Art Journals v. Artist’s Journals

Art journaling or artists journals - the art matters more than the words“Art journals” and “artists journals” are (usually) the same thing.

They’re your personal, illustrated journals, and the illustrations are artsy, usually created by hand.

For me, an artist’s journal is an illustrated diary or journal representing the individual.

It’s about the person’s view of life – like a daily diary or any journal you write in.

The journal may have a specific focus, such as a travel journal, or a diet & fitness journal.

Or not.

It usually includes art… and, for some, the journal is a work of art, itself.

Sample Artist’s Journal Page

Below, you can see a page from one of my early, 2002 artist’s journals. It’s a collage I created when I was coping with an impending divorce. The original is about 6″ x 9″.

Artists journal page, 2004

Some artists include arts & crafts ideas in their artist’s journals & diaries. Some keep a separate art journal.

When I’m deeply involved in graphic arts, my art journal is separate. It’s where I keep notes about art I’m working on or might want to create later.  It includes visual inspiration – photos, articles, etc. – as well as my own scribbled notes, thumbnail sketches, etc.

It’s sort of my pre-art brainstorming, in a journal format.

Sample Art Journaling Pages

Art journal page showing inspirationAt left is a page from one of my 2011 art journals.

The page included photos from a magazine.

On that page, you may see a tiny pencil sketch at the lower center of the page.

That’s my initial thumbnail concept for a later painting.

Those photos & notes inspired the oil sketch shown below. The original is an oil painting on 16″ x 20″ canvas. (It’s a scene related to an Anasazi settlement.) The photo below shows the painting, when it was in-progress.

Anasazi painting


But… Not Just Paintings

I use an art journal as my on-paper memory of inspiration and original ideas.  It’s sort of a visual thumb drive of art ideas, for later use.

If I don’t jot down my ideas in a journal, they’ll vanish from my thoughts in a matter of days, if not hours.  I tend to have a steady stream of creative ideas, and one soon replaces another in my consciousness.

For me, it’s part of the creative process.

People often ask me where I get my original art ideas. Well, I’m not sure that they’re entirely “original,” but they are fresh and new, if only to me.

Where the Ideas Come From

Here’s a typical sequence: I start looking at social media & websites to see what other artists are currently working on.

That’s curiosity. I’m not looking for ideas to copy… just “ooh, isn’t that cool!” inspiration.

It might be a color combination that surprises me. Or a way of mixing textures, like gold leaf and sandpaper or bubble wrap.

When an art idea occurs, I note it in my art journal. I try to include everything that inspired me, with detailed comments explaining what and why it sparked an idea.

If all I do is note the website URL or a page in a book… well, a week or two later, I might have no idea why I thought that webpage or artwork was so inspiring. Carpe diem! 

For example, I once viewed a website called The Starving Artist’s Way, which included a project using second-hand woolen sweaters that had been washed and dried to shrink them in a “felted” style.

I didn’t think much more about that – not on a conscious level, anyway – but later in the day, after a nap, I woke up thinking about what else I could do with that kind of wool.

Another Art Journaling Page – Felt Ideas

While the thoughts were still fresh in my mind–and evolving–I jotted them down in my art journal. These are my two pages of notes:

Ideas for a felted jacket - art journaling

In a nutshell, I was thinking about the kinds of wearable art that I could make with felted-style wool.

(Geek note: It’s not actually “felted” wool when you wash & dry woven/knitted/etc. wool to shrink it. It’s called “fulled” wool. Felting is when you use the raw fibers and a tool to tangle and/or compact them.)

This merged with the Mondrian art that I was reminded of when I was playing a weird (really juvenile humor) online game, Kingdom of Loathing.

And, once I started jotting down these ideas, I remembered when I used to make stained glass windows. Those patterns would adapt nicely to this kind of wool treatment, too.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever actually do anything with this idea. I get a bazillion of these ideas, steadily.

What Do You Do With All the Ideas?

If you’re like most artists, you’ll never have enough hours in the day to follow-through with all your creative ideas.

That’s okay.

Sometimes, your journal is where you record the creative spark. A week, a month, or ten  years later, you may go back to that page and the idea develops new depth.

And then it becomes a finished work of art. Or at least a creative exercise, to stretch your sense of style, materials, or techniques.

No creative impulse or idea is ever wasted. Sooner or later, they all contribute to your art, your life, or both. You may not see this in a direct, connect-the-dots way. But, looking back, you might. (I believe it’s there, whether it’s obvious or not.)

Why I Often Share My Art & Journaling Ideas

Back in 2004, I scanned the pages from my some of my art ideas journals,and put them into a (printed & mailed) art zine.

At the time, a few people thought that was a crazy thing to do. Why would I share something so unique to me and my work…?

