The Joy of Making Messes

It’s no secret to anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while. I’ve struggled with art journaling. Although I’ve always loved the concept and have gazed in awe at the beautiful journal pages other artists have created, I’ve never been able to embrace the practice for myself.

Until recently, that is. Yes, I’m learning to appreciate art journaling, because at long last, I’ve learned ways of making it truly my own. That’s the key, I think. Art journals should be meaningful. Without that personal connection to what we create and how it reflects who we are, art journaling is little more than a messy creative pastime.

But with meaning added, all that mess becomes beautiful. It becomes exciting. It becomes adventurous, daring, and very, very personal. These are the qualities we should have in an art journal, and these are the very things my attempts were lacking.

So, what changed? How? Why?

I began art journaling late last summer. At the time I was still acclimating myself to the whole idea of having an art studio. It was an exciting time, but it required a lot of personal adjustments not only in my daily routine but in my mindset. I had to adopt a new attitude toward art and accept being an artist in new ways. Art journaling was intended as a way of helping me ease into the process, to explore new creative avenues, and to become more expressive in my art.

It didn’t work that way for me. I was lost. Other than following along with online tutorials, I had no idea how to go about creating art journal pages. While I enjoyed learning mixed media techniques, and while I especially enjoyed discovering new mixed media materials, I came away from every journal page feeling disappointed and more unsure than ever about who I was and why in the world did I want to do an art journal?

I signed up for a monthly subscription box at Let’s Make Art, and trust me, I look forward to each new box. I can’t wait to see what new art goodies I have! At first, I dutifully followed along with Jesse Petersen as she presented the new projects for each box, but again, more often than not, I came away discouraged. I didn’t care for a lot of the projects. While I liked the idea of having a monthly theme, there was really nothing personal about it. I just couldn’t connect.

Again, I gazed in wonder at the beautiful pages others were creating from the LMA project tutorials. I loved reading their stories about finding meaning through their art journaling, and as before, I shrugged and considered the possibility that some people just aren’t cut out for art journaling, and I was obviously one of them.

Again, what changed? How? Why?

The changes began as I started my personal “art therapy” program, sitting on the floor, cutting out shapes, crying over failed art projects, and taking myself back to being that clumsy little girl who did not do well with scissors. At this point, I was working with one of my own hand-made journals. It wasn’t anything special, nothing fancy, not like the “professional”, “real” art journal that’s included each month in my subscription box. I felt freer with this little hand-made journal. This was mine!

And so, as I drew childish pictures and explored different aspects of art, I was free to experience any feelings that came. I could ruin all the pages I wanted — if that’s what I wanted to do, and yes, trust me, I did ruin a lot of pages. Those ruined pages, however, became important memories for me. They became signs of the personal journey I’m making, steps toward healing that hurt inner art child.

As part of my personal exploration, I made a list of things I wanted to learn about, places I wanted to go, things I’d like to do. And day by day, I take those different things and incorporate them into one of my hand-made art journals. I have several now. I keep different things in them.

I am no longer following along with online tutorials. Instead, I just cut out quotes — or attempt writing them out in my careless calligraphy — I find interesting pictures, or I create my own pictures. I play with ideas.

Sketchbook Revival was helpful, too, because so many of the workshops focused on mixed media techniques as well as the meditative aspects of art. I had fun trying new things — like making pockets in my art journal, creating my own collage paper, and playing with leaves, twigs, nuts, rocks!

My little gansai set is nearly used up! I have a bigger set, but I’ve loved using my first small set for my personal art journaling. It’s kept me limited in colors, and maybe that’s been a good thing. Fewer decisions that way, and I think that’s been helpful.

Now, I’m having fun experimenting in my art journals, and I no longer think about creating “pretty pages”. I think of my journals now more as scrapbooks, a place where I can collect things I like — like pictures of old stone carvings, or a quick “rune table” to help me memorize their meanings. I can add old photos, cut-outs, and notes about what I’m doing. It doesn’t have to look like anything from any tutorial. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to be part of me.

I was especially happy with this background I made this morning. In a lot of ways, it was all wrong. My gesso was a bit too thick as I attempted to use it with stencils. A lot of it smeared together when I added watercolor. When I took a tissue to wipe away bits of the water, it stuck to the page in places. Oh, well. I just kept playing with it. And I loved it. It’s a mess, but to me, it’s a beautiful mess.

Next, I simply closed the book and let some of the “blue mess” transfer to the facing page. I added a soft pastel pink watercolor wash. Again, I loved the results.

Between “Sketchbook Revival” and my personal art therapy projects, I’m learning that it’s all right to make mistakes, it’s all right to make messes, that I don’t have to strive for perfection in art — or in anything else I do.

So often I go online and see artists sharing their sketchbooks, doing “flip-throughs” to show off their gorgeous, colorful pages, all so beautiful, so inspiring! But that sets up comparisons, makes me feel terribly inadequate, and sometimes makes me think I should just give up art altogether. After all, I’ll never, ever be able to create anything so beautiful.

But then I realize that beautiful is subjective, and it’s not really even the point here. Sketchbooks and journals are not supposed to be beautiful. Let me say that again, a little louder this time: Sketchbooks and journals are not supposed to be beautiful.

