Artist in focus: Lucian Freud’s sketchbooks

What do sketchbooks reveal about the creative mind of one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated artists?

Like many artists, Lucian Freud used sketchbooks in his everyday working life. This video looks at his sketchbooks, which span his entire career, to explore the creative processes behind his intensely observed portraits. By looking at his preparatory sketches, experiments with mark-making, and the notes he jotted down, you’ll gain insights into his working process – and be inspired to use sketchbooks to develop your own artistic practice.


  • Lucian Freud’s sketchbooks

    Lucian Freud was one of the most celebrated portrait artists of the late 20th century, with a career that spanned over 60 years.

    Freud mainly made portraits of those closest to him – his friends, family and lovers – and of himself.

    He had a lifelong interest in the human face and body and became particularly known for his intensely observed and ‘naked’ portraits.

    Freud always worked from life. He once said, ‘I could never put anything into a picture that wasn’t there in front of me’.

    Freud, like many artists, used sketchbooks throughout his life as part of his creative process. Sketchbooks can be used to record or draw different ideas, or to experiment with different materials, techniques or composition.

    Freud’s sketchbooks can therefore provide a fascinating insight into his creative process – how ideas might shift and change, and how finished artworks might have evolved since they were originally planned.

    The sketchbooks spanned Freud’s entire life from adolescence to old age, and therefore allow for an in-depth exploration of his practice on paper. The sketchbooks are well-worn and well-used. Some of the covers have been torn off. There are pages that are stuck together, pages that have been torn out. There are coffee and paint stains on some of the covers of the sketchbooks. So, you get a sense that these weren’t pristine objects, but really part of his everyday working life as an artist.

    Freud would also use his sketchbooks to jot down phone numbers or diary appointments or even racing tips, and even his personal thoughts on art and on portraiture. Altogether, the sketchbooks become a portal to the creative mind of one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed artists. They vary greatly in scale from a repurposed 18th century accounts ledger to very tiny pocket-size sketchbooks.

    When you go to the sketchbooks, this provides further context to the relationship between Freud and his sitters. For Freud, he didn’t want to work from models, he preferred to work with people he knew, and getting to know them was part of the process of making the portrait. We know from first-hand accounts of sitting for Freud that it was often a very lengthy and demanding process.

    Some of the highlights of the sketchbooks are when you happen upon a study for a well-known artwork such as a painting or an etching, and I think this is really where the sketchbooks reveal his working process.

    Through the sketchbooks, we get a sense of his experiments with his mark making. It was often through his drawings that Freud would test things out and push the boundaries of his art.

    Freud used his sketchbooks in many ways, and they were very important in his creative process and working method – as a preparatory step for his paintings, but also for simply picking up and drawing the people around him.

    Try using your own sketchbooks in a similar way and see how your own creative processes develop.

Learning objectives

  1. Explore how sketchbooks can be part of an artist's creative process.
  1. Discover what Lucian Freud’s sketchbooks can reveal about his work.
  1. Consider the benefits of using sketchbooks and how you can apply them to your own practice.

Watch and discuss

  1. The National Portrait Gallery has Lucian Freud’s sketchbooks from adolescence to old age. Do you keep your sketchbooks? Why or why not?
  1. Why might it be interesting or useful to look at an artist’s sketchbooks, compared to looking at their finished work?
  1. Set yourself a challenge to sketch something every day. Carry a sketchbook with you, draw and experiment, and see how your own creative processes develop.