Art Journals v. Artist’s Journals

Two phrases are often used interchangeably:  ‘Art journals’ and ‘artists journals.’

As an artist and as someone who keeps a visual journal, I think they’re two different things.

For me, an artist’s journal is an illustrated diary or journal representing the artist.  It’s about the person’s life, or some aspect of it, such as a travel journal, a diet & fitness journal, or something like my ‘decluttering journal’.

It usually includes art and the journal is also a work of art, in itself.

Sample Artist’s Journal Page

Below, you can see a page from one of my 2002 artist’s journals. It’s a collage I created when I was coping with an impending divorce. The original is about 6″ x 9″.

Artists journal page, 2004

By contrast, an art journal is where I keep notes about art I’m working on or might want to create later.  It includes visual inspiration — photos, articles, etc. — as well as my own thumbnail sketches, etc.

It’s sort of my pre-art brainstorming, in a journal format.

Sample art journal page

Art journal page showing inspirationAt left is a page from one of my 2011 art journals. The page included photos from a magazine.

On that page, my pencil sketch shows my initial thumbnail concept for a later painting.

Those photos & notes inspired the oil sketch shown below. The original is an oil painting on 16″ x 20″ canvas. (It’s a scene related to an Anasazi settlement.)

Anasazi painting

But… Not Just Paintings

I use an art journal as my on-paper memory of inspiration and original ideas.  It’s sort of like a visual thumb drive of art ideas, for later use.

If I don’t jot down my ideas in a journal, they’ll vanish from my thoughts in a matter of days, if not hours.  I tend to have a steady stream of creative ideas, and one soon replaces another in my consciousness.

For me, it’s part of the creative process.

People often ask me where I get my original art ideas. Well, I’m not sure that they’re entirely “original,” but they are fresh and new, if only to me.

Here’s a typical sequence: I started by surfing the Internet to see what other artists are currently working on.

Yesterday, I viewed a website called The Starving Artist’s Way, which included a project using second-hand woolen sweaters that had been washed and dried to shrink them in a “felted” style.

I didn’t think much more about that — not on a conscious level, anyway — but later in the day, after a nap, I woke up thinking about what else I could do with that kind of wool.

Another art journal page

While the thoughts were still fresh in my mind–and evolving–I jotted them down in my art journal. These are my two pages of notes:

art journal notes - felted jacket idea(click image to see full size 118kb)

In a nutshell, I was thinking about the kinds of wearable art that I could make with felted-style wool.

(Geek note: It’s not actually “felted” wool when you wash & dry woven/knitted/etc. wool to shrink it. It’s called “fulled” wool. Felting is when you use the raw fibers and a tool to tangle and/or compact them.)

This merged with the Mondrian art that I was reminded of when I was playing an online game, Kingdom of Loathing, yesterday.

And, once I started jotting down these ideas, I remembered when I used to make stained glass windows. Those patterns would adapt nicely to this kind of wool treatment, too.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever actually do anything with this idea. I get a bazillion of these ideas, steadily.

So, I’m scanning the pages from my idea journal, and putting them into an art zine for two reasons.

First, it documents that it was my idea. It drives me crazy when I decide to run with an idea and it turns out that another artist has been working on a similar concept… and people think that one of us is “copying” the other, when we’re not.

Second–and more importantly–I am sharing this idea so that someone else might be inspired by it and adapt the concepts (or copy it line-for-line, for all I know/care) to his or her own art.

Note: When my grandfather’s original ideas were copied, he used to chuckle and say, “Plenty more where that came from.” In other words, he didn’t feel any need to complain about those who copied him. I’ve always liked that, and he was the richest man I knew, when I was growing up. He literally made millions (when that was a lot of money) from his creative ideas; he was a good role model.

But, I’m also sharing my art journal pages so that people see what one can look like.

However, these may be my own definitions.

How you use the terms ‘art journals’ and ‘artists journals’ may be different… and that’s fine with me.

