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How I Started the Artists Sketchbook Phenomena

The following Journal entry was prompted by a query from my friend Benno Rothschild so, if you like it, you’ve got him to thank.

When I was in art school in the late 1960s I became familiar with the work of the Los Angeles Pop Art movement, whose key proponents were Billy Al Bengston, Joe Goode and Ed Ruscha. Billy went to Otis; Joe and Ed had gone to the school I was attending, the Chouinard Art Institute (now California Institute of the Arts). My girlfriend at Chouinard, Judy Goode, had been married to Joe Goode. They met at Chouinard when the were students there in the late 1950s. She made me aware of their extremely successful work. They were all about ten years older than me (including Judy…mmmmm…older women! And mmmmm…younger women! Who am I kidding? — mmmmmm…WOMEN!).

Ed Ruscha’s work was the most accessible, concept-wise. I was attracted to his visual sense of humor. He did a painting that looked like drops of water pooling on the surface of the paper. The water globules spelled out “WET”. Another picture was highly detailed life size renderings of a colony of ants that spelled out “ANTS”.

Ed also made these great little books that were sold at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. They were books of photos Ed had shot. Each book had a different theme. There was one on palm trees; just picture after picture of different palm trees around L. A. Another one was on the Sunset Strip. Ed took a series of photos up one side of the Strip and down the other and made them into a book.

The books were presented as art pieces, extensions of Ed’s fine art. They were self-published and, like his prints, signed and numbered. I thought they were really cool.

About two decades later, my friend Marv Newland (creator of the infamous animated cartoon “Bambi Meets Godzilla”) began to send me a little self-published digest-sized book each year. They were squarebound, professionally designed and consisted of random little sketches and drawings that Marv had done. I thought they were really cool.

Around this time (1988) I self-published “Mickey at 60”, a comic book collaboration by Jim Steinmeyer and myself. I was thinking of Ed Ruscha’s art books when I decided to publish it as a limited signed edition. Inspired by the spontaneity of Robert Crumb’s work, I deliberately made it as crude as possible — in direct antithesis to the slickness for which I was known. I printed up 300 copies and sold them for $15 each (Jim and I donated the profits to the Crippled Children’s Society). It sold out in about two hours at that year’s Comic-Con.

By the early 1990s I had become a guest at some of the local comic book conventions (Jack Kirby and I were the San Diego Comic-Con’s first two guests). I noticed a few of the artists were selling sketches drawn on demand. I began to do some and to my delight, they sold. Later, Scott Dunbier (he was an art dealer back then) came by my table and bought all I had left. I think they were ten bucks apiece.

For the next show I drew up a bunch in advance. This time Scott came by early and bought them all. Woo hoo! I was in the chips (rent back then was a little over a hundred bucks a month)!

At the following show I raised my price to fifteen dollars each and Scott still bought everything I brought! This was beginning to get serious.

A few things about this venture bothered me, though. Occasionally I produced what I considered a little gem. Once it was sold at the show, it was out of my life; I had no record of it. Another thing that disturbed me was that because my sketches had become so popular, I was spending the entire convention with my head down, drawing. I liked meeting my fans and chatting with them, but that wasn’t happening because I was constantly sketching. All they saw was the top of my head. I also starting to become drained by producing so many sketches in such a short amount of time.

So, I started doing drawings in advance of each show. I put them in a binder for fans to flip through. If they liked one, they could buy it. If not, that was OK, too. It freed me up to just stand and talk with people.

I also began to make xerox copies of my favorite ones. Pretty soon, I had a pretty sizable stack of drawings.

“I wonder if people would buy a book of these things?” I wondered to myself.

I decided to take a chance. In 1992 I published “William Stout – 50 Convention Sketches”. I printed 300 copies (plus 50 Artist’s Proofs, I believe), limited, signed and numbered. I sold them for $15 each.

They were a hit!

