Art Journaling… Choosing a Journal

The beginning is the most important part of the work.

Where do we begin with art journaling? Well, probably the most important place is finding a journal to work in! What type of journal is best? There is no right or wrong answer to that question, but each artist needs to evaluate their journaling needs, and you may end up with several different kinds of journals. I have a main journal that I’m constantly working in. It is medium-sized, about 7” x 10”. It’s not too small to limit work, but also not too large, so it’s easy to carry with me wherever I go! I also have tiny little sketch books tucked into my purse and in the vehicles…. just in case. They are often filled with notes and grocery lists as well as sketches, but they’re accessible at all times for impromptu drawings.  Tucked safely in my art studio, I have several “formal” journals, dedicated to finished botanical drawings, folk art and fraktur sketches, and drawings of people.  There are thin little journals that I use to study single subjects. There’s a historic-looking leather journal that the girls gave me (probably another Mother’s Day!) that went with us to historical reenactments. And, there are plenty of smallish sketchbooks tucked in drawers around here that can be shared with little folks who want to doodle. You can never have too many, but below are some ideas to consider when choosing an art journal…

The choices for art journals are many… Handmade books, spiral bound sketchbooks, bound or loose-leaf, lined or unlined pages (or a mix of the two!), quad-ruled, fancy & beautiful, or plain & utilitarian. I’ve tried them all, but my number-one personal requirement is that the journal should open flat so you don’t have to fight with it just to draw. (My leather historical journal does not meet this standard, but I figure life was tough back then, and the “fight” is part of the reenacting experience!) Choose a journal that makes you happy… One that feels good in your hands as you carry it around, one that makes you feel artistic or studious. Choose a journal that you will love for a long time, because it takes a while to fill them up! And, if purchasing a journal for your kids, buy one for yourself as well and join in the fun!

There is some debate about choosing a bound journal verses a loose-leaf journal, especially when choosing a journal for children. I personally love bound journals, but we’ll look at the merits of both options below…

Reasons to use a Bound Journal

  • For the sake of seeing growth in art, a bound journal will keep several years’ worth of sketches, and you and your children will see how much their art has improved. All our work is in one place, and we can look back at it for reference, or to remember a sketching session.
  • We tend to respect bound journals more than loose-leaf journals because they feel more book-like. Each sketch becomes part of a permanent record, and the journal is something to treasure for years to come, to be placed on the bookshelf, or tucked into a trunk-full of memories.
  • Bound journals are more portable. We can grab them and go, without worrying about losing pages or gathering fresh paper. If we also have a little sketching kit at the ready, we’re prepared for any time we might want to sketch.

One negative aspect of bound journals is that they may seem a little intimidating at first. Artist’s block can quickly set in as you contemplate the first drawing on the first page of a brand new beautiful journal! If that frightens you a bit, I’d recommend getting a plainer journal if you think you’d be afraid to mess up a brand new fancy one. Or, open up to a center page to do your first drawing. Also remember… and communicate this to your children.. that “mistakes” in sketching are what we learn from, and there are plenty of mistakes in the journals of professional artists. If you really are upset by a mistake, you can make another drawing on loose paper and glue it on top of the one you can’t stand to see on the pages of your journal. Or, if it’s a true disaster, use a craft knife and carefully cut out the page. (I’ve done that with journals that I began and then decided to use for a different subject, by removing the first few pages and starting over!)

Now the advantages of using a loose-leaf notebook…

Reasons to use a Loose-Leaf Journal

  • Loose-leaf journals, such as three-ring binders, work well for group art classes, because they can also hold class hand-outs and notes, and can be added to easily.
  • Messy artwork, like pastel and charcoal drawings, can be included and contained in sheet protectors. Spray a bit of fixative on the artwork and let it dry well before placing in the protector.
  • Artwork that needs to be on display later can also be kept in sheet protectors. If you child will be entering a drawing in the state fair, or if you’d like to frame it eventually, it’s ready to go!
  • Loose-leaf binders can double as a portfolio, as the “best work” can be included. If you use a “Clear View” binder, you can change the cover art at any time. Again, spray some artist’s fixative on the cover art so it doesn’t smudge inside the cover.
  • Artists with perfectionistic tendencies will experience fewer melt-downs over messed-up journal pages.  (Of course, I don’t personally know anyone that’s had a complete and total melt-down over a drawing-gone-bad… Do you?)
  • Homeschooling students that have been raised with a “notebooking” mentality will feel right at home with a binder! We kept yearly portfolios as part of our school records, and also encouraged our children to “notebook” subjects of interest.

And Who Says You Can’t Have Both?

When working with younger students in a classroom or homeschool situation, my choice is to use both a three-ring binder for assignments, finished masterpieces, and class hand-outs, and to also have a small, flat journal for doodling and on-the-go sketching. That way they can keep their best work neat and organized, but can also learn to be free and creative within their journal. Also, a thinner journal won’t be so intimidating for younger students, and they will be able to experience the joy of a completed art journal.

A Favorite Resource…

Years ago, I found a great resource for journaling at a homeschool conference… Bare Books! ( Our girls filled up many, many, many, of these blank books with sketches and stories, and they come in many shapes and sizes. My favorite item is their Bare Book Plus Journal. It has more pages than their regular Bare Books, and makes a great size for beginning art journaling students. The Bare Books Plus Journal is a great size to use with this curriculum… If you count out several pages per month, your students will be able to fit an entire year’s worth of art journaling in it, giving them a great reference journal. I’d also recommend getting a journal cover to fit, which will protect the cover art you’ll be inspired to add.  The regular Bare Books are also good for short-term art journaling projects, such as a unit study or camping trip. Just for fun, check out their whole website… they have a lot of really neat stuff!


(This journal met with an unfortunate accident that involved a red candle and a hot mini-van.)

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