The creativity that matters more than the words!

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Saving Images for Your Collage Art

Saving collage photos, papers and ephemera… it’s always a challenge.

But, I’ve found a system that works well for me. It might help you, too.

Step One: Sort collage elements by themes

I save my collage elements — especially magazine photos — by color, in manila folders. I start with the major color groups (red, blue, green, etc.) and then expand (lime green, turquoise, etc.) as my collection of saved images becomes too large for anything simpler.

I include all kinds of papers in my folders. So, when I want something blue, I open my “blue” folder and I’ll see my primarily blue magazine images, but also blue tissue paper, maybe some bits of blue ribbons or fabrics that I intend to use in collage, and so on.

Of course, my collages are usually more color-driven than image-driven, per se. So, organizing by color makes sense to me. (If you’re not familiar with my torn-paper collages, you’ll see many of them online at Aisling.net.)

For someone else, it might make more sense to organize by other themes, instead of (or in addition to) by colors.

Your categories might be “faces” or even more specifically, “women’s smiling faces,” etc. Or, “dark-looking castles,” “cute cottages,” “kissing,” “fast cars,” “vintage images,” or whatever.

Step Two: Store the folders in a big portfolio

All of my manila folders are stored in one large, flat old-fashioned artist’s portfolio thingie. You know, those huge black folders made from heavy cardboard, covered with a black, textured surface, and they tie at the top and sides with cotton tabs.

(Collaging the outside of that big portfolio is optional.)

You may prefer a portfolio that’s easier to carry and comes in a color. But, any good, big portfolio will work fine.

In my studio, my portfolio fits nicely on top of my chest of drawers that holds my fabric art and mixed media supplies, like my iron, fusible webbing, frequently-used fabrics like muslin, etc. (It’s a small chest of drawers that fits underneath my sewing table. So, the big collage bits folder is pretty much hidden unless I’m looking for it.)

You can also hide the folder under a bed, behind a door, between or in back of bookcases, and so on.

I’ve tried many organizing systems for my stacks of wonderful papers and collage images. This has worked the best for me.

Composition Book Artists Journals

Mead composition bookA composition book art journal is any journal that’s kept in a composition book. Those are generally school-type, saddle-sewn (along the crease) notebooks with cardboard covers… similar to exam/test booklets, but a little more permanent.

Composition books are inexpensive, so many people like them especially for informal journaling. It feels less intimidating to use a journal that doesn’t cost much, and is familiar from our years in school.

They’re so affordable, you can buy several.

Put one in your car, one in the baby bag, one by your bed, and so on. Then, you’re ready to create a journal page when you have some free time.

These journals are so inexpensive, you can rip completed pages out and bind them into your more formal artist’s journal.

(“Binding” the loose page can be as easy as taping it into your other journal. Or, you can glue it, sew it, staple it, etc.)

Composition books have lots of lined pages in them… as many as 100. They come in a variety of sizes, but the traditional ones are about 8″ x 10″ or so. The traditional ones often have a b&w cover that looks sort of marbelized.

You can also find composition books with red covers, plain manila covers, green covers, and so on. You may want to choose one with a color that reminds you of your childhood. (But, the color may not matter if you’re going to cover it with art anyway.)

Also, it’s easy to embellish the cardboard covers. I’d still use something (such as fusible interfacing) on the back so that threads don’t pull through, but you can sew through the cardboard with a crewel needle. Then, you can embroider on it, add beads & buttons, etc., in addition to other embellishments.

(For more about sewing on your journal pages and covers, see Sewing on Journal Pages.)

Sewing Onto Your Journal Pages

You can sew embellishments onto your paper journal pages.

You can use any page in a book like fabric (to sew on, for example) by using iron-on interfacing on the back side of the page.

Yes, just iron it on, the same as you would iron interfacing onto fabric. It won’t always stick 100%, but it will work well enough that you can sew through it.

(If you try to embroider or sew beads onto regular pages in a book, the thread tends to pull right through the paper, if the thread is tugged.)

