Some tips on choosing a Visual Journal

stack of journals
I know many textile practitioners are interested in keeping a visual or studio journal but they are intimidated because they see the explosion of art journals online.  They feel that they have to create something that is a piece of art work. In other words an object in its own right, that is complete and beautiful.

At the moment there is huge interest in decorated art journals. In these people explore not only who they are but often mixed media techniques to paint, print, texture and generally work up imagery of one sort or another.

I see studio journals as a place to toss ideas and let them develop rather than something you work at to produce a finished art object. There is nothing wrong with creating a journal that is an object in its own right but for me I see them as tool boxes to use rather than something to show – a place where work takes place and part of a creative process.

There is a difference as one is about producing something – an art journal and the other is about a process that I think helps creativity.

I have spoken about the advantages of keeping a studio journal before and you will find a whole pile of links in the visual journal section. Simply put however studio journals can be a place to note down all the bits and pieces of your creative life and let it compost down into something that becomes a resource for meaningful work.

What happens is often a textile practitioner decides to start a journal and they walk into a art store and don’t know where to start. Well you don’t really need much. It does not have to be an expensive investment with oodles of art materials you actually only need a few things.

What sort of Journal should you buy?

The first thing you will need is of course some sort of journal. As with everything associated with  journals there is no right or wrong way to do it. Just your way. This applies to choosing a journal too.

Strong Unlined Paper

The main thing I would say is to make sure the one you choose is unlined with heavy weight paper so that you can use water media. Paper that is heavier than the usual is solid enough to glue stuff to.

Journal size

Think about the size. Do you want something that you can pop into a handbag? Or do you want to treat yourself to lovely bound journal? On the other hand if you feel a visual journal is daunting or pretentious buy a small one. You don’t want to buy something that is so large and imposing you are fearful of using it!

Spiral bound journals allow you to have the book open flat while you work and allow for some expansion but the pages can rub. Bound journals do not rub and damage pages in the same way and I have found can take more hard wear and tear. A good bound journal should open right up and lie flat too. If it does not you are looking at a trendy fashion notebook which is possibly not the best choice. So both bound and spiral journals have advantages and disadvantages. It’s up to you and the way you think you might work to decide on what might work best for your taste. As you can possibly see from the photograph I have used both at various times n my life.

Other art materials

The next big investment you need to make is a 2B pencil and an art rubber. If you really want to lash out you can buy a Pigma Micron pen as they are good for writing and sketching. But really that is all you need to start a visual journal.

If you want to explore colour you can use colour pencils, or invest is small set of water colour paints and a few brushes. If you do not like the transparent nature of water colour invest in a small set of acrylic paints. Nothing too fancy or expensive and if you are on tight budget you can simply buy the 3 primary colours, black and white by the tube. Five tubes of paint that is all that is necessary. Everything after that is simply fun. As time goes on you might want to try out different art supplies but it is definitely not necessary to simply get started.

Other things that are handy are paper scissors, PVA glue and glue brush, a glue stick for when you are away from your desk, and a ruler.

Why is this photo of my visual journals here?

I am currently writing an online course on how to keep a visual journal. Artists Studio Journal: A Designers workhorse aims to cover the nuts and bolts of working in a studio journal and is directly aimed at textile practitioners who want to use a visual journal as part of their design process. It covers how to catch and record ideas, explore them further, and push them to the next stage in the design process. I have assumed that work in the visual journal is being done in order to translate it into a textile medium. In other words the work done in a visual is part of the process but not the sole aim of keeping a journal.

Oh and about that photograph … these are my visual journals from the last decade there are more from further back … but they all bulge and this is as high as I could stack them without them toppling over. So I decided a decade of journals was enough.

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35 Responses to Some tips on choosing a Visual Journal

  1. Tuscany says:

    Hi, Sharon,
    I would love to take your visual journal online class. As a former landscape plein air painter, I have loads of supplies (and keep buying more). I am a horder! I like the idea of design exercises, but everything you’ve mentioned sounds good. I’ll look for the class on Joggles.

  2. Jo Britt says:

    Hi Sharon,
    This class sounds great. I have been doing a doll class with Joggles but had great difficulty sourcing equivalent materials in Australia. I am loathe to add to greenhouse gasses by ordering from US. Can you give alternative brands to those available from Joggles for Aussies??

  3. sharonb says:

    Thanks for all the feedback on this I am going to crank up the amount of material that is about translating an initial idea into a design suitable for textiles. I will make it broad ie into designs for example embroidery or quilting but a good portion of the course will be about applying the design to what ever form of textile practice you are interested in.

