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.

Wax Paper and Artists Journals

Two pages from an artist's journalI love wax paper. It’s always among my basic journaling supplies.

I use it any time I need to protect pages that include glue, water media, or anything sticky.

When I travel, I pre-cut sheets of wax paper, and tuck them into the back of my journal.  (Usually, I use a rubber band or a binder clip to hold them at the back of my journal, and remove them – one at a time – to use them.)

Why Wax Paper?

Wax paper can be a vital tool if you’re keeping an art journal. Wax paper can separate damp art journal pages – after they’ve been painted or collaged – so they don’t stick together.

I carry wax paper with me when I travel, so I can work on several journal pages in a row, and not wait for pages to dry completely.

Photo of waxed paper.Wax paper has many great features:

  • Wax paper is inexpensive.
  • It’s slightly porous (so the pages dry underneath). In other words, the air can get through.
  • It’s super-easy to use.
  • Wax paper is environmentally friendly.
  • You can often use the same sheet two or three times before throwing it away.

You’ll find wax paper at the grocery store, in the aisle with foil and plastic (cling) wrap. In the States, the leading brand is Reynolds’ Cut-Rite wax paper. That’s it in the photo, above. The package is about the same size as a roll of foil or plastic (cling) wrap.

Sometimes it’s half-hidden on the bottom shelf. In other areas, wax paper is a popular product for use with microwave ovens, so you’ll find wax paper more prominently displayed.

Regular wax paper is generally not recyclable. The wax surface (often made with petroleum products) is considered a “mixed” paper product.  I have not yet tried any of the recyclable wax papers (like “If You Care” brand wax paper) with my artists journals.

How to cut wax paper for art journalingWhen I’m separating journal pages with wax paper, I try to let each page dry so it’s only damp, not wet. (Sometimes I have no choice.  If the page is really sticky and I can’t wait for it to dry at all, I have to hope for the best.)

Then, I place the journal so the pages are as flat as possible.

After that, I cut or tear the wax paper so each piece is slightly larger than the journal page it will protect. An extra half-inch on each side is usually enough.

The key to success is not to allow much weight or pressure on damp pages. In other words, the wax paper should practically float on the damp page. Don’t press it onto the page.

Wax Paper and Gesso

Generally, I gesso five or six pages at a time. I’ve successfully gesso’d up to eight pages at a time.

However, I’m usually working with spiral-bound sketchbooks. They’re generally my favorite journals.

If I was working with a regular, bound journal, I’d watch carefully to see how much the binding “pulls” the pages back together. I might have to work with just two pages at a time.

(Big binder clips can come in handy if the binding on the journal is really tight. Clip the dry pages together – in separate bunches, if necessary – and that should take some of the pressure off binding, keeping the damp pages apart.)

Remember, wax paper is not 100% reliable when you want to keep wet pages apart.  If your journal page is the most perfect thing you’ve ever created, and you’d be devastated if it was damaged… well, stop journaling until that page has dried completely.

From my experience, wax paper sticks about 10 – 15% of the time. Sometimes, that’s a disaster. More often, it’s an opportunity to add more art & embellishments.

I may collage over those pages later, since the surface of the page is already a bit distressed.

Or, I may leave them “as-is” to reflect the creative process.

It all depends upon how they look when the page is dry, and I take a fresh look at it.

Wax Paper in Different Climates

I’ve used wax paper when I’ve gesso’d in airplanes (very dry air) and – at the other extreme – in sultry, humid Houston.

I have slightly better success with wax paper when the air is dry and the pages dry more quickly.

If you try wax paper and don’t have much success with it, try gently crushing the wax paper – before you use it – so it holds the pages slightly apart.

Note: It’s important to gently crush the wax paper; if you fold it enough that the wax falls off at the crease, that  may stick to wet paint, gel medium, or gesso.

