Themes and Serendipity

June 27, 2011

See the post for complete details.

Above: First sketch in a series of "sketchy" dogs, with splashes of paint. I had a Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Calligraphy pen (black) at hand and some almost used up gouache on a plate. I just wanted to move the brush around. This is a page spread from a recently completed journal I made with Velin Arches (formerly known as Arches Text Wove); when closed the journal is approx. 6 x 8 inches. I was working from my dog park photos up on my computer screen. I needed to paint something before going to bed. This was the warm up for what would be a three-piece series (more posts to come) which is also a theme.

Awhile back I wrote a note to my journaling students about themes. I wanted to share some of my thoughts here.

I think one of the great joys of keeping a journal is watching to see the themes that emerge, so I like to encourage people to think about THEMES consciously: the themes in your life, the themes that pop up in your day, the themes for creative projects that you keep returning to or would like to keep returning to.

How does this relate to journaling?

Visual journaling over time actually helps us clearly identify the themes that keep showing up in our lives. One would have to be blind to look through my journals and not see that I love dogs and birds, always draw road kill, make frequent visits to the Zoos and Bell Museum, always sketch people at the allergist's office, and am distracted by (attracted to) small insignificant things that many people simply walk past.

And that's just a few of the obvious themes. It isn't just a matter of subject matter occuring repeatedly over time. Themes emerge out of how I handle and address the subject matter. Attitudes become obvious.

The same reader of my journals could also see that there are some themes of avoidance as well—I don't like to draw scenes, rarely do landscapes, don't sketch a lot of architecture.

Since I see that as well, when I look through my journals I often set goals for myself to work on what I think would stretch me—those very things that I avoid.

Sometimes a friend will mention something to us and that will keep that item or event in our mind. For the past couple of years my friend Ken Avidor has been interested in sketching snow piles. He's searching for the largest piles he can find (the huge ones the city creates with snow trucked out of the roadways). His interest and his drawings inspired me this past winter to sketch a couple snow piles of my own, in my journal. This led to a bit of a game for me. I started looking for snow piles simply so that I could sketch them and report back to Ken. And that game led in turn to the creation of my Snow Piles Zine for the MCBA Visual Journal Collective Journal Swap.

That's the fun and serendipity of themes—the more you notice and work on something in your journal, the more it is available to you for other creative pursuits. You see things with more detail and not just the details that you draw.

Something you can start right now: Over the next month keep your eyes open for themes that are popping up in your journal (and your life). Think about how you can capture them visually. Generate themes for yourself that will help you work on your drawing skills. Pick subject matter that interests you, that comes out of you and is not externally imposed. Listen to what is calling you. Don't worry if it isn't attractive or interesting to anyone else. Find what appeals to you, what calls to you. Write about what you see popping up in your life. (Every year the MCBA VJC has a portrait party and I make a point to deliberately work on my people sketching skills well in advance of the meeting; with the result that over the years there has been improvement and I sketch more people all the time.)

Another way to use themes in your journaling is to check whether or not you are dwelling on negative images and thoughts. We all have sad and tragic things happen to us. We need to acknowledge them. But we also need to move our focus beyond those events to the wonderful things that happen and can happen when we open our hearts and minds. If you look in your journal and discover that you are returning again and again to visual images which touch a tragic or negative point in your life, use themes to switch gears. Set yourself a positive theme as a goal.

This doesn't mean you are pushing your feelings under a rug or avoiding thinking about the serious events in your life. In fact, over time, if you practice meeting all the events in your life head on with honest journaling I believe you'll increase your ability to move out of negativity, grief, despair, and stagnation. You won't be carrying baggage with you. You'll be focusing your energy on positive growth. You will move more quickly into new areas in your life taking the learning with you.

I use my visual journal to record things I'm grateful for, even in the midst of stressful times. The result is that when I look through my journals the happy and wonderful moments are clearly represented, and if anything my memories are skewed more in their favor. It makes facing new stress easier. Stress is a part of life.

And because my visual journal is skewed towards the wondrous it actually brings more positivity into my life because I keep looking for more of the same.

So look for those themes that you've already done and redone which aren't helping you in your world view or your skills. Decide that you will leave off working on them for the time being and instead focus on new themes of interest, like the light on a bird's wing, or hair on the muzzle of your dog.

Themes which touch our gratitude and sense of awe have power to transform us in marvelous and healthy ways. And because we love the subject they also provide built in stamina to come at the theme again and again.

When I started my Daily Dots project in 1998 I was coming off a year-long daily writing project and looking for something more visual for a year-long daily project (I didn't even think I would be doing it until her death, almost 5 years later).

