Art Journaling 101

How do you start an art journal?
Original post 2008. Updated July 2015.

Art journaling  is loose and free, unencumbered by rules about what we "should" do. It is simply doing art in a journal, on loose paper, even on a cardboard box. You do not need a kit, a coach, a lesson or a guidebook. But you do need to discover {or rediscover} your sense of fun. Art journaling is about play, exploration & experimentation. It's not magic, really. It's about loosening up and going in the direction you choose. I know that can be a little scary. So let's break that down a bit further!

Here's the way that I like to define art journaling {which in many ways is undefinable}: "Art journaling is about the creative process of pulling together color, words and images as you wish on a page. Unlike many other forms of art, it is not about the outcome."

Focus on the process, not the end result.

Go forward and celebrate the imperfection inherent in art journaling. The lack of matchy-matchy, the fun, the vivacious, the plain, the pastel, the bold, the scary, the ever-so-perfect chaos, the lack of kits, the lack of perfection, the fun of it, the whatever-you-want-it-to-be. The freedom. If you build a page from a kit, that is indeed an art project, but it is not the same as building your page from scratch, using your mind, the supplies on hand, and your creative energy. 

art journaling materials

Learn about the materials that I use in my art journals, things like acrylic paint, paper, Neocolor wax crayons & magic markers. You'll find tips about journals, paper, paint, pens, markers, inks & adhesives. Art journaling is a flexible form of art and you'll find that each art journalist uses a different set of materials. Art journaling does not have to be in an actual journal! Consider a blank journal, an old hardback book or a wirebound watercolor journal. 

resources, prompts & tutorials

Art journal pages are not structured or formulaic. Take a deep breath, let go of expectations about how the page should look and just explore your art materials. Play with color and imagery. 

Focus on words + color + imagery. 

Collect ephemera & journal fodder

Journalists use these terms to refer to the stuff you put in your journal. You'll also see phrases like "found paper" or "found text." Be on the lookout for yummy paper stuff! 

Examples include ticket stubs, museum maps, pages from old textbooks, receipts, product packaging, clothing labels, old photographs, vintage postcards, lottery tickets, polaroid photos, postage stamps, raffle tickets, hand-written lists, old greeting cards, subway maps, airline tickets, event announcements, advertisements, maps, ribbon, fabric, images cut from magazines. 

Consider large items like full page brochures, maps, pages pulled from magazines and pages from books. It's nice to have a separate space for smaller items that might get lost otherwise - things like ticket stubs, images cut from magazines, words, scraps of patterned papers, index cards, postage stamps. 

Get creative books

1,000 Artist Journal Pages, Sokol
A World of Artist Journal Pages, Sokol
The Journal Junkies Workshop, Scott/Modler 
The Creative License and An Illustrated Life, Gregory
The Collage Workbook, Plowman
Good Mail Day, Hinchcliff
Journal Spilling, Trout
Creative Illustration Workshop for Mixed-Media Artists, Dunn
Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking, Berry
The Art Journal Workshop, Bunkers
The True and the Questions, Harrison [a journal to fill-in]

Contributions to the Tip Jar are so very appreciated!

Get started

Here's an easy idea to get started: Grab a journal or piece of heavy paper. Use glue, tape or staples to add anything you wish in any way you wish. Pay attention and enjoy the process. Use images, words, doodles & quotes! And drips of paint! And magic markers! Dip a brush in acrylic paint and swirl and swoosh paint around the page. Let that dry for a few minutes, and then adhere papers or a photograph.

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Get organized

To organize your art materials for art journaling, develop a system that works for the way YOU work. Because I have limited storage and work space, I keep materials that are typically used at the same time together in wooden baskets. My goal is to pull out as few baskets as needed to work on my journal pages.  

Examples. In my art journaling & collage basket, I keep a few rolls of washi tape, matte medium {this is an adhesive}, an old brush, scissors, a few favorite rubber stamps, one set of alphabet stamps and a few ink pads. I rotate the stuff that goes in this basket. I have another basket with heavy body acrylics that also contains tools that are used to add texture to my paint... things like palette knives, sandpaper & chopsticks.

