For centuries, artists have used journals to express their innermost thoughts and experiment with new drawing techniques. Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, and Frida Kahlo all kept diaries. They’ve since been published or digitized for the world to see.
In recent years, there’s been a shift in the way artists use notebooks. Most journals are now created online and shared via social media. As Liza Kirwin, deputy director at the Archives of American Art, has suggested, more people have diaries these days than at any other point in history, but they exist in a digital format.
Still, there’s something to be said for putting pen to paper. We interviewed nine artists about their creative process. They come from different backgrounds and fields, but they all have one thing in common: a physical journal. Let’s take a look at how they use this analog tool to their advantage.
Increase your productivity.
Monthly planners are structured to help you manage your to-do list, appointments, short-term and long-term projects. Bullet journals, in particular, are popular amongst artists--including award-winning illustrator and educator Anna Raff--because they incorporate space for drawings, checklists, calendars, and more.
“I’m terrible at keeping a sketchbook,” Raff tells us. “I have dozens of them that I’ve started and filled a quarter of the way, but they wind up as some weird amalgam of random thumbnail sketches and notes. It just doesn’t fit into my workflow. However, I am big on lists! Recently, I started using a bullet journal to keep them more organized and to help me prioritize tasks.”
Hone your craft.
A journal gives you room to experiment, without the pressure of everything being “perfect.” As an illustrator and animator, Dream Chen has experimented with a wide variety of materials, and her sketchbook has been her laboratory.
“Sometimes, I will draw a small illustration with no particular theme, just to explore different tools,” she tells us. She also uses one of her sketchbooks for daily drawing practice. While she’s stuck on the subway, she takes advantage of the opportunity to sketch the people around her.
“For years, it was my little dark secret that I didn’t keep a sketchbook,” illustrator and cartoonist Andrea Ipaktchi admits. “The idea of having my bad sketches bound into a book for eternity paralyzed me. I longed to keep one but felt I wasn’t disciplined or skilled enough.”
Everything changed when she saw her son’s kindergarten notebook--“full of pasted-down print-outs, yarn, stickers, crackling paint, poems and maybe a booger or two.” In that moment, she realized that journals and notebooks were about the process, not the finished product.
Now, she fills her own poster-sized sketchbooks with things that motivate her and get her creative juices flowing. “I still sketch on napkins, envelopes, and whatever is around, but now I paste it in my sketchbook,” she says. “I love how free it feels and how rough it looks. I’ll glue anything into it if it inspires me. I enjoy looking back at them to feel past creative energy and spark new energy.”
Over the course of her career, San Diego-based author and illustrator Salina Yoon has worked on close to 200 children’s books. In that time, she’s learned that inspiration rarely arrives when it’s convenient. That’s why she brings a notebook with her wherever she goes.
“I have a pocket-sized notebook in my purse, a cheap spiral-bound notebook in my writing bag, and a huge stack of spiral-bound notebooks I’ve purchased from Staples for $1.00, each during back-to-school sales in stock,” she tells us. “Notebooks shouldn’t be too precious to you, or you’ll worry about only jotting down great ideas. The cheap notebooks help me get all the bad ideas out of my system, so I eventually hit that great idea that later turns into a book."
… and flesh them out.
You won’t pursue every single idea you jot down, but you might develop some of them into a larger project. In that case, a journal can help you organize your thoughts. Children’s book author and illustrator Nina Crews prefers a 9 x 12” sketch pad, so she has lots of space to write and draw.
“I often come back to a page after a few days and work more with the ideas explored there,” she says. “My books do not come together in a linear fashion but in bits and pieces, so I put these in my sketchbooks as they come to me. It clears my head and helps me focus better when I start to work in a linear fashion to write the story and prepare the book sketch.”
“I keep project-specific notebooks in which I track nitty-gritty details related to the work, and especially the research and networking that goes into making my projects,” Boston-based documentary photographer Claire Beckett explains. “For each project, I will have a series of notebooks, as my projects tend to carry on over the course of many years. Keeping them allows me to refer back to my ideas, keep them organized, and save them over time.”
She’s not the only one; a few of the artists we interviewed keep separate journals for different projects.
Document your travels.
Even if they didn’t keep a regular journal, some of the artists we spoke to have dedicated travel notebooks. Author and illustrator Brendan Wenzel has a number of notebooks in play at any given time, but the ones he takes on trips have added significance.
“I always keep a sketchbook when I travel, devoted primarily to drawing from life,” he explains. “When I sketch, I’m able to hold on to details that I would normally forget. Not just visuals, but things like the weather, seemingly insignificant happenings, and sometimes even smells. I get a lot of creative charge out of traveling, and revisiting my sketchbooks can provide a great boost on a slow day.”
Polish wildlife photographer Mateusz Piesiak keeps two journals. One is filled with everything you’d expect: notes on animal behavior, weather forecasts, and patterns in nature. The other, is all about his goals. It’s in this second journal that he plans for projects and trips he wants to take in the future, whether it’s a short-term milestone or a lifelong dream. While one journal helps him organize his day-to-day work, the other reminds him to look at the big picture.
Track your progress.
Consider holding onto old journals. As you evolve as an artist, they’ll serve as a reference point. As an artist working across disciplines like photography, collage, and sculpture, Shawn Theodore has kept many journals throughout the years. “I find the use of these self-guided books invaluable to my process,” he says. “I’m able to use these books to reflect upon my growth in relationship to where my practice is and where I would like it to be.”
Want to learn more about using creative journaling for self-discovery? Click here to discover her class, Writing for Self-Discovery: Six Journaling Prompts for Gratitude and Growth, now on Skillshare!
Cover image by Skillshare student Ithen for Samantha Dion Baker’s Sketchbook Illustration for All: Draw Your Day with Watercolor and Pen. For more information on Feature Shoot, click here.