December 16th, 2020

Our ongoing series, “The Sketchbook Diaries,” aims to reveal and showcase a different Gallery MAR artist’s process and artistic journey through the use of sketchbooks. For this next piece, we talked to Colorado-based mixed media artist, Sarah Winkler, to get her take on the practice.


Each section of Sarah Winkler’s mixed media landscape paintings contains within it a multitude of textures, built up through layers of experimental painting processes, giving her work a uniquely inimitable quality. While the layers within Winkler’s landscapes are apparent through observation alone, a conversation with the artist reveals the true depth and complexity of her artistic process. 

In fact, her paintings themselves are only the tip of the iceberg. In order to gain a true appreciation of Winkler’s full process, we must begin with her sketchbook practice. Before Winkler even begins one of her layered paintings, she cycles through three different types of sketchbooks in preparation for painting: Field Sketchbooks, Lab Sketchbooks, and Daily Sketchbooks.

In her Field Sketchbooks, Winkler captures the landscapes that she encounters on her travels. These sketchbooks stay in her van for easy access on the road. When hiking or traveling, Winkler uses these Field Sketchbooks to document rock formations and landscapes she finds interesting. “I find the sketching in the field very meditative,” she says, “That’s a nice way to pass the afternoon.” For these sketchbooks, she relies simply on colored pencils on paper. 

Winkler observes how for her, the Field Sketchbooks provide “a nice way to sit for an hour and really memorize that ridge line or those textures or those colors in the rock. It then becomes muscle memory so that I have it in mind when I go back to the studio. The experience of the landscape is then more vividly captured in your memory, more so than if I just took a quick snapshot of it with a camera.” This intimacy with the landscape helps prepare her for her for the studio, and with it, her next stage of sketchbooks.

“With sketchbooks, the experience of the landscape is more vividly captured in your memory, more so than with a quick snapshot with a camera”

In her studio, Winkler keeps two different types of sketchbooks. The first she refers to as Lab Sketchbooks, aptly named for the experimental, almost scientific approach to discovery that she employs within their pages. Here she tests out paint, ink, colors, and textures. “That’s not something I do daily,” she clarifies, “but, rather something I do before I start a new series. For instance, with my aspen tree series, I filled a whole sketchbook to work out what the textures were going to look like before I did anything with it.” As with the aspen tree sketchbook, Winkler sorts her Lab Sketchbooks by different regions, whether it be the ocean, the desert, or the alpine. 

Winkler’s favorite aspect of her entire process is the conception of new series ideas, brought about by the experimental opportunities that these Lab Sketchbooks provide. “The whole process is very interesting to me,” Winkler says, “I keep it interesting with all of that exploration work. I think that the most exciting thing, however, is just the initial conception of a brand new idea for a new series of work and having to work out how I’m going to tackle that differently. To me, that’s the most engaging moment.”

“As an artist, you have the opportunity to sort of reinvent the wheel, and there’s no book for that…so you have to write your own in a way.”

Winkler’s second type of studio sketchbook, and third type of sketchbook overall, are her Daily Sketchbooks. These sketchbooks, while less experimental, are perhaps the most important of all. These sketchbooks carefully and analytically document her every process while painting. Winkler explains, “Every day in the studio, I’m writing detailed notes on the color mixes and on how I got a certain texture, because what I’m doing is so experimental. As an artist, you have the opportunity to sort of reinvent the wheel, and there’s no book for that… so you have to write your own book in a way. You have to experiment in the studio and work all of these things out. I’d hate to do all that work and not have a record of it. That’s what it is for me, it’s a documentation of the discovery, the process, the exploration within what I’m trying to achieve.”

This intricate documentation process has proven worthwhile for Winkler time and again. If ever she wants to remember how to achieve a certain texture, pattern, or color, Winkler has an almost scientific record of every painting she’s ever created, going back 13 years. She started her first sketchbook in 2007. Now, she says, “I have a record of growth as an artist, keeping track of what’s working and what’s not working. Then, if I ever do something interesting that I want to repeat, I can recreate it down the road.”

“Sketchbooks show your growth and the evolution of your work so that you’re always building upwards from what you’ve done”

This long and diligent history of her sketchbook process, and the brilliant foresight it takes to recognize the importance of that process, feeds into Winkler’s continued growth as an artist. “I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again,” she says, “but, instead, building on what I’ve done. I think the sketchbooks help. They show your growth and the evolution of your work so that you’re always building upwards from what you’ve done.” 

Not to mention, the long, thoughtful process of preparation for a painting opens Winkler up so that by the time she applies paint to wood panel, she can truly devote herself, simply and freely, to the joy of painting. She elaborates, “The analytical work that first goes into the design of the painting in the sketchbooks makes it so that the actual painting is just enjoying the moment, enjoying what the paint’s going to do.” Although, she mentions wryly, “It won’t always do what you think it’s going to do either.”

This insight into the full extent of Winkler’s process offers a fuller, more complete appreciation into the true layers and depth of her landscape work. Now, when you look upon the gorgeous textures of her mixed media landscapes, we hope you’ll see in them, the full picture: the spontaneous renderings, the messy, creative experiments, the trials and errors, the jubilant successes, the analytical diligence, and the very human experience that goes into the creation of art.

We would like to extend our gratitude to Sarah Winkler for taking the time for this interview. Stop by the gallery to see her latest work from her upcoming show, “All Mountain,” opening December 18th.