Find a small workspace, like your breakfast table!

Part of a table is enough space to work. You do not need a dedicated studio space to art journal, although you'll need a bit of space to handle your art materials, a storage space that might expand the more involved you get. I work on art journal pages at my breakfast table or on a rolling cart in my kitchen and I keep my art journaling supplies {paints, journals, papers, brushes, etc.} in wooden baskets on some shelves adjacent to our laundry room! It's not a studio, but it works! 

Art Journaling 102: Materials

Paper & Journals
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Loose paper vs. Bound Journal. You can work on loose paper and bind it together later using book-binding techniques {fun to learn} or simply store in a large box. I started art journaling and doodling in a Strathmore wire-bound pad. Loose paper is a wonderful way to start because you can play without committing to any particular journal. If you adore the idea of working in a journal, there are a lot of great bound journals available. A standard writing journal will have thin paper which will NOT hold up to mixed media work or even wet media like watercolor or acrylics. So you'll want paper made for art. Or go the other direction and use an old book and prepare the surface for your art!

THIS IS A COMPANION TO ART JOURNALING 101.

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For Simple Collages Using Tape, Staples or Glue Stick:

  1. Strathmore Visual Journal with drawing paper.
  2. Strathmore 300 or 400 Series Watercolor Paper.
  3. Strathmore Visual Journal with Watecolor paper.
  4. Hardback book from the discount bin, for a few dollars/euro. 
  5. Buy loose watercolor or mixed media paper and bind your own journal.
  6. Moleskine Classic Notebook. The unlined and unlined versions have thin, smooth, slightly off-white paper. Too thin for paint applications.
  7. Moleskine Sketchbook. Thick cream colored paper {like a manilla folder} is great for drawing and can handle light collage or stapled collage. Watercolor does not work well on these pages, although it will take gouache or acrylics. If you are planning to do gouache/watercolor or ink & gouache/watercolor, I'd recommend the Moleskine Watercolor journal or any journal with watercolor paper.

For Mixed Media Work {Acrylics, Collage}:

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  1. Strathmore Visual Journal with drawing paper. 
  2. Strathmore 300 or 400 Series Watercolor Paper.
  3. Strathmore Visual Journal with Watecolor paper.
  4. Hardback book from the discount bin, for a few dollars/euro. 
  5. Buy loose watercolor or mixed media paper and bind your own journal.
  6. Moleskine Sketchbook. Thick cream colored paper {like a manilla folder} is great for drawing and can handle light collage or stapled collage. Watercolor does not work well on these pages, although it will take gouache or acrylics. If you are planning to do gouache/watercolor or ink & gouache/watercolor, I'd recommend the Moleskine Watercolor journal or any journal with watercolor paper.
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For Writing/Drawing with Ink:

  1. Moleskine Classic Notebook. The unlined and unlined versions have thin, smooth, slightly off-white paper. I love them for doodles, sketches, drawings, lists + note taking. My to-do list resides in this journal. Too thin for paint applications.
  2. Moleskine Sketchbook. Thick cream colored paper {like a manilla folder} is great for drawing. Watercolor does not work well on these pages, although the pages will take gouache and acrylics.
  3. Bee Paper Super Deluxe Sketch Pad. Nice wirebound journal for doodling, drawing and writing.
  4. Rhodia Web Notebook. Lovely drawing journals. Various versions including dotted grid, grid, lined. Classic orange cover.
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For Watercolor or Ink + Watercolor:

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  1. Strathmore 300 or 400 Series Watercolor Paper. Great paper, good value. You can get wirebound or buy in huge sheets and cut to desired size. Standard weight for watercolor paper, 140 lb/300 gsm paper.
  2. Moleskine Watercolor Notebook. Contains 135 lb/200-gsm paper that can be painted on both sides.
  3. Bee Paper Super Deluxe Sketch Pad or Watercolor Journal aka Aquabee journals. The paper is 93 lb/150 gsm that is the same on both sides. Thinner than the Strathmore or Moleskine papers but takes marker, light watercolor washes or ink & watercolor just fine.
  4. Fabriano Artistico Watercolor paper. Yummy but expensive 140 lb/300 gsm paper.

