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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What I Learned About Writing from Coloring Books

As I’ve said before (in this post), I’ve joined the coloring book craze. I loved coloring when I was a kid, and as it happens I still love to color. I consider myself a wannabe crafter, and I used to dabble in painting with acrylics, and while coloring isn’t actually crafting or creating an original work of art, it still allows me to play with colors.

Peacock

This is definitely one of my better pieces, maybe because I love peacocks.

I’ve found that, at least for me, there is a meditation-like quality to coloring because the coloring itself is all I’m thinking about while I’m engaged in the activity. I’m not worried about schoolwork I have to do, crazy professors, and all the writing I have to get through. All I’m thinking about is the page I’m coloring, what colored pencils, crayons, or markers I want to use, and which colors I think will look best. The more I have to do, the more I appreciate the simplicity of sitting down with some crayons and filling in the pictures.

As coloring became more popular, suddenly there were countless posts and articles about how to color. It’s similar to what happened with writing and indie publishing—suddenly there were all these experts shouting about the right way to do things. Something that should be relaxing and fun becomes stressful as we try to keep up. There’s nothing like an expert to take the fun out of something.

I had the realization (while coloring, of course) that my attitude toward coloring was the same as my attitude toward writing. I had to decide for myself how I wanted to color, just like I had to decide for myself how I wanted to write. Here are a few things I learned from coloring books and how they relate to writing:

  1. Use the colors you want to use.

The experts in coloring will tell you to choose your palette first—use a color wheel to help you determine which colors to use. They’ll tell you which colors go with each other, and if you use that other color combination, look out! The Crayola Police will hunt you down. Hey, they say, that’s how painters do it, so that’s how coloring people should do it too!

And then I realized that I could use any color combination I want, just as I can write my stories however I want. I don’t like choosing my colors ahead of time. I like to choose my colors one by one as I’m coloring in the picture. Sometimes I have an overall idea of the color scheme I want to use, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m happy with how the pictures turn out, sometimes I’m not. When I’m writing, I have an overall idea of how I want the story to turn out, but I’ve also learned to get out of my own way and allow the story to find its own path. If I prefer choosing my colors as I go as opposed to choosing them first then I can do that. If I prefer letting my stories find their own way, I can do that too.

  1. Stop comparing yourself to others.

There are some amazing coloring websites out there where the coloring people post their finished pages. Some of those colored pages are indeed museum ready. They’re absolutely beautiful with shading and light and the way the colors blend together. My pictures don’t look like that (as you’ll see from the examples in this post). I love playing with colors, and some color combinations I try I like, some I don’t like as much, but so what? I wouldn’t know what I liked unless I allowed myself the freedom to experiment.

I have no desire to become a professional artist. Making myself crazy trying to make my pictures look like some of these artists’ pictures doesn’t work for me. I don’t have a lot of time to color because I’m so busy with other tasks, so when I do have time to color I don’t want to spend my time being stressed because my picture doesn’t look good enough compared to what other people can do. Where’s the fun in that?

Writers often have severe cases of compare-itis. We’re always looking to see which writers are selling more books, getting better reviews, or winning more awards than we are. We have to remind ourselves that we’re not in competition with other writers. This isn’t a race. Our careers as writers are just as unique as we are as people. No two writing careers are alike. We need to remember to focus on ourselves and helping our own careers move forward. Like runners, if we keep looking back to see who might overtake us we’ll lose steam and slow down.

  1. Outline if you want to (and it’s okay to color outside the lines).
Blue Birds

You can see that I outlined the leaves in dark green and filled them in with light green.

When I was reading posts of coloring tips, a number of the experts said not to outline your drawing. Apparently, with outlining you’re not going to have a realistic looking product and that’s not how the professionals do it. Oh well. I’ve always liked to outline my coloring pictures. Even when I was a kid I’d outline the shapes with whatever crayon I was using. A lot of times, I’ll outline with a darker color and fill in the shape with a lighter color (as evidenced in the picture to the left here), and I like the way that looks. Is it wrong? Not to me. It’s my coloring page and I’m going to do it the way I want to. It’s the same with coloring outside the lines. I like it when my coloring pencils or crayons end up outside the line because then when I’m filling in the next color they blend a bit. How maddening, to feel like your coloring page is all wrong if your hand slipped and some color ended up on the other side of the black line.

There are many posts out there for writers about the right way to do things. Write in these genres if you want to make money. Publish this many books a year. Set your books at these prices. Grow your social media presence and build your author platform. But what if you don’t want to limit your writing to certain genres, or what if you have another life outside of your writing like I do and you can only publish one book a year? Does that mean that you won’t have any career as a writer? Not at all. It means that you get to decide what kind of career you’re going to have.

Here are my own tips for coloring (and they apply to writing as well):

  1. Choose what you want to color. You don’t have to start at the beginning of the book. You decide where to start. If you don’t love the picture, colorng it will be a chore. The same goes for writing. Write something you’re excited to get back to. If you’re not excited about it, it’s going to be hard to convince readers your writing is worth their time.
  1. Choose your own colors. You can use a color wheel to examine which colors go together, or you can choose whatever you want to choose because you want to choose it. You can choose them ahead of time, or you can choose them in the moment, whichever feels right to you. For writing, you get to decide how you use language. You have the final say in how you’ll string phrases together. You may not like the way some of it turns out. That’s okay. You tried it, you didn’t like it, so try again until you find something you do like.
  1. Don’t compare your pictures (or your writing) to anyone else. Find your own style.
  1. Coloring (and writing) should be fun. Listen to your favorite music. Turn off your electronic devices and other distractions. Make your coloring (and your writing) time special so you’re looking forward to getting back to it.

