Creating Your Own Painting Sketchbook – Marianne Vander Dussen

Creating Your Own Painting Sketchbook

Before we start this blog post, here's my latest YouTube video that breaks down the whole process of painting in oil on paper:

 Regardless of your subject, painting into a multimedia sketchbook is an absolute blast. Here’s the steps I like to follow to create sketchbook entries that pop from the page.

  1. Insert the drawing. You can do this directly with ballpoint pen, or you can do a light contour with graphite pencil, before layering the ballpoint pen on top. When you do add the pen, make sure that it’s waterproof. Most ballpoint pens are, but some have a gel base that will bleed when wet. I usually do a test before using a new pen in my book on a scrap piece of paper that I fully submerge into water. My favourite ballpoint pens are the Zebra F301 and the Uniball Signo Ultra Micro 207. You can do some light shading and rendering with the ballpoint pen if you want to make it easier to see when you tone the pages.
  2. Add some writing. When I’m creating these entries, I typically like to add in information about my subject, such as notes on the plant or bird that I’m drawing. It’s such a beautiful way to showcase research! Lately, I’ve been using a line template from Amazon to keep all my lines neat and evenly spaced. I add the lines in with pencil, then go over them with cursive writing in ballpoint pen. 
  3. Tone the pages. Making sure that you’ve clipped the pages with binder clips, you can dampen the pages with a spray bottle before dripping acrylic ink directly on, or you can mix some acrylic ink in a bowl with water before applying it with a brush. Spread the ink all over the pages, and ensure that you move the clips around and get underneath. My two favourite colours to use are transparent burnt umber and Prussian blue, both by Liquitex professional. I’ve been expanding my acrylic ink collection, and plan to release a video to YouTube in the future about creating a swatch book of various colours that I can use as a reference. I absolutely love using complementary colours in these books, such as a dioxazine purple background for bright yellow goldfinches.
  4. If you’re painting in oil, you’ll need to seal the pages. After the tone has fully dried, spray the pages fully with shellac. This settles into the fibres of the pages and seals them, allowing the oils to rest on top instead of permeating into the paper. I have noticed that some oil will come through and yellow the other side of the page, but that it’s only noticeable on pages that haven’t been toned. If you’re painting in acrylic or gouache, you won’t need the shellac. 
  5. Add the paint. Keep plenty of q-tips handy, especially if you’re using a negative space for the background. If my brush accidentally flicks some paint past the edge of where I’d wanted my subject to stop, I just wipe it away with a q-tip. With gouache, it will just melt away, and the oil is usually pretty easy to wipe off of the shellacked paper. You will want to be a little careful if you’re working in acrylic, but if you catch it quickly enough you’ll be able to nip any mistakes in the bud. Be prepared for the accelerated dry time if you’re working with acrylic. Painting on paper means that the paint will be drying even faster than on canvas, due to the absorption of the fibres.
  6. Add the metallic text. I use a calligraphy pen with some metallic acrylic ink, and this is absolutely one of my favourite parts of the process. When you move the pages, the words catch the light and flash before vanishing again, like something out of a Harry Potter book. This is hands down one of my favourite parts of the books. 

That’s it! Right now, I am keeping several sketchbooks:

  • Landscapes with acrylic paint
  • Birds with gouache
  • This botanical sketchbook in oil
  • A sketchbook devoted to work inspired by one of my favourite poems by Leonard Cohen (this one I’m just sharing glimpses of, but I hope to unveil the completed work in the next 2-3 years)
  • My favourite foods (especially desserts and snacks) in oil
  • Portraits in charcoal
  • A miscellaneous book about subjects that I simply find beautiful, such as a winter sky at dawn, or seemingly insignificant vignettes such as a closeup on a bin of apples

I’d consider these books to be amongst my most prized possessions, and would absolutely make the “if your house was burning, what would you save” cut. It feels like I’ve placed pieces of my soul in them, and perhaps that’s the real reason why I continue to putter away with them, despite being basically impossible to sell. 

Do you keep sketchbooks? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Keep making your life beautiful, friends! 


  • Jon

    Very helpful Marianne, thanks for posting
    Marianne Vander Dussen replied:
    Thanks so much for reading, Jon!

  • Pamela Sherwood

    Absolutely stunning❤️
    Marianne Vander Dussen replied:
    Thank you!!!

  • Dave Routledge

    This blog post is truly inspirational … I love your work.

    Marianne Vander Dussen replied:
    Thank you so much, Dave!

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