Art Materials

Acrylics. On my art journal pages, I use Golden Fluid Acrylics, Heavy Body Acrylics and High Flow Acrylics. Artist quality acrylics have a higher pigment load. Keep in mind that you can mix paints to get a variety of colors, so no need to buy every color. You can make acrylics more transparent by mixing them with Golden Fluid Matte Medium or water. Fluid matte medium is like clear fluid acrylic paint so it keeps the consistency of the fluid acrylics but thins them to make them more transparent. Note: Craft acrylics are less expensive but also less vibrant/saturated because they have a lower pigment load. The lightfastness and consistency also differ. 

Watercolor & Gouache. I use Winsor & Newton watercolor paints as well as several brands of gouache. As with acrylics, artist quality watercolors have a higher pigment load. You can mix paints to get a variety of colors, so no need to buy every color. Details about the watercolor and gouache paints that I use in my journals.

Markers & Pens. See the section on getting words on art journal pages, below.

➸ There's also a separate post about pens that I use on smooth surfaces rather than on acrylics and mixed media art journal pages: favorite pens & markers for drawing, doodling and another post specifically about getting words on acrylics and highly layered art journal pages

Stamps. You can carve your own stamps from erasers using an x-acto knife or linocutting tools. "Found" stamps include things you find around the house like lids, medicine cups, cookie cutters, old brushes and play-doh tools. Just dip them in acrylic paint or gesso and make marks! But once you use them in your art, keep them with your art supplies.

Adhesive. Golden fluid matte medium and Mod Podge can be used to attach paper to your pages. Staples and washi tape work well too. Some art journalists use UHU glue sticks.

Brushes. Buy basic, cheap brushes for adhesives and gesso because they will be trashed. I like to use average quality brushes for mixed media acrylic painting and good quality brushes for watercolor work where I most notice the difference. Keep in mind that if brushes are too junky they will shed hair and not hold water well. Try various brands, styles and sizes, until you find an assortment you like. I like flats and rounds. For mixed media art journaling, almost any decent brush will do.

Scissors. Having had hand + elbow surgery, I cannot use scissors for more than a few minutes at a time and the ONLY scissors I use are Fiskars Softouch Scissors. They have a helping hinge that makes them easier to use. Extremely sharp, with a precise tip. Work with paper, glossy magazines, photos, fabric, detail paper cutting. I've got a larger version near the sewing machine for paper/fabric, and another with my art journal gear. 

Neocolors.I love, love, love Caran d'Ache Neocolor II wax crayons. They can be blended with fingers, drawn and dissolved with a brush or used to paint like watercolors {by touching a wet brush to the crayon and painting with the brush}. Neocolor I are NOT water soluble. Neocolor II are water soluble. More information in All About Neocolor IIs.

Old gift/credit cards. Great for pushing paint and gesso around a page, making borders, "stamping" lines, scratching off layers, painting a layer of gesso, etc. 

Parchment Paper. In the baking section of the grocery store near aluminum foil and wax paper. After a page has dried a bit, place a sheet of parchment paper in between your pages and put a bunch of hardback books. The parchment keeps the pages from sticking together and the weights help your pages dry flat. If working within a bound journal or hardback book, keep parchment between the pages, close the book and put a bunch of books on top. Pages with lots of layers might take a week or more to fully dry. Remove the parchment and check on the pages from time to time. More in Unsticking Art Journal Pages.

A surface to mix paints. For acrylics, save those plastic lids from yogurt/iced cream and pitch after you are finished painting for the day. For watercolor/gouache, you can get inexpensive plastic watercolor palettes for mixing paints. Learn how to mix paints too! One of my favorite books about mixing color is the Color Mixing Bible.

Gesso {optional}. Get a small container of Liquitex Basics Acrylic Gesso and just play and see what it does and what it feels like, whether you like writing on it. Gesso is a primer. If you are using watercolor paper or other heavy paper, coating with gesso is not necessary. If you have thin paper {i.e. working in an old hardback book} a base coat of gesso can be used to strengthen your paper. White gesso can be used to layer and lighten your collages or mixed with acrylic colors to get a matte pastel look. You can create art journal pages without gesso, but you might enjoy using it to add layers to your work. There's also black gesso!

