What’s an Artist’s Journal?

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

An artist’s journal – or art journal – can be a record of your daily thoughts, a travel journal, an exercise or diet diary, 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.

On this page:

This 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.

A debt of gratitude, from journalists

Anne FrankI didn’t realize that the person who’d protected Anne Frank — and, later, her personal journal — had lived so long.

Anne Frank was an icon to many of us, and a shining example of the importance of diaries.  She helped a generation understand what had happened prior to and during World War II.  Instead of it being “something that happened in another country,” there was a face and a life & dreams that we could identify with.

That was important.

From Levine Breaking News’ headlines:

ANNE FRANK PROTECTOR DIES AT 100: Miep Gies, who ensured the diary of Anne Frank did not fall into the hands of Nazis after the teen’s arrest, has died. She was 100. Gies was among a team of Dutch citizens who hid the Frank family of four and four others in a secret annex in Amsterdam, Netherlands, during World War II, according to her official Web site, which announced her death Monday. She worked as a secretary for Anne Frank’s father, Otto, in the front side of the same Prinsengracht building.

As a child, I was tremendously inspired by Anne Frank’s diary.

Many of us — and the journaling and historical communities, in general — owe Miep Gies a debt of gratitude.  What she did was courageous and tremendously forward-thinking.

Additional info & photos: Mail Online newspaper article

Sketchcrawl notes (1) – 11 July 09

My sketchcrawl day started at about 8:30 a.m. when I arrived at Alewife MBTA station.  I’d been on the road for nearly two hours, so it was a relief to park the car and begin the day’s adventures.

My first sketch was on the train.  I decided to take photos at each sketch location — when possible — to document the day in sketches and photos.

Also, like my travel journals, I kept my receipts in my sketchbook, as well.  You can see one of them, below, on the page facing my first sketch.

(The flash increased the contrast.)
(The flash increased the contrast.)
Sketch with felt-tip pens
Sketch with felt-tip pens

I wasn’t entirely happy with the b&w effect of monochrome felt tip pens.  So, when I arrived at the sketchcrawl meetup location (Visitors Ctr at Boston Common), I switched to pencil… and almost immediately regretted it.  I didn’t finish that sketch.

Start of a pencil sketch at Bsn Visitors Ctr

After that, I returned to felt tip pen.  For the line drawing, I was using the waterproof Pigma Micron pen, 08.  However, even though it’s technically waterproof, I let the ink dry thoroughly before adding any color.

Man in Colonial garb on his way to work.
Man in Colonial garb on his way to work.

The next two sketches — on one page — were drawn from the same location as the previous sketch.  Mostly, I was using up time in case any late arrivals for the sketchcrawl showed up.

Man on park bench; people waiting in line.
Man on park bench; people waiting in line.

After that, I walked up towards the State House, following the Freedom Trail route.  Along the way, I paused to sketch a man walking along a tree-covered path. (The photo was taken after the sketch, when the man was out of sight and a woman in yellow was strolling the same path.)

Next, I stopped at the top of the hill, where a man was setting up his beverage stand.

Beverage stand at top of hill
Beverage stand at top of hill
Cool and shady path across Boston Common.
Cool and shady path across Boston Common.
My two sketches
My two sketches

Sketchcrawl notes (2) – 11 July 09

As I left Boston Common, the State House was glistening in the sun.  It’s both majestic and approachable at the same time.  I like that.

My photo of the State House.
My photo of the State House.
A couple of details of the State House, as I listened to a nearby tour.
A couple of details of the State House, as I listened to a nearby tour.
Robert Gould Shaw Memorial
Robert Gould Shaw Memorial

The Shaw Memorial is an amazing work of art, conveying depth with clever use of detailing and perspective.  In shadow, it didn’t photograph well, but I can still remember my mother explaining the art techniques to me, every time we passed this site.

It was time for breakfast, but the nearby BK wasn’t open yet.  I opted for Dunkin’ Donuts… but their credit card machine and ovens were all broken.  I ordered a glazed donut just to have something to eat, but it’s never smart to start the day with that much sugar!

Park Street Church
Park Street Church

My next stop was the church at the corner of Park Street.  I decided to try sketching it from an unusual angle, looking directly up from the sidewalk in front of its door.

A challenging perspective!
A challenging perspective!

My next stop was the Old Granary Burial Ground.  It has wonderful history, and the light and shadow give it a very timeless quality.

Old Granary Burial Ground
Old Granary Burial Ground
My hasty sketch
My hasty sketch

Sketchcrawl notes (3) – 11 July 09

The crowds were increasing, and it was time to find more quiet places to sketch.

King's Chapel -  A Freedom Trail stop
King's Chapel - A Freedom Trail stop
My very hasty sketch of King's Chapel
My very hasty sketch of King's Chapel

King’s Chapel is a lovely old church, and it is still in use for services.  Since it was Saturday, we could visit and spend time sketching.  Suggested donation is $1 to visit, and you’ll receive an interesting brochure explaining the site’s history.

