Artists Journals – My Letter to Erin

Early in 2002, my friend Erin asked how I created my art journals.  Before you read my reply to her, here’s the backstory:

How to create an art journal during a challenging time.Back then, I was in a marriage that was falling apart. My husband was divorcing me. I knew we’d drifted apart. We’d gone to a marriage counselor, but as far as my husband was concerned, it was time for both of us to move on, separately.

I felt stunned. Blindsided, in a way.

For some time after that, I was holding on by a thread, emotionally (and sometimes, mentally).

The Harry Potter books were new, and my kids and I loved the stories.

Harry Potter faced massive, undeserved challenges… and he won. That message kept me from falling apart completely.

At that same time, several of my friends were dealing with their own real-life challenges, and they found the same “dreams can come true” message in Rowling’s books.

And then someone suggested creating our own artsy-craftsy version of Hogwarts.

It wasn’t about magic.

It was about “lost arts.” Our school/events would share things like authentic bookbinding, found-art techniques, calligraphy, and so on. We’d buy and restore a medieval castle, and then… well, we weren’t sure what would follow. (I’m not sure that part really mattered.)

Of course, it was a fantasy. We all knew that. But, during our darker days, pretending it might be real, someday… that helped tremendously.

Several of us started keeping illustrated diaries of our emotions and our dreams for our pie-in-the-sky school.

So, I started posting some of my “Hogwarts” journal pages, online. They were among my earliest examples of how art journaling could work.

My Letter to Erin

One day, my wonderful friend Erin asked me to explain how I worked on my art journals… the nuts & bolts of art journaling.

Here’s my 2002 reply, slightly edited. Please forgive the shifts from present tense to past tense, and back again. Even now, parts of this story are difficult to tell.

Hi, Erin! I’m glad you asked about these journals.

Generally, I have a couple of them going. One has been my angry one, that no one will ever see. It’s unattractive, but it’s kept me from venting too inappropriately sometimes. Pain and rage are scribbled on its pages.

5" x 8" journal entitled "Hogwarts Journal."But, I keep other journals, too. Right now, I’m finishing a “Hogwarts” journal. It’s in the photo on the left.

That journal was part of a collective project, among friends who – like me – were facing difficult challenges.

When we got together, we’d share our journals with each other.

Everything was there, on paper, in words and all kinds of art.

Often, our journals were messy. That was appropriate. Each of us had different, messy problems to deal with… breakups, job issues, family tension, health challenges, and so on.

Those get-togethers and journals got us through the dark times. And then, one by one, we gathered strength and reinvented our lives… stronger.

And, one by one, we drifted apart. Some changed jobs or moved away. Others went back to school or got married. And so on. Most of us still keep in touch, online.

But even when I thought I was finished with the “Hogwarts” journal, it was still at my elbow, convenient for adding more art & ideas, completely unrelated to the original “Hogwarts” idea.

Now it’s nearly full. When I look at it now, it’s almost as if someone else had created the early pages in it.  I’m glad that’s all in the past.

I also have an event-related journal in progress. That one’s about the arts events where I teach.

(Note: as of around 2008, I stopped teaching at events. I wanted more time at home with my new husband. He’s my “happily ever after” person, and I’m so glad he’s in my life.)

And that’s why I have several half-finished journals in my studio, along with half-finished art projects. I love the product when it’s finished, but the process of journaling is more important to me.

The Journal I Threw Away

Then, when the ink was barely dry on the divorce papers, I made a big mistake.

I agreed to teach at an arts event. I’d taught there in the past, and it had been tremendous fun. Besides, I needed to get back to a normal routine.

So, as usual, I started a new journal about it – preparing for the event, what happened during it, the cross-country trip home, and so on.

But then, at the event, I was betrayed by a fellow artist whose career I’d salvaged, years earlier.

On the heels of my divorce, the emotional pain of this was devastating. So, I poured my bewilderment and rage onto the pages of my event journal.

Journaling helped me gain a better perspective on what had happened, not just to me, but others she targeted at the same event.

Eventually, my inner turmoil subsided. I decided nobody – including me – needed to revisit the pain of that time.

So, I threw out that journal. It’s in a landfill, somewhere in New Hampshire.

(No, I don’t usually throw out art, but honestly, this was truly awful stuff, beyond redemption. I have no regrets about throwing it out.)

Here’s How I Start Most of My Journals

Generally, I start with standard sketchbooks. You know, the spiral-bound kind that they sell at Michael’s, and other art supply shops. I like the 5″x8″ size. (For the following illustrations, I’m using my “Hogwarts” journal I’d mentioned, earlier.)

First, I gesso & paint and then collage the cover. (Gesso keeps the paint from seeping into the paper.) I use whatever gesso is cheap & available in bulk.

Recently, I added a hemp/string & button closure to this journal, because the pages are too irregular for it to stay closed. I lace the string through two mini-grommets I’ve mounted in the back cover, and I wrap the hemp/string around the antique button loosely sewn on the front. (It’s secured with a smaller antique button on the inside of the front cover.)

But, next in the process, I start the title page, which will evolve as the journal does. This one isn’t finished yet.

Along the way, I’ll alternately write and make art in the journal. (I like the phrase “make art” because it sounds like “make love,” and it’s an equally passionate expression.)

I deliberately gesso ahead a few pages when I’m doing art, to make certain I keep punctuating my journal with art.

A Sample Page

Below is an early page from the “Hogwarts” journal, when I was struggling with the idea of divorce, and feeling very unloved.

A page from my journal, reminding myself that no one is truly alone.

That’s why I wrote this:

“I need someone to hold. Someone who won’t pull back at the first sign of release, and withdraw behind the mask as if the whole thing was a little distasteful. Someone who looks me in the eyes and smiles beyond his lips, with a knowledge of the ages and a sense of comfort like returning home to a place I never really left.”

That collage started with line taken from a magazine: “You’re not alone.”

Before I started gluing down the paper elements, I painted the page – very loosely – with acrylic paint in several colors.

Then, I placed the intended images and colored paper on the page, and rearranged them until I was ready to glue them to the page, permanently. My “glue” is usually Golden Gel Medium (soft gloss) I apply it with a one-inch sponge brush.

Over the typed, text layer, I placed some tissue paper. I glued it in place with the same gel medium. This leaves the tissue transparent enough to read the text through, and adds the sense of layers that I value in my art.

Generally, my elements are:

  • Antique paper (from flea markets)
  • Magazine images & text (favorites include W magazine and Nat’l Geographic)
  • Art & text that I create on the computer, and
  • Acrylic paint, glitter, and sometimes gold leaf.

Surface embellishments include found feathers & other items, antique buttons, freshwater pearls, and… whatever else finds its way into my art supplies!

Here’s another page.

Life -prose or poetry?

And yes, the pages did buckle and bubble beneath the gesso, paint, gel medium, and layers.

That’s why I use a string-and-button closure. And no, I don’t mind that it’s such an irregular and funky design. I’m very process oriented, and if the pages buckle and warp… so be it.

In this case, the pages looked an uneven as my life was, at the time.

So anyway, that’s today’s art blurb. I hope it helps!

Author: Aisling

I'm Aisling, and this is one of my websites. You may know me from (since 1999), and LOTS of art events. I also hosted the original ArtistsJournals (AJ and AJ2) groups at Yahoo Groups... and a bunch of other stuff.

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