Starting an Art Journal

Art journaling is an idea that has fascinated me for years. Even before I started learning to draw, I’d heard about — and seen — artist journals, and oh, how I wished I could do something so creative! The colors… the images… the ideas… page after page of pure creativity spilling out. It was enough to make me drool with envy.

As I began learning to draw, I also started playing around with the idea of visual journaling. It’s a difficult concept for me. As I explained yesterday, I’m more a writer than an artist, and trying to put my thoughts into pictures wasn’t working well for me. Of course, at the start, my art journaling was very feeble. I carried a sketchbook around with me, made notes of things — such as the fact that it was raining — and then attempted to illustrate my thoughts in some way. Raindrops, anybody?

I didn’t have enough drawing skill to make that idea a very practical one. I gave up after a few days.

Even at that, the idea of art journaling left me bewildered. I was approaching it wrong, of course. Instead of expressing any genuine thoughts or feelings, or truly saving memories of important events, I was simply trying to find one simple thing that I could somehow draw. It was awful. It’s not that I saw no point in art journaling; it’s that I saw no point in me doing art journaling. I didn’t have the necessary drawing skill.

Now, you might be shaking your head and saying “No, no, you don’t have to draw as part of an art journal. You can do anything.” True enough, and I’ll get to that in a bit.

As I learned more about drawing and began playing with watercolor — back in 2016 — I tried art journaling again. I bought a special watercolor sketchbook, and I was truly excited at the prospect of filling it with… what? I wasn’t quite sure, but I was excited all the same.

I bought a book about watercolor journaling — Anyone Can Learn Watercolor Journaling. I read it, and in the end, I found myself only more bewildered. Art journaling can be so many things! In browsing around, and in the class I began yesterday at Artful Academy, the emphasis is definitely on mixed media.

Oh, dear!

Mixed media has overtones of “crafty things that involve scissors and glue.” I don’t do well with either.

Before we go on, yes, I did put together a journal page today, and yes, it has meaning for who I am and where I am, and I’ll get to that later, too. First, let’s back up to my original thought about drawing in an art journal. You don’t need to draw anything. There are other ways to create images. There are stamps, there are stencils, there’s the whole process of collage whereby images are literally cut and pasted. Of course, there’s abstract expression, as well.

The simple truth is this: anything goes in art journaling.

And you know something…? That’s exactly why I have problems with it. It goes back to what I’ve said before about needing certain restraints on creativity in order for my brain to function properly. I need limits. I need guidelines. I need structure and, from time to time, even a set of rules. This is what turns on and activates that creative part of my brain. Structure and rules force me to use my imagination in creative ways. When it’s “anything goes”, well, anything goes, and what I create doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s the point for a lot of artists, but if what I create doesn’t matter, what’s the point in creating it?

My head was soon spinning as I dealt with all the old questions about art journaling again. Why would I want to do it? What’s an art journal supposed to be? How am I supposed to do it? Ah, yes, the ramblings of an unrestrained mind!

I went off in search of answers, and I came across this marvelous definition:

Art Journal: A Definition

An art journal, or artist’s journal, is a book kept by an artist as a visual, and sometimes verbal, record of her thoughts and ideas.

Art journals generally combine visual journaling and writing, to create finished pages. Every imaginable style, media and technique is used by art journalists. When it comes to the types of work represented in artist journals, there really aren’t any rules, and each book is as unique as the artist who created it.

From — What is an Art Journal?

Reading this definition brought art journaling into a much clearer focus for me. I understood exactly why I’ve never been able to do it. “There really aren’t any rules.” There we go. Without rules — or guidelines, at least — I can’t function.

I realized that if I wanted to make an art journal, I had to first put a few rules into place. I had to come up with a plan of action that would work for me. I can’t go floundering about in this sea of “anything goes”. I’ll drown if I do.

So, I sat down this morning and came up with a process.

Because I do “morning pages” almost every day — three pages hand-written in a spiral-bound notebook — I have a well-spring of thoughts and ideas from which I can draw. I can’t convert three pages of cursive into a single visual idea, of course, although it might be fun to try. Seriously, though, instead of trying to cram everything into a page for an art journal, I decided to focus on a single idea. I considered all I’d written this morning, pulled out the most salient points, and distilled it into a single word.

