What To Do with A Partially Filled Journal (Not Quite a Superstition)

December 17, 2009

Suggestions for what to do about partially filled journals.


Above: This image has almost nothing to do with today's topic, except that I have decided to leave the rest of the page BLANK! My choice. Pentel Pocket Brush Pen Sketch with Stabilo Tones used wet, then dry. This is a page from my current journal which I made with Winsor and Newton 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper. The background was prepainted with Golden Fluid Acrylics, with portions masked off with masking tape. The fortune from a dinner cookie was also pre-applied before I reached this page and reads, "The star of riches will shine on you beginning next month." We have wild turkeys on my cycling route and I used notes, sketches, and some reference photos made on this fall's rides for this "thumbnail sketch" which will probably turn into a large acrylic painting.

I labeled this post "not quite a superstition" because I have written about working chronologically in your journals and leaving blanks in other "superstition" posts. But after I posted Journaling Superstitions #12—Art Papers Are Only for Painting, I received a number of notes from people who have lots of journals that are only partially filled. This post had hit a nerve as to why those journals weren't filled. In writing to these people it struck me I should say something to all the blog readers about this: It's OK to have a partially filled journal.

If you find that you have a ton of partially filled journals then now is the time to do a little analysis of what's going on. Are you stopping a journal simply because the paper doesn't do what you want it to do? Because you have too much activity in your life? Because you are too critical of your output ("That doesn't look like the bowl of fruit on the table")? In order to produce full journals you have to first discover an inkling as to why you have unfilled ones.

Do your analysis with honesty but with as little judgment as possible. For instance if you just had a major operation and can’t even sit up in bed it’s unlikely that you will be able to complete any pages. Then by the time you get back to your journal you might feel the need for a fresh start. That’s not something to feel negative about, just go on from that point.

If on the other hand you find that every time you get a hangnail you stop working in your journal, put it aside and then return to it weeks later deciding that, "no, I really do need a fresh start"—well then without being judgmental I need to tell you to look a little more closely at your actions. Something else is going on there. Journaling is not as important in your life as you like to claim it is, or hope it is or will be. Other things are always bumping it off of your to do list. I’ve talked about ways to cope with this in other posts and I’m sure I will write about it again. For now I just want you to look at why you have those unfinished journals—honestly assess the situation.

Once you have done that and the end result of your assessment is that you want to continue visual journaling (because maybe you'll find that journaling isn't really what you want to be doing and you would rather be quilting or playing tennis), I would suggest that you box up (or shelve in a back room) all those partially filled journals and put them out of your mind. Today is the point you’re starting from and you need to go on from there with the intent to finish the journals you start.

OK, that’s the extreme treatment, for people who have discovered there is something keeping them from keeping their journals. I don’t believe it does any good to dwell on the partially full journals. That’s why I’ve told you to put them away.

Let’s say you’ve discovered other reasons why you have partially filled journals. We all have partially filled journals.

Here are some reasons why I have partially filled journals:

1. My high school mentor died. After I wrote about him I wanted a new journal. (Obvious enough, personal choice.)

2. Dottie died. My project of drawing her every day came to an abrupt halt with more than two thirds of the final book unfilled. Nothing else was going to fill those pages. The book was finished. (Another obvious choice.)

3. I went on a trip and didn’t take my writing journal and when I returned I wanted a “fresh” start. (Another choice.)

4. Ten years ago I sent some current journals off to be photographed and included in a book on journaling. The publisher had the books for over 6 months. When they were returned to me the garden/nature journal didn’t make sense to continue because the seasons had changed drastically. I left it partially unfilled. Additionally, it was a push towards putting all my various visual journals into one volume. A happy event over all. (An event that was taken out of my hands, but which I then made a choice about how to frame in my life.)

See the pattern of choice emerging?

Here is a reason for filling a partially filled journal:

I started a journal for a nature group I belonged to but the group rarely got together as a group to sketch. All my nature sketches were in my main visual journal so I gave up working in this particular journal. A couple of months ago I pulled this journal out and started to work in it again, not as a nature journal (I’d long since left the group) but as a practice journal for working on tan paper with pencil and colored pencil. I’m doing studies from master drawings. It’s a great way to make sure this paper doesn’t go to waste. (And damn if this wasn't one of the finest books I've ever made with fantastic khaki bookcloth that is no longer available!)

Here is a reason for NOT filling the same journal:

If I had emotional baggage or a sense of defeat connected with this journal it would be better to just shelve it and walk away. I want to live in the present moment with the journal I’m working in NOW. 

There’s an attitude shift that’s important for you to recognize. You could decide to fill all the partially filled journals you’ve ever started and instead of that being a worthwhile goal you could actually be setting yourself up for failure—for more non-filling!