Wax Paper and Wet Paint

When I want to separate wet, painted journal pages, I’m far more careful with the pages.Wax paper and artists journals

Then, I will separate two pages at the most: The one that I’ve just painted, and the one that I’m currently working on.

I learned that the hard way, when I tried to rush… and several pages stuck together.

So, because wax paper isn’t 100% non-stick, don’t want to risk damage. Separate two pages at a time, at the very most.

Also remember: Less weight or pressure on the wax paper means less risk of sticking.

And, the drier the pages, the better.

Paint is designed to be sticky and adhere to paper.  If it’s so wet that the moisture actually penetrates the wax paper, the results may be disappointing.

Weigh your options carefully. 

Is your freshly painted journal page is the best thing you’ve ever created?

Maybe it’s more important to preserve that, as-is, than rush into the next journal page.

(If you’re in a class and this happens, have a second or third journal with you.  Then, you can keep working while the first journal page dries, and not waste valuable class time.)

Wax Paper and Gel Medium or Collages

Wax paper is best for separating pages with small amounts of wet gel medium or glue on them. However, most gel medium won’t stick to wax paper.

In storage, I also use wax paper to protect every page of my collaged art journals. Then, even during sultry summer heat, the gel medium doesn’t re-soften and stick to the page opposite it.

Think of it this way: We use an iron to “melt” gel medium for image transfers. Likewise, gel medium can become sticky if you store your journals in a hot attic, garage, or other really warm area.

Art journaling - one sheet, two pagesUnlike gel medium, glue can be hit-or-miss with wax paper. It can vary with how wet the glue is, and if the glue contains alcohol or any kind of solvent.  (Alcohol and solvents will dissolve the wax on the wax paper, so it’s useless.)

You can test this ahead of time. Put a blob of the glue on a piece of paper, and place a piece of wax paper on top of it. Press gently, enough so contact occurs.

Then, wait a minute or two and see if the wax paper sticks to the glue. If it does, wax paper won’t protect your journal pages where that glue is wet and exposed.

Wax Paper Alternatives? Maybe.

You may be safe with sheets of foil as separators. I’ve had limited success, and only when I place the shiny side of the foil against the wet surface.

Heavy duty foil would probably be your best choice, especially if you’re planning to use it over & over again.

Or, consider thin sheets of teflon-coated plastic, sold in kitchen supply shops; they were invented to safeguard very sticky cookies, meringues, and so on.

Plastic wrap (cling film) rarely works for this purpose. It tends to stick to paint, gel medium and glue.

Worse, some glues will completely melt the plastic. (I’m not kidding.)

If you have to choose between plastic wrap and nothing between the damp pages, opt for nothing.  Really.

Some plastic wraps – especially the more expensive kinds – are practically guaranteed to stick to your damp pages, prevent them from drying, and never peel off.

Summary

Wax paper is a valuable tool when you’re working with damp pages in your art journal or illustrated diary.

Wax paper isn’t foolproof, but it’s still one of the best and least expensive ways to keep damp pages from sticking to each other.

You’ll have the best luck when you’re working with gel medium. Gesso and glue have a higher “failure” rate with wax paper.

However, in art there are no “failures,” just challenges and opportunities to create new and different art, and to make the most of life’s surprises.

The good news is, wax paper will prevent most damp pages from sticking together.  And, for most of my own journaling, that’s good enough.

Gesso – What It Is and How to Use It

A stack of artists journalsGesso can be a useful option for artists journals as well as painting and mixed media art.

I use gesso often, because I often create heavily embellished pages in my journals.  Gesso adds extra strength to my art journal pages.

If you create heavily embellished pages in your journals, as I do, gesso can provide more support.

However, you don’t have to gesso pages for art journaling.

In fact, most artists never use gesso in their journals. I only suggest it if you’re working with paint, heavy embellishments, or mixed media.

(And, if you’re working with really heavy materials and attachments, you may want to back your pages with fabric.)

What is Gesso?

