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  • Writer's picturewhatpennymade

Art Journals, Smash Books, and Liberating Messes

Updated: Aug 18, 2019

I've written here on the blog about my Daily Doodle Practice and how this small commitment keeps Art-ing a part of my day... every day. But maybe you're ready to level-up.

I've got just the thing, friends.

I started keeping an art journal soon after I started my daily doodle practice.* I was serving in the Peace Corps, had a lot of feelings, and was making art as part of my self-care practice. While I loved my daily doodles, some days I felt like I needed something more- something BIGGER, to house all the feelings and thoughts and ideas I was having.

*Note: A common side effect of the Daily Doodle is that you may come up with awesome ideas that you'd like to further develop...

Given my busy schedule and lack of access to art supplies, I wasn't going to be able to turn my ideas into canvas paintings. And I was saving my precious sketchbook pages for my doodles and cartoons (I did eventually run out and continued my drawings on the bits of scrap papers I collected).

Enter the art journal.

So, what's an art journal?

Well, like most artsy crafty things, it's anything you want it to be.

It's often a place to elaborate on your ideas & thoughts & feelings in a visual (or written) way. It's your bank where you store your ideas for future pieces (for when you have the time/money/supplies). It can be a diary where you record your frustrations, musings, and desires. It can be a workshop where you can test out or practice new techniques. It can also be an art project in itself.

Mine manifested as a found, 5"x7" spiral datebook.

And then as a thrifted hardback book about the grieving process.

And now it's a found book on the history of the American pharmaceutical industry.

For me, it was useful that the book I use as my art journal is something recycled. First: recycling is cool. Second: I need my art journal to be a place where I am free to screw up and make a mess. Starting with something that's not a brand-new, super-special blank book takes some of the pressure off. It also reinforces what I find so liberating about art journaling (see below)

The Importance of Throwing All the Rules Out the Window.

As I mentioned above, starting with a castoff book is a great starting point for my art journaling, because I want my brainstorming to be as free as possible. I don't know about you guys, but I can easily fall into a rut, imposing rules on myself about what kind of art I make, and that's a surefire way to run out of ideas and make myself miserable. If I'm creating an art journal in order to experiment, I need to get as far away from rules as possible.

Mistreat a Book: There is a reason some people call their art journal a "smash book." In my journal I literally break all the rules I know about how to treat a book. I tear out pages, I paint over paragraphs, I bend back the spine, and I smash and tape and glue things to the inside. Nothing taps into that anarchic five-year-old inside me quite like tearing up a book.

Defy the Teacher: When I was being taught how to make art in school, our teacher imposed certain rules. These were super-helpful in making us stretch our abilities and refine our skills. They are not super-helpful if we can't shake the rules when we're trying to be creative. Having an art journal in which anything and everything is fair game, has helped me to break my bad habit of adhering to those rules, even when I don't need to.

Teacher says "draw life-size or larger." I can't even do that in a 5'x8' book.

Teacher says "don't use black to create shadows." There's black paint everywhere in my book.

Teacher says "be mature." I've got tacky, derivative, stupid stuff in my journal. I've got pop-ups, and magazine clippings, and angsty poetry, and recipes, and WHATEVER I WANT.

Teacher says to "use one kind of medium at a time." In my art journal, anything is fair game: candy wrappers, magazine clippings, bike reflectors, Crayola crayons, wrapping paper, scratch-and-sniff stickers, dirt, rainwater, pressed leaves and flowers, feathers, sand... (you get the picture)

Side Note: Of course we can go out and buy a sketchbook, or special book with mixed media paper, that we designate as our art journal. And that's cool. And we can use whatever medium we want in there. No judgement. Just don't let the blank page hold you back, and keep you from taking risks. Don't let the "rules" keep you from doing cool and interesting stuff. That's all I'm saying.

Having come from a rigid, meticulous painting practice, mixed-media journaling has really helped me to flex my creative muscles, freed me to make mistakes, and expanded my sense of creative possibility.

Now, I don't work in the art journal every day, but having a place to elaborate on ideas that my pop up in my daily doodle practice ( or elsewhere) makes it easier to follow-up, follow-through, and keep ideas from escaping. Whereas my daily doodles are a day-to-day artistic check-in, the art journal serves as a periodic idea-vomit session. And like the page of doodles, the art journal allows us to see the evolution of our ideas and thoughts, as well as identify recurring themes we may not have otherwise noticed.

And maybe the best part about dumping all of your crazy artsy ideas and feelings and questions and reflections into an art journal is...

You can close the book.

How about it, friends? Do you keep an art journal? Do you want to give it a try? Maybe you have another tactic for wrangling your creative ideas. Let me know! I'd love to learn more.

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