The Joy of Art Journaling

While I’m going week by week through Julia Cameron’s course The Artist’s Way, I thought I’d share a bit about art journaling since I’ve been using it as the basis for my artist’s dates. I tried out art journaling last summer, loved it, and then I totally let it drop and didn’t touch any of my paints, pencils, or stencils for nearly a year.

I fell in love with art as a sophomore in college when I took an art history class. I didn’t know much about art then, but the class fulfilled a liberal arts requirement so I grabbed it. The class covered the time period from the earliest cave paintings in France through the Roman Empire. I remember the professor who seemed so ancient to my 19 year old eyes, but was probably in his mid forties, not old at all now that I’m in my mid forties myself. He was a slight, slender man in his khaki pants, polo shirts, and sweater tied around his neck though it was summer in the San Fernando Valley in California. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone as excited about their subject as that professor was. He spoke with such enthusiasm, describing the hieroglyphics inside the Egyptian pyramids as though they were indeed handed down by the gods. I remember the professor leading a class expedition to the J. Paul Getty Museum, and I remember the feeling of complete enchantment as I studied the Greek statues and pottery. I found the professor, and his subject, endearing, and it was because of that class I developed a lifelong love for art.

As much as I love to visit museum exhibitions, I never thought of myself as much of an artist. I was a writer, so I had to content myself with creative expression from writing. A number of years ago I dabbled in painting with acrylics, but that didn’t last long. I tried to take a painting class at the extension university where I was teaching creative writing, but the teacher wasn’t all I hoped she would be. She was a short French woman with the oddly elfin look of Dobby from the Harry Potter books. Her dyed jet-black hair was cut into an ear-length 1920s flapper’s bob and she wore huge round black glasses that took up the whole of her face. She tottered around the classroom shrugging at the students’ paintings the way only the French can. There was no instruction. There were no directions. She put some flowers in a vase on a stool at the front of the classroom and told us to paint what we saw. I looked around the classroom and saw students painting, but I didn’t even know where to start. I had never taken an art class. Yes, I loved to look at paintings, but looking and painting are two very different things. I started painting the flowers in the vase the best I could. Finally, Dobby stopped besides me and shrugged. “You are supposed to paint what you see,” she said. “This is what you see?”

Before I could answer, she shrugged and moved on. A little while later she stopped near me again.

“Why is your canvas so small?” she asked. Now it was my turn to shrug (I’m French too, you know). I didn’t remember there being a canvas size requirement in the class materials list, I said. Dobby opened her arms wide. “If you want to learn to paint, you paint big!”

I told her I didn’t think I was going to learn how to paint from her if she didn’t give us any instruction. I was a complete beginner and knew nothing about painting. Her only response was “Hmpf!” as she tottered away. Another student next to me shrugged and said that that was just the way the teacher was. I grabbed my materials, left the room, and got a refund for the money I paid for the class. I practiced a little on my own, but then decided I didn’t know what I was doing so I stopped. I still considered myself a wanna-be artist, but I limited my non-writing artistic experiences to watching craft shows on TV.

In time I started coloring, which I do enjoy. It’s stress free because someone else has done the drawing. All I have to do is choose which colors I’m going to use and have fun filling in the blanks. One Saturday afternoon I was watching one of my favorite craft shows, Scrapbook Soup on PBS with Julie Fei-Fan Balzer, and she had a guest on who talked about art journaling. Certainly, I knew what journaling was. Like most writers, I’ve been keeping a written journal for years, but art journaling was something new.

If you’re not familiar with art journaling, it’s the same as writing journaling except you’re using art supplies like colored pencils, paints, stencils, and stamps. Just as with writing journaling, art journaling is about the process and not about the finished product. When we keep writing journals we don’t worry about what we’re writing—we’re just writing. It’s like the writing practice Natalie Goldberg refers to in Writing Down the Bones or the morning pages of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Art journaling is art practice. We’re playing with the supplies, trying out different paints and different styles and different color combinations, not worrying about the final result. You can art journal on whatever paper you have handy—a bound journal, a composition book, even junk mail, old books, or magazines. You don’t need to take art classes. It’s the same learning by doing mentality that helped me become a writer, and since no one is going to see my art journal but me, I don’t have to worry about some little Dobby hovering over my shoulder shrugging as if I had no business so much as passing an art supply store.

When I began art journaling, I started slowly, buying some cheap acrylic paint at the discount store, and I already had a pretty good stash of colored pencils, crayons, and markers because of my coloring. I had an old sketch book from the Dobby days when I tried to paint the first time, and that became my art journal. I love stencils because I don’t have to worry about my drawing skills. I added a few paint markers to my stash, and I had a box of patterned scrapbook paper because I’ve created scrapbooks on occasion. Art journaling is simply about playing with what you have, allowing yourself to express yourself in whatever way you feel in the moment. The only way to do it wrong is to not do it at all.

Now, if you’re anything like me and have suffered from compare-itis, you’ll find it’s very easy to fall back into that trap when art journaling. Many of the people who make art journaling videos on YouTube or post their artwork on Pinterest are professional artists, so it’s very easy to look at their examples and think, “Well, I suck. What’s the point?” But that goes against the very purpose of art journaling. You need to look at the examples as what they are—examples—and then do what you can do in that moment. You can make your art journal pages look however you want—you can make them more like scrapbook pages, calendar pages, bullet journals. You can paint flowers, stencil flowers, doodle flowers. If you try something and don’t like it you can either paint over it with gesso or try to work with it. You can’t do it wrong. How cool is that?

Art journaling must have been invented for someone like me—someone who loves to play with paint and color but doesn’t have much background knowledge about how to actually make art. Some of my pages are kind of cool, and some are kind of weird, and some are kind of cartoony, but you know what? It’s all good. Anything I do in my art journal is right for me. So there, Dobby!

While I will always be a writer first, I’m enjoying discovering other artistic pursuits. I’m glad Julia Cameron’s course The Artist’s Way is prompting me to explore other avenues of creativity; mainly, I’m glad I’ve found my way back to art journaling.

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