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How Do I Keep a Journal or a Sketchbook?

August 21, 2019
A sketch in pen and ink from my “hat” series in 2017 (before eye surgery. The quickly forming cataracts were causing me to work in this more scribbly fashion.)

I get asked all the time “How do I keep a journal or a sketchbook?”

I teach journaling classes in which students create in visual journals. I teach drawing classes that require students keep a sketchbook.

Some people also ask me how journals and sketchbooks differ. The questions have so much “extra” weight. What those people are asking is really “what is the right way” to keep a sketchbook or journal? They are asking for direction—when really all the direction they need is already inside their own mind and heart.

Recently I received the following from a blog reader:

I am writing to get your advice on keeping a sketchbook if I enjoy various mediums, styles, and want to both share my work and keep some of it private. 

I have so many art goals, well. . . 4 main ones, I guess—to practice drawing (with pen and pencil), practice realistic acrylic painting, and have a “do anywhere in the world” technique which would involve pencil/pen and watercolor, and a ‘just relax, have fun with paint/doodle/unwind from life /personal writing practice’. 

They all feel important and essential to my well-being. 

But, I’m finding that I’m FREEZING and I don’t know what I want to do each day. I currently have a variety of sketchbooks for each purpose/media because it felt more orderly to do so. Should I just choose drawing and one other painting form each day?

In reading your advice to others, it seems as if you recommend sticking to one sketchbook. I assume that is so you can see your progress chronologically. 

Do you advise mixing very personal and various types of art/writing together in a sketchbook? Should sketchbooks be 100% for my eyes only?

Is it best to keep separate sketchbooks for each purpose/media or use a minimal amount of them at any one time? 

Any advice is appreciated. There is so much valuable info in your replies to your comments on your post—you would be great with a “Dear Roz” advice column. 

Unrelated, but when you mention ‘visual journaling’ do you mean you are painting and writing and documenting your life and your interests? I don’t really understand if I should just use a sketchbook as I’m currently doing AND combine it with elements of visual journaling, or if that is one and the same. 

Thank you; I know these are a lot of questions; I’m sorry I can’t be more concise with where/why I’m struggling.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to break this down one more time…

Sketchbook Versus Journal

I know there are people who insist on calling a journal a journal and a sketchbook a sketchbook, and then having a strict definition for each.

I’m not one of those people. I know that the word journal comes from Middle English and old French and means “daily.”

For those holding strictly to labels a journal must be a book used daily. I’ve actually met people who, when they have missed one day, feel that all their work (even years of daily work), is worthless.

The sketchbook camp seems to believe that there’s no place for journaling in their books. That’s what notebooks, journals, and diaries are for.

I would like to encourage you to have a looser definition, a kinder (to you) definition. 

The Workbook of My Mind

I keep a sketchbook-journal that I’ve kept since childhood and worked in almost every day of my life. I usually refer to it as my journal, but some months it seems much more like what “purists” would call a sketchbook. To me, however it’s a journal because most pages have some journaling on them.

To me a sketchbook is what I take to life drawing specifically to sketch from life drawing models holding timed poses. There isn’t time to not stop and write notes about my life. (Just maybe enough time to write down some some notes from my editing eye, telling me how to fix my sketches.)

My point is that to me the words “journal” and “sketchbook” are almost interchangeable. Most important I know what I am doing. I know what the book means to me.

My journal is the workbook of my mind.

Because my journal is the workbook of my mind it can contain anything and everything that my mind contains. It can be used by me in any way that I see USEFUL. I own it mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. It is never wrong. It is always right—always exactly what it needs to be for me in any given moment. And it is always therefore dependable.

Keep a sketchbook/journal long enough and you’ll see  patterns and approaches will emerge that are familiar and comfortable (in useful ways) to you. 

And I define “useful” as anything on the page that keeps my creativity flowing.

Want To See What Else I Think About the Difference Between Sketchbooks and Journals?

Use the search engine or category list of this blog to find hundreds of posts where I discuss the use of a sketchbook/journal in my life.

The reader above asked: “Is it best to keep separate sketchbooks for each purpose/media/ or a minimal amount of sketchbooks at one time?”

Enter “keeping a journal” into my blog’s search engine and bingo bango the first three posts that pop up are my thoughts on keeping more than one journal simultaneously!

Here’s the simple answer: EXPERIMENT.

Try things and see what works for you. Your brain is organized differently from mine. Do what works for you.