(Well, hey, I was one of the first people with a blog, back in an era when it seemed utterly mad to write about your personal life, online. So, sharing my thoughts with the world is a long-time  tradition. It feels natural to me. So I still do it.)

For me, that zine documented where my ideas came from. It demonstrated my creative process, from the spark that started it, to the visual ingredients that transformed it, and then the materials & techniques that completed it.

Second – and more importantly – I like sharing ideas so that someone else might be inspired by them and adapt the concepts (or copy it line-for-line, which is fine) to his or her own art.

It’s a myth that lots of artists shamelessly copy each other. We don’t. We just see the same kinds of images in our everyday lives – on TV, online, in new books, in the changing seasons, etc. – and they can spark similar art projects.

So, I hope this article explains why some people call it “art journaling,” and others use the term “artists’ journals.”  Sometimes they’re the same thing. Sometimes, they describe slightly different kinds of journals.

You can call your artsy journals either one, or both, or make up your own phrase. It’s your art. It’s your expression.

Creativity matters more than the words!

Saving Paper Images for Your Collage Art

Art journaling can involve a lot of paper.

Saving and organizing paper images for collage artAfter all, you’re saving collage photos, papers and ephemera. It can add up, quickly.

Keeping it organized… that’s always a challenge. And, some systems work better in different settings.

For example, a system that fits under your bed will be different from one in a filing cabinet.

Other ideas: (Links will take you to Amazon, so you can see what I’m talking about.)

  • An accordian file. It’s easy to tote to workshops. But, be sure you can actually see everything in each section. Also, it can be inconvenient to reorganize your files… like by color instead of topic, or vice versa.
  • A ring binder with page protectors. You could have different notebooks for different categories (size, color, topic). The page protectors will get a lot of use, so I recommend heavy duty ones. (Even then, they’ll tear after a while.) Each page protector can hold up to four sheets of full-sized paper… or a lot more bits, torn or cut from larger pages.
  • Flat boxes. You can recycle cardboard boxes you received in the mail – like shipments from Amazon. If you do this, I recommend adding some type of closure on the top of the box, so the lid/opening stays flat. That could be anything from Velcro closures, to a string-and-button closure. (Bonus: You can collage or paint the outside of the box.)

Here’s one system that works well for me. It might help you, too.

Step One: Sort collage elements by themes

I save my collage elements – especially magazine photos – by color, in manila folders. I start with the major color groups (red, blue, green, etc.) and then expand (lime green, turquoise, etc.) as my collection of saved images becomes too large for anything simpler.

I include all kinds of papers in my folders. So, when I want something blue, I open my “blue” folder and I’ll see my primarily blue magazine images, but also blue tissue paper, maybe some bits of blue ribbons or fabrics that I intend to use in collage, and so on.

A collage from an art journalOf course, my collages are usually more color-driven than image-driven, per se. So, organizing by color makes sense to me. (If you’re not familiar with my torn-paper collages, you’ll see many of them online at

For someone else, it might make more sense to organize by other themes, instead of (or in addition to) by colors.

Your categories might be “faces” or even more specifically, “women’s smiling faces,” etc. Or, “dark-looking castles,” “cute cottages,” “kissing,” “fast cars,” “vintage images,” or whatever.

Step Two: Store the folders in a big portfolio

All of my manila folders are stored in one large, flat old-fashioned artist’s portfolio. I bought it at a traditional fine-art supply store, years ago, and it’s still almost like new. (I’m not seeing anything exactly like it at Amazon.)

Mine is one those huge, black folders made from heavy cardboard, that tie at the top and sides with cotton tabs.

Modern ones are usually cloth, vinyl or leather. Some have shoulder straps, which are convenient if you attend classes and workshops. Just be sure the portfolio is large enough for your needs.

Collaging or painting the outside of that big, cardboard portfolio is optional.

You may prefer a portfolio that’s easier to carry and comes in a color. But, any good, big portfolio will work fine.

In my studio, my portfolio fits horizontally on top of my chest of drawers.

That’s the same chest of drawers that holds my fabric art and mixed media supplies… like my iron, fusible webbing, frequently-used fabrics like muslin, etc.

(It’s a small chest of drawers that fits underneath my sewing table. So, the big collage supplies folder is pretty much hidden unless I’m looking for it.)

You can also hide the folder under a bed, behind a door, between or in back of bookcases, and so on.

What Works for You?

I’ve tried many organizing systems for my stacks of wonderful papers and collage images. For collage materials I’ve already selected for future use, this has worked the best for me.

If you have suggestions, or another systems that works well for you, I hope you’ll leave a comment at this site, to share your ideas with others.

Composition Book Artists Journals

Using composition books as artists journalsA composition book art journal is any journal that’s kept in a composition book.

Those are generally school-type, saddle-sewn (along the crease) notebooks with cardboard covers… similar to exam/test booklets, but a little more permanent.