You can do the same thing with your journal cover. A strong crewel embroidery needle will usually sew through cardboard… but you’ll probably need a thimble to push the needle through.

artists journals cover - treated as fabricYou can then embroider with embroidery floss, yarn, thin ribbon, etc. You can add buttons, beads, and so on, too.

At left, you can see one of my journal covers that I’ve embellished with sewn-on buttons. (Click on the image to see it larger.) The biggest button is part of the journal closure. When it’s not in use, a string of hemp (secured to the back cover) is wrapped around the button on the front cover to hold the journal closed.

After you’ve finished your sewing (or other embellishment), you can glue a page or fabric over the ironed-on interfacing, so your stitches are concealed. If I’m doing a lot of this in a book, I’ll buy a second copy of the same book, so the “backing” page is what it would have been, if I hadn’t covered the original with interfacing.

You’ll find iron-on interfacing at any fabric shop. It’s usually kept in a bin or on shelving next to where they cut fabric yardage for you.

You can also iron on Stitch Witchery or another fusible adhesive, and that gives you the option of sticking something wonderful on the other side… interfacing isn’t all that interesting.

For example, you could fuse an actual piece of fabric to the paper page.

Then again, after I sew beads onto the page, I like to cover the interfacing side with more paper… maybe a collage.

You can sew onto your journal pages, or turn them into fabric. It’s easy!

What’s an Artist’s Journal?

Artist’s journals are illustrated diaries and journals on any theme.

An artist’s journal — or art journal — can be a record of your daily thoughts, a travel journal, an exercise or diet diary, a dream journal, a place where you jot down your goals or to-do lists, or… well, almost any record that you’d like to keep in a book or notebook.

They become “artist’s journals” when you add any kind of art, illustration or embellishment to the pages.

Illustrated on this page:

This is a travel journal page I created after visiting “The Nubble” lighthouse in York, Maine (USA).  It’s a mixed media work, combining sketches, photos, beach glass, shells, and driftwood from that journey.  The original is part of a 9″ x 12″ spiral-bound sketchbook.

Wax Paper and Artists Journals

Two artists' journals pages by Aisling D'Art.I love wax paper. It’s always among my basic journaling supplies.

I use it any time I need to protect pages that include glue, water media, or anything sticky.

When I travel, I pre-cut sheets of wax paper, and tuck them into the back of my journal.  (Usually, I use a rubber band or a binder clip to hold them in place, so I don’t lose the sheets.)

The following article is based on one that I wrote around 2005. It’s still a useful tip for anyone creating an artist’s journal.

Wax paper can be a vital tool if you’re keeping an art journal. Wax paper can separate damp art journal pages — after they’ve been painted or collaged — so they don’t stick together.

I carry wax paper with me when I travel, so I can work on several journal pages in a row, and not wait for pages to dry completely.

Photo of wax paper.Wax paper has many great features:

  • Wax paper is inexpensive.
  • It’s slightly porous (so the pages dry underneath). In other words, the air can get through.
  • It’s super-easy to use.
  • Wax paper is environmentally friendly.
  • You can often use the same sheet two or three times before throwing it away.

You’ll find wax paper at the grocery store, in the aisle with foil and plastic (cling) wrap. In the States, the leading brand is Reynolds’ Cut-Rite wax paper. That’s it in the photo. The package is about the same size as a roll of foil or plastic (cling) wrap.

Sometimes it’s half-hidden on the bottom shelf. In other areas, wax paper is a popular product for use with microwave ovens, so you’ll find wax paper more prominently displayed.

Regular wax paper is generally not recyclable. The wax surface (often made with petroleum products) is considered a “mixed” paper product.  I have not yet tried any of the recyclable wax papers (like “If You Care” brand wax paper) with my artists journals.

When I’m separating journal pages with wax paper, I try to let each page dry so it’s only damp, not wet. (Sometimes I have no choice.  If the page is really sticky and I can’t wait for it to dry at all, I have to hope for the best.)

