I always tell people any day is a great day to start a journal practice. Start.
But I know that many people think it important to have a milestone day like the first of the year for a starting point. If it gets them to start then I’m all for that.
As a new year begins I wanted to write about some journal practice hiccups that students have talk to me about or written to me about over the years in my classes. I hope that you might see yourself in some of this, if not today, then later on that difficult day when you don’t feel up to getting even a five-minute sketch done.
At the start I want to make a clear distinction between journaling and artist books as I see them in context of this post. Journals are books full of writing and sketches made in the moment about the life happening or the things we are thinking, and ARTIST BOOKS are about creating finished work on the page.
I’m using journal practice here to designate the process of keeping a written or visual journal. I have had students who do one or the other, and some, who like me, combine the two.
The Student Who Stopped Working Daily, or Completely
One student wrote to me about stopping her daily journal practice:
In short, I pretty much stopped drawing this month, despite all of my contrary enthusiastic feelings. After the long, hard thinking that Roz encourages us to do, I concluded that I had stopped thinking of my journal as a workbook. I wanted it to look better, be better than where I was in terms of drawing commitment and practice.
I was happiest (during class and in the months following) when I used journal as workbook, but I had started to think that I wanted a stunning visual journal that my daughters would cherish someday. Yes, I stopped drawing for myself and instead set up unreasonable expectations.
This student caught herself in her self-examination. She realized that her expectations and her goals were not aligned.
It’s not unusual as we go along in our journal to want it to look better. It is very common that I have students whose stated goals are that they want it to be a wonderful document for their children and grandchildren. A lot of times I’ve seen people treat their journals as scrapbooks and that can lead to journaling difficulties when they fall behind in making entries instead of simply living.
The problem with setting up your journal as a document for future generations is you can fall into the trap of playing a role, of self-editing in ways that have negative consequences for yourself and stop you from being your authentic self on the page.
If your only goal for your journal is that it’s a document for future generations a scrapbook that you fill each Saturday afternoon is probably the best bet.
You need your journal as a workbook to work out what creatively interests you, without the worry that anyone, including future generations is looking over your shoulder and judging you.
Of course to stop this issue from occurring you need to do regular check-ins where you look over your last month of journals and ask if it is still “for myself.” If it isn’t then I recommend, to get yourself back on track with daily journaling, that you think about a separate scrapbook or artist book type journal.
Start keeping or return to keeping a workbook journal for yourself that you work in daily. No self-editing, just a flow of creativity. If something catches your interest, jot it down, work on it. If you decide to do a finished illustration, go right ahead. Whatever you want can go in that book.
Then at the end of the week go through your weekly pages and look at what was important to you that week, what caught your intention, what represents what is important to you, any life-lessons you want to share—REWORK these into more finished pages in your scrapbook/artistbook.
This will allow you to have something more “finished” that you can share with your future generations, but at the same time you aren’t going to be bogged down by not capturing your day because you are waiting to find the time to do a 2 hour painting and write the most spectacular prose about your life.
Instead, your regular journal will be a workbook, where you have space to breathe.
Here’s the thing—anyone I’ve seen whose done this abandons the scrapbook/artist book after a month, and sticks with the authentic work going on in the workbook journal.
I can’t imagine any future generations who wouldn’t want to know how your mind really works, who would treasure that journal far more than the “polished” journal.
And because you are showing up everyday to draw and you are working with intention (to work on watercolor, or to use this watercolor palette, or to capture the light on your bike ride, etc.) what shows up in our workbook journal will continue to improve.
That daily practice is the only thing that will improve the quality of your journals. Your drawing and writing skills aren’t going to magically develop without being exercised. But if you daily exercise those creative muscles you will see that your workbook journal contains the authentic you, and that more and more you are presenting it in a designed, composed, executed way that is also improving while also clearly reflecting you as an individual.
Then you too will put the scrapbook/artist book aside and pick up the workbook journal full time.
This doesn’t mean that you won’t ever make a scrapbook/artist book journal. You can do that at any time. But you’ll have a new dedication to the workbook that is actually going to help you achieve your goals.
