Monday, June 11, 2012

Intro to Visual Journals, Part 3: Getting Started

[Not sure what visual journals are all about?  Start here: Part 1.]
[Need some tips on supplies for visual journals?  Try Part 2.]

It's easy to want to keep a visual journal.  There are hundreds of websites, blogs, and books that show off beautiful journal pages.  We can spend hours poring over those pages, building up the desire to start our own visual journals.  But then when we do decide to start, we're intimidated.  Nothing we make looks as good as any of those other pages.  The pages in our shiny new journal look so clean and white that we don't want to mess them up.  We're not sure how to use our fancy new art supplies to get the neat effects that we have seen online.  So we don't do it.  Our journals sit unused on shelves.

But it doesn't need to be that way.  The secret to keeping a regular visual journal is to identify your main purpose in keeping it, start small, and gradually build up a habit of working in it.  If you do that, you'll soon develop confidence in your techniques and before too long you'll be creating beautiful and exciting pages too.

Identify Your Focus
Knowing why you want to keep a visual journal can help you select the supplies you'll need and can lend you focus as you working on building a habit.  Here are some possible reasons why you might want to keep a visual journal (or any journal):
  • To use images to supplement your written notes and journal entries.
  • To chronicle your everyday life.
  • To provide a record for future generations.
  • To develop, practice, and hone your artistic skills.
  • To relax and relieve stress.
  • To connect with nature through sketches and written observations.
  • To contain memories of your travels.
  • To practice your writing skills.
  • To track a certain activity, such as bird watching, amateur astronomy, gardening, running, cooking, etc.
If all you want to do is supplement your written notes, you probably have no need for acrylic paints.  If you want to provide a record for your children to read, you'll want to look for archival-quality supplies.  If you want your journal to contain your observations of nature, some sketching pencils and pens may be all you need.  If you want to keep a travel journal, you'll need to keep your supply kit portable.

Identify your focus: This journal that I started several years ago was intended to be a focus for my nature observations. It included some awkward sketches of what I observed in my environment, as well as written notes.  The only supplies needed were a blank sketchbook and a pen.

Start Small
Don't jump right in and try to create fancy, multi-layered pages like the ones you see online right away.  Chances are you'll be disappointed with the results and it will then be just that much harder to keep going.  If you already have a written journal, start with that instead of buying a new one.  If you don't have a journal already, start practicing with loose sheets of paper, a recycled book such as an old planner, or any notebook that you will have no qualms about "messing up."  Start with the supplies you have on hand already.  Open up your journal or pull out a piece of paper and try one of these prompts:
  • Look around the space where you are sitting and pick one item.  It should be relatively small and simple in form.  Using the pen or pencil you usually write with, sketch it.  Don't worry if it looks like a child drew it.  If you feel like it, sketch it a few times, from different angles.
  • Write out your to-do list or your wish list.  Use different colours of pens.  Doodle in the margins as you write.  Use arrows and circles and highlighting.
  • Find a box of markers, crayons, or coloured pencils (maybe you can borrow some from your kids).  The more colours the box has the better.  Draw, doodle, colour, and do whatever else you feel like doing to fill an entire page, making sure that you use every single colour in the box.
  • Cut some images that appeal to you out of an old magazine and glue them on the page.  Write about why you chose those images.
  • Draw a cartoon of "a day in your life."  Again, don't worry if it looks like it was drawn by a child.
  • Draw a mandala.  Use the pen or pencil you usually use, and start out with drawing a small circle in the centre of the page.  Keep adding to it until you've filled most of the page.  Try not to consciously control what direction the mandala is going in; just relax and let your hand move over the page.
These prompts are examples of how simple and non-intimidating it can be to start keeping a visual journal.  The main idea is start with something that is easy and fun.  That way, you'll want to keep working in your journal.  Pick any of these prompts that appeal to you and fit with your purpose, or pick none of them.  Just start.

Start small: In my gluebook journal, I cut and glued down images from magazines and other sources and wrote a bit about why those images appealed to me.  I didn't have to worry about drawing or painting anything, but I could still have fun with colour and composition.  The only supplies needed were a spiral-bound sketchbook from the dollar store, a pair of scissors, a glue stick, and a pen.

Build a Habit
Get into the habit of working in your visual journal every day.  You don't need to create an entire page every day.  You can even be working on multiple pages at once.  Just try to do a little something every day.  If you already have a habit of writing in your journal or notebook every day, use that time to have a bit of fun in your visual journal as well.  If you don't have a habit already, just pick a time that works for you.  Maybe when you're drinking your morning coffee.  Or during your lunch break.  Or just before you go to bed.  Pick a time, and then commit to working in your visual journal for five minutes every day at that time.  If you miss a day, don't worry about it.  Don't worry about whether what you're creating is good or bad.  Just do it.  If it starts to feel like a chore instead of a time to have fun, you're probably over-thinking it.

Build a habit: This art journal page from a few years ago looks pretty complicated, but it didn't get done in one sitting.  It took me several sessions to finish it, and each of the steps I took towards the finished page spread were, on their own, very simple and non-intimidating - even though the end result appears quite complex.  (Check out the five-part series I wrote back in 2009 if you want the full story on just how simple these pages were: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.)


One thing that I suggest you don't do when you're getting started is spend a lot of time looking at the pages that other people have made.  If you feel like you need some inspiration, you can flip through your favourite websites or books and get some ideas.  And if you want to learn how to do a certain technique, you can find  out about that.  But don't spend a lot of time looking at other pages and comparing your pages to them.  The important thing is to focus on gaining confidence and building a habit.  Once you have done that, then you can expand and start looking for resources to broaden your knowledge and skills.  And that will be the subject of the next post in this series, which will be coming up in two weeks from now!


This series of posts is focused on the basics of keeping a visual journal, especially for people who don't think of themselves as artists, who aren't interested in spending a fortune on fancy art supplies, and who might be a bit intimidated by many popular sites on art journals or sketchbooks. If you have any questions about visual journals or suggestions for future topics in this series, please let me know!

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