By Jeremy Meltingtallow

Leonardo da Vinci scared a lot of young artists away from carrying a sketchbook, myself included. Too much genius to the page – who can handle the pressure? In the Louvre, a da Vinci notebook is enclosed in a glass case and one page is turned each day. People line up for hours to catch a glimpse. Bill Gates bought another one, the Leicester Codex, for $30.8 million.

I got over my fear of sketchbooks when my wife told me about a book she’d read called The New Diary. The book suggests using a journal or sketchbook loosely and creatively, filling it with dreams, to-do lists, phone messages, doodles, clippings, drawings, whatever. I never read the book but I got the point. It was what I needed to cure my da Vinciphobia.

I probably have thirty or forty filled sketchbooks piled up here and there, and I flip through them sometimes as a way of prompting new ideas or odd connections. Their randomness is their beauty. My sketchbooks contain a million seeds of ideas. In the dark the ideas grow at different rates, but I almost always find something worth harvesting when I go looking.

During my editorial cartooning years I would fill sketchbooks with thoughts about news stories as I read the paper each morning. I’d have the book open during staff meetings as writers talked about what they intended to write about. And I can’t even guess how many pages I filled with caricatures of the city council or school board candidates who came before our editorial board seeking endorsements.

On a rare morning I may actually write whole ideas that become Zits strips. More often I get quasi-ideas which Jerry and I call Starters, and I email them to him. Starters are usually odd observations or overheard dialogue, an image with promise or even just a theme we haven’t explored. Jerry has a remarkable ability to take these bits and bobs and turn them into three-panel theater. When he sends me a new batch of strip ideas to draw I can often find some notion I originally sent him deep inside somewhere. He also seems to know which Starters aren’t as funny as they seemed to me over my bagel and coffee.

Likewise, a lot of the drawing in Zits begins in my sketchbooks when I’m just killing time. My advice to kids who want to be cartoonists is to always carry a sketchbook and draw what’s in front of you, even if it’s just the backs of people’s heads on the school bus ride home. Most stuff in sketchbooks isn’t profound, but it’s where your hand does its calisthenics. When I was a young cartoonist trying to find my authentic voice, it was by looking through my sketchbooks that I found what I drew like when I wasn’t concerned with others seeing it. My sketchbooks were a clue to how I naturally expressed myself.

I still try to bring a sketchbook with me when I go to performances. Sometimes drawing what’s in front of me keeps me engaged when my mind wanders. Other times, I like letting my mind wander and recording some of the connections that come to me.

Mostly, a sketchbook is a way of keeping a lot of good thoughts from evaporating into thin air. When I look through my old sketchbooks I usually have no memory of having had these thoughts, as if they were someone else’s entirely. Some make me laugh, like a joke I’m hearing for the first time. Sometimes I suddenly realize the small new element that would make an idea work, as if a blacksmith in the back of my brain has been hammering away at the problem all this time. Sometimes the sketches are like gifts from my former self to my current self, saved for a rainy day. There’s all kinds of stuff in there.