Realize that at some point in your life the way you organize your work might need to shift to meet other changing conditions. Don’t worry, keep working. It will all be good. You may return to old methods, or evolve into a wholly new type of journal keeper. It’s what you need at the moment. No one can tell you what is best but you.

Letting go of rigid definitions and constraints around your daily practice allows you to be flexible. Flexibility allows you to marry the demands of your life with your creative work.

The key is are you still working? If you are still working then you’re using your journal in a way that supports your goals.

Feel stagnated? Then switch things up.

You’re in charge.

Recently as I began to work through a time of physical change and adaptation as well as family loss I found that I picked up a lined journal (cheap paper journals I like to sketch in despite the paper quality) and started journaling the way I had in graduate school. “Comfort food” journaling. Makes perfect sense to me. Worked for me. I kept going.

Private vs. Public Journaling

I have written about this a lot on my blog as well. You can read this post about a shift in my work from public back to private.

Again, whether your journal is private or public is something you need to decide for yourself. No one else can tell you what is right because what is right for them might not be right for you.

I tell my journaling students to keep their work private until they have at least worked daily for one month and established a strong daily journal habit. If they haven’t been able to do that daily habit then I encourage them to wait longer before public sharing. (Sharing journal work in a class where there are clear guidelines for discussing artwork in helpful ways can be part of the discovery process. But that’s different from public sharing of work.)

I suggest this guideline for my students because to me the daily habit of communicating truthfully and honestly with myself is more important than communicating with others by sharing my journals.

I have a thick skin. I have years of practice. I don’t have an internal critic who runs the show. Instead I have easy access to my creative thoughts and a healthy relationship with my editing eye who will help me judge my work based on criteria of skill, goals, and other specifics—all guaranteed to send me back to work, not to a dark corner to lick my wounds.

My students don’t come to me with those defenses so I also teach them how to think about and talk about their art. I teach them how to shut their internal critic down. 

When they grasp those concepts it doesn’t really matter if they show their journal work publicly. 

Until that time, showing private work, unfinished, unpolished, and unfiltered opens them up to the possibility of harsh negativity from blocked individuals who lash out. Life is too short for that.

Do some of my students show their work too early?

Yes.

That’s the hubris born of excitement and joy. They know better but they are carried away on the jolt of creative energy they never felt before they started to keep a journal.

Look, it’s up to me as a teacher to guide, but not caretake. If they get shot down they will get back up. All the quicker because I prepared them for it.

If you’re wondering if you should keep your journals private or share them publicly I think the fact that you’re asking that question means you haven’t thought through the reality of public sharing and you aren’t ready to share.

Who Is Your Audience?

When thinking about sharing your journals you need to ask who your audience is?

For me I think a journal’s audience needs to be the keeper of that journal. That’s all that matters. Those are the two parties in dialog.

Often people rush to share their journals and then find that they are keeping a journal for an audience that doesn’t include themselves.

I think that’s a missed opportunity.

If they had kept their journals private they would still have had access to their essential selves unfiltered.

The good news is that you can get back to yourself by going private again. Sure the foxes may have a made off with some of your emotional chickens and you might feel a little exposed, but soon you’ll feel the balance of communicating only with yourself again.

Everyone gets to make a choice that suits them. And reserve the right to change his or her mind.

The Excitement and Mania of the Journal Euphoria

The blog reader who sent in the list of questions at the top of this post definitely has the euphoria and mania that comes from beginning to journal and stepping into a stream of creativity that she wants to spend her days in.

This is normal. It happens to artists who keep journals for the first time. It also happens suddenly, because of shifts in unseen forces, for journal keepers years into a practice they thought was all they needed.

It doesn’t matter when it happens.

The main thing to remember is: Take a deep breath.

The reality of life is that you cannot do everything at once. 

Having discovered a felicitous way to work—i.e., in the journal or sketchbook—the first impulse is to dive in and try to do everything.

Then nothing gets done.

For your artwork to progress with one media or one style or one approach you need to spend some time with one media (or whatever) at a time.

Progress comes when we work serially, not simultaneously. (That said there are always some overlaps. One can argue that your drawing skills develop when you work simultaneously in any medium because you are still drawing.)

I recommend that students working on learning a new medium work with that medium exclusively for a month.

I also recommend that students work INTENTIONALLY with set goals.

You can read what I think about setting goals and working intentionally by using the category list and looking for: evaluations, self-evaluations, goals, self-assessment, and so on. I’ve written a lot on these topics. Every year end I’ve posted my end of year self evaluations publicly so that my students could see the process, see what I value, and see how I set goals.

I also write about evaluating projects so that you can set new goals and create new projects.