Gesso is a primer. It looks a lot like paint, and it goes between the surface you’re working on (the support) and whatever you’re using for your artwork.

I use an acrylic gesso. Liquitex is one of my favorites, and it’s inexpensive, too.

Gesso’s Use in Fine Art

Originally, most gesso was white. Artists put it on surfaces such as:

  • Canvas
  • Wood
  • Hardboard (such as masonite, MDF, or plywood)

On wood and hardboard, the gesso is a two-way barrier. It prevents the board from soaking up the paint too much. However, it also prevents any acids, oils or glues from migrating into your finished painting. (The latter could spoil the colors.)

On canvas, gesso prevents the fabric from soaking up the paint. The colors won’t bleed, and you won’t use as much paint.

How This Applies to Artists’ Journals

You may want to gesso some pages if you’re painting in your art journals.  You’ll have more control over the color, and you’ll save money on paint. (Generally, gesso is a lot cheaper than paint is.)

Gesso makes the surface a little stiffer. It can also give the surface more texture (called “tooth”), so the paint sticks better.

Today, gesso comes in many colors. White is still the most popular, but black and colors are also widely used for art journaling and other art. So, the gesso can be part of your finished artist’s journal page, too.

Here’s an example of white letters (rubberstamped) over black gesso, in a composition book journal.

Black gesso art journaling - decluttering quote

 

Gesso is useful for mixed media artwork, too.

For example, when I’m using a cigar box as the support for an art shrine, I almost always cover it with gesso… unless a design on the box is going to be part of the finished shrine.

(Also, some wooden cigar boxes look spectacular if they’re simply polished, so the wood shines.)

Gesso, Paint, and Some Art History

Usually, gesso is thinner and creates a slightly rough surface when you apply it.

Long ago, artists made their own gesso. They mixed calcium – like chalk – in a thin base of animal glue.

When you see religious paintings and icons painted on wooden supports, gesso is probably underneath the artwork. That gave the wood some “tooth” so the paint stuck to it (and didn’t peel off), but it also kept the paint from sinking into the grain of the wood.

Today, that’s exactly why we use gesso on paper. It prevents paint from sinking into the paper, staining the back of the page or even other pages.

Yes, it was rather smelly. It also had to be shaken or stirred regularly, because the chalk quickly settled to the bottom of the mixture.

Traditional Gesso Recipes

I don’t recommend making your own gesso, but if you want to try it, here are a couple of older webpages with recipes:

20th- and 21st-Century Gesso

By the mid-20th century, gesso began to change. In 1955, the first water-based acrylic gesso was created by Liquitex, the paint company. That gesso could be used underneath oil paint and underneath acrylic paint.

In recent years, some artists have questioned whether or not acrylic gesso is the right product to use under oil paint. (I use acrylic gesso on my fine art canvases. So far, so good.)

But, that’s not an issue for most people working in art journals.

(If oil paints are part of your art journaling, discuss this with someone who’s current on this topic. Or, look online for the latest opinions.)

Gesso and Artists Journals

As many of us began to create art journals, we found new uses for acrylic gesso. For example, it’s ideal for use under collages.

Note: The acrylic/oil issue shouldn’t affect journalers who use oil pastels and crayons over acrylic gesso.

However, since the oil in oil paints, oil pastels, and similar products can weaken the paper in your journal, it’s a good idea to treat the paper with a coat of gesso, first.

When I journal, I use white gesso most of the time.

However, I’ve also used black gesso as part of the finished work. Here is an example of a page with black gesso on it. It’s from my Decluttering Journal.

Black gesso art journaling - Declutter pages

 

I used rubberstamp letters (alphabet letters) and an opaque (pigment) white stamp pad. I also added details with a white gel pen. The “tooth” (rough texture) of the black gesso can work well with opaque (pigment) gel pens, such as Sakura Gelly Roll pens.

