The Joy of Art Journaling

Life is Better With Cats

I’ve shown this one of my three cats before, but it’s one of my favorites. I found the shape of the cats on Pinterest, then made a stencil of it with card stock.

I fell in love with art as a sophomore in college when I happened to take an art history class. I didn’t know much about art then, but the class fulfilled a humanities requirement and it had open seats so I grabbed it. The class covered the time period from the earliest cave paintings through the Roman Empire. I remember the professor 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 messages 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 in all its forms.

watercolor flowers

My first attempt at watercolors. I’ve since learned that you’re supposed to paint watercolors on wet paper. I like the whimsical look because it’s not supposed to be realistic.

As much as I love to visit museum exhibitions of the great artists, I never thought of myself as much of an artist. I was a writer, so I had to content myself with the fact that I got my creative expression from writing. A number of years ago I dabbled in painting with acrylics, but I really didn’t know what I was doing. 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. That was it. I looked around 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?”

crazy flower

This one is kind of busy but I love the colors peeking through. I was using molding paste for the first time and got a little carried away.

“Yes” was the only answer that seemed appropriate. She shrugged again 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!”


For this one I was trying out some new stencils I had just bought. Stencils are great for someone like me who doesn’t draw too well.

I told her the truth. 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 said 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 wasn’t good at it because I didn’t know what I was doing so I stopped painting. I still considered myself a wanna-be artist, but I limited my non-writing artistic experiences to watching craft shows on TV.

Last year I started coloring, which I 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. Then earlier this summer 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. Art journaling? What’s this? Certainly, I knew what journaling was. Like most writers, I’ve been keeping a journal for years, but art journaling was something new to me.

first art journal

This is one of the first art journal pages I did. I was just playing around slapping some paint around the page.

If you’re not familiar with art journaling, it’s really 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. In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg calls it writing practice. It’s the same with art journaling. It’s art practice. We’re not trying to create completed pieces of artwork for display. We’re playing with the supplies, trying out different paints and different styles and different color combinations, not worrying about the final result. We’re doing it just for the enjoyment. You can art journal on whatever paper you have handy—a bound journal, a composition book, even junk mail, old books, or magazines. You need only a few basic materials to get started. 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 what’s in my art journal but me, I don’t have to worry about some little wide-rimmed Dobby hovering over my shoulder shrugging as if I had no business even passing an art supply store.

whimsical flowers

Here are some circles I turned into easy flowers.

With my interest in art journaling piqued, I began watching videos on YouTube. Mimi Bondi’s videos are great. Mimi is a French woman living in Australia, and she’s nothing like Dobby. In fact, she’s exactly the opposite. Her art is all about having fun. She’s the one who taught me that art journaling should be about playing as if you were a kid again. She spreads the paint for the background on her pages with her fingers, and now I do the same. If you’re interested in art journaling, check out Mimi’s videos. There are a whole lot of great art journaling examples on YouTube. I found a wealth of inspiration from Pinterest too since there are thousands of examples of art journal pages to see and learn from.

purple flowersWhen 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. Now that I’ve been art journaling for a couple of months I bought myself more acrylic paints, and I love stencils because I don’t have to worry about my drawing skills. A lot of art journalists use stamps, but stamps are expensive and I haven’t gotten there yet. You can make your own stamps, but I haven’t tried it. I’m happy with my acrylic paints, colored pencils, and stencils. I’ve also started doodling (there are many easy to draw examples of doodles on Pinterest). 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 and allowing yourself the freedom to express yourself in whatever way you feel in the moment.

gelli plates

My first attempt with mini gelli plates.

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?


I watched an Angela Anderson tutorial on YouTube to paint this one.

I feel as if art journaling was 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. I’ve been having a lot of fun playing around in my art journal, and that’s all that matters. Some pages I like more than others. For some pages I use examples I’ve seen on Pinterest or YouTube as my inspiration, and some pages come completely from my imagination. Some of my pages are kind of cool, and some are kind of weird, but you know what? It’s all good. Anything I do in my art journal is right for me. So there, all you Dobbies of the world!

While I will always be a writer first, I’m enjoying having other artistic pursuits. I can’t write all day, and coloring and art journaling give me something to do that is stressless, fun, and still creative.

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.


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.