Then, I place the journal so the pages are as flat as possible.

After that, I cut or tear the wax paper so each piece is slightly larger than the journal page it will protect. An extra half-inch on each side is usually enough.

The key to success is not to allow much weight or pressure on damp pages. In other words, the wax paper should practically float on the damp page. Don’t press it onto the page.

WAX PAPER AND GESSO

Generally, I gesso five or six pages at a time. I’ve successfully gesso’d up to eight pages at a time.

However, I’m usually working with spiral-bound sketchbooks. They’re generally my favorite journals.

If I was working with a regular, bound journal, I’d watch carefully to see how much the binding “pulls” the pages back together. I might have to work with just two pages at a time.

(Big binder clips can come in handy if the binding on the journal is really tight. Clip the dry pages together — in separate bunches, if necessary — and that should take some of the pressure off binding, keeping the damp pages apart.)

Remember, wax paper is not 100% reliable when you want to keep wet pages apart.  If your journal page is the most perfect thing you’ve ever created, and you’d be devastated if it was damaged… well, stop journaling until that page has dried completely.

From my experience, wax paper sticks about 10 – 15% of the time. Sometimes, that’s a disaster. More often, it’s an opportunity to add more art & embellishments.

I may collage over those pages later, since the surface of the page is already a bit distressed.

Or, I may leave them “as-is” to reflect the creative process.

It all depends upon how they look when the page is dry, and I take a fresh look at it.

I’ve used wax paper when I’ve gesso’d in airplanes (very dry air) and — at the other extreme — in sultry, humid Houston.

I have slightly better success with wax paper when the air is dry and the pages dry more quickly.

If you try wax paper and don’t have much success with it, try gently crushing the wax paper — before you use it — so it holds the pages slightly apart.

Note: It’s important to gently crush the wax paper; if you fold it enough that the wax falls off at the crease, that line (or point) may stick to wet paint, gel medium, or gesso.

WAX PAPER AND WET PAINT

When I want to separate wet, painted journal pages, I’m far more careful with the pages.

Then, I will separate two pages at the most: The one that I’ve just painted, and the one that I’m currently working on. Because wax paper isn’t 100% non-stick, I don’t want to risk damage.

Remember: Less weight or pressure on the wax paper means less risk of sticking.  Also, the drier the pages, the better.

Paint is designed to be sticky and adhere to paper.  If it’s so wet that the moisture actually penetrates the wax paper, the results may be disappointing.

Weigh your options carefully.  If your painted journal page is the best thing you’ve ever created, maybe it’s more important to preserve that, as-is, than rush into the next journal page.  (If you’re in a class and this happens, have a second or third journal with you.  Then, you can keep working while the first journal page dries, and not miss any valuable class time.)

WAX PAPER AND GEL MEDIUM OR GLUE

Wax paper is best for separating pages with small amounts of wet gel medium or glue on them. However, most gel medium won’t stick to wax paper.

In storage, I also use wax paper to protect every page of my collaged art journals. Then, even during sultry summer heat, the gel medium doesn’t re-soften and stick to the page opposite it.

Think of it this way: We use an iron to “melt” gel medium for image transfers. Likewise, gel medium can become sticky if you store your journals in a hot attic, garage, or other really warm area.

Unlike gel medium, glue can be hit-or-miss with wax paper. It can vary with how wet the glue is, and if the glue contains alcohol or any kind of solvent.  (Alcohol and solvents will dissolve the wax on the wax paper, so it’s useless.)

You can test this ahead of time. Put a blob of the glue on a piece of paper, and place a piece of wax paper on top of it. Press gently, enough so contact occurs.

Then, wait a minute or two and see if the wax paper sticks to the glue. If it does, wax paper won’t protect your journal pages where that glue is wet and exposed.

You may be safe with sheets of foil as separators. Or, consider thin sheets of teflon-coated plastic, sold in kitchen supply shops; they were invented to safeguard very sticky cookies, meringues, and so on.

