An Artist’s Story with Missy Dunaway: The Journey

I bought my first sketchbook in 2006 as a first-year art student at Carnegie Mellon University. Students were required to work in a sketchbook throughout the semester, but I hadn’t even unwrapped mine the day before our year-end critique. That evening, a few other students and I hastily filled our sketchbooks with quick, half-hearted sketches and doodles. I failed the assignment.

I didn’t open a sketchbook again until the following summer. I was searching for something to do while I waited for a friend to meet me at a cafe. I rifled through my backpack, pulled out a sketchbook, and drew the cafe’s interior. When my friend arrived, I turned the page and drew her portrait. A few strangers asked to see what I was drawing, and we struck up a conversation. I went back the following weekend and did the same thing, and my circle of acquaintances grew into a crowd of friends of all ages and backgrounds. I was enchanted by the power sketchbooks had to start conversations and connect me with new people. 

Sketchbooking became a daily routine. With regular practice, time naturally pruned away styles and subjects that didn’t suit me while my favorite techniques became more refined. In other words, I developed a personal style.

One day, I experimented with a jar of acrylic ink I had left over from a college assignment. As the name suggests, ‘acrylic ink’ is a mixture of ink and acrylic and takes the best qualities from both media. Like ink, it is fluid, graceful, and vibrant. Like acrylic, it dries quickly and can be layered, allowing the artist to paint light over dark and cover mistakes. I first used acrylic ink to render pen-and-ink line drawings but eventually dove into the jars with brushes.

Sketching at the cafe was fun, but my favorite paintings were created in the privacy of my room, where I could spend more time working on a single page without distraction. I used online references to draw animals and scribbled my favorite song lyrics in the corners of the compositions.

I filled four sketchbooks in this style when I noticed I was repeating imagery and struggling to think of new subjects. I began questioning whether my “style” was actually a comfort zone built on habits. Then, in 2013, I was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship that would take me to Istanbul for one year. I opened a fresh sketchbook to coincide with this new chapter of my life. I confronted my creative block and made a resolution: to only render scenes from my life and write original poetry.

I moved to Turkey, and my Moleskine sketchbook came with me. Each evening, I sat down at my desk to reflect on my day, reworking a page until it was my favorite yet. I referred to photos that I snapped with my phone throughout the day. Moments that inspired me were spontaneous and fleeting—like catching a glimpse of the Sulemaniye Mosque as I ran to catch a bus or watching seagulls flock past my window as I dozed on the Prince’s Islands ferry. 

I have three takeaways from sketchbooking:

  • Working in a sketchbook helps artists find a personal style by providing the privacy to explore vulnerable themes and subject matter. I’m more willing to take risks and make mistakes when they are hidden in the pages of a journal.
  • The benefits of a portable “go anywhere” sketchbook are obvious, so I’ll mention a downside. My small sketchbook was my primary creative project for almost eight years because it suited my itinerant lifestyle. However, I unintentionally trained my hand and brain to work on a small scale. When I finally made the leap to large canvases, I was intimidated and didn’t know where to start. My brushstrokes were dwarfed by the size of the canvas and looked tight and linear— a far cry from the large masses of color that quickly filled my sketchbook. Every painting goes through an awkward teenage phase halfway through its creation. That phase, which lasts two hours in a sketchbook, can last a week on a large canvas. I tossed out many would-have-been-good paintings because I was discouraged from looking at an underdeveloped piece for so long.
  • Painting in a sketchbook is an economical way to create art —even when using expensive materials— because I work on a smaller surface and my materials extend further. Not to mention that I can comfortably generate artwork at my kitchen table or bedroom desk. No need for fancy easels or a rented studio space.

My paintings became increasingly complex and emotionally vivid. I stopped calling it “my sketchbook” because it had evolved beyond an assemblage of preparatory drawings. It was a collection of therapeutic, autobiographical paintings: my visual journal.

Learn from Missy and expand your practice in her Creativebug class: WATCH HERE