Ask yourself when you are happiest and build your journal practice around that. I’m sure you’ll find it you think about it that you are much happier when you are in the moment experimenting and exploring and not letting your internal critic tell you that your pages suck because you’re too busy creating new pages.
People Thinking Too Much About the Product and Not the Process
Another common sticking point that brings journal practice to a halt is the focus on the “end product,” that object that you can show others.
Journal practice is really about what you can say to yourself and discover for yourself. By nature that means it’s about the daily process and not the result.
If you find yourself thinking too much about the end result and the desire to have a beautiful book, remind yourself that journaling is a process and more you do of it (with intention focused on your goals, not mindless repetition) the more you’ll love the result whatever that result is.
Once you start focusing on the product that part of your brain that judgmentally tells you the results suck, or it isn’t good enough, goes into hyper drive. That’s your internal critic. You need to learn to tell it to leave you alone (again something that you need to practice).
There is another pitfall for people who think about the product instead of the process when journaling. Too early in the process they switch their frame of mind from creating to editing. The portion of our brain that edits our creative vision, either words or pictures, into a unified whole, isn’t meant to be in on the creation portion of the process. You need to have words and images on paper before you can edit. If you don’t, the internal critic will jump in and tell you how to edit—i.e., everything you’re doing sucks, this is bad because, etc.
Real editing comes after the creation or draft phase. Then your editing eye comes in to survey what you’ve done. Your editing eye knows what your intention was when you started. He knows what your skill level is and is realistic about what you’ll produce. And he always, always will give you specific comments that you can address—such as, “You need to work on the balance of Notan in this sketch,” Or “You need to replace these words you keep reusing with synonyms.” These are things you can actually do something specific to alter your work.
The editing eye will never tell you your work sucks, or comment that you are sub par.
He might say that your drawing skills aren’t capturing the perspective of the landscape you attempted in your workbook journal—so you very specifically need to take a class in perspective drawing, read books, etc.
So you might be thinking “Well Roz, I don’t even know what Notan is so how can my editing eye tell me to fix that specific thing?”
That’s easy, it’s about growth. You can’t be expected to know everything. You are where you are right this moment. And if you listen to your editing eye carefully he will give you specific things that you can notice and deal with at your current level—he might point out that your colors aren’t working. You’ll know this, no matter what level you’re working at. And if he says that you know it’s time to start studying color theory to improve that.
Every time you follow his specific advice and work to fix the things he points out you actually learn other things at the same time. And then more knowledge on your part allows him to help you balance that knowledge in your work.
The point is that these are specific things that you can fix and by understanding what your goals and intentions are, what your current skill level is honestly, you can respond in a healthy way to those comments from your editing eye, by more focused practice or more learning.
The editing eye always makes comments that are specific and urge you forward.
The internal critic tries to shut you down with negative comments that may be disguised as helpful or well meaning. You need to learn the difference so you can continue to practice; continue your journal practice and ultimately meet your goals.
It’s a distinction that people don’t always think about when they start to journal and then in the process also start to make art (which is and should be different from journaling because they come from different INTENTIONS).
So I think one of the ways to get your internal critic to shut up in these situations is to remind him that your intention is to record your life with your drawing skills and tools as they are now, practicing to reach goals you’ve assigned yourself, and to not bring/or allow his sucky judgment to the process because the END RESULT of all this PROCESS is not yet known. And so things couldn’t possibly be judged until the end. (And you certainly won’t be inviting him to do even that!)
That’s one of the sad things about working on-line and not in an in-person class. After a year of working with me in person, students get to bring in their stuff and look at each student’s work one at a time. Seen as a whole it is obvious to EVERYONE then, not just me (who has been paid to keep track) how much everyone is changing and improving and really pushing his/her boundaries.
You Can’t Seem To Finish a Journal
For many people starting a journal goes well at first and then grinds to a halt. Some will even notice that this happens routinely after 4 weeks, 8 weeks, or after one third of the journal is filled, or after a string of visually unappealing page spreads…
If you notice this happening to you time and again, and you find that you have half-finished journals on your shelves piling up, congratulate yourself that you’ve noticed the pattern.
