The fine art of journaling


Dear Artist,

An epidemic of journaling and scrap-booking is threatening to overtake stamp collecting as a private and not so private pastime. Many of these are of the “I’m having a nice day” variety, or include the “I don’t know whether I like Donald anymore,” syndrome. Some are graphically fun, full of torn photos, sayings, intimate drawings, diary inserts, self-indulgencies and the poetic detritus of a life. As you may have noticed, some artists are now regularly hanging themselves out in “weblogs” and “ezines.”

The type of journaling that’s truly valuable for artists is a marching record of feelings, inventions and plans. Some of these, though not all, can be the seeds of later production. The best are based on web-thinking — ideas breeding ideas. Leonardo da Vinci is the Patron Saint of journaling. For us as well, in times of travel or quiet downtime at home, the mind becomes curiously open and enriched. A web-thought journal is an ideal way to grab this stuff and tie it down. Your notebooks need not be precious. Messiness counts. A cheap note-pad on the trail or in the restaurant, or a pad of newsprint on the studio floor can be more valuable than a quality album. Here are a few ideas:

Make notes of incomplete thoughts, fragments, figments.

Let ideas freely associate and take you where they will.

Take advantage of giddy times, high energy, altered states.

Revisit your thoughts and ask, “What could be?”

Condense material by rewriting, gisting and summarizing.

Liberate yourself by consciously omitting the word “I.”

Include resource persons, research zones, other sources.

Circle, highlight, and re-illustrate ideas in progress.

Mix and match by looking outward as well as inward.

Make a decision whether to share or not to share.

View your journal in different light at different times.

Prioritize. Not all of you is brilliant.

Journaling is under continuing scrutiny as therapy, creativity booster and as a key to happiness and health. Web-thinking and journaling gurus such as Tony Buzan, Lucia Capacchione, and others are available in the marvelous metaphor of the World Wide Web. “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?” (attributed to Talullah Bankhead, who kept a journal)

Best regards,


PS: “Keeping a journal will change your life in ways you never imagined.” (Oprah Winfrey)

Esoterica: If it’s your will, by all means monumentalize by refining and committing to a “keeper” album. In our home we call them “bookey-books.” There’s always excitement when beautifully bound books arrive at Christmas or birthdays–with nothing in them. Some of them leather-bound, with hand-made paper, floppy, like old bibles, or stiff with cold-pressed watercolour, papyrus or rice paper—only in need of the new owner’s imagination.

The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.


Mandalas in journaling
by Jane Shoenfeld


painting by Jane Shoenfeld

I’ve returned to my own form of journaling, but it’s in a new incarnation. I draw mandalas, usually in the first part of the day. It’s fine to make the mandalas beautiful, but most important is not to think and to let them emerge from wherever it is that they reside. Doing this in the morning affirms my connection to an imaginative, intuitive source and often produces partial symbols, ie, wing forms, fire forms, etc that then find their way into my depictions of the landscape.



Less personal and more universal
by Theresa Bayer, Austin Texas, USA

Recently I’ve been combining life-drawing studies with journaling. Something about the nude figure brings out the philosopher in me. Sometimes I’ll add text as I’m drawing the figure at open studio; other times I put in text at home. In the group situation of open studio I find myself writing thoughts from a different perspective that never would have occurred to me alone at home. The text becomes less personal and more universal as the creativity flows outwards instead of inwards.


Sara Genn journal

(RG note) My daughter, Sara Genn, is an active paper-journal maker. Her journals are private but I’m aware from glimpsing over her shoulder that they are quite often lists with minimal graphic elements. She photographed this page for our benefit — she says it is “typical.”

Sara and her husband Richard Thompson spent a year in Europe in 1999-2000. During this period Sara and Rich produced a remarkable online weblog based on Sara’s daily journaling. It’s called “Saraphina Mosey” and was produced on a laptop in the car, in small hotels, tents and mountaintops, and sent out to the world from various cyber-cafes and mysterious telephone hookups. As many will be aware, this journal has taken on a life of its own. As well as achieving an international following and a bombardment of correspondence, it has resulted in almost weekly requests for their travel photographs as well as developing an interest in Sara’s art and her continued growth. Many artists have come to the Painter’s Keys site and the Robert Genn Twice-Weekly Letter by way of Saraphina Mosey.


Journal online
by Robert C Wittig, Chicago, Illinois, USA

My website is a fairly professional version of what you are describing here, in that the images represent 100% of my production, including sketches along with highly finished work, a ‘Papers’ section, where my writing is stored, which chronicles the genesis of my work from a verbal perspective… modeled after the ‘scientific paper’ system used the hard sciences, held together by a development of an ‘artistic theory,’ which is analogous to ‘scientific theory,’ as opposed to the more amorphous ‘theories of art’, that have been advanced, from time to time. Also, I have a small ‘demonstrations’ section, with step by step photos of selected paintings, showing the painting process.

The websites’ ‘front end,’ is a ‘once a month’ newsletter. I would not be able to turn out a twice-weekly newsletter, as you do… my head would explode from the effort!