Don’t set yourself up for failure.

If, in your analysis of why a journal went partially filled you discover it’s because you didn’t like the paper or the format of the journal, well then don’t go back to that journal. It has taught you what it can teach you. If you want to inflict pain on yourself go out into the yard, pick up a rock, and whack yourself on the head. (Don’t really do that I’m just using that as an example of how silly it is to work in a book you’ve already discovered is poison to you.)

Here are some reasons and ways to fill a partially filled journal:

It’s free paper. Burn through it as quickly as you can. Take the book to life drawing and do one- and two-minute warm up sketches and gobble up those pages. Fill the book with test swatches from your new paints. Try out new pens. Doodle while you are on hold with the doctor's office. Fill pages with thumbnail sketches for paintings. Fill the pages with speed sketches as I discussed in my series of French Bull Dog sketches starting with my post on December 6.

All of those are healthy responses to a partially filled book.

But if you bring something else to that book, like an attitude of “this time I’ll fill it,” or “this time I’ll only paint lovely images,” or “this time [fill in the blank for you own Achilles’ Heel]” then you are setting yourself up for disaster and that box and shelf idea is looking better and better.

The most important thing about keeping a visual journal is that it reflect and support your expressive needs. None of us needs to wallow in half-finished projects. We, all of us, need to focus on the present and what we are doing now. We learn from the past and we go forward with different choices—choices that are geared to make our journaling efforts effortless or at least fun.

So before you dig up all those old journals which have several signatures of blank pages do a little honest assessment of why they are there in the first place. If you can’t unemotionally go back and simply use the paper, then don’t even get those books out. Frankly you don’t need the anguish. The paper isn’t worth it (unless it’s the old Folio and then send the books to me and I’ll fill them!). You can always get more paper, but you may not be able to get more peace of mind easily.

Even if you have hundreds of unfinished journals filled with delicious art paper you are better off leaving them all in the closet and sitting down with yourself and asking: WHY?

Armed with that question’s honest answer and the information you gained about your working preferences (I don’t like pen on this paper, I only like smooth paper, I need a watercolor paper, etc.) go out and buy a couple sheets of the paper you need, fold and tear them into pages you can collate into one or two signatures and make a simple two-signature Japanese Pamphlet. Instructions for this structure can be found in many books, maybe even on the internet. If someone will remind me after the holidays (January 3 or later), I’ll dig up my worksheet on that structure and post it—just to get you going!

Armed with that small journal you can start to really work on your daily journal practice. You’ll be using paper you love. You’ll only have two signatures of it so if you don’t like the paper because it was new to you and recommended by a friend, you’ll still be able to get through that journal, fill those pages, and learn what it is about that paper you really don’t like so that when you return to the paper store you can tell the clerk and he can help you find a more suitable paper. Either way, you have just set yourself up for success. (Also a two-signature journal is easy to carry about with you—no excuse to leave it at home where it can't be used when you find that adorable dog or perfect building you want to sketch.)

After you finish the first two-signature journal you’ll make another journal with two signatures to fill. And so on. Either with new paper or the same paper. It depends on whether or not you think there is anything more to be learned right now by working on the first paper or if you have burning desire to work on another paper. (Actually I recommend you make that next journal when you still have at least two page spreads in your current journal!)

When you finish one of these journals put it on a shelf you’ve cleared specifically for your journals. And then the next one goes up beside it when you complete it. And so on.

After awhile you’ll make a thicker journal, or you’ll decide that the paper you really love is just like the paper in [insert name of commercially made journal that you love here] and you’re going to buy one of those and work in it. And then it will go on your shelf completed. Or you may decide to keep working with small two-signature books, except that when you finish four or six signatures you will learn to bind them all into one book. The possibilities are endless. But all of that is superfluous because what matters is you have those successes on that shelf.

And the next time you stop a journal before it is filled and put it up on the shelf you will realize you’re OK with the emptiness it represents because the emptiness is not a rebuke but a choice.

Now you’re living in the present moment.

There is nothing intrinsically bad with a partially filled journal. If the existence of such journals is upsetting to you then know you have choices in how to deal with this situation. Make a choice and move on. That's what journals are about. Finish a page and turn the page. Never think it isn't a choice.

  1. Reply

    Wow, Roz. I tend to work on a single journal at a time, I also knit one project at a time, though I do have many pieces of quilt art going at one time. That said, like you, I do have two journals started right now-because I had to send one off to be photographed and published. They had it for too long so I started another. Luckily, I started a new journal with different paper than the one I sent off.
    But now I have gotten into recycled book journal making and I have the idea that I need a book filled with brown paper bag material for figure drawing nights-and that white pen I bought. I love your sense of permissiveness. It is really just a matter to intent and will. I will complete all the journals in my possession to the point where they say, ‘thank you’.