Now break the pattern down—when did it happened on the calendar to see if there is anything connecting them? Maybe it’s the change of term for your children’s schooling and they suddenly need more of your time? Maybe it’s every time you start a new art class and are unsure of the new materials? Maybe it’s every time you get stressed at work (what specific triggers there, such as wrapping up the year’s accounts)?
If you’re female, look to see if it is cycle related. We have very specific physical cycles built in. We can’t get away from that. But rather than seeing it as a burden or as something to ignore look to see how it impacts your practice. I always found that I had the most amazing journaling at certain repeated times of the month. And because I knew that I could take advantage of them.
Look also to see if it is diet, exercise, sleep, work, etc. related when you give up the journal. Look for any commonalities. Try to find some TRIGGERS that weaken you.
If you know what triggers you walking away from your journal practice you’ll be prepared to counter it by setting up a journaling appointment at those times and showing up, no matter what—and telling the internal critic to shut up.
One of my students admitted that every time she had a “binge” of looking at the work of others on the internet she shut down. Her journal practice turned off.
All the stuff she saw on-line she judged as really good. Her internal critic saw this comparison of work was happening and waltzed right in to exacerbate the situation by telling her she could never do work like the work she was looking at during that “binge.”
The first thing you need to learn as a keeper of journals is that you can’t compare your journal to someone else because you are not someone else and your process is your process.
Armed with that realization that on-line viewing binges triggered this low-self-esteem she was able to limit her viewing of other people’s work until AFTER she had completed her practice every day.
That meant she could enjoy her own process, enjoy the work of others, go to bed, and work the next day being inspired but not overwhelmed by what she saw from other artists.
It might be that your diet is undermining your journaling habit. I know that I’m sensitive to sugar so I limit sugar by volume and time ingested. In other words I do my work before I have any sugar.
Why you stop your journaling practice might be caffeine or blood sugar related. It might be because your boss blew up at you and you let that spread mentally into other areas. It could be so many things.
Finding triggers allows you to recognize immediately what is happening when you fall into a slump, and to immediately get back to work!
One more to mention—for some the stop trigger is the completion of a journal. That is why I tell people to have another one ready to go before the current journal ends. I always have my new journal picked out when I have about one third of the current journal filled.
At that time I already know if I want to continue to work on that paper, in that format, at that size, for the time it takes me to fill another journal. I know if instead I want to switch any or all of that up. I also know if I have an approaching project which would benefit if I work in my workbook journal with a certain type of paper.
Why plan which will be your next journal when there is still one-third of it remaining? Well I’ve been journaling so long that I know there are times when I have time in my schedule and something catches my interest and I go crazy researching and exploring and experimenting, filling pages like there is no tomorrow. It’s easy to go through a third of a journal in a couple days. I want to have that next journal ready.
If you have done everything you can to identify your “not-going-to-finish” this journal trigger here’s what I suggest.
Finish it anyway.
That’s right, acknowledge you don’t want to finish it or feel you can finish it. If you know the reason and trigger note that down.
Then tell yourself you’re going to finish it anyway and spend the next 2 days or whatever it takes to simply BLOW THROUGH that remaining journal.
It means you take that journal with you everywhere, you write and draw probably at least every 90 minutes for a couple minutes in it. You take it to life drawing and put all your 2-minute poses in it page after page, using different media so you get to test the paper with how the different media feels. (This last is important because sometimes the trigger is we just don’t want to work on that paper any more. In this way the blow out helps you notice things about the paper so you can avoid such a paper choice again—or even better choose it when you are going to use media that will work well on that paper.)
Years ago one of my in-person students picked up my current journal. It was NOT on the table for display with the other older journals. But I had been working in it during the lunch break, stopped to help an early returning student, and left it on my table. When I got back to the table the other student had already been paging through it.
What’s wrong with this? Well I like my current journals to be private in their entirety. But beyond that, this student was heavily fragranced and she transferred that fragrance to my book.