(RG note) Robert Wittig’s website is at It’s a good example of the genre. Even though I have help in “The Painter’s Keys” project, I can feel a head explosion coming on right now.


Journal techniques
by Catherine Jo Morgan, Clarkesville, Georgia, USA


painting by Catherine Jo Morgan

I’ve found that I do best with loose pages that I can reorganize as needed. So I use the same paper I use for my inkjet printer, for most of my writing, idea notes, technical notes, and “want to do soon” lists. I use a 3-hole punch so I can sort the pages into various notebooks. I like the “mind mapping” technique of making webs or nets of ideas. If I’m not sure what to do first in the morning, making a web or net of “sparks for today” usually leads to a definite sense of “yes, this is the place to start.”

One thing I’ve learned is to date every piece of paper. Often I see no reason to do this at the time. But years later, a reason will appear. So I’ve made it a habit to jot the date in the corner before I write anything.

Besides the 3-hole punched paper, I like 8.5 x 11″ vellum paper for drawings. It’s cheap, fits nicely into notebooks, and has enough tooth and weight to make drawing satisfying. I like Wassau Exact Vellum.

Also I always have with me some unruled 4 x 6 inch cards, a tiny digital camera that fits in one pocket, and a tiny digital recorder that fits in the other pants pocket. The recorder is handy for ideas that come while walking or driving.

One kind of list I start when I start a new piece, is based on an idea from The Inner Game of Music, by Barry Green and Tim Gallwey. At the top of the page I write, “If I were making this [whatever it is]six months from now, I’d expect to….” Then every time I learn something making that piece, of just goof, or get frustrated or blocked – I can add something to the list. E.g. “I’d expect to know how to drill an angled hole efficiently.” Or “I’d expect to check the piece through a camera lens before declaring the balance done.” These lists are useful to review later. They provide a sort of optimistic framework for problems that arise.

I also have an online journal and I like to know about the online journals of others. If anyone wants to start one, I’ve found Radio Userland quick, easy and pleasant to use, but there are plenty of software and hosting options.


Journal helped give back his life
by Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, Virginia, USA

I have kept a journal since age 22. I began writing with a passion each day seeking my mind’s heart and exploration. I drank in bars and talked with poets and artists, avoided Vietnam, was married with a pregnant wife, was ready to give up drugs for the sober life with my family and had a government job. And then it happened. My first panic attack. It was scary and I didn’t understand what was happening. The panic attacks became more frequent and I avoided bit by bit the life that I had known until I was house-bound for 6 years. I did not write any longer nor did I paint. My wife divorced me and she took my daughter and left. I moved in with my grandparents and lived upstairs as a recluse. But I sent out for a pad and a manual typewriter. For the first time in 6 years I began to write once again. I wrote of depressing days of emptiness. I had lost everything. I had learned from TV and books what was wrong with my life. Avoidance behavior, agoraphobia. My writing began to give me a purpose for life again and it was contagious to my other activities. I used what little money I had to purchase a cheap car. I was on the road again. I found work, freedom. I also found my wife and child and now I am a grandfather and we have a very happy life together. But sometimes, not many, I revisit my journal in the year of 1976 and read how my life had begun to vanish, it still provokes a sad feeling of the years I missed in my life. And 2 years later I began to paint again. I had burnt all of my art before 1976. I decided to go to school and study art. I still keep a journal. So at one time words were my only friends. I give my journal the credit for giving me back my life.


Problems keeping his journal
by Brett Forrester

Journaling seems like such a good idea for me, but I go in fits and starts. I can’t seem to really get on a roll even though I have a day-timer. I could write on the facing blank page across from the schedule, but I don’t seem to use it much and sometimes forget where I left it. I have half a dozen spiral notebooks with two or three pages of journal notes in them. I want to do this and I know some interesting ideas that dash through my head are escaping me. I flunked out of The Artist Way for the same reason. I am sure it helps with memory retention too, just from the few brief times I have done it. Has anyone any hints on how to get over the start-up stage and make it to the habit stage?


Journal as the source
by Jo Reimer, Portland, OR, USA


artwork by Jo Reimer

I’m a teacher of visual journaling. I had tried for decades to journal but until I started incorporating art into my journal pages (using painting, drawing, and collage along with writing) I was never successful or satisfied. Although I purchased blank books at first I now make my own journals by gutting an old hardback book, add new signatures of papers that I like, and decorate the cover. These beautiful books invite me to open them and play. Then to overcome the fear of the white page I paint or otherwise decorate the first dozen or so pages, leaving room to write when the mood hits, or I sometimes start with words or quotations that jump-start the composition of a page or spread. When I take a class or workshop my notes and samples go directly into the journal. It’s the place I practice drawing, make lists, mind-map as a way of planning, and most importantly, it’s the repository of all my ideas about art and the place where I keep notes about projects and thoughts about composition and color. Whenever I’m stuck for an idea I go back into my journal where I’m sure to find just the thing that will get me started with the next thing. My journals are more than a sketchbook and I love turning my students on to this sort of journaling.


