Graphic Narratives: Taster Exercise

May 7, 2020

Here Sarah Lightman, guest tutor for Summer Term Online (Drawing Graphic Narratives), discusses diary drawing and how we might use it to tell our personal day-to-day experiences. 

I will begin this course with a form of graphic narrative that is very close to my heart – diary drawing. I love diary drawing, and my own graphic novel, The Book of Sarah, is formed of diary drawings that I have made since I was 22, and a student at the Slade School of Art. Diary drawing is a wonderful way to cope with our new, very strange, and often stressful, pandemic life. When you write a diary, your first audience is yourself, so diary drawing is a perfect approach to making art when you are alone. Diary drawing is also a good way to begin a course: it is a quiet, even tentative way to create work, allowing the narrative to slowly appear as the drawings, and pages, accumulate.

One way of making diary drawings is to create a series of self-portraits. These are about your shifting self – they tell the story of how you feel and how your life is changing. A series of self-portraits can also tell the story of the world you live in. 

On the middle pages of my graphic novel is a double-page spread of self-portraits. Beneath the drawings I later wrote a line explaining how I was feeling as I made the drawings: “I’d draw myself and I could be anywhere.” I made these drawings in New York when I was anxious about how to engage with the world. I formed a series of heads, a map of changing moods, that eventually formed a block, like the Manhattan streets outside my window. On my page I made a space, a city of selves, that I could live in and could control.

Self Portraits Sarah Lightman_cropped.jpg

Another artist that used self-portraiture in diary drawings to produce a body of work is the celebrated multi-disciplinary artist Bobby Baker. Baker suffered mental distress for several years, and she drew throughout this time. Baker dates her work “Day 1” and “Day 2”, from the day she started to attend a day centre in 1997, and she also adds short phrases to describe her feelings, and the stories behind the images, on many of her drawings. Baker uses pencil watercolour, and always felt colour was central to her diary drawings. In an interview in the Guardian in 2009, she describes how her diary art was a “defiant personal way of coping” and “became a ‘raison d’être’". 

Day25 Baker.jpg

Kylie Cardell has written a book on the contemporary use of diaries, and she describes writing a diary as “a regularly scheduled block of ‘creative’ time”. For Baker, the act of drawing her diary was an appointment with herself, and an act of creative personal support. In this series of diary drawing self-portraits, we see fear and acknowledgement of pain, but we also see recovery.


Bobby Baker 398.jpg

Back in my home, throughout the lockdown I have been making self-portraits again. For the first time in my diary drawings, I have been thinking about what I am wearing: a sweatshirt I bought on a fellowship at Columbia University three years ago, a patterned scarf I like to wear when I go out. During lockdown these clothes reference memories, and not possibilities. As I draw myself, I am reminded of how much older I am than I was in my other series of self-portraits. I look in my face, I am less fearful, even when I have more to fear.


How might you produce a series of self-portrait diary drawings?

Drawing Graphic Narratives starts on 14th May. To book click here

If you are interested in learning more: 

Read about Bobby Baker’s Diary Drawings in the Observer.

Listen to Bobby Baker talk about some of the diary drawings on the Guardian.

Visit Bobby Baker’s website .

Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me by Bobby Baker and Dora Whittuck (Profile Books, 2010)

Dear World: Contemporary Uses of the Diary by Kylie Cardell (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014)

The Book of Sarah by Sarah Lightman (Myriad Editions, 2019)

Drawings from top: 

Sarah Lightman Self Portraits, Pages from The Book of Sarah © Sarah Lightman 2019

Drawings from Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me 1997-2008 © Bobby Baker 2009

Sarah Lightman Self Portraits © Sarah Lightman 2020