I had a beautiful, 6 x 8 inch handbound book I’d made with Arches Text Wove that is one of my favorites for journaling; it was only half finished.
I could not get near the book. I started to wheeze if I picked it up. I just packed it away at class and class went on as it was important to just keep going. But that night at home I wrote to a book artist who repairs books and asked her what to do. I knew it wasn’t going to air out. (Wrap it in cheesecloth and put it in scent-free kitty litter for a couple weeks.)
I did start another journal that night and set the fragrant journal in a back room open to air out. The next weekend (6 days later) I took the journal (still strong smelling, but I could tough it out) to life drawing and tore through the pages at quite a pace. Then I returned home and spent my weekend TV time drawing sketches of things on TV, sketched around the house, wrote and wrote—you get the idea. I filled that journal so I could wrap it up and stick it in kitty litter. (It took over a month and a couple changes of kitty litter but the odor was removed.)
My point here is that you can blow through a journal that you don’t “like” for any reason. It’s sad I had to do this in a journal with paper I loved, but in a way it wasn’t because I had strong incentive to use that lovely paper.
You can do it.
It’s not bad.
It’s not wasteful.
As long as you keep your goals and intentions in mind as you work, you will be learning on every page and it won’t be mindless scribble.
You can finish a journal.
If you don’t believe this, then you really need to decide to do this the next time you find yourself grinding to a halt in the middle of a journal.
Finish it anyway.
This is about momentum.
Your internal critic is trying to tell you to stop the journal because you aren’t any good at it and you don’t like that paper anyway, and [comparison alert] everyone else is using a different type of journal with different paper that I should use [internal critics typically use “should”].
When you stop mid-journal it kills your momentum and you don’t get the satisfaction of finishing.
Give yourself that satisfaction. If your internal critic says “All those pages are just junk and you wasted the paper” simply shrug and smile, “It’s so wonderful I was able to carry on and finish it off.”
If you can give yourself the gift of momentum you will simultaneously learn that you can keep your habit going and that it is about the process and not the results.
Even if your issue with a particular journal is the paper is crap you can still finish it—you can practice your 2-minute poses at life drawing as I mentioned, or do street sketching fast and furious of live subjects. And all the while you can write down your stream of thoughts.
It may, over time, end up being the most enlightening journal of your life.
Paper Is Too Precious
One of the number one reasons I see journaling practices stall is that the journal keeper starts to worry about wasting paper.
Paper that you work on is not wasted. If you are working with intention and are engaged in the world around you then you are not wasting paper. You’re learning and developing new skills. And it’s going to mean running through a lot of paper to develop mastery.
Also the idea of wasting paper is about scarcity. I’ve written about this before. The internal critic is gnawing at you telling you that you’re wasting paper to get you to lose confidence and will and give up your practice.
Sit down and make an art supply budget. You need to have done this already anyway. Buy the paper and journals that you can afford. Give up various “treats” in your life if you want to enlarge that budget but can’t work more hours to do so. And if the budget is really tight have different types of books for different types of work.
Around 2010, maybe a little earlier, I found the Japanese lined notebooks from APICA. I write about them other places on the blog. The size I like isn’t available any more, and the paper in the slightly smaller size I can get now is a little different, but I still love these books.
It’s just cheap, lined, composition book type paper. But I find it loves the brush pen (since the Japanese invented the PPBP they of course are going to have paper that works with it!).
I also find I can also do light washes on the paper in these books and paint on it with gouache or watercolor (and rubberstamp on it). And of course I can stick just about anything on it.
Once I found these books (which were about $7 at the time and still are inexpensive) I found myself “reverting” to how I journaled when I was in collage—lots of stuck down things, things written around things—sure I still seem to think about rule of thirds and margins and all that other stuff as I work on a page, but that’s because I’ve worked as a book designer for over 35 years. I don’t even think about that stuff consciously when journaling, it’s habit.
So to get messy I went back to how I journaled before I worked in publishing. There are still too many neat pages, but there are all sorts of other cool discoveries, and I love it. I always have one going on, or another non-art paper book going on while I have a wet-media book going on.
