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Juicy Journals & Wild Words

Creating an Artist's Sketchbook

Look at the world through artists' eyes. Find beauty in unexpected places.

By Molly J. Anderson-Childers | Updated September 22, 2018

It is important to take our creative work into new, unexplored territory. In this feature, we will be creative pioneers, taking journaling a step beyond words. We will also discover new ways to combine your words with visual art to create an artist's sketchbook. I know, I know, you're a writer, not an artist. That's what you're saying to yourself. I'm here to tell you that you are dead wrong. Everyone I meet is an artist, even if they don't know it yet, or can't believe it. Take a deep breath, and try to suspend doubt and fear — then, dive in!


You'll need to start with a blank journal or book, with unlined pages and thick, luscious paper. Find something travel-sized, and portable, with a hard cover to add stability when you're creating on the go. Then, you'll need an assortment of artistic tools and materials, depending on the type of media you want to explore. I suggest a portable watercolor set, charcoal sticks or pencils, pastels, pens, colored pencils, and camera, to help you begin to discover photography, painting, and drawing.

If you are interested in creating collages, you'll need a glue-stick, glitter (always a must!), and found objects collected throughout your travels. This can include, but should not be limited to, objects found in nature like leaves, stones, and feathers; ticket stubs; subway tokens; coins; keys; cancelled stamps culled from junk mail; words or pictures torn from magazines; favorite quotes and poetry; a few scribbled words from your journal. Maps, doodles, photos, menus, postcards, and souvenirs can also be a fabulous addition to a collage. Don't forget a pretty yellow aspen leaf, a rose petal, a sand dollar from that trip to the beach. A fern, curled delicately and pressed between the pages, is an elegant and simple touch. You can collect these items in a pouch, your pocket, or even an envelope glued inside the back cover of your sketchbook.

Look at the world through artists' eyes. Find beauty in unexpected places. Take your sketchbook along to a favorite coffee shop; draw the customers, the mugs, the chairs. On your lunch break from work, take it to a park and paint. Go to a bar and sketch the sketchy characters and small-time hustlers you find there. Doodle at work, or when you're on the phone. Go wild! The point is not to be good, or even proficient, right away. The point is to do it, to practice. Nothing ever comes out just perfect the first time, unless you are supremely lucky — the rest of us have to work at it, to rehearse a few times before we take the stage with a top-notch performance. There is no shame in this; but it can be an almighty lot of hard work.

That's what they don't tell you in school. That does not mean that it is drudgery, or back-breaking manual labor… it only means that it may take time and practice to draw, paint, sculpt — or do any type of creative work — well. Many times, I have finished a session of writing or painting and, at the end of it, felt as if I'd spent a few hours pushing a heavy rock uphill. This means I have worked hard, worked well. That I have been haunted by the Muse again. While I'm doing it, time flies; I don't notice the crick in my neck, or the cramp in my hand, or that I need a drink of water. But afterwards, as I stretch and ache a little, I smile. I have put many words to the page, created a collage, made a painting where before, there was only blank paper… and most days, the joy of that is enough to carry me through the darkest times. Don't be afraid of hard work. It is amazing what you can do when you really push yourself. We should all push ourselves a little further than we ever dreamed we could go from time to time. Dare to amaze and surprise yourself. When you draw a hand that actually looks like a hand, or paint a mysterious landscape you adore for the first time, all that work will have been worth it.

That said, it is equally important to pace yourself. You can't work, push yourself to the limit all the time. A lot of great artists die this way; burn out like supernovas. It's a fabulous way to go, no denying that — but, if you want to stick around for a little longer, you must balance hard work with luscious leisure time. Go ahead, you deserve it! Play. Goof off. Take long lonely walks, by a river if possible. Be patient and compassionate with yourself as often as you can manage to be. Take lots of naps. Don't be afraid to call in sick and take a day off, completely to yourself, once in awhile. Treat yourself to a pedicure and a massage at least once a year. Wander through galleries, libraries, museums, bookshops stuffed with secondhand treasures. Go outside and play.

In the spirit of play, try this…

Walk the forgotten streets of your town, without a dog or a book or an array of personal telecommunication devices to distract you… just look around, feel the rhythm of your steps on the sidewalks, a camera or sketchbook your only companion. When you see something amazing, stop to snap a few pictures or make a quick sketch of your neighbor's pink lawn flamingos; a husky pup with one blue eye and one brown eye, panting hello; a beautiful birdhouse; a cool blue garden. Later, at home, use the sketches and photos as the inspiration for your next short story, poem, or free-write. You can also incorporate them into a collage.

Write a poem, or even just one word, in the center of a blank page. Get creative; try different lettering techniques to make each letter a work of art. Then, using paints, pastels, or colored pencils, create a border for your words. Flowering vines, Celtic knots, doodles, animals, or just random abstract scribblings and shapes are some of my favorites. Or, use found objects like a button, a key, a coin, some glitter, fortunes from fortune cookies, and the ticket stub from a matinee movie to create a collaged border if you're feeling really brave.

Draw the view from your bedroom window, your back porch, your favorite seat by the window at a diner. Draw your car, your best blue coffee mug; the little ordinary things that make up a life. Draw your feet, your hands (this is nearly impossible, but it is good to practice doing nearly impossible things). Draw a silly picture of your cat playing with a paper bag. Try caricatures, cartoons, comic strips, doodles, sketches, portraits, a still life, landscapes real and imagined. Try everything, at least once.

Write a haiku, then draw something that relates to the imagery and mood of the poem. If, for example, you have written about red maple leaves falling in autumn and sadness, draw a sad little red maple leaf, whirling to the ground to await winter's cold embrace. Or, if possible, find some red leaves, and scatter them across the page. Glue them in place with a glue stick, then add a layer of Mod-Podge, shellac, or even hairspray over the leaves once the glue has set, to protect them and keep the color from fading. Create a border with twigs and flat stones.

Glue a shell or leaf onto a new page, centered, near the top. Then, using colored pencils, attempt to reproduce it exactly, on the opposing page, so they are side by side. Beneath this, write a poem, story, or simply journal or free-write. In a smaller journal, a single word or phrase may be used. Hope. Joy. Regret. Wonder. Artist.

In closing, I implore you — don't wait for someone else to give you the nod. You don't need anyone else's permission to express yourself — write your own permission slip and paste it into the front cover of your sketch book right now. If it feels scary at first, or at any point along your artistic journey, you are not alone. Everybody's scared. What separates the true artist from the common herd is that fear does not stop them from doing what they must do; saying what they must say; telling the truth that cuts to the bone. Use your fear; defy it, and let it spur you on. If you're not scared some of the time you are not digging deeply enough. Go deeper. Tap the vein. You will find dark treasures there.

Next: Creating a Nature Journal

©2008 Molly J. Anderson-Childers. All rights reserved.