4 tested ways to kickstart your creative journal

Have you ever had problems starting your next painting or creative project? You know you want to be working but the ideas are not flowing, no inspiration? Or maybe you have a subject you want to paint but feel a little intimidated? And time goes by and you aren’t working. What’s that saying… An object in motion tends to stay in motion? That’s what an art journal can do for you, keep you in motion. This article will show you 4 ways to kickstart your art journal. No big expectations, nobody will be looking. It’s just you and your journal. Working in a journal keeps the ideas flowing and reduces the inertia of starting something new.

Because, let’s face it, art takes a lot of work and practice. Every opportunity to practice needs to be taken and a journal is just the way to do it. It’s compact and you can take it with you everywhere and draw whatever inspires you. Yes, you could just take a picture of what inspires you and draw later, but drawing from life develops invaluable observational skills and allows you to develop memory of how objects look in real life, not through a camera lens.

An art journal eases the inertia of beginning.

Have you ever had a really good idea for a project and thought : Yeah, I really need to get that on paper. But, you don’t have anything handy to record your idea and you get busy and when you finally have time the idea has flown! Keeping the journal handy solves that problem, you can get your ideas down while they are fresh and when you look back over it later it will spark even more ideas.

An art journal

Keeping an art journal provides a way for you, as an artist, to reflect on your chosen subject and work through your ideas on how to present your subject to convey what you want to say about it. The journal is a judgement free zone where you are free to experiment with technique and media to discover what works best for you. It’s a judgement free zone because you don’t have to show it to anyone and there are no expectations, just experimentation. It frees the artist to make mistakes and explore in order to learn and expand skills and ability. It’s a place to prepare, a place to practice and a place to discover.

No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition.

Claude Monet

Monet used art journals throughout his career. He seemed to have no set format and would often draw sideways or upside down on the page, at times noting locations for future plein air work. Sometimes, Monet would simply draw single objects from life, for instance a boat, and then the journal would act as an archive for images and ideas for future projects. It is possible to see how Monet used his journal to work through design ideas and compositions prior to beginning a painting.

A sketch from Monet’s journal

Mix it up

Your journal doesn’t have to be only sketches. Jot down notes about ideas, sensations and reactions to a certain subject you are interested in developing. Writing about your ideas will help you recall later when you look through your journal for inspiration.

J.M.W. Turner kept a journal with him at all times sketching everything that caught his eye , as a consequence, he left hundreds of sketchbooks that document his evolution as an artist and flesh out his thought process for creating paintings. It is an invaluable resource for art historians and your journals will serve the same purpose for you. Reflecting back on journals done months or years ago is a great way to understand your progress as an artist and develop a sense of style and pattern in your work. Turner’s journals give testament to the constant experimentation and searching of the artist in various mediums, effects created by experimenting underscore the fundamental nature of an artist, that is , always searching to perfect the craft and the art needed to produce singular monumental works of art.

A page from Turner’s journal


So, how do you start an art journal?

Here are some steps to follow to make using an art journal part of your creative process.

  • Step 1: Find a type of paper you like working with. Is it easier for you to start on a lined page, will you be using wet media, choose a paper that will accept that media. Working with pencils? Try papers that allow for using erasers and layering. This may take some experimentation. Also, consider the size of the paper you will be using. Small enough to be portable but large enough that you feel you have room to work. And, I’ll also say a word about that as well. Why not choose a size you are not comfortable with? New challenges lead to new discoveries.
  • Step 2: Your journal is your friend. No judgement, no page too precious to sacrifice. So, I recommend starting with some warm up drawing exercises. More on that below. Just get in there, get comfortable with using your journal in a judgement free way and look on it more as experimentation and exploration. Your journal is your workbook. Only you can create it and only you will know the questions to ask in order to grow and develop.
  • Step 3: Limit the tools you use for the journal or perhaps have two journal kits. One that is streamlined and can go with you everywhere for quick work on a busy day and another for extended journaling trips in which you plan to spend more time. Dedicate resources for your journal kit and don’t raid your studio supplies. That way you will always have your tools at hand and won’t have to hunt for anything when you are ready to work.
  • Step 4: Try some warm up exercises before you begin to draw or paint. In her book “Beginning Drawing Atelier”, Juliette Aristides talks about the qualities of line, use of shape and intention when drawing. She suggests placing a dot on your paper and draw a line to it’s partner dot. The idea is to draw with intention. Don’t focus on your pencil, focus on the second dot. Do a series of lines: closely spaced, thin, dark and so on to get warmed up. Here is a link for more on Juliette Aristides https://aristidesatelier.com/ Another good warm up is drawing circles starting loosely at first and then with more intention, focusing on shape and consistency.

We have explained the benefits of art journals and how artists have used journals to cultivate their vision and work. We have also covered how to prepare a journal kit and some warm exercises to get you started. Now, go out and start an art journal today, it will become an irreplaceable tool in your work!

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