Friday, June 10, 2011

Fearless Art Journaling, Part 1: Supplies.

I am often asked questions about art journaling. Some people seem to harbor a little fear of this medium, and are uncertain of where to start or even how to go about keeping an art journal in the first place. Some of these people are prolific artists already, but mention art journals and they panic a little.

For any readers who feel that way, too, I say this - I hope you're not too attached to that fear, because I aim (and hopefully, will succeed) to wipe it all away. I plan to post several entries related to art journaling, some with tips and techniques, some just sharing pages. My hope is that anyone who is uncertain of where to begin will feel like they have somewhere to start, and can begin their own journey into art journaling, page by page.

An art journal is like a regular journal, only with a visual aspect. This can be through your own drawings, paintings or photographs. You may also want to incorporate rubber stamped images, clip art images, images cut from magazines or books, specialty papers, bits of nature like pressed leaves and flowers or anything that can be attached in some form to your pages. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

I have been a journal keeper for over two decades. I talk more about that here. The evolution of my journaling style has brought me to the art journals I keep today. I can't speak for the experiences of others, but I will share with you my own experiences with this medium in the hopes of getting you over your fears, giving you a jumping off point and showing you how to take the art you already make and put it on the page. And even if you don't consider yourself an artist, or haven't added color to a page since you were a child with your coloring books, know that you can do this, too. It's not difficult and requires no special skills or a background in art. All you really need is a book, a few basic supplies and a willingness to let go of reluctance.

I am not the first to talk about fearless art journaling/art making, nor do I claim to be. This is just a way to share with others what tips I've garnered over the years.

So, let's start with supplies:

  • Obviously, the first thing you will need is a journal. Give some thought to what mediums you already enjoy using or would like to explore. Do you mainly work in pencil or pen and ink? If so, the book you choose can have drawing paper for its pages, possibly with bleed-proof paper if you're using pens and inks. Are you fond of watercolors or acrylic paints? In this case, you'll want a book with heavier-weight pages; watercolor paper would be a good idea here. For mixed media work (which is my main outlet), you'll find it desirable to have at least 140 lb. watercolor paper pages to help avoid the paper buckling and to withstand the added extra layers. There are some blank books on the market now that say they are specifically made for mixed media - I have not tried them and can't speak on their benefits or drawbacks. If a reader has had experience with these, please feel free to comment. Aside from consideration of paper, your journal can be done in almost any kind of book. It does not need to be a blank book. Some people enjoy using hardcover books from a thrift store or their own bookshelves. This falls along the lines of an altered book, and you can cover all the text with media or leave some words and images peeking through. If you go this route, and plan to add extra layers in the form of paper/collage, or even just paint, I recommend removing some of the existing pages before you begin to help your book lay flatter and close properly. Just use a metal ruler for a guide and cut every other few pages with a hobby (exacto) knife. You don't have to spend a lot of money on your new journal; a regular spiral-bound or composition notebook is very inexpensive and may work fine for you, just keep in mind that if you start adding paints and layers to the pages, you may see some bleed-through and buckling. If you're fine with that, then go for it! You can also make your own book; some artists prefer this because they can add exactly the kinds of papers they prefer, maybe even mixing and matching between watercolor, drawing or copier paper. And having said all this, you can even just work on loose pages, then bind them together in some fashion when you're ready.
  • A way to make marks. These can be pencils, pens, markers, colored pencils, pastels, crayons, etc. (details below) 
The above is all you need to get started if you intend to only write or draw/sketch in your journal. But maybe you're interested in other ways to develop a page. In that case, read on for some of my personal favorite supplies:

(I don't just use the following for art journaling, but for nearly every medium I work in. If you already have art supplies on hand for your other work, then you may not need to buy anything new to start art journaling.)