The Problem of Overwhelm

Without goals and without periodic evaluations I see students fall into the trap of overwhelm.

The euphoria mentioned above is partly responsible.

When you see the possibilities you want them all. Right now.

Life doesn’t work that way, so, again,  you have to remember to breathe, make a plan, and go after things a little bit more methodically. Sometimes you’ll find yourself stopping to assess and then readjusting your approach. You will meet your goals if you take time to identify and set specific goals. This is the opposite of working hit or miss. It’s the opposite from jumping from fad to fad, medium to medium. When you work in a goals-based way with some planning you’ll get where you want to go. You’ll arrive with skills, and it will be all the more fun to be “there.”

So if you, as this reader who wrote the above note states, have so many art goals you can’t decide what to work on today, tomorrow, next week—spend time in a quiet place thinking about your goals, short term and long term. Write them down. Then write down the steps you need to reach those goals. (Typically those steps will include taking classes or practice or both.) 

The things that feel “essential to [your] well-being” will bubble up to the surface in that quiet talk with yourself and you’ll be able to make a plan that involves practice, hard work, and lots of rewarding play time.

When you respond to any whim, or fashion, or what you see others enjoying, without checking in to see how it fits your goals and plans, or without having goals or plans, you’re leaving the development of your creativity up to luck.

And you’re leaving your creativity vulnerable to harsh intrusions from your internal critic who will be quick to say you haven’t met any of your goals anyway and what the hell do you think you’re doing.

A Few Parting Words on What I Mean by “Visual Journaling”

In her note above the reader wrote:

Unrelated, but when you mention ‘visual journaling’ do you mean you are painting and writing and documenting your life and your interests? I don’t really understand if I should just use a sketchbook as I’m currently doing AND combine it with elements of visual journaling, or if that is one and the same. 

Each of us needs to find the way we best communicate with ourselves to make our journals and sketchbooks meaningful over our lifetime.

My journals are obviously the work of an obsessive person who indexes her pages because she wants to be able to access everything all the time.

Someone who has a life-long love of words and paint and ink who thinks that all her obsessions from cooking to TV to sketching beards to bread baking to cycling (and a thousand other things never shared publicly) are important parts of how she relates to and understands the world.

I’m not going to deprive myself of any of it. I’m going to savor the joy that all of that brings into my life—unfiltered by someone else’s judgement of it.

So any book I’m going to keep is going to contain all those things, all those things that I am.

And it isn’t going to worry me if some pages don’t have text, or some pages don’t have paintings.

In fact my journal has been the biggest gift to myself of my life and I have loved every moment of it.

Sit down tonight and decide what type of record of your life and your creativity is important to you. Trust yourself. Learn to listen and be adaptable.

That’s all that matters.

    • Barbara Obergfell
    • August 21, 2019
    Reply

    Roz
    I want you to know how useful and inspiring your words are. My sketchbooks have become a sort of common book with passages from my reading (somehow I feel the need to hold on to) and my often awkward and sometimes a real joy drawings from my life (for now it’s most often the process that is fulfilling not so much the finished drawing). I am loving this regardless of the resulting sketches. I would like to have your advice on the subject of ‘fundamentals ‘. The multitude of approaches is daunting. Nicolaides and Edwards to Loomis to Bargue and then there’s Franck and Dodson. I am drawn to the more gestural but feel the need for the knowledge of construction basics. Any suggestions on creating a plan for working on fundamentals?

    1. Reply

      Thanks for your kind words Barbara, I’m so glad you found this post useful. I’m also glad that you a working journal habit that is feeding and building a love of process! I think that’s the right path. It’s the “immune” to negativity and intrusions from elsewhere type of habit.

      If I remember correctly you took Drawing Practice with me and I talk a lot about different processes, typically in the classroom and also setting goals.

      All of the approaches you note are based on the same thing—understanding the fundamentals. Which is most understandable to you? Which will you stick with? Those are the types of questions you need to ask yourself. Remember we don’t always understand something the first time it is taught to us. It’s that timing issue I talk about in DP.

      So review how to set up self evaluations. Have a good one. Think about which approach most appeals to you and spend a month with that as your drawing process/practice. Reevaluate, stick with it for another month, or switch to something else.

      The main point it that you practice with intention and any of those you mention will force you to do that. Bargue should probably be done under the tutelage of an experienced instructor. I don’t remember what Franck talks about in his book. But all the others you can do readily on your own.

      Make a plan. And have fun.