The front of the church looks old and very spiritual.
The front of the church looks old and very spiritual.
I enjoyed sketching inside the chapel, listening to others talk about its history.
I enjoyed sketching inside the chapel, listening to others talk about its history.

By the time I left the chapel and continued along the Freedom Trail, the crowds had increased dramatically.  It became more difficult to find any place to sketch without blocking foot traffic.

So, I visited a few more locations, and found respite at the Arch Street chapel.  I used to go to church there when I was little, and my mother and I were in the city for shopping or a concert.

The Madonna figure in the chapel, with red candles in front of her.
The Madonna figure in the chapel, with red candles in front of her.

After that, I returned to a couple of Freedom Trail sites, hoping the crowds had diminished.  If anything, the sidewalks were more crowded.  At times, I had to step off the curb to keep walking, as tourists stopped to take photos and blocked traffic.

But, everyone was happy.  It was a busy day, but a fun one.  During the day, I think I heard Italian more than any other language, followed by English and then Russian and German.

It was time for lunch, and McDonald’s seemed the simplest — and least crowded — option.

I continued to sketch, and added color to my earlier sketches.  I’d brought all kinds of art supplies with me, but liked watercolor pencils for adding color.

Even fast food offers an opportunity to sketch!
Even fast food offers an opportunity to sketch!

Sketchcrawl Day – 11 July 09

After lunch, the crowds were massive as I approached the USS Constitution.  So, I had to choose between switching to photos or going somewhere else to sketch comfortably.  I chose the former.

These are some of my photos from the remainder of the day.

I love the contrasts in downtown Boston!
I love the contrasts in downtown Boston!
More contrasts - Aged buildings, old lights and new architecture.
More contrasts – Aged buildings, old lights and new architecture.
Boston's Old City Hall
Boston’s Old City Hall
Haymarket - Great bargains!
Haymarket - Great bargains!
One of the Tall Ships - the Picton Castle
One of the Tall Ships - the Picton Castle

The best $1.70 of the day was spent taking the water shuttle (on the T) from Charlestown Navy Yard to Long Wharf. (The one-way fare is just $1.70.  Really.)  The view — including the Picton Castle photo shown above — was incredible, and the cool breezes were wonderful.

Tip: Get shuttle tickets early if you’re there for a Tall Ships event.  I stood in line for over an hour.  It was definitely worthwhile, but next time I’ll purchase my tickets in the morning, before the crowds arrive.

Artfest 2004 Collaborative Journal – 1

These are scanned pages of a round-robin style art journal created for Artfest 2004. It is one of two similar (but unique) journals.

Participants included: Lisa Guerin, DaNelle Haynes, Tammie Moore, Rhonda Scott, Sabrina Molinar, Shannon Breen, Rose Bedrosian, Jill Haddaway, and me, Aisling D’Art.

After I scanned the art in this journal, it was on its way to Carol McGoogan, the next participant. Then it continued throughout the list.

The pages go from left to right in the table below.


Continued on the next page: Artfest 2004 Collaborative Journal – 2

How to Use Rubbings in Your Art Journals

There are many ways to use rubbings.  Play!  Let your ingenuity run wild!

click to see larger

Rubbings can illustrate your journal — do rubbings of everything as you travel. Try rubbing:

  • Brass plaques and historical markers
  • texturing on benches
  • braille plaques in many public buildings
  • chair backs
  • cobblestones
  • coins and tokens
  • doorknobs and related hardware–remember to rub your hotel room key if it’s not a card
  • floor or sidewalk art – particularly brass art/plaques embedded in some airport walls and floors
  • interesting wall texturing–created to reduce noise–in subways and other public settings
  • numbers on houses/buildings
  • part of a drain cover (manhole cover)
  • raised designs on walls
  • seat number tags, if you go to the theatre, ballet or opera
  • and, textured wallpaper, ceilings, and door & window trim.

Many food packages have an embossed quality, especially tins.

With very thin paper and soft pastels, you can do a rubbing of the texture that remains in the sand after the tide goes out. Using different colors, you can overlap the wavy lines by moving the paper.

(The paper will be fragile when it’s wet, so handle very carefully. If the sand is moist, you can put plastic wrap or a cheap plastic poncho between the sand and your paper.)

You can use them for text. Get a Dymo (raised letters imprinted on tape) label tool (less than $10 at Wal-Mart, in the stationery section) and print words on the tape. Use them for rubbings. (Save them–mounted on dominoes or other small, flat surfaces–to use again later, or to share in a class.)

If a rubbing would be backwards–for example, if you do a rubbing of a rubber stamp–you can rub with a very dark color on tracing vellum, and then display it “upside down” (looking through the vellum) with a white or very light background as contrast for the rubbing.

Small rubbings, particularly of three-dimensional art, can be ideal for use in shrines.

You can scan your rubbings and manipulate them, adding more images with your computer graphics program. On the right in the example above, I placed Edgar Allen Poe’s face over a gravestone ornament rubbing.

Or, you could put a rubbing of an historical marker in the center of a collage with photos from that site.