  2. Reply

    I used to have a journal for type design and a journal for sketching in the car and so on… but I decided recently that I’d like to finish my journals faster. So I started making my journals the everything books. I like it much better that way. I don’t feel so bound to producing a piece of art. Sometimes it’s an idea catcher, sometimes I do some drawing and write about that drawing, sometimes I copy a James Christensen sketch… it really doesn’t matter just so long as I’m using the books. Cool post Roz.

    • Robyn
    • December 17, 2009

    What a wonderful post. I would love you to post instructions for making a two signature Japanese Pamphlet in the New Year. I’d certainly love to start the year by actually filling a journal.

  3. Reply

    The main reason I always had for half filled books is because I like starting new ones. It was never a case of leaving it too long to continue (with a few exceptions) I just don’t like worn in books.
    The oh-so-simple solution came to me when I was reading Kelly Kilmer’s blog one day – make smaller books so you finish them quicker and can get onto the next, shiny, new one.
    I have lots of books full to bursting now!

    • Roz
    • December 17, 2009

    That’s me, permissive, about just about everything except tracking training (just ask those students!)

    I love the idea of brown bag paper for a journal. Years ago I made a journal out of some, what is it called, shoot, it’s the non-archival stuff fashion illlustors use. Got it in a large pad so I could manage the grain direction (and yes I don’t normally use padded paper).

    It is a lovely book, which I had hoped to take to life drawing, but so far I haven’t worked in it yet. It will probably dissolve before I get around to it!

    Your note reminded me to go and dust it off.

    • Roz
    • December 17, 2009

    Donna, something else you can consider, since you use your books as sketchbooks and not journals, is to always have one with watercolor paper, toned paper, and drawing paper, so three journals, and just work in those three until they are full (or you decide you don’t like the paper, but the point is you’ve sort of got an idea of what you like) and it doesn’t matter if they are chronological because you are jumping from book to book, etc. But you get to draw/paint on the paper you want to paint on for any given day.

    Either way, I would start putting those unfinished books up or away. Away if you aren’t fond of the paper, and up on a special “in use” shelf if you do like the paper and will return every so often to them.

    Of course having many books going at one time leads to the problem of which to carry out and about with you. Something I struggled with for years and which led me ultimately to condense things into one visual journal, one written journal, one computer log, one beading log (I come up with some many beading ideas and make so many diagrams that if I put these notes in my regular journal I would never get any painting done in them!).

    Oh, I have a phone log too!

    • Roz
    • December 17, 2009

    Jon, I understand this. I just commented to Donna about merging my journals down to only a few (I still have to keep my computer journal separate), for convenience and ease of work. And because I love chronological work. I remember things that way. I can actually go to the journal shelves and pull a book off the shelf and show you an image you are asking for from my journals, based on remembering when I did it in time, the paper, and then remembering holding a particular journal in my hand.

    I think having an “everything book” is the best approach because it means I don’t have to lug multiple books along with me when I’m out and about.

    You’ve hit it exactly right Jon, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re using your books!

    • Roz
    • December 17, 2009

    Robyn, since you spoke up you can be the person to remind me after January 3, 2010! Thanks.

    • Roz
    • December 17, 2009

    Rhomany, well if you like starting new books there is absolutely no reason to not start many, as often as you like. But if you want some full books because you like “shiny, new” ones, the smaller journal (thinner as opposed to page size) is a great idea.

    I will take thinner journals off on long weekends for a travel journal. (Whenever I travel I have an idea of how many pages I get done a day based on my companions and their trip goals and I extrapolate from there.)

    I’ve even taken some thin, and small, books off on one-day road trips, with the goal of sketching something every 30 minutes or so (as long as I’m not driving!). These make great records of your day.

    And, I have just pulled a lovely 6 x 8 inches or so, 2-signature (32-page) sewn on the spine journal I made with Magnani Pescia (sp?) in Robin’s egg blue. The journal is lovely (dark blue fabric cover, REB paper, light blue waxed Linen thread showing the stitching on the spine! Sigh). I’ll use it for the last 10 days of the year so I can start a new journal on January 1, 2010 (not critical, but something I prefer to do.)

    I’d hoped to be out of the current journal a couple days ago, but have a few more days to go yet. I will likely have 11 days to finish the final journal for the year. There may be some mad speed sketching on New Year’s Eve! And won’t that be fun!

    Thin books are fantastic! Keep filling them up Rhomany.

