Art Journaling 101: How to Start an Art Journal

Altered book by Tammy Garcia.

Altered book by Tammy Garcia.

In art journaling, the focus is on the process rather than the end result. 

"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." 
Tammy Garcia

In the type of art known as "art journaling," imperfection {or perhaps a lack of concern about perfection} is part of the process. You can keep an art journal without in-depth knowledge of composition or color theory. Art journaling is play, exploration & experimentation wrapped into one. It's about doing an unstructured form of art in a bound journal, on loose paper, even a cardboard box. The good news? 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! It's not magic, really. 

Art journaling is play, exploration & experimentation wrapped into one.

Your art journal can be whatever you want it to be. It can be something very simple, like you can simply document what happened today, with a few doodles along the margin. On the pages of your journal, you can do monochromatic collages, scribble with pastels, put together mysterious-sounding poetry from random phrases cut from magazines, collect eccentric arrays of imagery & symbolism. So it can be as simple or complicated as you want or need it to be. The pages can contain words, if you feel like adding them. I love to wax poetic about art journaling & creativity. If you like to think about art, or look at your process from a macro level, read the Zine.

Art Journal pages by Tammy Garcia.

Art Journal pages by Tammy Garcia.

Getting Started.

You'll need materials, a journal or paper, paints, tools to apply paint and more. You can collect the materials slowly, investing in a wider variety of materials as you progress in your work. 

freebie:  beginner level video tutorial for making a mixed media collage with acrylic paint and found papers on an index card.

freebie:  beginner level video tutorial for making a mixed media collage with acrylic paint and found papers on an index card.

Collect ephemera & journal fodder 

These are fancy terms that mean "all of those quirky papers that you find intensely fascinating." Art journalists collect papers found in everyday life and then use them as fodder {ingredients} in their journals.

Ephemera can be taped, clipped, glued, stapled, tucked, folded and otherwise attached to your journal pages.

Examples: 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. Even more: brochures, maps, pages pulled from magazines and pages from books.

Gather art materials

a) Paper

You can work on loose paper or in a bound journal. The options here are endless, so my suggestion is to pick somewhere to start. It doesn't have to be perfect. You will gravitate towards specific types of paper as you work more and more. Generally you want to match the type/thickness of the paper with the medium you plan to use on that paper. You'll find metric tons of details about paper in my Art Journaling 102.

If you adore the idea of doing mixed media work {for example, acrylic paint and collage}, select paper greater than about 180gsm. You can start on loose sheets of watercolor paper or heavy card stock. Loose paper allows you the freedom to play without committing to any particular journal. You can bind it together later using book-binding techniques or simply store in a large flat archival box. You can also make your own journal from any paper in the universe. 

If you are planning to work with watercolor or watercolor, ink & collage, use loose or bound 300gsm cold-pressed watercolor paper.

If you are planning to mostly doodle or write in pen, ink or markers, a standard writing journal will be more than sufficient, but if you plan to adhere collage elements and use acrylic paint, the thin paper of a typical {even if beautiful} journal from the bookstore won't hold up to acrylics and other wet media.

Or you can go entirely in the other direction and use an old book! 

b) Paint

Acrylics. Acrylic paint is a lot of fun - it's intense & opaque and after it dries, it doesn't dissolve if you add a layer on top. The paint itself can be layered or it can be partnered with layers of paper. On my mixed media art journal pages, I use Golden Heavy Body Acrylics, Fluid Acrylics and High Flow Acrylics. Heavy Body acrylics are thick and opaque; fluid acrylics are more fluid. High Flow acrylics are the most fluid, like ink. 

There are a variety of mediums that you can use to alter the way that acrylics work. For example, you can make acrylics more transparent by mixing them with fluid matte medium. 

Artist quality acrylics are more intense and consistent and have a higher pigment load, but they are also more expensive than student or craft quality paints. Craft acrylics are less expensive than artist quality paints but also less vibrant/saturated; lightfastness and consistency also differ. 

