For quite some time now I have been meaning to share a summary of my Art Journals talk with you!



When looking up art journals on blogs or social media it’s easy to be impressed, overwhelmed and even uninspired by the offerings of what an ‘art journal’ should look like. Instead, I looked at 5 modern artists from the past 100 years who approach something resembling an ‘art journal’ from a variety of angles, to see what I could learn from their techniques, and to assess how influential journaling was personally to these artists.

While we refuse to organize the confusions within us we will never have an objective understanding of what is happening outside. Anaïs Nin


Anaïs Nin (1903 – 1977) reminded us how journals are a powerful way of committing to paper and organising our messy interior worlds. She kept journals from the age of 11 (which is when I started keeping them!) for over 60 years. She was disillusioned with the limitations of mainstream publishing and decided to hand letterpress her own books, On Writing, which particularly emphasise the importance of diaries. Presenting them in this unique and outside-the-box way which refused to be pinned down by the limitations of the publishing market introduces diaries as a form which is expressive, individual and pushing the boundaries of art and writing.

>> Read more on the Brainpickings blog here and here.

I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality. Frida Kahlo


Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954)’s diaries are also a powerful means of self-expression, but far from the meditative organised process of letterpress they are a vivid and painterly cathartic outlet for Frida’s tempestuous life. She spent many years in hospitals and in a horizontal, bed-ridden state after childhood polio and then a devastating bus accident, which rendered her lonely, helpless and inactive. Images such as ‘Feet what do I need them for / If I have wings to fly’ 1953, depicting a severed leg surrounded by a wash of blood red, reflect direct experience of having one of her feet amputated but also have an unexpected reference to freedom beyond the physical body, brought about through the liberating act of painting. She denied being classed as a Surrealist especially in reference to painting her dreams as the world she illustrated was far too personal and individual. Being presented with these colourful, angsty, emotional, direct & unplanned works from Frida’s art journals is to see a physical outward expression of a chaotic interior world, in order that we might better understand her personal journey.

>> Read more in the translated diaries of Frida Kahlo.

My work is real, not illusory or conceptual. It is about real stones, real time, real walks. I use the world as I find it. Richard Long


Richard Long (1945 – ) relates to his environment in a calmer, more ordered and organic fashion. He doesn’t keep journals as such, but I wanted to look at his work as it often takes the form of a record, sometimes known in the land art movements he is associated with as ‘evidence’, of his artistic activities which often take the form of a walk or journey. In One Hour (1984) a circle of 60 words from a 60 minute walk evoke not only the sounds, smells and sights from Long’s walk on Dartmoor, but also the shape of his circular walk through the form in which they are laid out. These diaries appear to be the suggestion of a journey, whether it be a physical or  a mental one, and are not direct substitutes for the walks Long goes on or the mental journey Frida went through but rather responses to them and experiments in how to present ‘the world as I find it’.

>> See more interesting works by Long: One Hour. A Sixty Minute Circle Walk on Dartmoor (1984), A Hundred Mile Walk (1971–2), One Thing Leads To Another, Everything Is Connected (2007)

Do not fear mistakes. There are none. Miles Davis


Danny Gregory (1960 – ) is an illustrator and compulsive visual recorder of his daily life and experiences who has become well-known through another form of diary: the blog. I thought that this rather more modern medium is an important source of inspiration as it completely revolutionised the drawing community. Danny set up an online group called ‘Everyday Matters’ which people can submit a drawing of a daily given subject matter to, which makes his form of journaling quite the reverse of the responses to the isolated environments of Frida & Long – reminding us that art journaling can be an effective way to bring people together, passionately stipulating that anyone can draw, and that there are no mistakes. This shows us the beauty of keeping an art journal – as it has no buyer or, necessarily, an audience at all it can be a space of experimentation and development. Like Frida, Danny often uses himself as an easily available subject to draw, as you can see in the images above, one of which has been inspired by the distorting camera effects of a webcam as a way of encouraging observation and breaking out of assumptions about drawing well. However, journals are more than just practise sketchbooks and the other self-portrait features a more psychological response typical of a diary or journal, showing that Danny too conveys the goings on of his inner world through his wonderfully quirky quality of line.

>> Read more in: The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission to be the Artist You Truly Are, A Kiss Before You Go, Everyday Matters

Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of it’s own accord. John Cage


John Cage (1912 – 1992)’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) is a sharp reminder that a diary or journal need not involve either writing or drawing at all, as he is in fact a composer, but I wanted to underline the idea that an artistic journal could take any form that inspires the creator. In this case, John Cage recorded hours and hours of stream of consciousness style and randomly ordered thoughts on topics from technology to mushroom picking. In order to break out of a controlled and ordered approach, Cage often used chance (such as the roll of a dice) as a compositional tool. Unlike the geometrically satisfying shapes that Long orders his experiences into, Cage seems to oppose constraining the form of his verbal self-expression and prefers to let the chaos which ensues pick up its own momentum and take on its own shape without the need to read meaning into it too much. One way of looking at this would be to think that experimentation is key and imperfections are OK; it’s better to express what is inside without trying to reorder it, as the quote above suggests. Another is to consider the idea of accepting what we see or hear for what it is, as opposed to reading meaning into it, giving us a new experience of something.

>> For more of Cage’s ideas on this, listen to his fascinating talk on the importance of Silence.


Getting started can be the most difficult aspect of keeping your own art journal, no matter how inspired you are by artists such as these. To the lifelong art journalers like myself, it is perhaps easier to find aspects to incorporate: Frida Kahlo makes me want to loosen up my drawing style & use my imagination more as a source of inspiration; Richard Long makes me want to document journeys and work with text; Danny Gregory is closer to my native style whereas John Cage encourages me to play some games opening up books to random pages and picking out words. However, if I am in need some slightly more guided activities I tend to turn to one of my favourite current illustrators, Keri Smith. Her books, including Wreck this Journal and The Guerilla Art Kit emphasise experimentation, fun and not being afraid of the blank page.

It is not futile to do what we do. We wake up with energy and we do something. And we make, of course, failures and we make mistakes, but we sometimes get glimpses of what we might do next.
John Cage

Share this: