Bullet sketchbook


Dear Artist,

Brooklyn-based designer Ryder Carroll prescribes a generic, blank notebook to organize productivity in a system he calls, “Bullet Journal.” Believing that pen and paper are mightier than an app, Bullet Journal’s simplicity and artfulness has beguiled some techies and planner junkies. A YouTube video explaining just how to do it has clocked over a million views.


Edward Hopper’s sketchbook page

The basic gist of Carroll’s system is to jot down your ideas and tasks, date and index them by hand, check things off and asterisk the really meaningful stuff. You’re thinking, “Sounds a bit like my sketchbook” — yes, and yours can come in multiples, dotted around home and studio and left in the car and suitcase. Your paper books of wonder can be filled with thumbnails, doodles, black and whites, streams of consciousness, composition mock-ups, graphics, lists, tangents. Drawing is the backbone, but work orders exist. You may even be checking some stuff off in there. A meandering joy ride of effort, private failings, dead ends and perfect conditions, “Sketch Book” makes active the art of looking, feeling, planning and developing. Quotes, a note from an exhibition, tough love, a reading list or a personal memo transforms your “bullet” from taskmaster into the poetic embodiment of a creative process.


page from Eugene Delacroix’s sketchbook “Journey to Morocco”

Museum man, birdwatcher, ferry passenger, schoolyard kid — sketchbookers can be identified by their regular sacrament-taking. Most devotees simply steal time to draw and dream from within life’s pauses. By drifting through blissfully rudderless days of looking around, or catching a bullet of time, you can fill up a swimming pool with summer sketchbooks.





page from Frida Kahlo’s diary

PS: “Plan your work and work your plan.” (Vince Lombardi)

“Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the shadow.” (T. S. Eliot)

Esoterica: Leaking one’s inclinations early on in life can keep the sketchbooks coming in the form of gifts of encouragement. I’ve noticed very young people unabashedly filling them with intercontinental hybrid animals, futuristic cities or wildly subjective self-portraits. Long-abandoned sketchbooks can find a new guardian, too. My grandfather once gave me the set that belonged to my Great Aunt, a reluctant Victorian lady who dreamt and dabbled in the bold strokes of the Expressionists. When I thumbed her pages I recognized her secrets: box canyons, ambition, fear, location-triggered lightning bolts, wonder, wandering, perfect accidents and tactical limitations. When Auntie’s drawings abruptly gave way to empty pages, I accepted her silence.


page from J.M.W. Turner’s sketchbook

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“To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: that is enough for one man’s life.” (T. S. Eliot)



  1. Thank you for the thoughtful suggestions. I just scanned through the many online pages explain gin how to use the Bullet Journal and quickly realized it is definitely for left-brainers who like to organize and reorganize. The physical book itself is beautifully designed…but as an artist, I cannot imagine taking the time to learn such a complicated system! I do like the other samples you showed, though: Frida’s, et al. They are clearly organic and spontaneous, most appealing to do.

  2. Sara; Great article. I teach an online class in film design and my first class touches on the issues you are discussing in this article. For us it is the critical importance of the word-image collision needed to build a narrative driven environment. As storytellers we can do so with words alone and or images alone but something magic happens when the images and words collide on the page. I give extra credit to those students who submit their assignments in journal format (although sadly, for many, it is hard to break the habit of the mouse). …A short excerpt from class….What is important in completing your assignment, will be managing a constant collision of the written word and the drawn image. We want your selection of images to be provoked by the written word and reinforce the story environment you are building. In some cases, the process will reverse itself and you will be selecting words and phrases that support a particular image. Again, the emphasis will be on the juxtaposition of word thinking and image thinking. You will discover that it is like a tennis game, hitting the idea back and forth between words and images. By doing this on a weekly basis, you will be entering the provocative world of visualizing environments that support narrative storytelling…. I know this diverts a bit from the focus of your article but the subject you have chosen is such an important one i couldn’t resist commenting…keep up the great work…John

    • Donald MacWatt on

      How delightful. I had little idea that what I do in my sketchbook is a shared experience and a traditional practice. I was thinking when someone wanted to critique my sketchbook, “Well, they not really for everyone. They are quiet private and reflect more about me and my private moments than what I am sketching from time to time.” They have become hybrids of what was solely, a term sketch book for handing in and assessment, and the life long practice of note taking and journalling as if writing something down made it more real and lasting.
      I will continue on and I’m sure, as many of the “The Letters” do, this one will have an influence and make me more thoughtful and aware about allowing creativity to spill all over the pages.