Also, even though Emma (my first Alaskan Malamute, Dottie's Aunt, who overlapped with Dottie for the first 6 years of Dottie's life) had been gone for 2 years already, I was still in the grieving process, prolonged because of other issues in my life at the time.

Focusing on Dottie during this period helped me clear up so many things in my mind and heart. I was able to let go of the grief I had over losing Emma. I was able to focus on all the positive things happening in my life, I was daily working on my drawing and observational skills in a way that was different than my regular journal keeping—a way which changed and still informs how I keep a visual journal.

So much benefit simply by finding a theme I loved and sticking with it.

Look for these themes in your life because they will increase your commitment to journaling and help you retain access to your creativity regardless of what pops up in your life. At the same time you'll be making room for serendipity to enter your creative life and projects.

    • Nita
    • June 27, 2011

    I have 2 major themes that go together: cats and chairs. Chairs offer practice in perspective and accuracy, found everywhere, and there are soooo many kinds. Cats offer a challenge in catching a model who is often in constant movement, plus they are quite often on chairs.

    I have other minor themes, but these 2 always call me.

    • Miss T
    • June 27, 2011

    Terrific post, Roz.

  1. Reply

    Good, thought-inducing visual stuff here. Thanks.

  2. I love the way your posts reinforce things I’ve been thinking about in a very oblique way, bringing focus to my thoughts. I’ve been feeling a lack of progress in my work, which perversely caused me to work less (instead of pushing ahead, which makes so much more sense). I managed to get motivated again when I recognized that my main theme is plant material…it always inspires me! Now I’m looking for ways to expand beyond it.
    Your observation about skewing toward the things you’re grateful for is so true for me! I find that just knowing I want to document those positive things makes me spend my whole day LOOKING for the goodness and, consequently finding it.
    Many thanks!

  3. Reply

    Nita, I love that you have cats and chairs together! I think, knowing only a little about cats (friends with cats are always sending me adorable photos of their cats lounging around in boxes or paper bags) that there is also much about comfort and calm seeping into those sketches!

  4. Reply

    Terry, I’m glad it was on target! Keep working! I’m sending you “kicks in the butt” via telepathy! They don’t bruise as much. Then you can send some back—I had trouble putting my book down this morning and blew off my bike ride! OK, it was a good book, but not that good! I need to get back to work.

  5. Reply

    Thank you Miss T and Carol. I’m glad you both enjoyed this post!

  6. Reply

    Jeanette, the great thing about noticing those perverse responses such as working less if we think we are working less, is that we notice them. Because then we can counter them. So now that you have your main theme recognized whenever you find that the mud of inactivity is sucking at your feet, move towards a plant and start working and that will beget more work and additional fruitful ideas! Hold the plant idea in your mind as you look for ways to expand. What might you want to do with your attention to plants?

    Have a great day looking for wondrous things!

  7. Reply

    This was such a good post for me at the moment. Its amazing when a stranger says some impactful information that is needed to over come some life obstacle. It was a very helpful reminder for me to stop the negative in my head today. Sometimes we do get caught up and life is too short-to stay in that negative place. Thanks Roz- one never knows when a few right words touch a chord in ones psyche-besides I love dogs!

  8. Reply

    Denise, I’m glad that this post was helpful to you in the situation you find yourself. Sometimes we can listen to people we don’t “know” more easily than the folks around us.

    But I also know the person we listen to the most is ourselves. I hope you can find a way to turn off the negative, which stops us from doing anything really.

    A mentor, who knew my propensity to think in terms of “if this, than that…to infinity” once suggested that I create a “circuit-breaker” for myself to turn off the chatter. I went with “stop it Roz.” And boy does it work like a charm. I use it to this day. In fact I used it this morning, when exhausted I was trying to talk myself out of going for my bike ride, “Stop it Roz,” and I got on my bike and went. I used it on the bike ride when I started to dawdle and needed to snap back to it. And it worked again.

    It’s so very handy for so many things, in all areas of life. It isn’t flip. It seems so. But when we talk to our brains it is powerful stuff. So I make a point of talking to my brain about useful stuff which will create more of what I need, which is greater productivity. (See my post on Turner!)

    And there is something humorous about a grown woman standing in the middle of Micheal’s saying “stop it Roz” to remind herself to focus and not be distracted by little bright sparkly things. And it works equally well when it’s late and I’m tired and I start worrying about the ones I love. You get the idea. It pushes me on to the next step, which is productive.

    I hope you can find something like that for yourself!

    Living with dogs, I should say, is a great way to cultivate this type of attitude. They live in the present moment and it is wonderful to see. And our own behavior becomes silly by comparison. Even in times of great sadness and stress having a way to snap into something productive can keep us afloat.

    I hope you can sketch a dog today!

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