You can let the experts tell you what to do and how to do it, or you can find your own way. Whether I’m coloring or writing, I find it a lot more fulfilling to find my own way.

Dare To Do Nothing: Replenishing the Creative Well

The view from the park in The Lakes in Las Vegas

The view from the park in The Lakes in Las Vegas.

I was looking forward to summer vacation from both work and school as a time to focus on my novel full time. I think this is why I’ve never been worried about having a day job—even with my day job I still get summers off to write full time. Then a funny thing happened—nothing.

The novel was stalled. Where my last three novels were written fairly quickly in less than a year (that’s quickly for me, mind you), my current novel was stubborn and not coming as easily as I would have liked. I didn’t understand the characters as well as I thought I did. I felt the plot was lacking, though I couldn’t tell you why. I wondered and worried myself crazy, and while I tried to work on the book I realized I was getting nowhere fast. That’s when I came up with the radical idea of putting my writing aside for a while and leaving it alone. Normally, I allow the story some baking time after the first draft, which I had done, but then when I went to write the second draft there wasn’t much more than there had been for the first draft. The second draft is a little better than the first, but it’s nothing to write home about, and it’s definitely not publishable. For my last three novels, once I made it past the “shitty first draft” stage and had a complete second draft I was, except for revising and editing, home free. This one not so much. I was getting so frustrated I was ready to throw in the towel and forget the novel altogether.

I hadn’t suffered from writer’s block in this form since I first began writing Her Dear & Loving Husband in 2009. What if I never have another good idea? What if being a doc student has sucked away all my brain power and I simply can’t write fiction until I’m finished with my degree? What if this is it and my creativity is gone, finished, kaput? You know how writers panic when the ideas aren’t flowing. Then I started thinking about how I’ve been writing novels constantly for the last six years without a break. Since 2009, I’ve published seven novels. And the scholarly writing I do for school is creative in its own way since it takes creativity to figure out how to take information from various sources and construct a well-organized, persuasive narrative. Maybe, I thought, just maybe my creativity isn’t kaput as much as just tired.

I’ve suffered, like many of you, from what they call the Do Something Syndrome at Farnam Street blog. Even on my days off I feel like I have to constantly be working at something—whether it’s writing, editing, schoolwork, marketing, social media, whatever. I started reading a lot about stillness and how doing nothing can help to fill your creative well. Here’s a great post from one of my favorite websites, Zen Habits, called The Number 1 Habit of Highly Creative People where the artists talk about stillness and doing nothing as a way to stay creative. There are a number of other articles out there on the same topic. Doing nothing? I wasn’t sure I could do that, but I was willing to try since my creative well definitely needed replenishing. This hiatus was going to be different from the baking time since baking time is where, though I’m not actively writing, I’m still working on the novel because I’m reading, researching, and finding other ways to immerse myself in the story. This time I was going to leave the story completely alone and give myself a rest from even thinking about the novel.

A page from my coloring book. I like this book, called Creative Coloring Inspirations, because of the inspirational quotes.

A page from my coloring book. I like this book, called Creative Coloring Inspirations, because of the inspirational quotes.

How have I been spending my days? Well, I haven’t been working on the novel, which is how I thought I would be spending this summer. I haven’t even felt guilty about not working on it—most of the time. Writers are great at laying the guilt trip on themselves, aren’t they? Whenever I see a book I’ve read for research laying around my desk, I remind myself that I’m filling my creative well and look the other way. Instead, I’ve been sitting on my little patio with my cat Ellie as we watch the Las Vegas desert sky turn from pale blue to slate gray as the thunder-filled clouds move in. I’ve gone to the park down the street with its fake lake (the water is real even if the lake is man made) and looked at the ducks, the boats, the pretty houses, and the mountains in the distance. I’ve been exercising and doing yoga after a bout of laziness. I’ve discovered the charms of adult coloring books (they’re just regular coloring books with more intricate details, folks. I know what you were thinking…). I used to love to color when I was a kid, and it turns out I still do. I’ve always considered myself a wannabe artsty-craftsy kind of person. I love watching the how-to-paint-flowers shows they have on PBS, and I even dabbled in painting with acrylics a few years ago. While coloring isn’t exactly an original piece of art, I enjoy the chance to play with colors and I’ve rediscovered the fun of crayons, colored pencils, and watercolors. I’ve been reading a lot, finishing two or three books a week. I’ve been watching some good TV shows, movies, and documentaries (yes, I watch documentaries for fun). Saying that I’ve been doing nothing isn’t quite accurate, but I haven’t been writing fiction, thinking about writing fiction, or, most importantly, worrying about writing ficiton. I’ve just been enjoying my days and filling them however I want to rather than stressing myself out about what I thought I should be doing.

Then, a couple of months into my self-imposed exile from writing fiction, I read a couple of novels that gave me some ideas for my own story. I still have things to figure out, but at least I have a few ideas now where before I had nothing. I refuse to start worrying again about when or how the book will be written. If it takes me two years instead of one to write, then so be it. I’d rather spend two years writing the story I meant to write than publish whatever just to get something out. Everything happens in its own time. I’ve always known that, but I find I need a reminder every now and again.