Plastic wrap (cling film) isn’t usually helpful. It tends to stick to paint, gel medium and glue, and some glues will completely melt it.  If you have to choose between plastic wrap and nothing between the damp pages, opt for nothing.  Really.  Some plastic wraps — especially the more expensive kinds — are practically guaranteed to stick to your damp pages, prevent them from drying (ever), and not peel off (ever).

SUMMARY

Wax paper is a valuable tool when you’re working with damp pages in your art journal or illustrated diary.

Wax paper isn’t foolproof, but it’s still one of the best and least expensive ways to keep damp pages from sticking to each other.

You’ll have the best luck when you’re working with gel medium. Gesso and glue have a higher “failure” rate with wax paper.

However, in art there are no “failures,” just challenges and opportunities to create new and different art, and to make the most of life’s surprises.

The good news is, wax paper will prevent most damp pages from sticking together.  And, for most of my own journaling, that’s good enough.

Gesso – What It Is and How to Use It

Gesso can be a useful option for artists journals as well as painting and mixed media art. I use gesso often, because I often create heavily embellished pages in my journals. I need the extra strength that gesso adds to my art journal pages.

If you create heavily embellished pages in your journals, as I do, gesso can provide more support. It can strengthen the paper you’re working on.

However, you don’t have to gesso pages in your artist’s journal. In fact, most artists never use gesso in their journals. I only suggest it if you’re working with paint, heavy embellishments, or mixed media.

What is gesso?

Gesso is a primer. It looks a lot like paint, and it goes between the surface you’re working on (the support) and whatever you’re using for your artwork.

Originally, gesso only came in white. Artists put it on surfaces such as:

  • Canvas
  • Wood
  • Hardboard (such as masonite, MDF or plywood)

On wood and hardboard, the gesso is a two-way barrier. It prevents the board from soaking up the paint too much. However, it also prevents any acids, oils or glues from migrating into your finished painting. (The latter could spoil the colors.)

On canvas, gesso prevents the fabric from soaking up the paint. The colors won’t bleed, and you won’t use as much paint.

That’s a good reason to use gesso on paper if you’re painting in your art journals: You’ll have more control over the color, and you’ll save money on paint. (Generally, gesso is a lot cheaper than paint is.)

Gesso makes the surface a little stiffer. It can also give the surface a little more texture (called “tooth”), so the paint sticks better.

Today, gesso comes in many colors. White is still the most popular, but black and colors are also widely used for art journaling and other art. So, the gesso can be part of your finished artist’s journal page, too.

Pages 31 - 32 from the Decluttering Journal

Gesso is useful for mixed media artwork, too. When I’m using a cigar box as the support for an art shrine, I almost always cover it with gesso… unless the design on the box is going to be part of the finished shrine.

(Also, some wooden cigar boxes look spectacular if they’re simply polished, so the wood shines.)

What’s the difference between gesso and regular paint?

Gesso is usually thinner and creates a slightly rough surface when you apply it.

Long ago, artists made their own gesso. They mixed calcium — like chalk — in a thin base of animal glue.

Yes, it was rather smelly. It also had to be shaken or stirred regularly, because the chalk quickly settled to the bottom of the mixture.

I don’t recommend making your own gesso, but if you want to try it, here are a couple of websites with recipes:

When you see religious paintings and icons painted on wooden supports, gesso is probably underneath the artwork. That gave the wood some “tooth” so the paint stuck to it (and didn’t peel off), but it also kept the paint from sinking into the grain of the wood.

By the mid-20th century, gesso began to change. In 1955, the first water-based acrylic gesso was created by Liquitex, the paint company. That gesso could be used underneath oil paint and underneath acrylic paint.

In recent years, some artists have questioned whether or not acrylic gesso is the right product to use under oil paint.

That’s not an issue for most people working in art journals.

However, if you also work with oil paints and want to buy just one gesso for both, discuss this with someone who’s current on this topic. (Or, look it up online to see what the latest theories are.)

