Visual journals do not have to be works of Art

Visual journals do not have to be works of Art

Arlee over on Albedo Design has an interesting question/discussion on planning and using visual journals . I am going to chip in my two cents worth here because my ideas on this are too long to be left as a simple comment.

I think most people when they look at many of the visual journals on line, think that as a practice they involve too much work as many visual journals become art works in their own right. At the moment there is a great trend in making a journal a work of art. The idea is booming but it is putting off many people. The idea and role of visual journals is shifting which is fine in some ways but as I have said it is not the only way to keep a visual journal.

A visual journal is not necessarily a place where you plan out something to the last detail and then set about working the piece either. Instead it is a place to toss all your ideas into – stir them up and see what happens and then work the piece. These ideas can be little better than back of the envelope sketches – doodles and squiggles. In other words they do not have to be images developed into full finished art works.

Visual journals can be a grab bag of ideas that you encounter percolating away in the back of your mind. Into a visual journal can go notes, web articles, fabric and thread swatches, photos that you just like the look of, experiments with different techniques, notes on dyes with samples and swatches for future reference. Notes on how particular fabrics and threads behave, tips and tricks. You can paste in samples from workshops and experiments you do. Ideas you would like to try and thoughts about techniques. None of this has to be neat, finished or particularly well designed because it is a place for you and only you to use. Take a look at these journal pages by artist Tilleke Schwarz.

As a tool they become a compost heap of ideas which enriches the texture of your visual life. Visual journals are about potential projects not just about documenting actual projects made, or planning down to the last detail a project. A visual journal is not a ‘to do’ list. Just because an idea goes in your journal does not mean it has to be realised – it is simply that an idea that may or may not be worked but unlike ideas noted on scraps of paper (the back of an envelope) because it is in a journal it will not be lost. It can even be that scrap of paper pasted into a note book! The principle is to catch the idea, note it and keep it all together so it does not get lost.

Often you are busy and do not have time to work through an idea – but if you take a note of it and it only has to be a note. You can if you wish return to it, reshape it and develop it or simply let it be. It is the fact that the idea is caught that gives you the opportunity to take it further or not.

Visual journals are tool to aid creativity. A visual journal develops the regular habit of looking at the world in a creative way. Just like any skill creativity needs to be developed, maintained and used and visual journals help this process.

As I have said the principle is to note the ideas together in one place. If you do this constantly you will see patterns emerge that you have not seen before. Patterns in the sense of literal patterns in the material you are attracted to but also patterns in yourself. As place to collect and store ideas visual journals will point out to you, what attracts you. The other night Annie Whitsed and myself were talking about a particular historical quilt we saw together at an exhibition in 2000. We had both thought this quilt would be a good jumping off point for a contemporary crazy quilt. At the time we talked about it but did not do anything about it. Later when we checked our journals we had both returned to and talked about the same idea in 2002 and had both recorded it in our visual journals. When I realised this, I saw that this particular idea has been hanging around in the back of mind for a long time. This has made us both reassess the idea and perhaps take it further in the new year. I will expand on this project in another post, as the key point I want to make, is that with the aid of a visual journal we both spotted a re-emerging pattern and that as an idea we have both been thinking about it for a long time. It was until we checked our journals that we realised just how long! This means that it is an idea that should be developed for it keeps re-emerging. Without a visual journal I would not have had this insight. To put it simply I would have forgotten how often this idea had swung around to re-visit me. In other words I would not have realised that at some level it is important to me.

In the act of collecting sorting and storing visual materials, you think about it consciously and subconsciously. This rich visual diet will eventually teach you about you, what attracts you, patterns in your work, you will see both your strengths and weaknesses. Patterns of themes and ideas which would otherwise go unrecognised can be seen over time.

Visual journals also act as a record of skill development, improvement and achievements. This is most useful in moments of insecurity because you can look back on what you have done. Instead of thinking about what we have not done sometimes it is necessary to protect an insecure creative self and look at what has been achieved. In other words you’re owning your achievements –something many women forget to do.

