Today marks eight years of keeping a daily sketchbook for artist Joseph Travis. The portfolio of work contains just under 5,000 pieces which he created for himself. Here he shares his journey from creative block to creative prolificacy.
My sketchbook circa 2009

I have always wanted to be good at drawing. I wanted to paint science fiction landscapes or draw spaceships for George Lucas. I never considered myself very proficient at drawing or painting and for years I would start drawing projects to improve. When I was at university I would draw trees and chimney pots as the Wyre Villager bus would zoom through the towns from Thornton, to Poulton, Great Eccleston and on to the smaller villages like Catforth.

My first attempt at painting in 2011

And when I tried to start daily painting in 2011, when I also opened my pottery shop, the price of painting daily added up over the year. I quickly ran out of materials that I had bought as a student and never used as we had a limited palette in ceramics. The results were used to fill the walls of my shop as I really wanted to use the space as a gallery.

Boats seen on Fleetwood beach 2012, plus a bonus sideways tree.

I tried to make it work again in 2012. Not painting this time, just sketching. Whenever I would take my eldest child out I would sketch whatever was there while he was still for five minutes. I got good enough that I proposed projects where I would draw on the pots and did a whole range of work before my youngest was born. My work of pots with drawings of Blackpool buildings was sold as part of a collaboration with FYCreatives. Then I went back to school to be an art teacher where I would rarely draw and I was nowhere as good as my students.

A rare sketch from during my PGCE

After my PGCE I decided I wasn’t going to draw anymore – I was just going to focus on ceramics and my children. I worked part time but I was a dad the rest of the time. I added to my workload after a year and I started a masters in research. I was spending time in Manchester, seeing the work of a lot of really talented people in museums and galleries and working alongside them.

After my degree, I was firing some ceramic work in a friend’s wood kiln and he encouraged me to focus on boats as they are universal in their appeal as opposed to buildings no one will know outside of this area. So I went to Fleetwood Nature Reserve and the docks, Skippool Creek, Wardleys Creek, and Glasson Docks. I took photos and then I did nothing with them for quite some time.

My youngest was due to start school in September and I didn’t know what to do with my life so I started applying for work. I had been spending time making ceramics and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do this every day if I had a job. That’s when I started drawing boats again.

Day one of the sketchbook

So one day the 9th of May 2016 I decided to stop waiting until tomorrow. I wanted to get better at drawing just so I decided to see how long a sketching streak I could build. I wanted to find those bits I was missing from my life, so when I started I was drawing boats in my daily sketchbook. I was painting fruit in both watercolour and acrylic as two separate projects and also I started a notebook of poetry as that was my original entry point into the arts. I didn’t feel confident enough to paint boats but I would paint fruit or liquorice allsorts, batteries or pens or whatever.

Day forty four with boats and planning the still life I was going to paint

I thought I would last a week or two but I stuck with it. Then in July I got a job and thought it would come to an end. But I started to get up early every day and watch something I wanted to watch on the TV (initially The Walking Dead which I thought my other half would hate) whilst everyone else in the house was asleep. I would just work with whatever I had. I didn’t always draw boats – soon I would try trains and tanks and anything I could. I even took a sketchbook the smallest tubes of paint and a tiny watercolour set away on school trips to Germany and worked on my skills whilst I was away.

Day 563 acrylic painting where I liked the juxtaposition of pencil sketch to but was burnt out

I am not saying it was easy, I ended up burnt out so many times. One year I was so burnt out I just painted whatever was on my desk and for a while I painted clouds every day. I started experimenting less and just settled into what I considered unimaginative drawings. I destroyed that section of sketchbooks as they left me feeling useless and worthless. The one or two I have left from that time are actually exceptional. I had destroyed them merely out of frustration.

The cloud paintings from that time I have in a drawer and each one is used as a thank you note when something sells in the shop. I still have a lot of those left, I have paintings that are wrapped with a thank you note sealed in the cellophane with the painting and a backing board.

The job allowed me to save to buy a house and, as we prepared to move, I urged myself to stop painting the same old random junk and started painting Fleetwood, going through street by street, painting and drawing houses and buildings and re-familiarising myself with the streets where I grew up and went to school before we moved away. It was only at this time I made the jump from the comfort and familiarity of still life to landscapes which I have now done for over five years.

View from my painting studio

When we moved house my acrylic paint got lost in boxes and I ended up not painting in acrylic for a few years. I only started again because I had the urge to make a large painting for the Grundy Gallery Open 2022 as I was fed up of my ceramics work looking tiny on the wall. I painted a quarter sheet of plywood so I couldn’t be missed. In 2022 we looked at selling the house so I removed all the family pictures and painted on canvas to hide the picture hooks. In a week we went from not having any acrylic paintings on the walls to having them in a lot of rooms and that helped form the basis of my works and the prints that I sell in Aunty Social and on my website.

View through a porthole of the Jacinta in Fleetwood

One painting or one sketch a day over eight years is a body of work. In a 96-page sketchbook that means each year you will fill just under four sketchbooks. If it was single drawings it would be 2,922 drawings, but the first two and a half years I was also doing daily watercolours and acrylics, so the portfolio is just under 5,000 pieces. It is a portfolio I created for myself. I have sold sections and I have destroyed sections. It has been hard at times, and I have had days, weeks and months when I have not wanted to put any sort of implement to paper.