    • Corinne McNamara
    • August 21, 2019
    Reply

    What a timely blog! Your comments are just what I needed to hear this morning! I’m at a crossroads as I end a phase of teaching and reassess my resources and priorities. I want to reclaim the pleasure I had in drawing and painting that was lost in the last few years of increasing burnout and family responsibilities. Step one, finish reorganizing my art room (started 3 years ago) so I have a place to spread out and work. Step 2, find the Gelli plate I bought and have done nothing with yet… Grades are in, visiting granddaughter has left, and I feel as if I have time for me.

    1. Reply

      Corinne, I’m glad this came at a good time for you. Do all that you’ve outlined here, but my hope for you is that in doing all that you realize a way for you to always have time for yourself regardless of what family obligations or work obligations crop up. That’s a goal worth achieving, which pays huge dividends.

    • Susan King
    • August 21, 2019
    Reply

    Thanks, Roz. Excellent post as usual. My main takeaway is to do some goal setting. Will read your posts about this first, as I know they will be useful!

    1. Reply

      Yep, Susan if I could miraculous get everyone to follow one of my suggestions it would be the one to set intentional goals. it’s the only way we get anywhere. So reading those goal setting posts would be good.

      You might head over to http://officialinternationalfakejournalblog.blogspot.com and look on that blog for goals and setting parameters. Doing a fake journal is much like doing a real journal, actually when you’re doing it right it’s exactly the same; and it has been a way for me to train some folks into goal setting.

      Sometimes goal setting gets to the real basics of paper and size of journal, and other times it’s about techniques, approaches styles. But it’s all about goal setting.

      Have fun.

        • Susan King
        • August 26, 2019
        Reply

        Thanks, Roz. I’m going there now!

  1. Reply

    You are so wonderfully articulate about ‘process’. I’ve learned so much from your words & expression. Thank you.
    I once saw someone post on the inside of their book “This is my playground.. there are no wrong answers.. just possibilities.” It was such a self-love statement that I also used it for a time to help me have the permission to find an inner voice.
    I’ve written ‘for my eyes only’ things in journals in different ways. I wrote in a made-up alphabet. I’ve covered a passage w/a post-it note. I’ve purged my thoughts & then painted over it so it’s sealed under the sketch.
    Creativity is a release from should or have-to.
    You’re a treasure Roz.

    1. Reply

      No you’re the treasure!
      Seriously, thanks for the note. I’m glad that you have a playground for your journal. It’s the best way to be. It keeps us coming back. Creativity is a release you’re right.

      Keep bringing out your inner voice.

    • Tina Koyama
    • August 22, 2019
    Reply

    Thanks for your excellent advice, as always, Roz. After my lifelong journal writing habit that has, in the last 8 years, expanded to include sketchbook-keeping, I’m comfortable that I have found a physical format that is meeting my needs. But my question to you is also a question to myself: How does blogging about your process fit in? I have been blogging nearly daily for almost as long as I have been sketching, so the blog has become the public record of my creative process (which was my intention for starting the blog). Often my journal writing/sketching is only the bare start, and I don’t finish understanding the exploration until I try to document what I’m learning on my blog. That is, I don’t know what I have learned until I try to articulate it publicly (instead of mumbling to my psyche in my journal). So the blog has ended up becoming an integral part of the journal/sketchbook process. It’s all working for me, so I guess it’s all good. Anyway, does your blog ever serve you as a part of your own creative process? Or is its intention more of a public service/education (for us, your readers)? (If the latter, we are certainly grateful for all the time and energy you put into it!)

    1. Reply

      Tina, blogging about my process fits in for me because I started the blog as a way to keep in touch with my students, and potentially grow my readers to make an online teaching business viable. (Originally my website RozWorks.com posted various selections from my journals so I wouldn’t have to lug hundreds of books to in-person classes. But I found I was writing lengthy descriptions and a friend suggested a blog so after about 6 years of the other I started a blog.) On that blog I had that audience of 30K readers and then through bad advice and poor help from a web guy I lost that audience as you know. It’s started growing again, but I haven’t got another 10 years to grow it.

      There are going to be changes on the blog coming up—in part because of changes in my life (the death of my father in law) and changes in my physical circumstances (my eyes).

      Those changes will probably start to roll out in a month or so.

      For me in the past, my journal has allowed me to discover so much, work out so much, that I’ve always just wanted to share that with folks, right away. And the blog allowed me to do that.

      I have been since childhood, a letter writer, separated from friends often on a moment’s notice. And for me the blog was mostly a continuation of the letter-writing habit, “here’s a letter from me telling you [the reader] what I’ve been doing, because it is really fun and I thought you’d enjoy it too.