I then took that word and played with it, just as I played with IMAGINATION yesterday. Again the results were somewhat similar in that my final creation bore no resemblance really to anything I’d written down during my word-play exercise time.

Without further ado, here is my art journal page:

AJ 08-11-2020 Conscience
“Conscience is the voice of the soul.”

Do the words and the images go together? Not really, but it’s all right. It’s how I can apply the anything goes concept.

Conscience is the voice of the soul.

That’s the thought of this page, the message, if you will, and nothing in the cut-out hearts (with images from the Bob Ross calendar my daughter gave me for Christmas) really speaks to the idea of conscience.

The colors I chose — shades of grey with yellow interspersed — were an attempt to express ideas of sadness with moments of hope mixed in.

The washi tape? An afterthought. I have a good supply of it, so why not use it? Oh, I should mention that the theme for August in the Artful Academy class is re-cycle, learning to use or re-use different supplies we have around our studios. So I cut up old calendar pages (I’d thoughtfully been saving them for just such a project as this) and I grabbed that washi tape sitting in the craft area.

I did have lots of ideas in my head. I thought of a large heart with the image of a woman inside, standing up and singing. Nice idea, but my calendar pages were too small for that idea, so I went with smaller hearts, just trying to do the best I could with what I had.

My plan now is to add a few of the conscience-related thoughts from my “morning pages” journal to go “side by side” with this art journal illustration. Those thoughts were  about standing up for what we believe, questions about how conscience is taught… or, well, is it taught? Or is it something everyone has?

Between my written words and my attempts at visually creating something to go along, I’ll create an art journal that works for me and serves my purpose. What I’m wanting, you see, is to save a few thoughts, a way to preserve a few of the ideas that represent what my life — and the world around me — is all about.

If you’re interested in art journaling, there are many books and articles available. Most are designed to “spark” creativity. For me, that approach only makes my mind explode with too many ideas and possibilities. I need focus. I need structure. I need rules.

For those who’d like to explore more, here are a few of the resources I came across.


How to Start an Art Journal Step by Step

How to Start an Art Journal: A Complete Beginner’s Guide

How to Start an Art Journal – Mindful Art Studio


Layers of Meaning – Elements of Visual Journaling

No Excuses Art Journaling – Making Time for Creativity

Art Journal Courage – Fearless Mixed Media Techniques for Journaling Bravely

The Painted Art Journal – 24 Projects for Creating Your Visual Narrative

Have fun and please share your thoughts about art journaling!



    1. Thanks so much. I’ve chosen to keep Artistcoveries an “award-free” blog, so please pass the nomination on to another deserving blogger. I appreciate the thought and am glad you find something worthwhile in my blog.

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  1. Your journal page is lovely. ^_^ And thanks so much for sharing the links! I’m curious to browse them.

    I’ve done art journaling off and on over the years, but never gained a consistency with it. I loved the pages that I did and would love to do it more often, but like you when it comes to journaling, written text is my default. Something I did that helps, though, is to have three journals to match whatever mood I’m in. I have a written notebook that I use most days. It’s just faster and my time is precious. But I also have an art journal for those days when “doodling visions” is the lead inspiration. And I have a third one that is more hybrid. The hybrid usually starts with some written objective, but then I end up adding color, fonts, illustrations, etc.

    The written journal is where I do brain dumps about things troubling me or plan how I’m going to handle problems, etc. It’s an ordinary notebook, nothing fancy. The art journal is a mixed media notebook that I turn to when a mood or single thought seems to be shouting above all the other noise. So it has tissue paper mountain-scapes of places I wish I could escape to, faces representing the different aspects of who I am, things I did during the course of a day, illustrated memories, illustrated hopes for the future painted over written intents, etc. But the hybrid is a lined-page, hardback, really nice “keeper” type of journal. It has things like self-care lists, favourite quotes, poetry, bullet-point notes on overcoming procrastination, and such … things that I want to *keep* and reference again and again over the years, whereas the others may or may not have salvageable content. The hybrid is planned and designed as a keepsake, whereas the other two flow with my ever-changing and impulsive thoughts from day to day. If there is something in the written or art journal that I want to save before throwing away the whole thing, I can pull it out and put it in my files or transfer a “better” version of it into my hybrid journal.