    • Katy
    • December 17, 2009

    First of all, Teesha Moore recently posted a video with instructions for making a 16-page journal. It’s here:

    The timing of your post is uncanny, Roz. I was one of those commenters who recently mentioned the need to fill up some unfinished journals, but your post has enabled me to accept that I don’t really want to. I am very particular about pens and paper and how they work, and I just haven’t found the perfect journal yet. My favorite paper so far is Stonehenge, but I haven’t been able to motivate myself to bind more than a simple pamphlet, and that not using the Stonehenge. (I think I’m trying to avoid entangling myself in yet another hobby!)

    The main reason your post is uncanny is that this morning, I put into my online shopping cart at Wet Paint a Fabriano Venezia journal and a bottle of Noodler’s Bulletproof Black ink. My thinking was that this may be the paper/journal for me, and with the Noodler’s I can use my favorite Lamy Safari fountain pen. All in hopes that I will be motivated to journal more regularly! But maybe for now I should just take your advice and make a small journal out of the Stonehenge. Hmmm…

    • Chel
    • December 17, 2009

    Unfinished books used to bother me so much I would even sometimes chop out the blank pages! I’m not quite so psychotic anymore…but I also don’t set myself up to fail either.
    What I DON’T do anymore…Assign myself page quotas–instant book doom…Assign a particular month to the book, starting it on the first day and finishing it on the last—you guessed it, more doom…Using a too small or too big book when I know the size I like…Letting the book become “too precious” to hold the less than perfect parts of my life—bad art and grocery lists and the weird stuff that goes through my head in the middle of the night. When I quit doing those things, keeping a book started feeling fun again.
    Thanks for the great post!

  4. Reply

    I love your turkey and also the background treatment for the page. Good thoughts on the partially empty journals. That happened to me several times over many years because I didn’t connect that journals didn’t have to just be writing but could be artwork. Now it speaks to me and I am having a blast.

    • Speck
    • December 18, 2009

    Roz, you have given me inspiration. I bought a 6×6 Hand*book journal and drew on four pages before deciding I *hate* the paper. I was ready to chuck it in the trash without one iota of guilt. I also intensely dislike PITT brush pens. Pens and Hand*book now live beside TV watching spot where there are limited sketching opportunities: husband, cat, or TV. I’ll keep drawing those things until paper or ink runs out. Maybe I’ll finally learn to draw a decent nose!

    • Roz
    • December 18, 2009

    Katy, cool, I’ll have to go and look at that link. Teesha does lovely work. And now anyone wanting to do short journals can check out that video!

    Interesting you should bring up Stonehenge. It’s a paper I have always HATED. In fact a friend made me a button about it…long story… anyway because of some supply procurement issues I needed to look at Stonehenge again recently and there will actually be a post on it in a week or so, and then sometime at the end of January or in February I’ll have posts from a 4-signature journal I made with Stonehenge. So there is more coming on that.

    Don’t think of bookbinding as another hobby! As a visual artist, as a person who keeps a visual journal, it’s just part of making the whole package. It isn’t essential, but if one can’t find paper one likes in commercial journals, then it provides an option. And you can start with a single signature book!

    The FV journal and Noodlers will be great fun for you. Recently I heard from a friend who uses FVs and she told me that she has trouble scanning from them (getting the center of the book to go flat on the scanner) and she has some problems with abusing the paper that I didn’t have—I can’t wait to hear how your experience goes.

    So work in the FV, but also, have fun and make a single sig journal of Stonehenge.

    I know I’m no help at all!

    • Roz
    • December 18, 2009

    Chel, you bring up a whole other aspect DOOM, that I didn’t even get around to addressing. I think a lot of people can relate. I feel a whole other post coming on! Thanks.

    But I’m glad to hear that you have discovered all this stuff for yourself and have found the little tweaks it takes for you to get to the fun again! Keep going!

    • Roz
    • December 18, 2009

    Timaree, thanks, I’m glad you’re at a comfort point in the issue of partially empty journals.

    • Roz
    • December 18, 2009

    Speck, I’m glad you’ve found a way to deal with the journal and pen. I have a problem with Pitt Brush pens in that they aren’t my favorite Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, and when I go to use the Pitt ones I have to change my thoughts and work and then somedays I get something that is fantastic, but usually I don’t get something fantastic until I work with them daily for days and days. I’d rather work mostly with the PPBP. There you have it.

    We all need to practice noses!

    • Speck
    • December 18, 2009

    I struggle with the PITT brush pens because I expect them to be, well, more brushlike instead of having a stiff nib like a Sharpie. Your previous review of the Pentel Pocket Brush pen was an Ah Ha! moment. THAT is probably what I’m looking for in a brush pen. It’s on my wish list for next art supply shopping trip. Thank you!

    • Roz
    • December 18, 2009

    Speck, I think the Pentel Pocket Brush pen is an indispensable tool for visual journaling. It takes a little bit of getting used to if you aren’t used to drawing with a brush, so don’t give up when you get one, just keep drawing and drawing and drawing!

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