How to Use Gesso 

Like paint, gesso can get messy if you play with it. So, I usually spread newspaper on the desk, table, or floor where I’m working… just in case.

Shake the gesso container so it’s well mixed. Whether it’s acrylic gesso or traditional gesso, it’s still likely to separate.

Because gesso is water-based, you can use a regular brush to paint it on. I use a sponge brush for fast coverage.

If I’m working with an art journal, I apply a thin coat of gesso to one side of the page. That’s usually enough.

However, if I’ll be using heavy embellishments and the page needs to be very strong, I’ll use gesso on both sides of the page. Depending on how thick the gesso is, I may apply more than one layer to each side of the page.

Remember that the binding of your journal is also subject to wear & tear. Sometimes, especially when it’s a spiral-bound journal, I’ll paint gesso out to the edges of the page, including around the holes where the wire is.

Also, a journal with heavy embellishments will only hold up to a certain amount of page-turning. (In my classes, I often pass around my journals so people can look through them.) I closely watch the condition of my journals, and “retire” them from classroom use when they start to show signs of stress.

Cheap gesso has more water in it and will take longer to dry. If you’re going to apply gesso to the back of the page, too, be sure to let the paper dry completely before painting that second side. Otherwise, you’ll seal in moisture and weaken the paper.

Does Price or Quality Matter?

No two people are likely to agree on this question.

When I’m using white gesso – which is most of the time – I buy whatever’s cheap. It works fine for my art journaling pages.

Gesso and artist's journalsSometimes I buy it in large tubs – like ice cream containers – to save money. As long as you put the lid back on securely, gesso stores well.

Some people prefer a higher-quality gesso. The consistency can be smoother, and a little bit of it can go a very long way. In fact, in actual use, a high-quality gesso can be less expensive – per page covered – than lower-priced gessos.

It’s all a matter of taste. When you’re starting out, I recommend an inexpensive gesso, at least until you decide if you like gesso in your journals.

When I want a colored gesso, especially black gesso, I spend considerably more and shop for very good brands. 

Since that gesso will need to cover white paper, completely – with no dots or streaks of white showing through – it’s important to use a thick, rich gesso.

Tinting Gesso

In addition, I’ve tinted small amounts of cheap white gesso for special projects.

I start with a jar or paper cup that’s partly filled with white gesso. Then, I slowly add coloring until I achieve the color that I want.

Surprising things to color your gesso include…

  • Plain (unsweetened) Kool-Aid
  • Dr. Ph. Martin’s concentrated water colors, added drop by drop to white gesso
  • Cheap watercolor paint drizzled into the gesso
  • Adding acrylic paints to the white gesso

Remember: If your Kool-Aid contains a sweetener, that can attract paper-munching insects and rodents.

Fancy Options

You’ll find a variety of gessos, each created for different kinds of art.

In addition to colored gessos, some companies make a “hard gesso” that goes on thick and can be sanded to a smooth finish.

Although this product would be too heavy for use on regular journal pages, it could be useful on a heavy journal cover or other rigid support.

Gesso powder – calcium carbonate – will mix into acrylic (and other) gessos to make them heavier, thicker, textured, and so on.

Or, you could just mix it directly with paint, for a “chalk paint” effect. For that, you’ll probably mix 2 tablespoons of calcium carbonate with 1 tablespoon of water, until the mixture isn’t lumpy. Then, add that to about 8 ounces of latex paint or acrylic paint.

(If you’re using acrylic paint, try a small amount of all the ingredients, in case you’ll need to dilute the mixture with more water. Cheap, “student grade” acrylics are a better option than thick, professional-grade acrylic paints.)

Summary

  • Gesso is a primer. It helps paint stick to any surface, including paper, cloth or board.
  • Gesso prevents paint from soaking into your journal page.
  • Gesso strengthens paper so that you can apply layers of collage and heavier embellishments.

You don’t have to use gesso, ever. It’s just an extra tool for certain kinds of art journaling.