Friday, 11 November 2016




The view from where I sit: sketching at the ROM.

"Drawing in a sketchbook ... teaches first to look, and then to observe and finally perhaps to discover ... and it is then that inspiration might come."
- Le Corbusier, Architect -

Growing up in England just 60km away from central London, school trips to London museums were a frequent occurrence. You've all seen them, the school children flocking from gallery to gallery, exhibit to exhibit, each with a clipboard in one hand and a pencil in the other. I remember often having to answer a long list of questions or complete a museum scavenger hunt. As I progressed in the school system and was able to develop my interest in art with more advanced classes (I would eventually go on to complete an undergraduate degree in Studio Fine Art), more often than not the worksheets full of questions were replaced with sketchbooks. "You have two hours," my teacher would say, and we'd scatter in pursuit of interesting objects to draw or paintings to copy. The sketchbook is a lens through which to view a museum, and I'm going to convince you that the sketchbook is a very useful lens indeed.

Study of a replica of a Pachycephalosaurus skeleton.
 Drawn by Eleanor Howell-Christensen at the ROM on November 4th 2016.

Last week I set off to the ROM with sketchbook and pencil case in hand. I had a few free hours and I'd decided that as therapeutic change from assignments and readings I'd treat myself to some casual drawing. It had been a long time since I had had a proper sketchbook session at a museum or gallery, and the process reminded me what makes it such a positive experience. Here's why you should take a sketchbook with you on your next museum outing:

1) You actually have to LOOK at things.
There's no aimless wandering from room to room without actually taking in anything for the sketchbook-carrier. Being passive is not an option because you're there with a mission and the motivation to accomplish it. If you're guilty of sometimes feeling like you drift from exhibit to exhibit without really taking anything in, then the sketchbook is for you.

2) You have to REALLY look at things.
Once you've settled on your object of choice, you find yourself spending a lot of time just staring at it. What are those bumps there? What angle is the curve here? Where do the shadows fall?The Pachycephalosaurus cast is far from being the most jaw-dropping dinosaur skeleton at the ROM, and it's only actually a cast, so I'd imagine most people just walk on by without really paying it much attention - I mean, there's a T-Rex just a stone's throw away, so who can blame them? Yet after being sat in front of the Pachycephalosaurus for almost an hour, I felt like I knew it fairly well (at least, I knew it's neck vertebrae!). I really got to see the cast for what it was, rather than passing by like most others.

3) It's therapeutic.
One minute I was on busy Bloor Street, the next I was sat in a quiet corner of a gallery. My sketchbook forced me to go slow, take my time, give into a slightly indulgent activity.  You can put headphones in and listen to some music or a podcast while you draw, or you can take in the museum environment and absent-mindedly listen to the conversations taking place around you. Rushing through a museum is usually quite stressful; a sketchbook session can be like meditating.

4) It generates discussion.
In my experience taking my sketchbook to museums, people love to watch other people draw. It's true: they love it. I've been stopped many times to chat about what I'm doing and why, or to have someone simply say they like the drawing. Sometimes a person will express their thoughts on the object being drawn, or want to chat to me about what's brought me to the museum today. More often than not these are people I normally wouldn't have the chance to speak to: the sketchbook gets people talking about the drawing, about the object, about the museum, about anything really. At the very least, you'll be able to have a chuckle to yourself as people passing by try to pretend they're not peering nosily over your shoulder.

5) You don't have to be good at drawing.
Who are you showing the sketchbook to at the end of the day? There's no teacher grading your shading skills: when you get home you can keep that sketchbook locked up with a chain and padlock if you like (although I wouldn't recommend it). You're just drawing for you. Whether you're artistically inclined or not, you can have a good time doodling - if worst comes to worst and you feel like your drawing's a monstrosity, then there's always the next blank page.

Study of a Canadian Cup Coral.
 Drawn by Eleanor Howell-Christensen at the ROM on November 4th 2016.
There are no rules when it comes to the sketchbook, and it will certainly shake up your typical museum experience. If I've convinced you to start sharpening your pencils, then hooray and good luck! If, however, you still need a bit of convincing, then here are some great articles about the brilliance of the sketchbook in a museum setting:

The Globe and Mail: Why I Prefer to Travel with a Sketchbook Instead of a Camera
The Iris (Behind the Scenes at the Getty): Five Tips for Sketching at the Museum
Huffington Post: Museum 'Bans' Cameras and Asks Guests to Sketch Art Instead

Happy sketching!


  1. Lots of food for thought here. When I go to a museum or gallery I do have the tendency to think i should take everything in and then I see nothing. Beautifully written and I will remember this next time!

  2. I used to hang out in the mammals section of the Canadian Museum of Nature every Wednesday evening. I would sketch, and children would come play with my pencils and ask questions and tell me how they like to draw. It was such a peaceful, regenerative time for me. I miss it so much. I wish the ROM had more benches in the animals sections so I could sit and draw. Thank you for this post! It reminds me to get back into this wonderful hobby.