  4. sharonb says:

    Dave I just checked out your journal and I think the sketches in your journal are the basics of a visual journal as the term really refers to notes – in this case visual notes – made often in order to make something else. Like the visual notes made about your French doors.

  5. dave says:

    I’ve converted from a regular journal to a sketch journal. I’m not sure it’s the same as a “visual journal.” My new sketch journal is combined drawing/painting and words. Whereas my old journals used to be private, these are wide open. They have become my celebration of life.
    …dave“ rel=”nofollow”>Here are a few examples of project/work/personal/sketch journals I keep.

  6. Fiona says:

    yeah! your writing the class!
    I love sketchbooks and I’m always drawn to them in shops. so I have a stack of empty, barely filled books where I’ve started with such high hopes of creating the perfect inspirational bank for my neverending lists of ideas, tasks and whims. I have always failed. perfectism, time, irregular usage etc etc. I am currently using a book that I made. it contains fabric, different papers (thick, thin, tissue, brown) and a pocket at the back for bits. and its working. I started using it for your Sumptuous course and I’m still using it. The only problem is that its not in any order, so its difficult to follow the progress of one design as its dotted about the book. but the fact its a lovely tactile book means (I hope) i will enjoy flicking thro it for inspiration. The main reason its working is that I’m exploring a specific theme. I need a purpose! One thing I think you should stress in your course is the curse of trying to make ‘art’ when you’re really ‘just’ capturing and working through ideas. also you don’t need a whole load of the ‘right’ materials – an exercise that encourages improvising would be good. can’t wait!

  7. ati says:

    This sounds really interesting. I have started a kind of journal this spring but i do not use it often. There is no system in my writing or sketches. Maybe a course will improve what i am doing and makes it more usable.
    And of course I have all the paints and pencils LOL, not a good book, only a school notebook.
    I am looking forward to it.

  8. Kat says:

    Hi Sharon, I’m very much looking forward to this course, I’ll be one of the first in line to sign up! I have to keep visual diaries for uni and always find them a bit of a struggle so this would be a great course to help with that, as well as take it further outside of uni. I tend to struggle a bit with planning things out, from concept to final idea as I usually just sit down and try things, so I’d like to learn more about how to take an idea from notes/sketches to final product with a bit more thought and organisation.

    I tend to have a bit of everything in art supplies but I think some supplies are reasonably priced enough that it wouldn’t be cost prohibitive to include them in the course, like some acrylic and water colour paints.

  9. star says:

    i just wanted to say that that picture of your journals makes me very very happy.

  10. Sharon, no matter how often you have encouraged us to use the visual journal approach, I have just had this huge mental block that prevents me from jumping in. Your Joggles class sounds PERFECT!
    I will be there!

  11. SharonB: I would definitely take this course. I have taken the art journal route and have kept a diary/journal forever. They have always been 1/2writing and 1/2cut&paste books so they are pretty messy. I also collect and dry flowers, leaves, weeds, nuts & seeds and love to play with paint and crayons. . .

    RE: your response #9 – THAT’s what I need – help taking the ideas, images & themes that seem to run thru my books and applying what is scattered there & in my head and applying it all to cloth or canvas.
    I have lots of art supplies, ideas and desire to create; FOCUS is my problem. ;]

  12. Susan D says:

    I love the sound of this class. I had trouble keeping a sketchbook/journal when I first started my OCA Textile course. I wasn’t sure what to put in it, so ended up with photos, drawings, pieces of fabric etc. I must have done something right because I got a Grade A in my assessment. I can’t pass an art shop without going in and usually buying something so I have a good selection of acrylic, watercolours, various types of pencils.

  13. Monique says:

    Hmm… now this sounds like a class I’d have to take 🙂 I haven’t been able to successfully keep a visual journal because once I get an idea I generally carry on with it until the final product. Or else the journal becomes the final product. I’ve no clue how to let ideas “rest” in a journal and go back to them!

  14. Misa says:


    Definitely let us know when this class is available – I’ve been waiting!! I’d like to find out more about sifting through ideas, picking the right one, etc. Most of my ideas are really just loose glimpses, rather than a concrete idea. I learned a lot from the Surfaces class, in regards to design. I’d like to work on how to come up with the original idea, how to develop it more in the journal before moving into an actual project, and how to come up with actual projects. Maybe even discussing how to come up with a format – whether traditional “pictoral”, on clothing, etc. How do you develop from a single thought to a finished whole project, basically?