      Also after about 20 years of teaching (before I started the blog) I realized that everyone didn’t think about creativity the way I did, and everyone didn’t have access to his/her creativity like I did, and I started thinking about why that was and the importance of language, definitions, and actions in understanding one’s creativity—so I started writing about those things I’d learned from listening to my in-person students and helping them access their creativity. It frustrates me to hear the stories of creativity shut down because it wasn’t nurtured, so I hoped when I started the blog that my “pep” talks, when they appeared, would actually help people with that too.

      And another aspect of the blog is that I have never stopped being a house captain. I had to take off the uniform but I never gave up the attitude. I have simply included everyone who reads my blog as part of my house, and therefore subject to a little bossing from me.

      I’ve been grateful to everyone who has read and commented, like yourself, because it has allowed me to meet some really fun, creative people, like yourself, who like to think about the same things that occupy my mind.

  2. Reply

    Thanks Roz for these reminders about setting intentions and goals. I appreciated your words on your varied interests and how you incorporate all of you into your journals. My biggest challenge has been finding a balance between my writing goals (book in the works) and art goals. I’ve been blathering along spending confused time on both, and doing neither justice. It’s time to go back to why both are important to me, make sure I’m clear on what my short and long term goals are, and stop flapping around in the wind.

    1. Reply

      Maery Rose I hope you take some time and think about what goals are the most important and set up a structure for yourself to make progress. Remember to say, “For Now I’m going to work on X.” It doesn’t mean you won’t get to the other thing. It just means that for now, after careful thought, this is where you’re putting your energies.

    • juan
    • August 24, 2019
    Reply

    LEt’s call it SKETCHJOURNAL

    1. Reply

      Juan, you can certainly call it that. I call mine a Visual Journal, because that’s really more what it is. All the visuals are not sketches. Sometimes they are collage, maps, diagrams, ephemera, and photos. A sketch journal is a name that would for my purposes be too constraining.

      But if it suits the way you work in your journal then it’s an excellent way to go because it immediately tells people what type of journal you keep!

    • Nell
    • August 26, 2019
    Reply

    Roz, great thoughts and advice on approaching this issue. I began keeping something that I usually called my notebook, modelled on Harriet the Spy’s notebook – great influence for my 10 -year- old self. It became a diary (after reading Anais Nin), a journal when I began college, and then a sketchbook when I began studying filmmaking and photography. Now, decades later, while I like the terms art journal/visual journal – I usually find myself reverting back to “notebook” – full of everything going on in my life, and always with me!

    1. Reply

      Sounds like a great plan totally working for you. Keep at it.

    • Christina Baker
    • September 2, 2019
    Reply

    Many thanks, as always, Roz. I have taken 3 of your courses, Drawing Live Subjects in Public, Textures, and Design. I was going along consistently with my daily practice then, for a variety of reasons, I fell off the wagon. I find myself floundering now and overwhelmed with all those concerns of a beginner all over again. Being that it is the beginning of September, I am going to complete a journal page today, anything, and spend time this evening goal setting as you suggest. Perhaps that will help. Thanks again, Roz.

    1. Reply

      Christina I’m so glad that you have decided to make a page today and get back on the wagon.

      Remember that sometimes the best goal you can set if you’re having trouble doing a daily page is to simply commit to a month of daily pages as you take time to work out what your goals are.

      And on those days when you think you can’t do something, make a texture! Gather collage material and make a collage, just keep going.

      Do take a look at your life and identify what it was that caused you to “fall off the wagon.” You say it was a variety of reasons. Write the all down. Ask yourself if it was one reason in particular, all the reasons together, or a combo. Which were most influential, e.g. I broke my hand and couldn’t draw would be pretty influential. (I’ve had students who started working with their non-dominant hand when that happened!)

      If you identify which reasons are stronger and which join to intensify each other you can better watch out for them as they approach on the horizon.

      Planning goals for a 6 week period also helps so you always know at week 4 to plan for the 6 weeks after your six weeks ends. Then you’re not scrambling at the last moment but have two weeks to move into the new goals!

      Examining what stopped you will also allow you to have talks with family members about their expectations on your time, have a realistic talk with your boss about your work load and over time etc. And it will allow you to dig out the internal critic and the many little ways he tries to derail you.

      Also make a list of those concerns “of a beginner” as this means you have some internal work to do about how you look at your work. Remind yourself you’ve done this before.

      Congratulations in starting in again today!

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