Friday, September 20, 2013

What is an Artist's Journal?

Once upon a time, I used to do art to the point that my laundry never got done and we had to crack open the plastic silverware to have clean utensils. This was a very unpopular stage with my husband, and I was forced to actually gain a bit of balance in my life, so of course I started a blog and a barn sale to help me get my priorities straight. Today's story is from this pre-barn sale period of my life. I decided I would tell you guys one of my dirty little secrets.

A long time ago, when my kids were small and it was never about me, I used to scrapbook. I know, you are all shocked. I am one of the least "scrappy" people I know. But one of my dear friends was a Creative Memories rep and she asked me to come to a few of her parties and I had a bunch of friends there really was pretty fun. There really is something about being in a group of women, making stuff out of memories and paper and stickers, and laughing a lot as you talk about life. I liked the design challenge of trying to figure out a non "gooky" way to collage all those pictures and dates and hand written descriptions of things. I was always trying to take it to the next level, make my pages look different than the others I'd seen. 

Obviously not my best effort.

In an attempt to get some fresh ideas, I checked out a book called "1001 Artist Journal Pages" by Dawn DeVries Sokol.  I figured if anyone had some good ideas, it would be a bunch of artists. 

As I looked through the book, I did find some great ideas, but I kept getting this odd feeling that I was missing something big. Kind of like looking at a giant's shoe, and missing that there was a giant attached to it. I kept looking at the various pages, trying to find the link that tied them all together, but I still couldn't figure it out. They were just so diverse in style and theme.

So I did what any Facebook using 40-something would do, I asked someone I know from high school about it. I happen to know a brilliant woman, Alison King, who is an art professor at the Phoenix Art Institute. She is a force of nature in the movement to protect original modern style buildings in the Phoenix area from demolition and massive renovation. She is also one of those teachers that is super hard on you, but if you pass her class, you WILL succeed in the art-business world. I knew she'd have my answer.

When asked "What is the point of an artist's journal," here's what she said:

"The point of keeping an artist journal is pretty much the same as keeping a diary, only it is in visual language. You document the sights, feelings, scraps of ideas around you in case they become useful someday for something bigger. 

 Additionally, because a journal is chronological, you can see the logical progression of one idea to the next or watch one singe idea or theme grow over time as you revisit a theme. 

I assign required sketchbooks to my freshmen and a certain amount of drawing in them to prove to them that they have progressed in skill over time. They set goals at the beginning i.e. "I want to draw hands better" and then the expectation is that okay, if they want to do hands better they better damn well be drawing lots of hands, then! 

Keeping a journal is like keeping a commitment that you are going to go to the gym -- to keep yourself creatively fit and keep on growing stronger at what you do."

Talk about having your question answered. I told you she was brilliant!

So I started my own artist journal. I use a 9x12 spiral bound sketch book. In the book, there are no rules. I draw whatever I want, however I want. 

Sometimes I push myself to do something that makes me nervous, like this page, where forthe first time in my life, I drew with felt tip pens without a pencil sketch to guide me.

That may not seem like a big deal to some of you, but when you gained a tremendous amount of popularity in 2nd and 3rd grade by drawing really well, you rely heavily on those pencil sketches. Drawing without them just feels so NAKED and EXPOSED. What if you make a mistake? You might have to start over! 

But I did it anyway, just to see what would happen. As I drew, I felt the thrill of doing something that scares the pants off you. As I kept drawing, I began to release control and let the picture just become what it wanted to be, rather than what I wanted it to be. It was magic! It just kind of drew itself. And I still liked the result. It was such a rush to know that you really can just go with it, and completely let go of safety. You simply work with whatever happens. Your art will be the stronger for it.  

I felt like I had polished my soul. So much freedom and power. 

I was completely addicted after that.

But as you know, I did have to get some balance and start a blog and a barn sale, so my artist journal has suffered a bit. Luckily, I found a pair broken butterfly wings on a walk a while ago and brought them home to draw. I found myself with an unexpected hour the other day and actually remembered that I had been wanting to draw them. (That's half the battle sometimes, just remembering what it was you wanted to do when the time drops in your lap.) So I set up a little still life 

and got to work.

As you can see, I will not be giving Michelangelo a run for his money any time soon, but it was so cathartic for me to express myself visually again. 

And through this exercise, I gained a deep appreciation for the purpose of creating a still life. I picked a few objects that I found visually interesting and practiced recreating those 3 dimensional qualities in 2 dimensions. For me, it was about figuring out how to make metal look metallic, or butterfly wings look luminous, or how to get the keys to look layered using only a pencil. It's about implying your other senses, like touch and smell if you are drawing something soft or fragrant. The artist who chooses a still life it trying to capture some essence of his subject, be it trying to recreate it as realistically as possible, or simply figuring out how few lines he could use and still convey the idea of the subject to the viewer. 

This picture is the result of me being shocked how hard it is to do art. 
Hence the title "artWork"
I don't always have brilliant insights when I use my journal. But it has given me a safe place to record the things swirling around in my mind without worrying about being judged or evaluated by anyone other than myself. And I have forbidden myself from judging my own art as being "good" or "bad" here. It is simply what came out that day. Safe.

Sometimes I draw about what I've been doing, 
just like when you write about your travels or experiences in a regular journal.

I drew this one to remind myself about an amazing anniversary date with my husband.

Sometimes I draw to release emotion or confusion or grief.

Sometimes I just let my pencil wander and see what happens. With this piece, I held the pencil loosely between my fingers and let the lead jump around the paper until it connected something in me.

Sorry this one's so hard to see. That's how light the original is.

I don't always spend a ton of time on it. I think this page took me 5 minutes, but it leaves you no questions where my life was going that day.

Sometimes I hyper focus and draw things in great detail. 

I also plan out things visually in my journal. This piece is the plan for a large scale collage I will get to sometime, like once the laundry is done an there are actually clean spoons in the drawer.

In any case, using my artist journal has lead me to substantially greater depths of understanding of both myself and my art than I could have gained any other way. It is an incredibly powerful tool. And don't feel like you need to be an pro to benefit from it. Anyone visually inclined would gain tremendously from doing this. Even if all you did was sketch your next projects or dream house, you would find your life enriched. It really is magic.

I just thought I'd throw it out there into blogland for those of you looking for that something you can't quite put your finger on, but feels like that deep seated yearning for More.

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