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Sketchbooks Research Guide


Sketchbooks in the Getty Research Institute (GRI) and J. Paul Getty Museum: A Research Guide

Defining a Sketchbook

A sketchbook is best defined by its physical construction and the nature of the drawings it contains. A sketchbook is a gathering of paper that is bound together (most often stitched together along one edge) and held within two covers, which can range from cheap cardboard, to cloth, to gold-embossed leather. The term sketchbook connotes its drawings are just that—sketches. Over the centuries, artists have turned to their sketchbooks to jot down visual ideas, seize a sudden burst of inspiration, try out different concepts, or record what they see before them in any given moment. It is therefore implied that sketchbook drawings are personal and informal, and that a sketchbook can be highly flexible in its intended function.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was among the earliest European artists trained from a young age to make quick, spontaneous sketches and capture ideas for further exploration. He advised painters to always carry a “small book” so that they could draw anytime, anywhere. This may seem unremarkable today, but in the late 1400s the very concept of a “sketch” was revolutionary, and paper was a valuable commodity. In the following centuries, as European artists more routinely turned to sketching and expanded the use of sketchbooks, prefabricated, mass-marketed sketchbooks became widely available.

Despite this long and rich tradition, very few sketchbooks have come down to us in their original form. Sketchbooks were commonly broken up, their drawings dispersed as loose sheets. The GRI’s Special Collections are exceptional in holding dozens of sketchbooks by artists, designers, and architects in the West from the 17th to the 21st centuries, which are still largely intact. Many of these sketchbooks entered the GRI as part of artists’ archives, which can provide important additional context for their study. Handling sketchbooks—turning the pages, tracing the artist’s thoughts from folio to folio—offers insights into an artist’s creative process and biography. Such viewing illuminates how these rare objects were originally assembled, used, and valued.

How to Use This Research Guide

This guide is arranged according to the sketchbooks’ primary functions and uses, highlighting strengths of the GRI’s Special Collections, which are centered in the Western tradition. Within each section, a small selection of sketchbooks and drawings is discussed chronologically. Hyperlinks will take you either to a scan of the sketchbook, or, if not yet digitized, to the library catalog record. If you would like to visit the Getty Library to consult a sketchbook in person, please review the Library’s access policies and contact the library to make an appointment in the Special Collections Reading Room.

Banner image: William Gell, Wall frescoes excavated in Pompeii, ca. 1830, Getty Research Institute, 2002.M.16 Box 425