  15. Wow. This is a group I’d like to hang out with. I’ve been clicking around this site, and others from links, and I’m overwhelmed by all of you. The 4×6 cards are amazing!

    I’d take this class. I’m with Marjorie in that I have a hard time going from concept to finished needlework. My biggest problem may be a lack of focus–I find too many things interesting, and flit from one to another. As a writer, I stopped keeping idea journals because they became an end in themselves. I love coming up with ideas, and I guess that’s enough sometimes, but once in a while, I’d like to complete something.

    I have most of the art supplies you mention, and would find a way to obtain what I don’t have.

    Personally, I wouldn’t mind some multi-media included. See? There it is! No focus!

  16. Liz Plummer says:

    Ooh, I love the sound of this course! I have kept, or tried to keep, journals for a few years now and I always seem to start them and then start another one, and another… and so I have lots of half or three quarters empty books around! I also would love to learn how to move on to developing designs via sketchbooks/journals…. And I too have LOADS of art supplies… can’t resist them!

  17. Jacqui says:

    Think everyone has said what I was thinking but Wow, that is some stack of sketch books. When did sketch books become journals? Are they the same, now that I think about?

    Funny enough I have just written a blog on this very subject, but from the completely opposite end of yours.

  18. sharonb says:

    Wow this certainly is great feedback thanks heaps to everyone who has taken time to comment as I know it takes a bit of effort to leave one . I appreciate it and value them.

  19. Suzi says:

    oops – I hadn’t thought the 1st comment had worked!

  20. Suzi says:

    That sounds a great course! I’m so glad you decided put it together! I’m a real beginner, so though I carry a notebook round with me – it’s full of lists rather than sketches/scraps!

    In terms of art supplies, I have very little – we don’t have much storage, and fabric and buttons took priority! I do have quite a good store nearby to buy the necessary equipment from though! 🙂

  21. Suzi says:

    I’m a lot of a beginner when it comes to design so what was meant to be my visual diary is now mainly a place for lisits. I carry it in my handbag and I have a few sketches dotted through it, but it’s mainly written ideas for projects and reminders to call the gas board…

    My art collection mainly consists of coloured pencils, but drawing has never been my thing. Living in a small flat, with a growing stash of material, beads and threads I have to draw the line somewhere!!

  22. aurora fox says:

    Hi–I have a big stack of journals also–mine always mix the visual with writing, tho—and most of the visuals are my
    “doodle” drawings-some of which eventually become fabric designs OR go into my mixed media artwork…you can see some on my blog

    I have good supplies of paints and brushes–and I am like you and buy art supplies all the time…but mostly use felt tip pens or other black pens and colored pencils in my journals. I like a journal that I can fit into my (rather big) purse, and I really prefer the spiral bound ones that lay flat.

    I taught a one day creative journaling workshop to women (at a women’s conference) once—and we used collage for the visuals–since so many people are intimidated by drawing–and it was quite successful–many of these women already kept a writing journal and the notion of adding art or visuals was new to them.

    I also stick in clippings of fabrics and wrapping papers that I like into my journal–sometimes I sew them in with my sewing machine (easier to do with the spiral bound journals)—anything that strikes my fancy, I either put it into my collage drawer OR into my journal….

    I have been keeping a journal (I actually think of it as my “drawing notebook”) for so long now–it would be weird to not have one going. I have tried to create some journals with a more focused “theme” but soon loose interest in them–(like, for instance–a “travel journal”) so I have learned —for me— it is better if I just let myself add anything I want to the journal.

