Amber Leilani -- A Sketchbook Conversation

Today I wanted to change gears a bit. I've been sharing some very beautiful sketchbooks lately, which, I know, is part of the point of my series. I want to showcase artists who are doing beautiful things. Visually appealing sketchbook pages and spreads are inspiring and I do want to inspire you. But I also think that focusing so much on beautiful layouts and designs has a flip side, unintended consequences. Seeing example after example of gorgeous, curated images can be intimidating. When we sit down to work in our own sketchbooks it's daunting when we have such an ideal in our heads. When we create a page that doesn't live up to those examples we can feel frustrated or discouraged.

The sketchbooks we see on social media, and, certainly, here, are carefully curated. The artists choose the best imagery to share. The pages where they're working out designs or where the lines are a bit wonky or where they're experimenting with something new... those pages aren't shared so often. Abigail Halpin mentioned this in her Conversation a couple weeks ago. And it makes sense. Someone who makes their living from their art wants to showcase their best work. Keeping a working sketchbook private makes sense for other reasons, too. Sharon Rohloff, who chatted about her sketchbooks with us last year uses hers as "a secret vault of future work". Something else that it makes sense to keep private.

If we don't see (and don't talk about) those rougher sketchbooks, those working pages, those practice spreads, we're missing out on a huge category of sketchbooks from which to draw inspiration. I know Sharon and Abigail aren't the only artists from Sketchbook Conversations to talk about using sketchbooks in this way (Melissa HyattJaime Haney and Pat Scheurich are a few others), but if I look back through the posts from this series, the examples weigh heavily on the side of beautifully curated pages.

I think it's important to remember that there is more than one way to keep a sketchbook. In fact, one of my intentions for Sketchbook Conversations is to stress the point that there is no wrong way to keep a sketchbook. I want you to be inspired to embrace your own way of working, your own style. I want you to have the confidence to experiment and play. I want to free you from intimidation so that when you sit down with the blank sketchbook page you're not stopped in your tracks by fear. Sketchbooks are often about practice. And practice can be messy. Allow yourself to be messy!

Whew! That was a long intro, but I think it's important to talk about. I don't want you, if you're working in your own sketchbook, to compare yourself and your sketchbook pages with other artists and feel discouraged.

This is not to say that Amber, my guest today, keeps sketchbooks that aren't beautiful (they are!). Amber wasn't quite sure she wanted to share her pages here because hers tend to weigh more heavily in the direction of messy, working sketchbooks. We had a great conversation over email about the comparison game that goes on thanks to the proliferation of beautiful images on social media. It's hard, not only for fledgling artists, but for professional, working artists as well. We all need to remember this.

I am grateful to Amber for  being here today, for sharing her story and her own unique perspective on the practice of keeping sketchbooks and of art-making.

I'll shut up now and let Amber take over!

I'm Amber Leilani and I’ve been an artist all my life, but I stopped sketching and painting just after college. I made jewelry for about 20 years but I neglected the sketching and painting side of myself. When I discovered art dolls it opened up a whole new world for me… and over the last few years I sketch and paint more, too. Honestly, I wish I had more time to just work on things for me…paint more with my watercolors and paint more in acrylics and even learn oil painting. I am still trying to unlock a lot of the creativity I shut away for so long.

Amber Leilani, Sketchbook, sketchbook conversations, art journaling

I keep a sketchbook for many reasons and I keep many sketchbooks. All going at once!! I mainly keep a working sketchbook and a travel sketchbook to jot ideas in or lay out basic ideas for new dolls or paintings. 

Amber Leilani, Sketchbook, sketchbook conversations, art dolls, creative process

Actually, I have so many sketchbooks going right now, I keep forgetting about half of them. But I also keep a sketchbook to keep me inspired. To have something to flip through for ideas when the well is running low. 

Amber Leilani, Sketchbook, sketchbook conversations, art dolls, creative process

I love seeing all the wonderfully perfect art journal pages you see so much of on Pinterest or Instagram, but my sketchbooks are mostly a jumble of crude drawings with lots of arrows and lines and vague descriptions. I jot links and tools and quotes down. I make notes on symbols I like and places I want to visit. I paste photos that inspire me or artists whose work I admire. For me, a sketchbook is about my life… and that life is often unorganized and messy. 

Amber Leilani, Sketchbook, sketchbook conversations, art dolls, creative process

I couldn’t be perfect and beautiful or keep a perfect and beautiful sketchbook if I tried. One of my sketchbooks even has a list of medications to give my cat when she was having surgery. It used to bother me that my books didn’t “look like everyone else’s”, but I’m not LIKE everyone else. My sketchbook is me. Me is far from perfect and I’m ok with that….

