Looking for Inspiration in Journal Artists, and Beyond

March 16, 2011

See the full post for notes on what inspires me.

(Note: I didn't catch a typo in this post's title until after posting. I have corrected it. This changes the permalink, so if you have linked to this post please reset that post. I am sorry for the inconvenience, but the typo really, really annoyed me.)

In October 2010 I received an email from Melanie Testa asking which "journaling artists inspired me." She wondered if I would write a post about them.

I thought about this question right away, made a couple notes, set it aside, came back to it a couple times.

I found that it wasn't an easy question for me to answer because I look for inspiration not to other artists who keep journals, but to artists in general. This is simply a habit formed because when I was young and keeping a journal, few people seemed to do so (I certainly never met them) and there was no internet to use for researching those who did.

The more I thought about the question what developed in my mind was a series of lists of inspiration. First, I try to add the names of artists who keep journals I enjoy into my blogroll. I'm not great about this. In fact I often forget.

I'm also not great about looking for more journal artists to view and enjoy because I don't like to spend more time at the computer than I have to. I prefer books.

Second, because I prefer books, I tend to mention artists whose work I admire, after finding a book of it. I tend to write about those in reviews which can be found in that category of this blog ("reviews," and while you're at it also check "profiles").

Next, Melanie's question helped me realized that I tend to learn about people who keep journals through books I find—journal facsimiles, and more recently, collection type books. In recent years there have been many such books filled with inspiring work.

But the more I thought about Melanie's question I realized that there was a deeper question here that was pulling my attention—"what inspired me originally to journal and how did that evolve,"— because when I was a child keeping a journal, all I had was the need to write and to draw and a book and a pencil or pen. As I said, there was only the library in which to find an ocassional "journal." And so I found journals throughout my life by searching in the library, by looking up my favorite authors and learning that they kept notebooks and that some of them even illustrated those notebooks.

It was finding those notebooks and sketchbooks of artists in libraries and museums that inspired me. Each discovery fed my interest in continuing with my own creative journey; I felt comfortable putting my thoughts down. And it was the reality of a life of frequent travel that turned me into a pack rat of sorts who loves to save ephemera. Collecting ephemera in turn reinforced my love of printed things. And the love of printed matter turned me into a graphic designer. Everything in my life synchronistically supported my journal or was supported by it. My journal has always been about writing down and sketching my thoughts, impressions, or projects. My journal has always been a place to play with ideas and media, so the form and approach I take comes from those desires for play, process, observation, and retention. My journal is a workbook and a record book, as well as an art playground.

So the more I thought about the question of journal inspirations it expanded into other examinations. And we were fast heading towards a multi-part post of epic proportions.

Let me say this, to forestall that, and give you a digestible bit—

What inspires me, and has inspired me throughout my life, has been workers, creative workers in any field, who have left some sort of physical trail. First to come to mind is Dickens whose notebooks are awe inspiring. Then come painters and other writers who produced, and produced, and produced.

Another source of inspiration for me is illustrators (and here's a list to research): William Heath Robinson, Albrecht Dürer, Dulac, N.C. Wyeth, Arthur Rackham, and Charles Tunnicliffe. These are just some of the artists whose work I grew up consuming as a child. They illustrated the books I read. Their work was organized on the pages I fell in love with. Both words and pictures together have been important to me my entire life.

As an adult, a new crew of illustrators have inspired me (and here's another partial list): Alan E. Cober, John Busby, Lars Jonsson, Richard Vecchio, James McMullan, Barry Blit, Lara Tomlin, Phillip Burke, Dugald Stermer, N. Ascencios, David Levine (pencil and watercolor), David Johnson (line art), Ralph Steadman, Ben Katchor, Jack Unruh, Istvan Banyai, Steve Brodner, and Peter de Sève.

I have seen work from the illustrators on that list, and other illustrators, week after week in the New Yorker and other magazines. Their sense of line and color, and usually their looseness, their willingness to depart from photorealism but still create the recognizable, simply makes me happy.

Note: Some artists' styles like Istvan Banyai's might not be considered loose but his eye for reducing to the essential line and arranging it as a compositional whole is strikingly lovely. I grew up in a household filled with Chinese and Japanese art. That sense of space has always inspired me. I see it in all the illustrators and artists that I admire.

Like most people I am also inspired by my environment. While I understand the issues related to property damage, I have to admit I am a huge fan of graffiti as it creates visual impact in an urban setting and represents an artist's attempt to communicate.

Now that the internet makes journal viewing more accessible and available I'm ecstatic to peer into the journals of others because it affords me a chance to learn how other people work creatively. Artists who post their sketchbooks and journals, whose work I find exciting and engaging I have tried to list in my blogroll, as I mentioned earlier. It's not always up-to-date. I also suggest that you look at projects like Moly_X which I recently wrote about. There is tremendous art, inspiring on every level, pouring out of those books—though I don't see them as journals, but rather artist's books.