  23. Penny says:

    Hi Sharon, this is rather dear to my heart, if you go to my ‘other’ blog you will find that I kept a journal for 12 months sketching what I saw as I wandered here and there. Not always at home. this is my visual sketch journal, and I run a few but I have found that the ones I use most are the A6 size spiral bound quill 110 gsm cartridge paper ones most, I also use a waterproof pen unipin fine line. water and fadeproof pigment ink made by Mitsubishi and cost about $4 in my local newsagent. I dont use a pencil, this pen slips into the spiral binding of the note book, fine line comes from 01 up to I think 08 I use 01,02,and 03 and sometimes 05.
    The paper buckles a bit but I use watercolour washes on this and the ink doesnt run. In my handbag I carry the notebook and pen, a small pill bottle of water, and a plastic toothbrush container, very narrow in which with blue tack I have 9 1/2 pans of watercolur paint, These ones are not Winsor and Newton which I normally use but some one called Barry Umton, made in the czech republic which is pretty obscure and I get them from one art place in Adelaide, i like them as they are pretty stong colours and in a large square 1/2 pan that fits in well, two brushes, a fine and a sable flat.
    Colours, Aurelian, Helio, rose madder, cad red, ultramarine, cerulean, cobalt green, raw sienna, burnt umber. Really any colours of your choice, warm and cools of red, blue and yellow and a couple of earth colours.
    I have tried fancy proper paint sketchbooks and to be quite honest dont much like them, if I was taking watercolour paper a pad of Arches Medium 185 gsm or their postcard size stuff would be enough.
    When we have gone to Japan I have taken the larger Quill A5, a pair of paper scissors, a glue stick and sometimes a small stamp pad and a few small stamps but not really necessary. I used to take my watercolour pencils and they can still be handy, but usually now as well as the toothbrush carrier a small Winsor and Newton travelling paint set with my favorite colours but it all fits into a back pack. I do not take pencils, I like to use a pen and the discipline of not rubbing out is great.
    Textile visual diaries are a little but not very different, still spiral bound but a bit larger, so I can pin or staple or glue bits in and still jot down ideas but my small A6 diaries are the real reminders and what I go back to. Of course now I have a digital camera, before it was a normal one but my small digital also travels every where with me plus extra batteries. None of this takes up much room in my very small back pack or rather large handbag.
    Oh and I do write a daily diary as well!! But over seas that is combined with everything and anything I collect on my days wandering, railway stations in Japan have the most wonderful travel brochures for everything and I used to collect those and with my sketches every morning very early I would be up cutting out, gluing in and writing my diary, they are great to look back on.
    I think its not a matter of I cant draw, but keeping your eyes open for the unusual, taking a few minutes to sketch a manhole cover, an outline of houses, roofs or hills. I only took up sketching about 5 years ago and I love it. Sorry this is so long but it has become rather a passion.

  24. Vero says:

    Sharon, I’m so glad you are writing this course! I’ll signin as soon as it is available.
    We already had a bit of discussion in the joggles forum, during your textures courses, and you gave some tips along that course too, but i’d love to go a bit further.
    I have the basic supplies, and like to buy some more when I have the occasion. So that won’t be a problem.
    And the more I try textile arts, the more I feel the need for a visual journal. So your course will be most welcome.

  25. Reminder to Sharon: please change my blog link to –

  26. This could tempt me! I have worked in sketchbooks for years, usually just drawings. I do watercolours and art quilts. I often look back and use the sketch books for design. I find that the drawings simplify the object and make the design process easier. Supplies? I’ve got it all! I would enjoy design exercises.

  27. sharonb says:

    HI all thanks for the feed back on this. Keep it coming! I do plan on covering how to shift and idea or drawing from visual journal to becoming a textile as the point of keeping one is to eventually make something! Translating ideas to a fiber medium will be covered but I don’t want to turn it into a how to and techniques only course of fiber ie this is how you embroider – this is how you applique etc (I want to stay on the topic of keep a visual journal in the course) but I will be pointing to ways of working that allow you to take an idea and develop it – In fact its already written in the exercises!
    It is a course that is suitable for people who feel they can’t draw. To design for fiber you do not rally need great drawing skills as such. In fact not much drawing in the traditional sense is there at all at the moment – I have just flicked through the examples I have and the exercises I have written so far and I was a little worried at the lack of drawing! Now I feel that people will find it useful as I have been focusing on design elements.
    As for a visual journal turning into a diary – yes it happens all the time I flick between the two all the time. At the moment I am trying to keep the diary element out and have been using a separate notebook. The only reason I have done it is because I want to produce a slide show for the class showing every page of a journal but its not really working as it feels wrong and somehow dishonest. People may have to put up with the odd text entry!The other thing I started to do but stopped was to try and keep my current journal focused just on textiles – but that didn’t work for long. I will have admit to being a magpie and one that looks all over the place. So the class will have a warts and all slide show I guess!