  3. at age 69, if I don’t write it down, it won’t exist in 5 minutes .. I have always kept a ‘to do’ list and a sketchbook and still do, but the ‘to do’ book has become more fun and more like the sketchbook … ‘drawing is thinking’ I think someone famous said. it’s always interesting to look back on them after time passes. the link below is to a blog post about keeping track, and in that post there is a link to some digitized sketch books and some of the finished pieces that result from those ‘thoughts’ .. thanks sara

  4. I am a right brain dominate thus I ignore pedestrian details and forget things I will do ‘some time.’ I have a plastic sleeve which holds 3×5 index cards. I jot ideas reminders, items for grocery store, errands, sketches. As they get used up; items done or transferred to a more permanent file I toss the cards . I can even color code the cards.

  5. YES….I tend to make a small sketchbook for every major event – then a few major works from it and the rest stores nicely in my “lightbulb and memories” archives. A grand idea, no matter how you do it. Thanks as always Sara.

  6. elaine hartley on

    very encouraging, especially in recording my journey on a smaller scale. It also helps me keep in the moment and value my experience! Thank you Sara!

  7. I feel one of the best advantages of a sketch book for artists is a reminder to themselves about their own progress and places they’ve traveled around or within themselves- being a collection of words, pictures and scribbles that at the time embodied their creative process. If it helps them organize and plan then great. For me, I feel free in my book to be scatterbrained as well as organized. I guess that’s the beauty of a personal space, paper or electronic, to let it all out, tear it out (delete) or keep it to revisit.

    I personally prefer paper over a screen, however, I was pretty impressed with the pressure sensitive pens on the new apps available (ie. the new way of layering electronic media). One doesn’t replace the other and I am thankful for whatever I can “draw” on. However paper is still easier for me to carry especially close to water or snow.

    Here is a video I made about sketching on location while kayaking:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqbyZy9ZSNc

    Thank you Sara about reminding us the importance of a personal journal or sketchbook. Jane

  8. I like to use my memory. The more you use it the more you remember without having to make notes. Something that makes an impact will be there for a long time; ‘specially if your prefrontal cortex is in working order.
    Making script and visual notes is all fine and dandy, and can actually contribute to new work. I know. I do it too; carrying at all times an A5 sketch pad and a variety of mark-making tools.
    I think the main value of note-taking is as re-inforcement for mental impact.

  9. Gabriella Morrison on

    I looked at the Bullet Journal website. Interesting how it’s a cross between laundry list/shopping list and shorthand aide memoir. Cleaning out the litter box and getting a brainwave have equal footing, except the brainwave might get an asterisk appended. The method is most suitable for the facebook generation. I’m thinking of how Da Vinci would have “got tooth pulled ” on the same page as a sketch fornew-fangled elevator shoes and a brilliant observation on how vortex patterns exist so variously in nature, complete with accompanying diagrams.

  10. sheilasimpson on

    am slightly surprised as I find that this is what I do all the time.
    Now I begin to think about impulsivness,impetuosity, time and extricating .

  11. As a designer/illustrator/artist I decided at the very beginning of my career to use a standard size hardbound sketchbooks for all my preliminary work. This is not the same as the bullet journal but there is a lot of sketches and trash that you have to go through to get to a final design or image. Over 30 years later I’m still using my books and have a library of my work. It may not mean much to anyone else, but I’m sure glad that I have them. I recommend that new artist and designers establish some method of documenting their development. It’s well worth it.

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I’m a contemporary painter who loves to travel the world over finding pictures to paint, and capture on photo…check out my website and travel with me on my blog “The Traveling Artist Blog.”  http://www.meljosieart.com