Some artists might disagree. Fine. No one will ever reach any consensus about anything in art! If  you want to create a beautiful sketchbook, go for it.

For me, it’s more important now to have an honest sketchbook, one that shows all my trials and all my errors, one that truly reflects who I am, the challenges I’m facing, and the creative processes I’m exploring. This honesty becomes, in my opinion, truly beautiful in its own right.

So if you were to see my sketchbooks now, you’d see ugly things, but true things. You’d see haphazard marks, skewed drawings, and splotches of paint. In short, you’d see ME, raw but real. You’d see my process of becoming, illustrations of my growth, a visual record of my hopes and dreams as I pursue the world of art.

Now, isn’t that what a sketchbook or art journal should really be about?




  1. You brought tears to my eyes. Such a beautiful release of the past issues you’ve hidden inside. Love your bravery in sharing the raw truths that set-up housekeeping in your heart.

    Kudos and hugs. Dr. Deb

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks. Getting those deep-seated feelings out has been a difficult experience, but I’m feeling the benefits from it. It’s been interesting to learn and see how strong those bad feelings were.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m sitting in fear today as well…trying to keep calm. Big procedure at 11am my time. I dislike being in xray tubes for multiple cat scans. Radioactive dyes and all. I soooooo want to say I won’t do it. I think they are looking to confirm bone cancer in my knee. I don’t think that’s true in spite of both my sisters dying from cancer. Yuck.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, dear! What a frightful day. I will have you in my thoughts and prayers. It sounds like an ordeal, for sure. I hope to hear back from you soon with a report on the doctors’ findings.


    1. I’m glad it resonated with you. I’ve struggled so much with art journaling, wanting to do it but just not finding purpose in it. My “art therapy” has helped me approach art from a very personal way — embracing it, mistakes and all — and that’s given me a new outlook on the journaling process. I no longer see it as trying to keep a pretty visual account of what’s going on in my life, but as an ongoing creative process replete with ugly drawings and frustrations. Those things are part of art and part of ME, so they need to be in my journal. It’s become a big playground where I can dig out old childhood dreams, write whatever I want, explore different ideas, and get a lot of emotions OUT. The most helpful thing for me is understanding that it’s MY journal, for MY personal use. It’s not a work of art I’m going to show off on YouTube or exhibit in an art show. It’s a private, personal record of my thoughts and feelings — in both words and pictures.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So inspiring! Your background creation is lovely! Your words about art journalling always make me think. I’ve struggled with and against them for years. Still haven’t found my way to them as being work the effort, but I’m getting closer. Thank you for this wonderful post! 🤗👋

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s been a struggle for me, as well. I’m finally learning how to make them really personal and meaningful, and that makes a huge difference. Thinking of my art journal as a sort of “emotional art playground” has really helped a lot, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I really relate to this! Sketchbooks and journals are not supposed to be beautiful! Well said. A sketch book is an adventure. A place to be free and to explore. Without that place how are we supposed to learn, get better and find our style? Thanks for this post!


    1. This has been one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned in art! I love seeing my sketchbooks now as “creative journals” — playgrounds where I can do whatever I want! It makes it all so much more fun.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love my art journal even though I am not a good artist. It’s the process that helps me and gives me a deal of therapy in coming to terms with my emotions. Like you I sometimes look with envy at the wonderful pages of other people, but I’m glad I have no pressure to produce anything kike that.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It is very interesting. A “Smashbook” starts off being both beautiful and messy — wrinkled pages, pages glued together, a handmade cover, lots of gesso. But there’s a bit of “magic” to it, too. Writing our intentions for the journal, adding beautiful touches. It’s designed to help stop those “precious” feelings about perfect pages, so it’s a mess to start with. It’s all been quite an experience this morning.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Art journals are about the process, not the finished product. Sounds like you’re traveling now. I normally don’t even work in my journal, just paste in sketches and little paintings, and makes notes about the important actions to remember.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not doing any “art journaling” now. It served its purpose for me as part of my personal “art therapy” and helped me develop greater freedom. I’ve been able to carry that learning over into my drawing and painting, so it was valuable. I like to work on a “mixed media” project occasionally, so I still use a lot of the techniques I discovered while art journaling. One daughter gave me a “vintage journal” which is lovely, but it’s a bit impractical for art, so I plan to do a bit of cutting and pasting to fill it up. I’ll add a few quotes, and it will be a journal of sorts, I suppose.


    1. Journals — and sketchbooks, too — are made to hold memories. They’re “visual diaries” you might say. I can’t imagine ever getting rid of any of the journals I’ve created. It’s fun to sit down, go through the pages, and think about where and when I created them, to remember what I was doing, how I felt. I’ve found it helpful to have a lot of different journals. Same with sketchbooks. I might have one journal just for family memories, or one journal just for “art therapy” projects. Right now, I have a sketchbook that is only for “drawing circles” and another for “neurographic art”. It’s fun, too, to make my own little sketchbooks — like the Earth Day 2021 journal I made. There are several posts in the blog about making journals with links to helpful tips.

      Liked by 1 person

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