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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Beginning The Artist’s Way

Last week I started participating in Julia Cameron’s 12 week course The Artist’s Way. It might seem odd that I would start such a course at this stage of my writing life. I’ve been writing since I was a teenager, I’ve had short stories and articles published since 2000, and my novels have been published since 2011. I was doing all right, right? I was writing, publishing, and finding successes where I could.

I wrote last week about how suddenly, after writing and publishing for years, I hit the wall of Resistance pretty hard, leaving me with bruised extremities and a soft-boiled ego. What happened? You name it, and it was probably right–I was lazy, I was afraid of failing, I was afraid of dreaming too big, I was tired of battling between what I wanted to write and what I thought I should write.

I’ve always believed that you will find what you need if you open yourself up to receive it. On a whim, I pulled The Artist’s Way off my bookshelf (it was one of the few paperbacks I kept after I embraced the minimalist movement and started donating books and other things I no longer used). I skimmed through the pages and recognized it as a 12 week course that needs to be worked through rather than read cover to cover. I made the decision to take the plunge. Luckily for me, I had just reread Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and Goldberg’s suggestions went along perfectly with the purpose of The Artist’s Way. Here’s what I did for Week One:

  • I completed my morning pages for each of the seven days. If you’re not familiar with Cameron’s morning pages, it’s a journal that you keep every day. The only rule is you have to write at least three pages, but otherwise you can write about whatever you want. The idea is just to get the thoughts flowing. Natalie Goldberg refers to it as writing practice. I use Goldberg’s idea of using sensory detail and memories and life happenings as fuel for my writing. Here’s a sample from my morning pages from last week:

I have been to this hospital too many times to count. It is as though the hospital itself waves “Hello! Welcome back!” whenever it opens its sliding glass doors to me and I walk from the 115 degree dry desert heat into the cold, stale air of the waiting room. If I think about it, I can count the number of times I have been here: one…two…three…four…five…six…seven… My mother calls this hospital her home away from home, and it is. The hospital is located at the north end of Tenaya Way, the medical district with doctors’ offices, physical therapists’ offices, blood-draw offices, and MRI offices. There’s also a post office and a pub for those in need of a pick-me-up from waiting in tight-fisted doctors’ offices or hospital waiting rooms where people are packed tighter than pencils in a box. There is the serenity of the mountains in the distance, but there’s also the freeway just a few feet away, and if you stop and listen you can hear the zoom of the car-chase type speeds as vehicles zip past, as though the drivers believe they are race-car champions. 

I won’t bore you with the rest of it, but you can see that I’ve incorporated Goldberg’s idea of including sensory details as a way of practicing the pinpoint eyesight through which I can observe the world and use in my writing.

  • I did my artist’s date. An artist’s date, according to Cameron, is a weekly chance for us to get in touch with our inner creative person. It’s a chance to do something fun and creative simply to do something fun and creative. This week I did a page in my art journal. I discovered art journaling last summer and fell in love with it, and then I didn’t touch my journal for months. It was great fun to pull out my paints and stencils again, and I’m sorry I let it go for so long. The inspiration for this page came from Mimi Bondi, a French mixed media artist living in Australia. I love Mimi because she’s all about finger painting and having fun and doing whatever you want and you can’t do it wrong, which goes right along with the intention behind the artist’s date. If you’re looking for art journaling inspiration, check out Mimi’s YouTube page.
  • I answered the questions and completed the tasks at the end of Lesson One. I wrote my responses right into my morning pages journal. I took a walk (in 115 degree nose-bleed dry desert heat, which is great commitment, I must say), and I discovered that the monster who has done the most to discourage my creativity and my writing is me. Now there’s a revelation.

It’s only been one week, but so far so good. So far I’ve read the lesson for the second week, and I’m looking forward to the discoveries ahead.

