "And really, what will it hurt? If you don't like it, rip the page out. A sketchbook is not an endangered species." See why I love her?

Whether you use your sketchbooks as visual diaries, rely on them to help you work out a jewelry design on paper before beginning with materials, or simply use them to capture your jewelry-making ideas as they fly through your mind–no matter why you use sketchbooks, I encourage you to use them! And if you worry that your drawing skills aren't where they should be (which most of us do), take Kate and Lexi's advice on practicing to better render your designs. Subscribe or get a free trial issue of Drawing magazine to help you do just that!

P.S. Read on to learn how Lexi uses a children's toy to help the design process, her drawing philosophy, and to see more of her sketches.

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