    Switching between journals isn’t a problem because my goal is not chronological documentation of every day of my life. My goal is expression. And some expression is a flow of fast and furious words, while other expression is full of daydreams or emotional outpouring. And sometimes something comes along that I think I’ll want to reference again and again when I feel sad, or need encouragement, or find some good timeless advice. 🙂 So, if more than one method appeals to you, there’s no reason you can’t do them all. You can even have different styles on different pages in the same book, if you wish. This is the only way I can be “consistent” is to give myself this flexibility.

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    1. It sounds as though you’ve found a way that works for you. That is awesome! I’m still playing around with ideas, still very unsure about what I want or need in an art journal. For now, it’s fun to just focus on a single thought or feeling that stands out as I do my written “morning pages” every day. I think putting a journal page together each morning will be a good way to “prime the pump” when I come to the studio. I’ve never done much “mixed media” before, so it’s interesting and challenging to think beyond the basics of drawing and/or painting. One thing I don’t want to do is to get too “involved” in stamping and stenciling. While those things are fun and can be very creative, I’m afraid it would be too tempting to buy too many things and not really have much use for them. I don’t want my personal journaling projects to become the main focus of my art time, but only a creative adjunct to it. I’m going to try my best to make it all the way through the rest of August — I’ve giving up art journaling very quickly every other time I’ve tried it — and maybe then I can re-evaluate a little and see what really is useful. It’s a bit like “bullet journaling” — I love looking at bullet journals people make. And I toyed with the idea just because it looked like so much fun. All the while, I knew it wasn’t for me. I need some structure and organization in my creative life, but that was way overboard for me. Yes, I could do a page with the KC Chiefs Football Schedule. Sure, I could put together a page with the dates of all the full moons for the year. I could do so many things! Here again, the “anything goes” philosophy goes a little too far for me. The question is “Why would I really want/need to create any of those things in a journal?” I actually tried using one for about a week last year, just to see it was helpful or if it increased my productivity in any way. Quite the opposite. It was a hindrance as I had to remember what I had in the journal, where I was supposed to make notes about what, and…. thanks. No thanks. I’ll pass. I had a similar experience with the “Journal Workshop” process that was popular many years ago. Too many categories with too many details, too much page-flipping. In short, far too over-organized and structured for me. Mostly I just want to play with colors and designs, to use those elements to express moods, to add a few quotes here and there that help me focus or which bring back memories. Hopefully I’m on the right track with my art journal now. Time will tell!

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      1. Yes, bullet journals are lovely and tempting. I have yet to take the bait on that, but I want to try it. But my hybrid journal is a bit like a bullet journal. Except it’s more like the “final draft” of something that was scribbled down elsewhere during formation. So, it’s more like a scrapbook without the photos, or a collection of “meaningful themes” with small decorative illustrations. Anyway, I hope the inspiration doesn’t overwhelm too much, so you can explore and find what works for you. ^_^ The good news is there’s really no wrong way to do it.

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  2. I too get frozen if I don’t have some idea or kernel to start with. I appreciate that there are times when we need the freedom to “do anything,” especially after a period of intense practice where we have been following a bunch of rules to try to master a technique. Rules can be suffocating, but as you point out, they can also be freeing. I was going to suggest you pick a theme you want to explore in your journal, or a medium, or something like that to give yourself some structure, but you found your own way — and I love the idea of pulling a topic from morning pages. I hope your art journal explorations prove fun for you.

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    1. I think (hope) it will work for me. Doing a journal page is a good starting point when I come into the studio each morning. I don’t have to get overly concerned with the results, and I can use up scraps of paper — and ideas — that I have lying about. So far, it’s been fun. 🙂

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