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The Discovery, the Bones, and the Artist’s Way

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg talks about beginner’s mind, where we go back to the beginning to remember what it is like to try something for the first time. As someone who has been writing since high school with the intention of being published, and as someone who has had a few literary successes I thought I knew what writing was.

And then I didn’t.

It was the stuff outside writing I started having problems with. I understand what social media is and how to use it (some of it, anyway). I understand more about marketing than I did before Her Dear & Loving Husband was published. Suddenly, publicity and marketing became overwhelming because there’s too much out there. Blogs, books, podcasts–all proclaiming “I’ve sold a million books! This is how you can do it!” And then when I didn’t get close to the numbers the experts claimed to have achieved I felt smaller than a gnat. I wanted to sell a million books too, so I allowed myself to be persuaded by iffy claims and false advertising–sometimes from people who hadn’t sold any more books than I had. If I had been around in the era of the carnival barkers I would have fallen for their every sales pitch, believing that saw dust would cure all my ills. I followed every publishing site, read every book, and listened to every podcast searching for that magic nugget, that one big reveal that would set me on the road to becoming the Next Big Thing.

One day, not too long ago, everything I was reading about publishing started to feel like noise–a residual sound like a tinnitus-type ringing in my ears. Then I wondered, how have I contributed to the noise? Is that what being a writer is now? Spreading noise instead of thoughts, opinions, and ideas? Instead of sharing stories? How much of my work has come from my heart, and how much has come from my beliefs about what I think others want from me? As of right now, I know what I do not want: I no longer want to contribute to the noise.

As soon as last week I was making myself crazy trying to discover what kind of books I should write that would make the most money and how quickly I could write those books and how to best market those books and which influencers I should connect with and how to publicize everything to my best advantage.

Only I didn’t want any of it.

Somehow, call it a flash of enlightenment, I understood that I was marching to the beat of other people’s drummers instead of my own. I’m a pretty independent-minded person, and even I followed the pied piper.  I went along because I lost track of what being a writer meant to me. I lost track of being an artist, of seeing the world through wide, open eyes that recognize life on earth as the miracle it is, like when I taught kindergarteners–a job I adored–because everything was new to them. The simplest experiment–making bubbles from soap and water and empty strawberry cartons and watching the sunlight reflect rainbow prisms as the bubbles floated away in the white-cloud sky–made them point and giggle with glee. In that moment those bubbles were the greatest thing ever. After 23 years of writing, that’s what I wanted for myself–I wanted to watch bubbles with wonder. I wanted to get back to beginner’s mind.

I’ve read Writing Down the Bones too many times to count, and this morning I finished reading it once again. But it was a different experience this time. This time, it hit me exactly in the innards. I had seen myself as a writer for many years, and while I always loved what Goldberg said and took a lot of it to heart, I didn’t really understand the book until this latest reading. I had also read Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way before, only the first time I read it cover to cover, which is not how the book was meant to be experienced since it’s a 12 week course to be studied week by week. I loved what Cameron said about living a creative’s life, but I didn’t take it to heart because I thought I was already doing all right in that department.

Maybe I wasn’t as creatively all right as I thought. I want to get back to the heart of being creative and the soul of what I really love–writing. I am really only at home in the world when I’m writing. I am now going through Cameron’s course week by week. I’m on week one. I’ve started doing morning pages (or writing practice, as Natalie Goldberg calls it). So far I’ve done my morning pages every day this week, though I haven’t done my artist’s date yet. I have a feeling Saturdays will be my day for my artist’s date. I think I would like to do a page or two in my art journal, using finger paints and designing whatever I see in my mind’s eye at that moment. I haven’t touched my art journal in nearly a year, and I have missed it.

For so long, writing had become a chore because I had so many other worries. Like Natalie Goldberg says, writing does writing, and that’s where I lost my connection–to writing and myself. I was trying too hard to push the writing this or that way thinking I should do what others told me to do instead of doing what my heart wanted to do. That is always a mistake.

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