As a safe place for exploration of techniques and ideas visual journals are ideal but they preform another function. On a psychological level they declare that personal creativity is of value and important. So often women have to fit their creative life in and around a busy family life. Everyones needs are met but the creative side of a person is simply not recognised in amongst the noise of daily life. It’s not something that is deliberate it just happens that way.

Establishing the practice of keeping a visual journal makes a space for creative practice, re-values this aspect of your life and makes you give yourself permission to do it. Recognising that the creative aspects of your life are important. In carving out a safe place in a visual journal creativity is valued and recognised by you and others as being something of value in your life. Here is another view on keeping a visual journal by Danny Gregory in which he summarises the issue, “Journal making is about believing in yourself, celebrating your life, having adventures, and feeling a part of (not apart from) the universe”.

The more you use a visual journal the more your ideas are developed quickly. I am sure everyone reading this knows what it is like to be on a roll with so many ideas that it is impossible to keep up and work them all. If they are noted and caught you can return to them in your uninspired times.

Before I leave off here is another post on the topic from mewhich you may find interesting. My key point however is that visual journals do not have to be art works in their own right. There is no rules about keeping them as they are tools to be used and it is in the process that become valuable to you.


  1. I stumbled upon your blog and I am so glad I did. Blogs have enabled so many people to realize they are not the only ones who write and draw and paint and dream in their journal. I believe people every where want to see more. We are thirsty for the color and light. Please come visit me and tell me what you think of my post; Birth of a New Genre.

  2. Interesting discussion! Art journaling has given me a place to try new techniques, new color combinations, new mediums. Sometimes I use journaling as a creativity exercise: I challenge myself to express a theme visually. I definitely do not strive for “pretty” in my art journal, but I like my work to be balanced, colorful, unique and full of contrast. The best thing about my art journal pages is that they’ve given me the confidence to create art to display in my home (and possibly beyond) and not to stash away in a book.

  3. Thank you for this insight. I, too, was getting caught up in the idea that my art journal had to be a work of art in itself. I was so caught up in the thought process that it kept me from jotting notes in it. In fact, it kept me from doing anything at all in my journal. Although, I knew in my heart what you have said is true, seeing it here in black and white makes it more real. Thank you again!

  4. Like this very much as it’s what I’ve done for years, everything from poetry to squiggles when bored. Play is such a large part of “making.” Amazing to go back and look at old sketches and USE the thought

  5. Good Morning, For ages now I have been collecting (pictures, memories, drawings, ideas and different kinds of books to put it all in) and surfing and drooling over other people’s visual journals. So much browsing made me put off my own journal because it wouldn’t be as good, as interesting, as beautiful as anyone else’s. Your point of view put visual journaling into perspective. Now maybe I can start. Thanks

  6. This is a great post Sharon. The visual journal seems to have become the latest fad, and in doing so, people are losing their creativity to a degree, because they are to caught up in making the journal the art. Let it go and just do it, I say.

  7. Oh i quite agree with you Sharon, it’s just for me as a textile artist, a visual journal that is done for the sake of being a visual journal that *is* a slavish work of art, is a waste of time. (Whew what a run on sentence>>>) I *do* have scribbles, notes, samples, photos, cutouts etc but in a very rough form. I think those who concentrate more on the “paper arts” (for lack of another term:}) are well suited to these gems, but they are time wasted for me. I am *neve*r without my sketchbook, but it is merely a “closet” not the showroom!

  8. Thanks s – wonderful comment… I like the idea of visual journals – but have got ‘caught up’ in thinking that they had to be ‘art works’ in themselves… A virgo by star sign I have unfortunately got ‘it must be neat and ordered’ to the point of overkill… Yet arond my desk – shoved in the book – I won’t use as an vd (because they mightn’t be good enough) are bits of paper with scribbles and scrawled statements… In fact I think becaue I won’t put anything down on to paper is mostly my problem – a bit like an explorer who refuses to use any aids to assist his exploration!!!!! I was lucky enough to see one of L’s- Chloe’s Place-visual journals and I wished I had of had more time to just read… Thanks again for a great comment…


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