I also keep a Hahnemühle Travel Journal going most of the time—I post about it a lot. They contain drawing paper, but I paint on it anyway.
I don’t use these other books because of scarcity. But I do use them because they are fun, nostalgic in certain ways that remind me of my childhood, and allow me to stretch my art-paper budget.
You can find a way to do most of your writing on less expensive paper and most of your watercolor work on the art paper. You can find a balance. You simply need to enlarge your idea of what is possible in the journal and how you can organize and manage two books simultaneously.
Remember it’s about flow. I have gone from having only one journal at a time, to having several for different purposes (e.g. Nature, visual, writing, project…), and back again to one journal for everything, and then off again to maybe two journals (one with art paper and one without). Over the course of your lifetime things will change and you can find your flow that will fit your art paper budget or your working preferences!
Sharing Your Work On-line Causes You to Stop Journaling
I’ve seen a lot of students who start journaling and immediately put their work up on line, someone makes a snide comment or there aren’t enough “likes” and the student shuts down the journal.
I think of this as going public before you’re ready—before you’ve turned off your internal critic enough so that he doesn’t feed into the type of response or lack of response that you get on-line to your work.
I have a real advantage over most journal artists in this regard. I had 40 years of journaling under my belt before I shared any of it on-line beginning in 2003. Previous to that time only a few friends and the students in my in-person classes had seen any of my journaling pages. I already had my internal critic under control. I had momentum to burn. And I was used to even harsh criticism of my work because I was already a professional artist who had to make clients happy.
I had been journaling so long that I’d already experienced cycles where I kept one journal, others when I kept multiple journals. I saw a bigger picture of how journal practice fit into my life and how it fed the rest of my creative work, and my general sense of well-being.
Look at the reasons you’ve stopped journaling—if one or several relate to the reception of your work on the internet consider not putting your work on-line for a period of time. This isn’t something you make a big deal about and announce to everyone—that just makes it an even bigger deal and brings more judgment you might be sensitive to from others.
You don’t have to explain yourself to others.
Just stop posting.
Remind yourself it is FOR NOW.
You can get back to it when your habit is daily, or however regular you desire, again.
Then set daily appointments for yourself, meet them, and build your habit back. Savor the time you spend with yourself following down the ideas and subjects that matter to you. Take time to also learn new skills as needed. Give yourself time to explore and grow on your daily pages.
If you feel you’ve got your internal critic under control and you feel the daily habit is strong again, bolstered by all the clear momentum you’ve gathered, you can decide to go back on-line.
But if the thing that matters to you is your journaling and drawing practice—protect and nurture that practice first.
Negative Feedback from My Family Stopped My Journaling Practice
I am the poster child for ignoring this type of feedback. While my mother was actually the first person to encourage me to keep a journal by giving me a watercolor sketchbook and some tools and paints at age 3 and a half, she did have an ulterior motive—she wanted me occupied on a trans-Pacific sea-crossing.
Ever after, no one in my family has shared the least interest in my journaling or my artwork. Frequently family members have suggested that I stop. At other times they have snidely suggested that I resolve a family argument by going to look up something in my journal.
It has never bothered me. I’ve kept a journal all these years because it mattered to me and it helped me develop the skills I wanted to intentionally build and use.
And it’s just so darn fun, even when you’re churning out stunningly bad experimental pages! The sure knowledge that they are each stepping stones towards my goals makes me smile all the more.
If you are getting negative feedback about your journaling from others in your family only you are going to know exactly where that is coming from: are they frustrated artists? are their own internal critics so strong that they’ve been warped by it and so they are caustic with everyone? are they so focused on saleable skills that they can’t see the benefits you derive from the practice? are they abusive and need 100 percent of your attention?
It could be several things, and many more things than I have listed. But if you’re getting negative family feedback I believe, again, the best thing is to carry on any way.