Gesso and artists journals

As many of us began to create art journals, we found new uses for acrylic gesso. For example, it’s ideal for use under collages.

Note: The acrylic/oil issue shouldn’t affect art journalers who use oil pastels and crayons over acrylic gesso.

However, since the oil in oil paints, oil pastels, and similar products can weaken the paper in your journal, it’s a good idea to treat the paper with a coat of gesso, first.

When I journal, I use white gesso most of the time.

However, I’ve also used black gesso as part of the finished work. Here is an example of a page with black gesso on it. It’s from my Decluttering Journal.

Decluttering Journal pages 23 & 24

I used rubberstamp letters (alphabet letters) and an opaque (pigment) white stamp pad. I also added details with a white gel pen. The “tooth” (rough texture) of the black gesso can work well with opaque (pigment) gel pens, such as Sakura Gelly Roll pens.

How to use gesso

Like paint, gesso can get messy if you play with it. I usually spread newspaper on the desk, table, or floor where I’m working, just in case.

Shake the gesso container so it’s well mixed. Whether it’s acrylic gesso or traditional gesso, it’s still likely to separate.

Because gesso is water-based, you can use a regular brush to paint it on. I use a sponge brush for fast coverage.

If I’m working with an art journal, I apply a thin coat of gesso to one side of the page. That’s usually enough.

However, if I’ll be using heavy embellishments and the page needs to be very strong, I’ll use gesso on both sides of the page. Depending on how thick the gesso is, I may apply more than one layer to each side of the page.

Remember that the binding of your journal is also subject to wear & tear. Sometimes, especially when it’s a spiral-bound journal, I’ll paint gesso out to the edges of the page, including around the holes where the wire is.

Also, a journal with heavy embellishments will only hold up to a certain amount of page-turning. (In my classes, I often pass around my journals so people can look through them.) I closely watch the condition of my journals, and “retire” them from classroom use when they start to show signs of stress.

Cheap gesso has more water in it and will take longer to dry. If you’re going to apply gesso to the back of the page, too, be sure to let the paper dry completely before painting that second side. Otherwise, you’ll seal in moisture and weaken the paper.

Does price or quality matter?

No two people are likely to agree on this question.

When I’m using white gesso — which is most of the time — I buy whatever’s cheap. It works fine for my art journaling pages.

I often buy gesso in large tubs — like ice cream containers — to save money. As long as you put the lid back on securely, gesso stores well.

That’s sort of the best of both worlds: By buying in bulk, I get the best price for a higher-quality gesso.

When I want a colored gesso, especially black gesso, I spend considerably more and shop for very good brands.

In addition, I’ve tinted small amounts of cheap white gesso for special projects.

I start with a jar or paper cup that’s partly filled with white gesso. Then, I slowly add coloring until I achieve the color that I want.

For color, I’ve had luck with:

  • Plain (unsweetened) Kool-Aid
  • Dr. Ph. Martin’s concentrated water colors, added drop by drop to white gesso
  • Cheap watercolor paint drizzled into the gesso
  • Adding acrylic paints to the white gesso

Remember: If your Kool-Aid contains a sweetener, that can attract paper-munching insects and rodents.

Getting fancy

You’ll find a variety of gessos, each created for different kinds of art.

In addition to colored gessos, some companies make a “hard gesso” that goes on thick and can be sanded to a smooth finish. Although this product would be too heavy for use on regular journal pages, it could be useful on a heavy journal cover or other rigid support.

Gesso powder will mix into acrylic (and other) gessos to make them heavier, thicker, textured, and so on.

Summary

  • Gesso is the primer. It helps paint stick to any surface, including paper, cloth or board.
  • Gesso prevents paint from soaking into your journal page.
  • Gesso strengthens paper so that you can apply layers of collage and heavier embellishments.

You don’t have to use gesso, ever. It’s just an extra tool for certain kinds of art journaling.