Art Journaling for Kids + Teens

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


We are art role models. 

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, create an environment that supports creativity, balancing freedom with responsibility. Here are some things that you as a parent or art teacher can do to facilitate independence. 

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.

"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

Also explore Index-Card-a-Day Challenge: Kid Version

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. As you do art, you think about your process, your materials, how they work, how they interact. You think about your mood and your day. 

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 own journal! It is so much fun, and your exhuberance will inspire them to try something creative.

The sky does not need to be blue.
"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

Making kids follow strict instructions for art projects zaps their enthusiasm and innovation. The benefit comes from doing art rather than generating a perfect outcome. As kids get older, they get more 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. Perfectionism can easily creep in. 

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. The flexibility to do whatever they want with the materials at hand. To explore without adults telling them "how" to use the materials, without adults managing the show!

You don't have to convince kids that art is fun. 
hey'll naturally figure it out if you let them work
without micro-managing the outcome. 

For moms who art journal, I think you'll find that doing art together is a refreshing way to stay close and keep the lines of communication open. You can be an art role model by working in your journal in a playful way. Ask yourself questions out loud - I wonder how long it will take this layer of paint to dry? I wonder what will happen if I use salt water instead of tap water? I wonder what pen will work on this paper? I wonder what paints I'll need to mix a lime green? Vermillion? What would you call this color? Oh! I love this quote, I'm going to write it on my page. Whatever. 

How early to start doing art together

If your kids can grasp a crayon, they can scribble. Ask them what they have drawn! Write a little note on the back with the date and their description. After your kids can hold a paint brush and not try to eat the paint, they can paint. Show them how to make marks. Dots, lines, waves. Then let them see what happens. Give them a brush and a set of watercolor paints. Or a bucket of magic markers. The kids can do their own art - share the materials and keep it open-ended and relaxed - put on some music. If the materials are particularly messy, throw a painting tarp under the workspace. Designate some of your old t-shirts as painting t-shirts. That way you won't care if they get paint on them! 

Materials my kids use for art journal pages

⧠ 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.
⧠ PITT brush pens. These markers have permanent india ink and a brush tip, lovely for lettering.
⧠ Paper. Specific paper recommendations can be found in Art Journaling 101

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. 

Document the story

Take a few photographs of the kids working, to show how the work unfolds. Learn about how your kids work. For pre-writers, on the back of their artwork 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." 

"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

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.

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

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."

"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

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 work space

Protecting the workspace means that while you are working, you will not be so worried about making a mess and you'll have more patience as you work. 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. 


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?" 

"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} not product {the RESULT}. The goal is not perfect art!!! When the child asks if their work is good - or whether you like it - or shows you it, actively look at it. Notice the work. Smile. Then comment on some aspect of the work that you find interesting, intriguing, etc. "I really like the detail in the puppet's face!" Point out a particular color selection or perhaps an area with a lot of detail. Ask questions about their work. "I'm curious about this doll on the right, can you tell me about her?" If you are familiar with the child's work, you can reference earlier pages. "I see that you've been including clouds in your journal this week."

Manage customer expectations

If you are a teacher, you will perceive your customer to be parents & school 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. 

Don't fix or finish or alter a child's artwork

Some elementary art teachers add outlines or otherwise alter or "fix" a child's artwork. They add a blue sky or tell the child that the duck should not be green. Here is my thought on that. Altering a kid's art is about YOU and  your expectations and wish for control. Let their art be their own. Changing their art communicates that their art is not sufficient, not up to your standards. Even scribbling "correct" lines on their work is altering their work. On the back of the art, or on a removable sticker on the front, you can document the words that the child uses to describe their work {this is delightful for younger kids who are not yet writing fluently, as they can convey at a super early age what they are attempting to draw/paint/create}. For kids not yet writing, add the date on the back and perhaps the medium.

Don't copycat

If you are teaching a lesson on, say, painting in the style of Van Gogh, teach the brush technique and let the kids paint what they wish as long as it is within the boundaries you set - i.e. using a specific style - medium - type of brush... rather than requiring them to use deep mustard yellows and create a sunflower.

My perspective

So I've shared my perspective, that of a mom, self-taught artist and teacher. My background is in quantitative analysis, not in art, so I do see through a different lens. And of course I can only convey what I have learned from my own art practice and experience. When my kids were young, way before I started doing art, I took them to art classes and watched how each teacher interacted with the materials and the kids. What struck me was that most teachers {except for a few gems} imposed too much control on what the kids were doing. They tried to manage the outcome and their goal was a pretty bulletin board of cute student art that parents could admire.

So find out what your kids' art teacher is like. Hopefully, the teacher sparks independent thinking and allows kids flexibility in finishing assignments. Many parents do not have any idea what their kids do in art class, other than seeing the finished work. In a perfect world, teachers would inspire an absolute love for the materials and process.