And while you carry on anyway (which might mean you have to journal at your work lunchtime so your family can’t interrupt, or get up early for the same reason) you will have to judge what the reasons are and address them. For many families it might be as “simple” as you need to be clear you need down time to do this practice. By alerting the rest of the family to this you’ll then negotiate for that time.
(By negotiating I mean you and the family have to negotiate who does what in the family as we all live by social contracts. And in that process you might have to ask others in the family to step up and take on something like evening dog walks or child pick up from school so you can have this daily time. If you have never stood up for yourself in this way it’s going to be difficult, but you can do it. And of course there is always the “getting up earlier option.” (Irma Bombeck wrote her books at the kitchen table after her family had gone to bed.) But look closely at how you use your time now—is it really you who are gladly taking on too much to avoid doing your creative work? Own that if it’s the case.)
The “I can’t go on because I just made the most perfect page” Syndrome
Another event which stops many journal keepers is the fear of ruining their book, messing it up.
This fear often arises after they have made one or more fantastic page spreads. The spreads turned out exactly as they had hoped. The spreads signal a leap in skill and comprehension. The spreads give insight into matters that have puzzled the journal keeper for a long time.
For whatever reason these pages come to mean TOO MUCH.
And the fear comes in and the journal keeper chokes and can’t turn the page—what if the next page is awful?
They start to over think—What if I never create graceful lines like that again? What if I never mix color that way again? What if the next string of 3 pages is horrible? And What if I never do another piece as good as that?
Those are all things your internal critic will try to convince you of.
The best thing to do in those situations is INTENTIONALLY make a REALLY MESSY PAGE. Go sketch a live animal that moves at lightning speed, sketch when you feel like throwing up (I sketch when I have vertigo), just get the next page over with.
What happens in this situation and in partially filled journals, is that we get to a mass of pages at some point in our progress through the journals and we start looking BACK at that mass of pages instead of forward to the ones we have to fill (time’s a-wasting folks we’ve got lots of pages to fill).
When we look back instead of forward we start to feel “precious” about those pages, we see them as precious, special, etc. This is especially true if they were exceptional or include exceptional pages.
Remember none of us progresses in a totally linear fashion. We improve in our skills and understanding and then plateau for a bit. Next comes a leap to the next level. We can’t control when we will be asked to make that leap or when we will be able to make that leap and ask ourselves to do it (both events and ourselves can feed leaps). But by showing up daily to do the work we are training for those leaps. And by training daily we know the leaps will come because we have been building momentum even if we haven’t seen great pages in a little while! Confidence is built into the momentum.
So if you reach the point in your journal where you hit a wall and are afraid to turn the next page and “ruin” it, turn that page and deliberately make the messiest page you can.
Or take the book to life drawing and THROW the next 5 pages away (I’m saying that sarcastically because I don’t believe they are wasted but your internal critic does) by doing gesture sketches.
Of course you can avoid the fear of the perfect page by turning the page, the moment you finish a fantastic page, and drawing another page. Chances are it won’t be as perfect as the previous page and you’ll have avoided the whole issue. If it is just as fantastic, turn the next page, and the next, until it’s time to go to bed.
Think About What You Want Your Journal to Be
Think about what you want your workbook journal to look like and be. It gets to be whatever you want it to be!!!!
The memories that are important for you are what make you unique and you need to get them down on paper!
For now the composition, writing, and drawing skills matter less than your understanding of your goals, intentions, and your awareness of what’s around you.
Stop comparing your workbook with anyone else’s.
They aren’t you. You are different. What you notice is going to be different from anyone else on the planet. Savor that. Enjoy that. Following your nose as to your interests is how you’ll get your authentic self down on the page.
Ask yourself why you want to journal and what you get out of it.
If you’re someone who wants journals to pass on to the next generation of your family stop and think about this:
Maybe the real gift journaling allows you to bring into the world is the act of role modeling you provide for your children. By journaling you show them that your time matters, your view point matters, your practice matters.
The physical pages may never matter.
Note: I have a couple more posts related to this topic coming up in the next week or so. One deals with probably the biggest hiccup that takes down journal practice before it gets going…more later.