    wwkd -great to hear of another like minded soul – I have just worked it out that I journaled from about 10 into my mid teens then it dropped away I picked it up again in my early 20s then dropped it at about 28 – picked it up again in my mid 30s and have written, drawn or something almost every day since and not missed longer than a week in the last 18 years – thats a lot of journalling! One day I will sit down and digitise the lot and even index them! But that is one day…

    keep the comments coming I love them

  28. wwkd says:

    your picture is worth a million! it brought big smiles to my face.
    somewhere in there i think my jaw dropped, as well as my little kid jumping for joy as she found a person who has as many (if not more!) journals than she.
    i have been journaling or some variation on the theme since i was seven and i am over a half a century now. i turn back to “my friends” from time to time, i have so many interests that each notebook reflects where i am at that moment. i’d ay the last ten years my notebooks have been becoming more visual journal like.
    i do bounce from one subjuect to another. my favorite medium is colored pencils…inks, pictures.
    i grew up with an artist so i have always had every type of supply around.
    i intend to take one of your classes this one sounds delightful
    i probably would incorporate all the things that i haven’t had a chance to do yet…in the stitching world…i love fabric and have made quilts and wall hangings, toys, clothes all sorts of items that have caught my fancy.
    my favorite journals are the plain black ones with plain white paper that is heavy every for watercolors and paints (if you are careful)
    i used to be very acrtive in mail art in the 80s which was a blast and freed my soul into all sorts of new communication methods.
    well i have gone on a bit here. thanks for your constant flow of energy and inspiration. ~kate from vermont, north country usa

  29. SHunting says:

    Just found this link – aren’t computers wonderful!!!
    It seems as though they are an Australian company…

    I forgot to mention they are a good price too – not over the top…

  30. Sequana says:

    I for one would love this class…it might be the first one from Joggles that grabs me in. I would really like the design exercises; whenever I try to work with a journal, before long it becomes a diary.

    I don’t know about others, but I have a ton of art supplies here for a journal, even gesso. *S* I’m like you – I stash art supplies too.

  31. SHunting says:

    I have found these great art journals in an art supply shop – reasonably good paper, spiral bound but there’s more… The spine of the cover has two sections – one is where the body of the book is attached – the front cover can then be flipped over to the back as normal but because of the ‘extra’ piece in the spine it can be set to form a sandwich board – A frame – affect which could allow for display… both cover are solid enough so that when the front cover is flipped over to the back – make an excellect support – should you be sketching out of doors without a surface to lean on… The details are – quill artdairy – 9310703103924… The size I am quoing is A5 but there were larger sizes as well… I have just seen them at my local art supply in the last couple of weeks

  32. carole kokinis says:

    Sharon, couldn’t resist this one, as it struck so many cords. I love buying empty sketch books and making fabric covers for them, with pockets for keeping tickets, receipts etc. The contents are a complete mish mash of travel, exhibitions, workshops, finished projects. I stick in photos, post cards, anything I find inspiring, feathers, leaves, flowers.
    Art supplies – I’ve bought them all! – so the one, main thing that appealed to me, was your idea for designs to work through and hopefully, use some of this stuff. Organisation and textile use would be my ultimate goal. HTH

  33. Christine says:

    Sharon, I’ve done 2 courses where I needed a Visual Journal, and I tended to just “scrapbook” bits from magazines, photocopies, pieces of fabric, threads, photos of things I liked, etc. I found the process of “drawing” very intimidating, even though I am quite good at it when I get in the right mood. Perhaps you can also stress that “drawing” is not the only method of making a visual journal. I DID draw a little, but sometimes just pasting a picture in was OK for my needs at the time. I passed both courses with flying colours by the way, hee hee.
    Off now to volunteer for another day at the Embroiderers’ Guild 50th Exhibition,
    Hooroo, Christine

  34. Marjorie says:

    I have several journals, one where I jot down ideas and concepts, one where I paste in pictures I come across. I’ve noticed, though, it often stops there–once I write the idea down I don’t usually go back to it and I haven’t found a way to move from images I see and collect or photograph or draw to my textile art. I’d like to use the journals to develop and nurture ideas to the end result of a stitched piece. Thanks for the opportunity, I really like the idea of this class. Marjorie

  35. quiltpixie says:

    Hi Sharon, your course on visual journals sounds interesting. I always have lots of art supplies around — I think crayons are an inexpensive and “fun” way to explore colour…

    In terms of something I continue to struggle with, and would excite me in a course would be 1) some ideas for taking pictures that I collect on line, and transfering them into my journal — right now I run an electronic journal for those and find it cumbersome, but printing them on a colour printer isn’t an option right now 🙁 and 2) I’d love a course that explored ideas for how to “go back” in my journals — I’m great at dumping ideas in there, working them a little and then moving on to new ideas… the first one gets lost in the mists of time, and I’ve developed no structure for “reviewing” my journals, so many ideas are lost, even though stored there 🙁

    Dealing with those sorts of questions would really excite me in a course, though it may assume more of a collection in visual journals than you’re planning for in this intro class….

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