I would say it was never a habit. I could stop any day if I stopped forcing myself. When life is a struggle and on days when I am in pain or exhausted it would be so easy to just not do it. But I don’t because it is a net positive thing in my life. Something that contributes to my mental wellbeing, and continues to make me good enough to work on a lot of things.

I have at times filmed the process of working daily but hate filming myself and trying to work out what to say as I do so, so I never really progressed far on YouTube or social media. I can do the work but I still struggle with a communication disability. I still livestream myself work for the Old Electric’s Creative Network breakfast meeting, setting up two cameras and filming myself working during the meeting. I choose a Blackpool building, use an A5 envelope as it doesn’t need stretching, and always finish the painting within the hour of the meeting.

Sketching torso alongside buildings

There are elements I am not good at, even after this amount of time. I can’t draw people well – I can’t capture a likeness. I am still not good at spaceships, or boats in three dimensions. Does it stop me? Yes, sometimes. It won’t stop me long term when I go out with my urban sketchers group because working daily has made me fast and I spend the rest of my time people-watching and trying to do gesture drawings to capture them as they walk fast. I won’t always be bad at an element, I just have to practice in a way that doesn’t feel like practice.

Stacks of sketchbooks in my studio waiting to be scanned

I hope I long continue filling sketchbooks even if at times I still feel in a rut because they aren’t a massively expressive over-the-top document for me.

Joseph’s top tips for keeping a daily sketchbook

1. Make it easy on yourself
I find it easiest when I am at home, I always have a space. When I started drawing daily I lived with my wife and children in a tiny two up two down, but I would have my things in one place, ready so when I had time I could scoop everything up and work furiously. People comment on how quickly I work when I am out sketching or when a make painting for The Old Electric’s Creative Network Breakfast meeting. It is just because I tried to work quickly before anyone was up for the day.

I try not to worry over details being in the right place anymore

2. Don’t lose sleep over it
I have always been an early riser and I like to get the daily thing done before breakfast if I can. Otherwise, I fit sketching in where I can. I give up time where I would have just watched TV or scrolled social media. Try and set a time but f you miss a day, you miss a day. Don’t give up. Also, don’t worry about accuracy. Rarely will anyone see your reference or your sketchbook.

Very very quick loose sketches made with a dip pen

3. Just five minutes
Just commit 5 minutes to make any sort of mark in the sketchbook, even if it is just a drawing of that bundle of rubbish you are tidying away. Something. Anything. This isn’t about the short term, this is about the long term achievements of little bits of practice here and there. I work quickly. A watercolour painting in my sketchbook takes about five minutes to draw and then I get the fun of colouring in.

Just drawing with paint

4. Make it fun
Explore. Experiment. Don’t try and draw the exact same thing every day. Try different media. I like all sorts from watercolour, to ink, to posca markers (especially the cheap alternatives) brush pens, and fountain pens. I try to be bold, so I don’t often pick up a pencil. If I want to make an underdrawing I pick up a posca marker and draw the scene before putting it in ink in more detail. Another one I like is doing the entire drawing in watercolour not even bothering to draw, letting the colours bleed, and just letting go.

My sketchbook is ever changing. Though I rarely use perspective, this time I did

5. It never becomes a habit
I can’t form habits. If I could I would be fit, eat healthily and have a more successful business. I force myself to sketch every single day. Often I wish it was a weekday project and I could get weekends off it. If you can keep the practice to certain days of the week, or just want to keep a sketchbook riding the bus to and from work or school, go ahead.

Just making marks of things on my desk

6. Don’t search for perfection
Drawing daily made me realise it’s not about a perfect drawing with perfect perspective. In art I trained initially in technical illustration and everything was done with rulers and ellipse templates, doing things really methodically. I always felt inadequate that I couldn’t draw like that and it put me off. It was throwing on the wheel that taught me patience – I couldn’t expect to be an expert in throwing overnight. My daily sketchbook is the same. Wobbly lines are fine, no one is here judging you, these aren’t meant to be like those of artists who like to show off their sketchbooks and they are page-to-page masterpieces. The pressure to do that is all wrong. We are talking low-pressure low-stakes, just for you.

From a time I didn’t want to keep making marks so just kept making them

7. A daily sketchbook is just for you
If you want to share your work, go ahead but these can be just for you to enjoy, no one else matters. It’s not about doing it for likes, or retweets or any social capital. It’s not about gamifying the process of making art. This is for personal benefit and to have a near private space in the world at large. Working and developing something for yourself is worth it.

Painting of Hutton in the forest, a very traditional country estate building built hundreds of years ago

8. Anyone can do it
I am neither Victorian nor middle class. There is something I grew up with that watercolour painting was for a certain sort of person and I wasn’t that sort. But I believe art in all forms should be accessible to everyone. Taking up even a small daily practice in something is worthwhile. It is mental peace in a world that is otherwise overwhelming.

Drawn with non-waterproof ink and then water applied to work quickly

9. There are no rules
Go away and create something don’t put it off until tomorrow.

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