More art materials reviews & lists:

Art Journaling for Kids + Teens

 

"The artist must possess
the courageous soul
that dares and defies."
Kate Chopin

We are art role models. 
I want to share with you examples of art journaling that kids can do on loose paper or in a bound journal. My kids started art journaling simply by playing around with the art materials that I had on the table. And that is really what it is all about - playing with art materials. Focus on the playing and exploration. Don't worry about the way the finished pages look, because the benefit is from the DOING, the EXPERIENCE of CREATING.  

"stories," my younger daughter created this 9x12" art journal page when she was 8.  watercolor paper, neocolors

"stories," my younger daughter created this 9x12" art journal page when she was 8.  watercolor paper, neocolors

The sky does not need to be blue. 

The key word is PLAY. If you want to work with kids to inspire them to start a journal, or a journaling habit, let them see you play in your journal! It is so much fun, and your exhuberance will inspire them to try something creative.

"love," my younger daughter created this 8x11" page when she was 9  black card stock, colored pencils

"love," my younger daughter created this 8x11" page when she was 9 
black card stock, colored pencils

Art journaling is a creative outlet for kids that love the freedom of a blank page and the adventure of exploring color + images + words. The ability to decorate their thoughts on paper.

I'm a self-taught artist and a mom and have taught a number of art classes and workshops. For example, I teach watercolor taught an art journaling workshop for local high school art teachers, a gelatin printing workshop to The reality is that making kids follow strict instructions for art projects can zap their enthusiasm and innovation. The benefit comes from doing art rather than generating a perfect page or outcome. 

As kids get older, they often get concerned with what others think, get more critical of their work, less free with their creativity, more likely to worry about "rules" for whatever form of art they are doing. That's why art journaling is important. It focuses on the DOING not the RESULTS. Kids, especially tweens and teens, are more likely to play creatively if you don't give them constraints. Please don't see art journaling as an assignment, with rubrics and requirements. For moms who art journal, it's also a wonderful way to stay close and keep the lines of communication open -- by arting with your kids.

Here are the materials my kids use for their art journal pages & doodles:

⧠ Gelly Rolls. Colorful gel pens, fun and versatile. See All About Gelly Rolls.
⧠ Neocolor wax crayons. Fun & flexible drawing/painting materials, brilliant colors that can be used with water or without. See All About Neocolors.
 Watercolors. Two watercolor pan kits I recommend for kids that are 5+ {old enough to hold the brush and treat their painting kit carefully i.e. not flood with water or smear adjacent pan colors together}. Pelikan watercolor pan sets -when my daughter was in 1st grade we incorporated art journaling into our book club and used these paints. Koi watercolor pan sets - lovely color, great feedback from the students in my watercolor classes that are using Koi.
⧠ Pencils. Colored pencils and ordinary #2 pencils.
⧠ Paper. I have an entire post about art journaling materials, which includes paper and journals. I think it's important to note that you don't need to work in one space. For example, you can have a stack of watercolor paper and several journals {maybe one for painting and mixed media, one for sketching?} going at the same time. 

My kids use many of the same materials that I use for art journaling. There are exceptions. For example, they do not use artist quality acrylics with their hands, because these are not non-toxic. 

Some ideas to consider...

Document the story. Take a few photographs of the kids working, to show how the work unfolds. Learn about how your kids work. On the back of their artwork {especially for pre-writers} you can document the date, the child's name, the mediums. Ask the child to describe their work. Now that my daughters are teenagers they love looking back at the notes on their work. Here's what was written on the reverse of a very pink page that my daughter did when she was 3: "The girl did a twirl." 

This concept of documentation is part of the educational philosophy of Reggio Emilia. I enjoyed watching Documentation: Transforming Our Perspective, a 15 minute video. "A conversation with several leaders of Reggio Children and the municipal infant-toddler and preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy about the practice of documentation and its role in teaching and learning." Thank you to Lori of Project-Based Homeschooling for the link.