The ways that you use rubbings are limited only by your ingenuity. Try rubbings today, and see what great ideas you discover!

How to Collage in Your Art Journals (revised)

The following article was updated from my earlier article of the same name. As part of the 2020 site merge (including ArtistsJournals.com), I need to merge the best of both articles, but – for now – both include good information.

art journal collage

art journal collage

art journal collage

Collage is an easy way to add art to your diary or journal.

For years, I started each day with a quick collage, the same as I used to create my “morning pages”  inspired concepts in the book, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

For me, collages are a more visual version of “morning pages.”

I usually allow a half an hour for each collage, but sometimes go back several times throughout the day to add things.

The process starts with the determination that, whether it’s good art or not, there will be a collage when I’m finished!


Usually, I just work on the pages in a spiral-bound sketchbook, just as they are.

Sometimes I’ll gesso a few pages my journal, ahead of time. Then they are strong enough to support heavily embellished collages here & there.

I’ll leave a few pages for writing, then allow two or three pages that are left blank for collage. That forces me to avoid having an all-text journal.

In an average journal, I’ll gesso five to ten pages that I plan to use for painted, ornate or heavy collages.


Remember that gesso is entirely optional. In fact, most people don’t use it at all.

I use any gesso that’s cheap, from the fine art supplies section of Michael’s or any art supply store.

Gesso makes the paper stronger, so it doesn’t suck up the glue or paint so much, and it has “tooth” to grab whatever I apply to it. I buy cheap white gesso.

Yes, you can buy it in colors, but if you start with white, you can add color to it (in small batches) with watercolors (including Dr. Ph. Martins), acrylics, even food coloring or unsweetened KoolAid if you like! But I’m happy working with white, usually.

Now and then, I use black gesso for art journal pages on which I’ll stamp text in white, or use a white gel pen.

art journal collage

For more information about gesso, see my other article, Gesso – What it is, how to use it


I have images stored in folders, kept in a heavy cardboard portfolio, to use when I want to do a collage.

I also keep a stack of magazines & newspapers on hand for my collage work. I’ll grab whatever images, words, and phrases strike my fancy at that very moment.

If they connect somehow, great.

If they’re completely disrelated, that’s okay too. It usually makes sense to me when I put it all together, in the context of my thoughts at the time.

My favorite magazines for collage include the fashion magazine,  W, because it includes great images, heavy paper, and very large words and phrases that show up nicely on my pages.

I also like glossy magazines such as National Geographic, because the colors are great, the images are unusual, and–since the pages are clay-based–I can use the magazine for image transfers.

(I’ll talk about that at another time. It’s a more complicated collage and embellishment technique.)


I love layers in my work. For this reason, I’m very big on using colored tissue paper. I use Golden Gel Medium (soft/gloss) for the adhesive, and when the tissue paper is saturated with the gel medium, it remains translucent after it dries.

However, the gel medium will make the paper buckle sometimes. I like that, because I’m very process-oriented. I’m not interested in a collage that looks pre-printed.

The buckling and extra glops of gel medium work for me, but I know that not everyone likes the buckled-paper look.

I apply the gel with a sponge brush. I often forget to rinse them, so they’ll be used just once or twice, and I stock up on the cheapo ones (10 – 15 cents each during Michael’s store sales) regularly.


While the page dries, I’ll place a piece of waxed paper over it so I can turn the page and either write or do another collage. If it’s facing another gel’d page, I’ll keep waxed paper between the pages for a week or two until the gel is fully cured.

Otherwise, the gel remains tacky enough to stick to the facing page.

For more about using wax paper when creating art, see my article,
Wax paper and art journals.


I also highlight some of my work with different types of leafing… gold, copper, etc. I adhere it with gel medium, too. Don’t get caught up in using the most/only perfect adhesive for the job; gel medium works well for almost anything.

When it won’t hold, I use Household Goop!

art journal collage
For some of my work, I think in terms of other means to attach stuff.

On a “hurting” day, a band-aid may hold an image in place. And there are grommets, paper clips, straight pins, safety pins, and so on. Think beyond tradition and rules!

Most completed journals won’t fully close

I never fret because an item means that the journal won’t close nice & flat.

Frankly, by the time I get done with the gel medium on lots of pages, the whole thing is so buckled that it hasn’t a chance of closing nice OR flat, ever again!

I may sew a button to the front cover of the journal, and a piece of string (I like hemp twine) or ribbon attached with a grommet to the back cover, so I can tie the journal closed when I carry it around or shelve it.

These collages are exciting to me, because I never know how they’ll turn out until I start putting the random bits of paper together and realize what the internal message is. It’s sort of like bringing what’s deep inside me, forward.


I hope to teach more journaling classes in the future, because I have a bazillion techniques to share.  Sometimes it’s best when people can actually SEE how this works, and experiment, hands-on.

But I love collage and I love journaling, and what I learn about myself and others in the process.

More? You’ll find additional notes on collage techniques in my Insight Shrines class handouts and in my letter to Erin about art/journaling.