The following year, because the first book had sold out so fast, I upped my print run to 950 copies (plus 50 Artists Proofs). It sold out, too, especially after I sold a bunch of them wholesale to my friend Bud Plant to carry in his catalogue.

I’ve kept the print run the same ever since. I want to maintain the excitement of the impulse buy (“If I don’t buy it now, I might miss out! There’s only 950 of ’em!”). Like Ed Ruscha, I also see these books as an extension of my fine art, so the limitation is appropriate. It makes them more precious, like a limited edition print.

Because these sketchbooks to me are fine art, I have made the following three rules in regards to their production:
1) I draw anything I want to draw (my artistic whims have led me down some pretty strange paths).
2) No one tells me what to draw (that would make them commercial art).
3) When it’s no longer fun, I’ll stop.

I recently published Volume Fourteen of the 50 Convention Sketches series. I’ve also branched out, compiling sketches and drawings on themes (Monsters Sketchbook, Dinosaur Sketchbook, Tribute to Ray Harryhausen, for example, as well as collections of my figure drawings and animal drawings). I’ve also published volumes on some of my favorite artists, too, including Joseph Clement Coll, Harry Rountree, Charles R. Knight and Zdenek Burian. To date, Terra Nova Press (the name of my publishing company) has published a total of 33 art books. Except for the extra fat ones, they still sell for fifteen bucks each. I’ve seen out of print volumes sell for as much as $250 each.

Little did I know that this would turn into a somewhat sizable cottage industry. “Artists’ Sketchbooks” now even has its own section in the Bud Plant catalogue. If I only had a nickel royalty for every artist sketchbook that’s been sold…

…I’d split the money between Ed, Marv and myself.

5 thoughts on “How I Started the Artists Sketchbook Phenomena

  1. Thanks for getting this thing started.
    Comic book guys always had a place for their work to see print, but the film, tv and video game concept guys produced tons of cool stuff that hardly ever saw the light of day.

    There are always websites….but having a physical printed thing is a completely different animal.

    And the big "art of" books only show so much of what’s out there.

    Now, with most everyone having access to one form of self publishing or another, it’s like a big club with everyone sharing what they’ve been up to.

    It’s a very exciting thing that I hope continues for a long time.

  2. Thanks for the help with my article Bill-and of course for getting the ball rolling! I also really enjoyed your article about Dave Stevens in the Comics Journal this month. It was excellent.

  3. Thats’ a great tale of your starting this trend, which, by the way has spread to Europe. I have the Olivier Vatine and Didier Cassegrain books from last year. I also wonder if Claire Wendling was influenced by this trend when she put out the original DESK (as well as the new edition from Belgium and the English ed. from Stuart Ng) and Iguana 2.0 sketchbook.
    I also have every volume of the regular sketchbook you put out and the vast majority of the other ones. One correction, though; the first 50 convention sketches volume you put out in ’92 had a print run of 500 (of which mine is #37).
    Anyway, thanks for this great trend. While some are unworthy of the status of ‘sketch book providers’, some others have really taken your lead and run with it. Though, truth be told, your book is still the best of the lot (and a real bargain!).
    My one regret- you tried to sell me the first Mickey at 60 and I *choke* passed on it! That was a true Homer moment.


  4. Rick, you’re so right! It was the first "Mickey at 60" that was only 300 copies. It sold so well that I upped the print run of the first collection of my own sketches to 500. Beginning with the second 50 Convention Sketches volume, it’s been 950 + 50 Artist’s Proofs ever since, except for the Harry Rountree book which was just two dozen copies, distributed to my fellow Rountree collectors who helped me with the book’s bibliographical information.

    My friends Mark Schultz and John Fleskes have taken the Artist’s Sketchbook genre to new heights with spectacular finished art, fine design and sumptuous production (with gatefolds, even!).

  5. Speaking of, I can’t wait to see the new book that Flesk is releasing of your murals.
    The Gianni Prince Valiant Page was nothing short of pure stunning. John really knows how to put together gorgeous books.

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