  • Gesso. This will prep the page for paint and other media. Gesso provides tooth, lessens the paper's absorbency and gives some strength to the page. I use Liquitex or any of the cheaper brands found in art and craft stores.
  • Acrylic paint. The paints I use run the gamut from craft acrylics to artist quality brands, but most often I use Liquitex Basics. They are reasonably priced and have a higher pigment load than craft acrylics. Artist quality acrylics are wonderful, and have the highest pigment load of all, but they can be pricey. If you're not on a strict budget, get the artist quality, otherwise, I'd recommend getting the best paints you can afford. Really it comes down to experimenting with different brands and finding what you like best.
  • Acrylic mediums. The variety and selection of these is wonderful, and they have many uses. Aside from being used in combination with acrylic paints (to change consistency of or extend paint, alter sheen, create texture, etc.), they also have great adhesive qualities, so many collage artists and art journalers use them as a glue. Image transfers are another use. I use fluid matte and gloss mediums often, mostly to thin down my thicker acrylics for washes or to aid in the transparency/translucency of the paint. Regular gel medium is thicker and better as an adhesive than the fluid. It holds some texture, but if you want to break out the big texture guns, go for the extra heavy gel medium (dries clear) or modeling paste (dries opaque). Some amazing effects can be had with this magical stuff, and it can also adhere heavier weight item to your surfaces. There are a multitude of different mediums on the market - some with iridescent qualities, some with ground pumice, some with fibers...the list goes on. Play around, experiment and see what appeals to you for the kind of art you want to make. Oh, and as with most things, I buy whatever is on sale. I have tried Golden, Liquitex, Winsor and Newton and more, and I've had great results with each. Be advised: adding acrylic mediums to your art journal can sometimes cause the pages to become tacky and stick together. I spray with a non-yellowing sealer to help prevent this, though sometimes my pages are still a bit tacky. So far, it hasn't been a major problem or caused pages to tear or not come apart.
  • Watercolor pencils/paints. I own a few brands, some cheaper, some middle of the road and my very favorites, Inktense pencils by Derwent. I first discovered these last year, and oh my. They really are like ink in a pencil, and they yield bright, rich and vibrant color. They are well worth the price, especially if you're a bargain hunter like me and order them from Dick Blick.
  • Paint brushes/Palette knives/Sponges. My favorite brushes are white synthetic hair brushes. They're inexpensive, work well and last a long time when well cared for. I find it's better to get those with plastic handles and not wooden. I use sponges to apply inks and paints, and the ones I like best are the yellow kind for household grout work. They don't dry stiff like other kinds of sponges and are easily cleaned, sometimes only requiring a rinse with water.
  • Soft pastels/oil pastels. Again, get the best quality you can afford. Price, as with paints, dictates pigment load vs. fillers. Some are water soluble, some are not. Finish with a fixative or sealer after applying to your surface, especially when art journaling as they'll rub off as the pages rub together.
  • Rubber stamps. Need I say more?
  • Ink. This includes rubber stamping ink as well as acrylic inks. For the former, I recommend a permanent dye-based ink (my favorite all-around black ink is Ranger's Archival), though I've also used water reactive and pigment inks. (If you apply the last two over a gessoed or an acrylic-painted background, you'll have to wait a considerable amount of time for it to dry.) Acrylic inks are akin to very watered down acrylic paints, but with a very high pigment load and for most colors, amazing transparency. They are permanent and can be painted onto the page, used in calligraphy or with fountain pens, watered down and used in spray form or airbrushed, and more. I have only tried the Liquitex Ink! brand, so I can't compare, but I'm very satisfied with those.
  • Photos/Images. Your own, those cut from magazines or from clip art, etc. A toner-based copy of an image can be used to make image transfers when paired with acrylic mediums, acetone, clear tape or solvent-based blender (clear) markers. There are also techniques using magazine pages to do image transfers. I don't use ink jet printed images for transfers as I have heard they fade quickly.
  • Sharpie/permanent markers.
  • Gel pens. I find I use white most often, to journal on top of a dark or black background. My favorite brand so far is Sakura Gelly Roll. It writes on acrylic paint better than other brands I've tried.
  • Mica powder, embossing powder, fabric, fibers, embellishments, die cuts, ephemera, found objects, stencils, etc. There's nothing to limit what you use in your art journal, aside from your imagination. For practicalities sake, I don't often use big, bulky embellishments on the inner pages (unless seated inside a cut-out), for obvious reasons, and I shy away from oil paints as they take so long to completely dry. Other than that, I try not to limit myself.

I'm probably forgetting a few of the supplies I use, but this is a good start. Feel free to share your favorite art journaling supplies in the comments. For the next post in this series, I'm thinking of just jumping right in on getting a page started. I'll address the "blank page" syndrome and talk more about the whys of art journals, as well as their effects on one's emotional and artistic well-being.


  1. Thank you for posting this series! I love the idea of having an art journal, but I always run into the blank page syndrome... And the crippling idea that I'm not artistic enough. Anyway, looking forward to your series (and hopefully I'll be able to journal artfully because of it)

  2. You're very welcome, Sydnii! And I can assure you that you are "artistic enough"! Anyone can keep an art journal, and because there's no rules, there's really nothing to fear. I hope over the course of the series you'll feel comfortable enough to get started.

  3. This is something I really really want to do... I just need a couple more hours in the day. Or less time on facebook!

  4. Sydnii, I find it easier to think of mine as a "visual journal" rather than an "art journal". It is my private playground, so it doesn't have to be "Art" with a capital A.

    Thanks for posting this, Jessica! I'll be following the series with interest. You asked for comments about mixed-media journals. I'm using a Strathmore Mixed Media Visual Journal ( and so far I love it. It copes well with wet media even without gesso, and it is smooth enough to be nice with a pen.

  5. Thanks so much for stopping by, spinjenny! And thanks for the feedback on the Strathmore Journal - I've been wanting to try them out, but was unsure, so it's good to hear from someone with experience!

  6. Wow! This is a fabulous resource. I'll be looking forward to seeing the rest. I adore those Derwent Inktense pencils. Never go anywhere without 'em. Also on the journals ... the Moleskine watercolor is very nice (for watercolors) and the new Strathmore Mixed Media from their Visual Journaling series are nice for anything BUT watercolors. Looking forward to sharing this link with my readers.
    My teen journalers often use the regular old comp. books. My advice is to glue stick a couple of pages together - it makes them a bit stronger.

  7. Thanks so much for sharing your tips on journals, Diana! I'm flattered you took the time to stop by my blog and that you are sharing a link with your readers. I'm on vacation right now, and even though I brought limited art supplies, I did bring my Inktense pencils. They are a must have!