Journals worth keeping
by Susan Holland, Washington, USA


painting by Susan Holland

Just two days ago I ran into the small spiral book I took with me to France in 1997. It was so wonderful to revisit all the stops along the Rhone, complete with verbal and visual sketches of people, places and happenings. The room service guy shakes his head and comments, “These Americans and their ice for cocktails,” when I asked for ice in my hotel room for aching feet. The vision of the plump waitress navigating the barge’s under-the-stairway wine cellar in her miniskirt while maintaining her cheerful disposition. Swans surfing on the barge’s wake as we pass their riverside hangouts. The spinning, swimming effect the fast train makes to the horizon’s “fast forwarding.”

What a pleasure to read my grandmother’s accounts of her courtship with my grandfather in the late 1800’s, and my mother’s notes about her trip to England when she was 18. The cream of the crop is a log my three children and I co-authored on our 6000-mile trip around the US when they were teens and preteens. It’s all in there, in four colors of ink, with drawings and flowers from roadside, complete with embarrassing moments, unvarnished comments about relatives, pictures of everything from oil pumps to “Pop Pop.”


The problem of privacy
by Hope Barton


painting by Hope Barton

The idea of keeping a journal is not new to me and I realize that it could be very beneficial. But, I also hate the idea of having something like that around that someone could read. All of my thoughts are not for everyone. Imagine dying and shocking the family. How do you get around that?

(RG note) You have to clearly think out the purpose of your journal. The advantage of telling the whole story may outweigh your need for privacy. Sharing can be a useful and liberating exercise. If you are concerned about family I suggest you lodge ongoing editions of the work with a trusted friend who will dispose of it as you see fit when you move up to the big studio in the sky.


Uses of journaling
by Jan Boydol, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

I am one of Lucia Capacchione’s instructors in Canada. All my work at The Valkyrie Centre for Creative Wellness, that I founded, the courses that I teach at the University of Calgary are based on sparking the creative juices of fellow artists, photographers and regular people who want to tap into their creative side, through “Creative Journal Expressive Arts” developed by Lucia. As you know from reading Lucia’s work this is a combination of art making and journal writing. For my clients, both artists and not, working with Lucia’s journaling style or my adaptations has given them an invaluable tool for their own personal creative lives or they have taken the tools into their corporate offices and are introducing creativity to their daily work in a new way.

Here are two recommendations: Writing and Being–Taking Back Our Lives Through the Power of Language by G. Lynn Nelson, and Thunder and Lightning — Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft by Natalie Goldberg.


Non-canine names for bad paintings
by Gerten Basom

How ’bout “possum”????? I kind of like that. “It’s a real possum of a painting” …. Hmmm. Our Airedale, Kia (now 9)…. doesn’t think too much of them ….. and lately, having had to haul out 2 possums from our barn, with Kia’s help …. even she was puzzled by what duds these critters can be. No game. No chase. No fight. No play. They even pretended to be chickens, all curled up in the layer boxes for overnight nesting, until one of my sons noticed a rather queer nose on one of the chickens, investigated, and tossed them out.

(RG note) Thanks to all of those who backed up Joe Blodgett in his protest against my use of the word “Dogs” for failed or inadequate paintings. This puppy has legs. Bobbie Kilpatrick recommended “Duds.” Joe Blodgett imaginatively suggested the offending word be replaced with “Flubs.” Other worthwhile suggestions conveyed by telephone were “Lousies” and “Failures.” Jack Villiers suggested “Dino-saurs” — “they’re dead so they can’t be sensitive, and they leave a “sour” taste when you look at them.” OK. Then Annette Waterbeek gave us the choice between “Rotters” and “Slugs.” They both feel good to say, she said. Fair enough. Then Martine Gourbault proposed the following philosophic acronyms, and others less printable:

BUTE Blatantly Unpleasant Turn of Events

TOTT That One To the Trash

JAWS Just Another Way of Seeing

SADAM Sad Attempt in the Direction of Artistic Merit.


Being swindled?
by Jeannine Romano

Several weeks ago I delivered a portrait to a satisfied customer. She showed off her new grandson’s portrait at her place of employment and I received a number of inquiries about additional portraits. One lady asked if I would be interested in doing a certain subject for a boardroom wall. The portrait was a big success and will be hung in a prominent place. Now they want to use it as a sort of logo for newsletters etc. I was asked to sign a release so that a local printer could make a digital copy of the work. I’m getting some publicity out of this but others are saying I’m being swindled. I’m all for cutting my losses, enjoying the recognition which in turn will lead to more commissions. What do you think?

(RG note) You are right. Be a giver. Goodwill and friendship outweigh petty billing and the narrow maintaining of artists’ rights.







Ian Fry, Bowen Island, Canada


“Big Leaf Maples”
by Ian Fry


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003. 

That includes Jennifer Seymour of Vancouver, B.C. Canada who writes, “My journal is my thinking-drawing-hoping-tracking book and this one and the others will be the first thing I grab in case of fire (after the cat).”


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