Watercolor & Gouache. These water-soluble mediums are more gentle and relaxing; they can be used to paint abstracts of lush color or to embellish inked drawings or doodles. In my abstract watercolor work, I use Winsor & Newton watercolor paint. For gouache work, I use several different brands. Artist quality watercolor & gouache paints have a higher pigment load and are more intense. You can mix paints to get a variety of colors, so there's no need to buy every color! Details about the watercolor and gouache paints that I use in my journals. There are a number of mediums and tools that can be used to alter the look and flow of watercolor and gouache as well. 

c) Markers, Pen &, Inks & Mark-Making Tools

➸ This is a HUGE topic!!! See: favorite pens & markers for drawing, doodling and getting words on acrylics and highly layered art journal pages

Caran d'Ache Neocolor II wax crayons. For edging, doodling & more. I love them so much I wrote a guide to Neocolors.

Hand-carved stamps. Carve your own unique stamps from erasers! There's a tutorial here. 

Make marks by using found objects to stamp acrylics or ink on your paper. Found stamps include lids, medicine cups, cookie cutters, old brushes, play-doh tools, clay-carving tools, twigs, leaves, feathers, etc.

e) Adhesive

Fluid matte medium, soft gel or a UHU glue stick can be used to attach paper to your pages. 

f) Brushes & Tools

Acrylics. For acrylic paint or gesso, use a brush made specifically for acrylics. Acrylics are hard on brushes, so a brush may only last a few months, depending on the way you use them. Try short-handled round or flat synthetic hair brushes in various sizes. Tiny brushes are lovely for lettering. Clean with warm water and dishwashing liquid immediately after you are finished working, before the paint dries. When your acrylic brushes get yucky or bent, use them for adhesive or gel medium until totally trashed! That's the lifecycle of an acrylic brush! Start with #2 {for tiny details} and #8 or #10 round or flat {for everything else}.

Watercolor or gouache. Use a brush made for watercolor. Try flats and rounds. I generally invest more in watercolor brushes than in acrylic brushes, because I go through fewer! Rinse gently with tap water after you are finished working. 

For adhesives, use only junky brushes or your old, worn-out brushes because they will be trashed!  Clean with warm water and dishwashing liquid immediately after you are finished working.

g) Misc

Scissors. The ONLY scissors I use are Fiskars Softouch Scissors. They do not tax my hand, and that's a huge deal because I've had hand and elbow surgery. The scissors are extremely sharp, with a precise tip. 

Old gift cards. Used for smearing paint, smoothing paint, stamping  lines, scratching off layers, and more.

Parchment Paper. Details in Un-Sticking Art Journal Pages. 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.

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.

Follow Creative Prompts

Take the Index-Card-a-Day Challenge {ICAD}

The goal is to create one index card each day for 61 days. A fantastic way to re-start or kick-start your creative endeavors. The 7th annual  Index-Card-a-Day Challenge runs June 1- July 31, 2017. 


5x8" Moleskine journal, Practicing faces, artwork by Tammy Garcia.

5x8" Moleskine journal, Practicing faces, artwork by Tammy Garcia.

Get organized + find space to work

Develop a system that works for the way YOU work. My organization method is quite simple, and it works for me... read more in What About All That Paper? I have limited storage and work space, so 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 bit of washi tape, matte medium {adhesive}, an old brush, scissors, a few rubber stamps, a set of alphabet stamps and a few ink pads. I rotate the stuff 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.

You can work in your journal in a fairly small amount of space, transporting your materials in a little basket or box to the breakfast table. If you are using acrylics, be sure to protect your space with a huge piece of cardboard or part of a painting tarp. Remember that you don't have to have every possible material at hand's reach, just a small subset of your materials.

Take a Workshop

More to explore @ Daisy Yellow

When is an art journal page finished?
Tips for getting words onto acrylic backgrounds.
Art journaling defies definitions.
100+ Ideas for Small Format Art.
Taking stock of my journals.
Art journaling is not a pass/fail course.

Creative books