"candy," my older daughter created this 9x12" art journal page when she was 12 watercolor paper, neocolors, oil pastels, watercolor

"candy," my older daughter created this 9x12" art journal page when she was 12
watercolor paper, neocolors, oil pastels, watercolor

Release control over the outcome of your kids' art projects. Kids benefit from less control more creative freedom

Art Journaling is an activity that parents and kids can do at the same table, using the same art materials and found items. Each person's page will blossom individually. Kids can explore the idea of combining imagery with colors and words in an unstructured format. 

For younger children, try to create an environment that fosters creativity while balancing freedom with responsibility. Here are some things that you as a parent or art teacher can do:

"without paint," my older daughter created this 9x12" page when she was 9 watercolor paper, neocolors, watercolors

"without paint," my older daughter created this 9x12" page when she was 9
watercolor paper, neocolors, watercolors

Use gentle reminders. "Let me show you how we rinse brushes in the sink." "We keep beads in this box on this shelf." "Remember to put your finished work in this basket." "Keep lids on your markers when you aren't using them."

Share art material techniques. Younger children might not know how to hold a pencil or a brush or how to prepare watercolors for painting You can work together to show kids how they can make new colors by mixing the colors they have. Kids will figure out soon enough that a bunch of colors mixed together will result in brown. The thing is, they might like brown! My daughter was quite happy about her brown birdhouses. Let kids experience the act of mixing red + yellow = orange but also let them know that pink + yellow = orange! But it's a different sort of orange:) Or try dark purple + white = lavender. I often suggest mixing just two colors together, rather than 3 or 4, but it's really up to the kids.

Protect your art space. We don't have a dedicated art space in our home, so we use the kitchen floor or breakfast table. When my kids were tiny, we painted in the kitchen at a cheap plastic table with a drop cloth on the tile floor underneath us. I asked the kids to stay in the kitchen until we cleaned up, otherwise we might have orange acrylic footprints leading out of the space. If they didn't want to paint any longer, we stopped. Protecting the workspace means less worry about mess, less stress and more patience!

Facilitate. Balance freedom with guidance. Put out colors that will work together, no matter how the kids use them. You don't have to put out 25 colors; nor do you have to say that the cow has to be brown. Turquoise cows are cool too.

Keep suggestions open-ended. There is no "right" color, "right" pattern, "right" way to do art. Ask questions like, "Would you like to add another color to your painting?" "Are you finished with the background?" "Would you like to add any words?" "Would you like to try a smaller brush for that?" 

Facilitate. Balance freedom with guidance. Put out colors that will work together, no matter how the kids use them. You don't have to put out 25 colors; nor do you have to say that the cow has to be brown. Turquoise cows are cool too.

"alphabetical order," my younger daughter created this 9x12" art journal page when she was 12.  bristol paper, PITT artist pens, index cards

"alphabetical order," my younger daughter created this 9x12" art journal page when she was 12.  bristol paper, PITT artist pens, index cards

Manage children's expectations. Focus on process {the "doing" part} not product {the "end result" part}. The goal is not perfect art.

Manage "customer" expectations. If you are a teacher, that's likely parents & administration. Talk about your approach to art; letting kids have freedom while learning about mediums and techniques. The goal is not "cookie cutter art" where all of the kids do the exact same thing. 

Please don't "fix" or "finish" a child's artwork. The truth is that this not your artwork. It is the child's artwork. I do not believe in altering a child's artwork, like, ever. You could put it in a frame {if the kid is OK with that}. Do not draw lines around his/her work, erase his/her work, add a blue sky or tell him that the grass should be green.

Don't copycat. If you really must teach kids to paint in the style of Van Gogh, teach the brush technique and let them paint what they wish as long as it is within the boundaries you set - i.e. using a specific style - medium - type of brush. Requiring them to use deep mustard yellows and create a sunflower is basically copy work. 

➸ How to start an art journal? Art Journaling 101
➸ Materials for art journaling? Art Journaling 102: Materials