When I look at the pages from journals and artists books posted on the internet—from books more artful than I would ever try to keep as or call a journal—I see both a freshness and a personal perspective. I see a creative mind embracing his or her creative voice and developing an approach which works for him or her—the line he loves, the colors which speak to her. I take them mentally apart in analysis as the good critical thinker I was trained to be in English classes and in art history. But I also respond to them on a visceral level. They do something I could never do because I am not them. Their approach is not mine, but I love that peek I am afforded into their process. That peek inspires me to go deeper into my own artistic exploration.
Finally, It has been a great gift to find and develop friendships with other people who keep journals. Initially this started for me in 2000 with the Minnesota Journal Project 2000. There was a surge of popularity in journaling which rose to meet the Millenium. Journaling started to receive a larger profile in magazines and the press.

Minnesota is filled with talented artists who keep journals and the MNJP2K put in me touch with several of them—many of whom have become great friends.

I can't look at the lovely, artistic journal of Roberta Avidor, or the grittier and often humorous but always politically informed journal of her husband Ken Avidor without seeing their unique creative voices at work. Traveling separately on road trips with my friends Linda and Diane I've been exposed to other voices who see what I am seeing and interpret it differently. This is a huge gift.

Not only are these Minnesota artists journal artists who inspire me, but these are people who work creatively, and that inspires me.

We can find inspiration all around us in our lives—the other night I was at William Sonoma and I found myself blown away by the attractive retro styling of some of their packaging. Its use of type and pattern—it delighted my eye. When we notice those things they will often work their way into our journals and art, through a borrowed use of color palette or a sense of line or use of space. It gets reworked through the filter of our brain and our own take and emotional response to something.

In looking at other people's visual journals we can be inspired by the same types of things, by the use of a color palette, or a way of handling line, or simply the originality of their observation. I think the best thing we can take from such an encouter is a reclarification of our own goals: a renewed desire to improve our own rendering skills, our knowledge of color theory, or composition, or media. It's the work (which is fun) that gets us to a personal expression.

Here's the thing—my mental stance is that my visual journal is first and foremost for me. It contains what interests me, what excites me, what I want to remember. Every journal artist I admire shows a facililty with representational drawing, but more important than that he or she has a fresh eye. They aren't looking to impress anyone, they are looking to entertain themselves.

When I see someone doing that, trying to inspire himself or herself to new thoughts and interests, following a quest for observation, then the technique or appearance is pretty much secondary, and I'm thrilled.

In this post you have a few lists of artists and journal artists whose work I admire for a host of reasons. Google their names to find their sites and check out their work. Use the search feature of my blog to look for book reviews, or click "reviews" in the category cloud, use the "profile" category as well. See how these artists are looking with fresh eyes.

Then ask yourself, "How can I look with fresh eyes in my own world." 

Keep in mind that the greatest inspiration is often found, not necessarily in the field in which you work, but in the work of any worker (any producer) who inspires you because of the creative ways that worker uses his mind.

(And yes, this post is about half the length of what it was originally! Now you can see why it took me so long to answer this question.)

    • Miss T
    • March 16, 2011

    Wonderful post!

    • Carolyn
    • March 16, 2011

    “ask yourself, ‘How can I look with fresh eyes in my own world.’

    “Keep in mind that the greatest inspiration is often found, not necessarily in the field in which you work, but in the work of any worker (any producer) who [or ANYTHING that] inspires you because of the creative ways that worker uses his mind.”

    I often find inspiration in seemingly unrelated areas, not just for journaling, but for design projects as well. It gets processed unconsciously and percolates into new ways of seeing, even if those ways appear to have no relation to what I’ve been exploring. The key for me is to be open to seeing differently and to de-focus (?) from my habitual approach.

    BTW, Roz inspires me. Thanks, Roz!

  1. Reply

    Thank you Miss T.

  2. Reply

    Melly, my intermediate note to you about how I was pondering this question must have gone into space. I love your curious take on things.

    Tunnicliffe is a giant for anyone interested in the drawing of birds and in nature illustration. And in the history of children’s book illustration (well perhaps it would be considered young adult fiction these days). Check him out. I’m fortunate to have a sketchbook facsimile of his work and there is a wonderful photo of him (aged) on the dust jacket flap, manhandling an owl specimen as he paints. He’s the real deal.

  3. Reply

    Carolyn, I’m with you. Sometimes I simply look down on the ground and I get an idea for a design! (Don’t tell anyone though! They might not think I’m working very hard.)

    I think staying open is key. We never know when the synchronicity of clarity about several diametrically opposed but now united elements can occur!

    Thanks, Very kind.

    • Pam
    • March 17, 2011


    Can you expand on the “Dickens whose notebooks are awe inspiring” statement? Did he draw, were they sketchbooks, or was this a writing sketchbook? Is it “Charles Dickens’ Book of Memoranda” (title provided by the Literature in English bibliographer here at Boston College, as I couldn’t find anything on the web or in our catalog). As a librarian and English major, it frustrates me that I’ve never heard of this before! And thanks for all the new names to explore.

  4. Reply

    Pam, I was speaking of Dickens’ notebooks. As far as I know he didn’t do sketches (except of course “Sketches by Boz” which are written sketches).

    Besides being prolific in his published writings his notebooks were incredible and included details beyond mere outlines. Years ago when I was researching all this I remember scholars writing about comparing the notebooks to the finished works and being able to see correlations between number of pages in the notebook translating to a certain steady but greater number in the finished book. All of this of course a testament to his skill, his need to write, his ability to concoct and hold several stories in one book together, and write to a deadline and specific page length, as you would expect someone beginning as a reporter would do.

    He was a wonder, and he is my favorite author.

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