Amber Leilani, Sketchbook, sketchbook conversations, art dolls, creative process

I have been keeping a sketchbook since grade school…in some form or fashion. I used to sketch on notebook paper and would put the pages in a little folder. So, I guess that’s going on 40 years! I loved my college sketchbooks. I was so free during that time in my life. It never occurred to me that my sketchbook should look a certain way. I just put what I was feeling into them. I had a lull after Hurricane Katrina where I didn’t keep one for about 5 years. I think I picked the habit back up around 2010 which was the year I discovered Art Dolls.

Amber Leilani, Sketchbook, sketchbook conversations, art dolls, creative process

Since my husband and I moved to Miami for his career in 2014 I have been struggling with my inspiration. When we lived in New Orleans (for 20 years) my inspiration came from just walking down the street and seeing the beautiful architecture and the peeling paint; smelling the old wood and the sweet olives in bloom; talking to friends in cafes and bars…. Every single thing about New Orleans was inspirational. But, here in Miami it’s a totally different vibe. Miami is a very soulless city. There is no sense of community and it’s a very cold and unfriendly place. I will be honest and tell you I’ve been struggling…. Here I have had to turn inward for my inspiration – to books and movies and music; to nature. 

Amber Leilani, Sketchbook, sketchbook conversations, watercolor

I love my studio (which I didn’t have back home- I worked at the dining room table) and I spend hours just sitting in there, listening to music and working while hanging out with my cat, Patches. Inspiration just doesn’t come as easily as it did back home, but I AM working more – focusing on my art and that keeps me motivated. This is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, be a full time artist. I’m actually doing it…although not as profitably as I’d like…but I’m doing it!!! So I just keep working.

Amber Leilani, Sketchbook, sketchbook conversations, art dolls, creative process

I am primarily a doll artist, so I work in paper clay whenever I am sculpting. I use a mix of Creative Paper Clay and Premier Stone Clay. When painting my dolls I use acrylic, pastels, graphite, ink, colored pencil, and charcoal. I absolutely ADORE mixed media. Texture is very important to me. I also use a lot of real dried moss and feathers and paper millinery flowers for my sculptures. I’m hoping to continue to bring more mixed media techniques and embellishments in to my work this year.

Amber Leilani, Sketchbook, sketchbook conversations, watercolor

I also enjoy sketching quite a bit, however and when I am working in my sketchbook I use graphite, water color, gouache, pastel, acrylic, and colored pencil. As much as I enjoy sculpting and would not trade it for anything… my heart seems to lighten when I can pick up a pencil or delve into my water color pallet. I often use it as a way to relax or refocus if I am feeling burned out while working on my dolls.

Amber Leilani, Sketchbook, sketchbook conversations, watercolor

If you want to try something -- TRY IT!!! Follow your heart. If it makes you happy, it was meant to be. And you will not be perfect overnight. Keep practicing. If you saw some of my earliest dolls…gah!! But I kept at it and now I am mostly happy with my work. But there is still so much more to learn. Always push yourself to try something new. Get to know your community…the art doll community, for me, has been a savior. They really opened their arms to me, when I was just starting out…even though I had no idea what I was doing. And since I’m awful about feeling like I’m bothering someone if I ask them a question, I struggled a lot with trying to figure things out on my own. I’m just now learning to ask for help if I need it. Don’t be afraid to ask…but also don’t expect to be given a road map for free. I’m always happy to help out if someone asks me a question about what kind of clay I use or how I build my armatures, but I’m not going to give away ALL my secrets. For me, a lot of the fun is figuring things out for myself. So I say just get out there and do it!!! You have absolutely nothing to lose and I think you will find an amazing community and tribe.

Amber Leilani, Sketchbook, sketchbook conversations, watercolor, hand lettering, quotes, Neil Gaiman quote

Thank you, Amber, for sharing your sketchbooks and your story with us here today.

Dear reader, I hope you are feeling inspired! Please take the time to look at Amber's magical art dolls. You can see them:

Missed the other Sketchbook Conversations posts? It's easy to catch up at the series web page.

And for even more inspiration, check out my Artist Interviews

*Photos in this post ©Amber Leilani. Used with permission.


  1. Amber's sketchbooks are still visually appealing. I am going through a phase where I hate everything I draw. I am wondering whether I should call it a day on my artistic journey but playing devils advocate feel the need to torture myself a bit more!!! Amber's art dolls are unique and full of expression. Thank you Anne and to Amber for sharing.

    1. Hi, Simone. Don't be so hard on yourself. Definitely don't call it a day, although it makes me feel sad that you think of your art-making as "torture". Do what feels right for you. Perhaps you need to shake up your subject matter or try another medium. Collage and colorful abstracts can be very freeing and joyful and it's not so easy to be critical of the results. I don't know the answer for you, but I know you'll find it if you keep going!

      Wishing you a joyful and creative week!

  2. I LOVE Amber's post. Really. xo

    1. So glad, Karen. I think she's so inspiring and I admire her ability to share the more difficult aspects and thoughts surrounding being an artist.

      Thanks for being here and cheering us all along!



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