Why you should be journaling your creative sessions (+ tips for starting your own journal)

Do you keep an art journal? I’ve got a little black book that I use for recording my art activities. I was inspired to start it after years of keeping a knitting journal for recording my yarn adventures, what I liked and didn’t like about my knitting projects or the yarn I used or how the project turned out.

The art journal works the same way. One day I got frustrated with the way my painting was turning out, and I thought it would be helpful if I could figure out why. I knew I liked painting with that particular brand of paint, so what was it that was making me unhappy with this particular project?

I couldn’t get into the “flow”, and after taking a break from the studio I couldn’t find the motivation to go back and finish the work. There wasn’t anything else going on in my life, it was just the idea of finishing that painting that was stopping me.

Personally, when I get out of my creative habit, I find that the rest of my life suffers. I create because it adds meaning to my life. There’s nothing like getting fully immersed in a project to the point where you aren’t even aware of anything else going on.
But it’s natural to feel uninspired, unmotivated and downright frustrated at times. When this happens, it’s helpful to have something that provides direction.

For me, that’s my art journal.

Why keep a journal?

Many years ago, I knitted an awful green sweater for myself. I was trying to use up some wool that I originally bought for a blanket. I knew the color wasn’t best for me, but I thought I could wear the sweater around the house, at the least.

Well I really struggled with that stupid sweater. The cables weren’t coming out right and the arms were too short, and it generally looked messy. I ended up throwing the unfinished work into the bottom of my knitting bin in frustration and I haven’t looked twice at it since. But that ended up being a good thing because it got me searching for solutions to why I was having difficulties, and in that search I discovered knitting journals.

So I started my own knitting journal, and now I use it regularly to figure out what kinds of yarn work well with certain types of projects and what needle sizes to use with different weights of yarn. I also record how I feel when I’m working on a project. Was it fun or tedious? Would I make another one? If so, what would I change?

It’s been very helpful to my knitting progress. Which is why, when one day I was ready to tear up a watercolor painting I’d been working on, I thought keeping an art journal would be equally beneficial.

And it has! Writing down how I feel about the art I make has turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done to keep myself motivated. I no longer have to question whether an experiment will work, I can look in my journal to see if I’ve tried something similar and get a better idea of what the outcome will be. My journal has done a lot to boost my confidence with my materials and has helped me relax when it comes to my techniques.

It’s also been helpful at times when I’m in between projects and wondering what to make next. My journal is really the best guide when it comes to inspiration, because I can easily see what projects have given me the most satisfaction. And it can be used for all kinds of creative sessions, from writing novels to rehearsal practices to making pottery…the applications are endless!

How to make an art journal

An art journal doesn’t have to be fancy, although you can certainly make it as pretty as you like! Mine is just a simple notebook because I don’t want anything to stop me from writing in it. It sits right next to my painting space so that I don’t have to search for it. I’ve made it ridiculously easy to use so that I really have no excuse not to, and I highly recommend you do the same.

It’s generally wise to date your entries. I’ve found that my likes and dislikes change over time, so even though I may have disliked a particular type of ink four years ago, I might give it another chance today, especially if I know that, for example, I’m using a different paper that might give me different results.

I’ve thought about using a table format, instead of writing out my thoughts, but I tend to be verbose (bet you couldn’t tell from my blogs, hehehe) so the diary method works best for me. Use what works for you, because the most important part of this is to record the information. You can change your format at any time!

But what do I write?

My typical entries are written out:

Made a small pen and ink drawing in the sketchbook of a still life. It was fun. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy hatching with a nib pen.


Tried an 8×10 portrait with Inktense blocks today. It was awful. I had the worst time trying to figure out what colors would work, and then the ink layers dried so quickly that I couldn’t get the skin tones to look right.

It’s important to jot down the supplies you used in the session as well as the way you felt while creating. I recommend that you do it right away when you are finished with your work for the day. If you wait until the next time, what you’re feeling now may be colored by the feelings you’re experiencing then.

I’ve found it useless to wait until the end of my project to write in the journal. Recently, I finished an iris painting that turned out nicely, but only after struggling the entire time I was creating it. I don’t want to have the same problems next time. Had I not spent a few minutes each day recording what I was having troubles with, I might have forgotten them entirely when trying the same kind of technique in the future and gotten equally frustrated. At least now I can look back at my notes and figure out what to do differently!

I especially like recording why I liked or disliked something I did. But that info is useless without knowing what I was doing, so my entry always starts with “Worked on a (something) with (supplies)”. Then I add how I felt about it.

Another thing to consider is the impact that the rest of your life is having on your creativity. Are relationship troubles at the forefront of your mind? Is stress getting to you? Did something happen that’s making you feel excited or depressed?

These are things to note because they could be affecting your motivation. For example, it wasn’t just that the paint brush was losing hairs on the canvas, maybe I simply couldn’t deal with an old paint brush that day because my best friend was getting married and I was too excited to focus. In truth, it could be one of the best brushes I’ve ever had, but my adrenaline rush caused me to treat it badly while painting. I need to keep that in mind when writing up my session practice that day!

6 thoughts to consider for a journal entry

I’ve composed six thoughts that I use for journaling guidance into a 5×7 inch card (below) that you can print and keep in your journal. If, while writing, you just can’t think, try using one of these questions for inspiration.

Journaling is for you!

If you record your feelings about your work every time you end a creative session, you’ll soon have a reference to turn to when you feel frustrated, a personalized source of direction that can help guide you into new creative paths. So start turning the negative experiences into something positive – grab a notebook and start your journal!

A journaling habit helps you discover things about your creativity that you might never realize otherwise

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