Reviewed: Cedric Hohnstadt’s “Sparkbook”

I have been meaning to post a review of this innovative sketchbook from illustrator and cartoonist Cedric Hohnstadt for some time but just keep on not getting to it. Today I rectify that oversight.

Cedric is a fellow Minnesota based illustrator and National Cartoonist Society member, and has a lot of experience in animation character design, creating cartoon characters for advertising, storytelling and illustration in general. Back in August Cedric did a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the printing of a unique kind of sketchbook he calls a “Sparkbook“. Cedric sent me a copy for review.

First off, if you are looking for a book of instruction on drawing or even creating characters, this is not it. It does contain some pages (32 plus according to the back cover) of “instruction and inspiration” with short sections on such things as using thumbnails as experiments and studies, thinking outside the box, setting up contrast and conflict in character design, and other important concepts… but this is only a small aspect of the whole. The Sparkbook is supposed to get you to starting thinking about the personalities and “life” of the characters you are creating by getting you to think about story when you draw.

The book really is primarily a sketchbook, but each page or spread has an “assignment” printed along the bottom. These assignments give you a direction and goal for your character design sketches that pertains to creating personality through action, reaction, emotion, or other expressions of acting with your characters. It’s designed to get you thinking like a storyteller, and putting the kind of expression and emotion into your drawings and characters that creates a narrative visually… without the need for words. It’s a spiral bound sketchbook using drawing paper stock.

I’ll be honest, my initial thoughts when the concept was explained to me was that there was not going to be much to this book. It didn’t seem to me to be very hard to come up with a 100 different scenes that required some storytelling thinking and efforts. However after spending a little time with the Sparkbook, I think there is method to Cedric’s madness. The scenes he challenges you with are well conceived in that they require different combinations of storytelling skills to accomplish… some need slapstick action, some are more slow-burning and demand subtly of expression, others require distinctive body language, and many combinations of these and others. They are distinctive enough that few people, I think, would come up with such challenges on their own, and when artists do try to do something like that they tend to make choices that play to their strengths and comfort zones. Here Cedric forces you to exercise many different storytelling muscles. It’s a bit addictive, coming up with solutions to the assignment challenges—like puzzles that need solving. The book doesn’t teach, but it does make you think about a specific goal with each sketch, and presents you with real challenges in storytelling.

The printed Sparkbook costs $25, and ebook versions are $10 for the original and $15 for the expanded version. There are also social media connections like the Sparkbook Gallery on Facebook, where you can post your drawings from the assignments and get feedback from other Sparkbook artists.

I think this is a worthwhile purchase for anyone looking to get some direction when it comes to character design. I’d certainly recommend several animation books first, most of which Cedric himself recommends in a back “resources” page, but there is something great about having someone else give you an idea to run with in your sketchbook. It’s close to the kind of dynamic you’d be getting in a professional project dealing with storytelling, whether it be in comics, animation or even illustration. These kinds of exercises strengthen your perception and ability to create narrative in your drawings.

My only complaint about the book is that the paper in it is too smooth, I prefer a little more tooth in my drawing paper. That’s a small complaint, though. Cedric has a very innovative concept here and I really do think it’s a good one.


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