Composition books are inexpensive.

So, many people like them especially for informal journaling. It feels less intimidating to use a journal that doesn’t cost much, and is familiar from our years in school.

They’re affordable, so you can buy several.

Put one in your car, one in the baby bag, one by your bed, and so on. Then, you’re ready to create a journal page when you have some free time.

These journals are so inexpensive, you can rip completed pages out and bind them into your more formal artist’s journal.

(“Binding” a loose page can be as easy as taping it into your other journal. Or, you can glue it, sew it, staple it, etc.)

Mead composition book for art journalingComposition books usually have lots of lined pages in them… as many as 100. They come in a variety of sizes, but the traditional ones are about 8″ x 10″ or so. The traditional ones often have a b&w cover that looks sort of marbleized.

You can also find composition books with red covers, plain manila covers, green covers, ornate covers, and so on. You may want to choose one with a color that reminds you of your childhood. (But, the color may not matter if you’re going to cover it with art anyway.)

Also, it’s easy to embellish the cardboard covers. I’d still use something (such as fusible interfacing) on the back so that threads don’t pull through, but you can sew through the cardboard with a crewel needle. Then, you can embroider on it, add beads & buttons, etc., in addition to other embellishments.

(For more about sewing on your journal pages and covers, see Sewing on Journal Pages.)

Sewing Onto Your Journal Pages

You can sew embellishments onto your paper journal pages.

You can use any page in a book as if it’s fabric (to sew on, for example) by using iron-on interfacing on the back side of the page.

I’m talking about interfacing that is smooth on one side, and the back of it has an iron-on adhesive that melts when exposed to extreme heat.

First, cut it to size. Generally, I cut it slightly smaller than the dimensions of the book page… maybe 1/16″ smaller.

Then, iron that interfacing onto the back side of the page, the same as you would iron interfacing onto fabric. It won’t always stick 100%, but it will work well enough that you can sew through it.

(If you try to embroider or sew beads onto regular pages in a book, the thread tends to pull right through the paper, if the thread is tugged.)

Sewing to Embellish an Art Journal Cover

You can do the same thing with your journal cover. A strong crewel embroidery needle will usually sew through cardboard… but you’ll probably need a thimble to push the needle through.

Mixed media art journal coverYou can then embroider with embroidery floss, yarn, thin ribbon, etc. You can add buttons, beads, and so on, too.

At left, you can see one of my journal covers I’ve embellished with sewn-on buttons. Most of the buttons are just for decoration.

But, the biggest button is part of the journal closure.

When the journal is not in use, a string of hemp (secured to the back cover) is wrapped around the button on the front cover to hold the journal pages closed.

Concealing the Messy Back of the Page (or Journal Cover)

After you’ve finished your sewing (or other embellishment), you can glue a page or fabric over the ironed-on interfacing, so your stitches are concealed.

Or, you could cover the interfacing side with more paper… maybe a collage.

Sometimes, if I’m sewing many pages in a book, I’ll buy a second copy of the same book. Then,  I can glue a “backing” page that matches the one I’d covered with interfacing.

In other words, the un-embellished side of the page will look like it would have, if I hadn’t covered the original with interfacing. (Pop-up stores selling discounted books – at bargain prices – can be ideal for this.)

You’ll find iron-on interfacing at any fabric shop. It’s usually kept in a bin or on shelving next to where they cut fabric yardage for you.

Fusible Alternatives

You can also iron-on Stitch Witchery or another fusible adhesive. That gives you the option of sticking something wonderful on the other side… interfacing isn’t all that interesting.

For example, you could fuse an actual piece of fabric to the paper page. Or part of a favorite (but worn out) item of clothing. Or, print artwork or an image on fabric, and apply it.

Whatever you choose to support your art journal pages, you can sew onto those pages. It’s easy!

What’s an Artist’s Journal?

Artist’s journals are illustrated diaries and journals on any theme.

When people talk about “art journaling,” that’s what they’re doing… putting art into a diary or journal.

Yes, it’s that simple.

A travel journal page, heavily embellishedAn artist’s journal – or art journal – can be any visual record of your daily thoughts, a travel journal, or an exercise or diet diary.

It could be a dream journal, a place where you jot down your goals or to-do lists, or… well, almost any record that you’d like to keep in a book or notebook.

They become “artist’s journals” when you add any kind of art, illustration or embellishment to the pages.

Rainbow colors divider

Above, on this page,  is a travel journal page I created after visiting “The Nubble” lighthouse in York, Maine (USA).

It’s a mixed media work, combining sketches, photos, beach glass, shells, and driftwood from that journey.

The original is part of a 9″ x 12″ spiral-bound sketchbook. And yes, with shells, feathers, and driftwood, that art (and travel) journal is very thick and bulky.

When I look at it, or touch it, that page brings back happy memories.