I heART journaling: 8 Steps for Getting Started (By Dominique T. Chlup, Ph.D., P.O.W.E.R. Associate Director)



I heART journaling:  8 Steps for Getting Started

By Dominique T. Chlup, Ph.D., P.O.W.E.R. Associate Director

Photograph and artwork credits belong to Dominique T. Chlup



Every time the doorbell rang in author Dorothy Parker’s apartment, she famously quipped, “What fresh hell can this be?”


Have you ever had one of those days?  You know the type of day where every phone call, email, and text message brings with it a foreboding dread of “What fresh hell is this?” 


I recently had one of those days.  Actually, it was more like one of those weeks.  It was a week where a whooping cough diagnosis took my breath away—literally.  Unlike the type of cough that accompanies the common cold, whooping cough can cause violent, rapid coughing fits where you cough repeatedly until the air is depleted from your lungs and you are forced to inhale with a loud “whooping” sound (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013).


Showing up to the page to write these past two weeks has been hard.  In fact, it’s been nearly impossible as I sleep my days and nights away trying to recover.  But during these—my hardest times—when I find myself reflexively clutching my hand to my chest just over the space where I imagine my heart resides, I turn to journaling.  In particular, I lose myself in my art journal. 


I have always loved journaling ever since I received from my parents my first diary in elementary school—complete with lock and key—for getting straight A’s on my report card.  My love of journaling has continued into my adulthood, and I have been creating my own journals for nearly twenty years (Figure 1).  Classes in graduate school in printmaking and bookmaking helped me to learn how to make my own paper, dye it, and hand-bind it creating rich, beautiful journals.


Figure 1


When I first started out as an educator, I often used my journal creations to help my students with their learning.  For instance, Figures 2, 3, and 4 are a journal book I created to help teach adult literacy students about palindromes.


Figure 2


Figure 3


Figure 4


While I took several years off from creating visual journals—ironically, when I started my life as a tenure track professor—I never stopped keeping a written journal.  It’s only in the past few years that I have begun—again—to combine my love of word journaling with my love of visual journaling.  In particular, I enjoy capturing my life as an academic in a mixed media format where I can combine my written text with my artistic endeavors.


When it comes to the benefits of journal writing Dannelle D. Stevens and Joanne E. Cooper in their book Journal Keeping observe, “The first ancillary benefit of journal keeping is better health through stress reduction; the second is clearer thinking and, ultimately, better writing” (2009, p. 15).  For me, the major benefit of journal writing is it allows me to examine my life and to have a record of that examination.  By keeping a journal, I reflect in meaningful ways, witness my evolving thoughts, plan for the future, and possess documentation of my experiences.  To me, adding art to the journal writing process makes it healing, inspiring, and meditative. 


So this brings us to the question:  What is art journaling (also known as visual journaling), and why do it? 


Traci Bunkers, artist and art journaler extraordinaire, offers a definition and reason for why to art journal, which I love.  And while her description is long, I think it’s worth quoting in full:   


My visual journals combine painting, photographs, collage, stamping, and writing from the heart.  Combining words with visual imagery is much more powerful than either one alone.  By combining the two, I create something that is fresh and rich in meaning sometimes raw, expressing hurt or pain, and sometimes elated, expressing immense joy.  It’s work I do for myself without looking for the approval of an audience or worrying what someone else might think.  It’s not the finished product that is important but the process that gets me there. I’m not trying to make art; I’m just taking a journey.  I am open to where it takes me and to what happens in the process.  Because of that, I leave my internal (and external) censors at the door.  Busying my hands with collaging, painting, and stamping as I work frees up my mind, distracting it in a way.  I am able to get out of my own way and freely express or process whatever I need or want to work on.  Visual journaling stills the mind and silences the center (Bunkers, 2011, p. 8).


So why do I art journal?


Art journaling allows me a freedom I rarely experience with my academic writing.  In my journal, if I don’t like something I can easily cover it up.  Paint is relatively cheap.  In my academic writing, I painstakingly edit, and sometimes still miss errors or have my heart broken in the peer review process.  My art journal process is non-evaluative as it’s only for me.  In fact, this blog post is the first time I have ever shared my art journal pages with anyone.  In art journaling, there are no errors; there are only first attempts. 


So what do I journal about?


In Figures 5, 6, and 7, I share a few examples.  I art journal goals and aspirations, (Figure 5), free writing, lesson plans for class, my travel schedule (Figure 6), drafts of emails, work commitments, inspirational quotes, worries and stressors, exam questions for students, journal article ideas, brainstorms for research projects, to do lists, and not to do lists.  Including a “not to do list” is one of my favorite things to do at the end of the school year as it reminds me of what I need to say “no” to the following year (Figure 7 left hand side). 


Figure 5


Figure 6


Figure 7


I also use my journal as a space to draft the email that I want to send, but I know I won’t.  The trick here is to write the “email” and then to flip the page and write over it in the other direction, which makes it impossible to read the text.  I then like to stamp over the text something positive to remind me to approach everyone and everything in life with kindness, empathy, and understanding.  For instance, see Figure 8, where I’ve reminded myself to “love deeply.”  Honestly, there isn’t much related to my academic life that I don’t include in my art journal.


Figure 8


So, if you think you might also love art journaling (I heart journaling), then I offer the following 8 steps as a way to get you started.


Step 1.  Pick a journal.  I like to use a large artist’s sketchbook (10” X 14”) because as writer and creativity expert Julia Cameron (1992) teaches us in her book The Artist’s Way writing on large pages produces big ideas (Figure 9).  But I also recommend a smaller journal, so you can tote it around with you. 



Figure 9


Tip:  The pages of your journal need to be thick enough to hold up to the wetness of gesso, glue, and paint. You also need to avoid glossy pages because the glue might flake off making it impossible for anything to adhere properly.


Step 2. Remove pages from the interior.  You want to remove at least three pages from the center of your journal, being careful to leave the binding intact (Figure 10).  You don’t want the spine to loosen and fall apart.  You may find over time that you need to remove even more pages.  Removing pages allows extra room for all of the bits and pieces that you add to your journal.



Figure 10


Tip:  If you are working in a book designed specifically as an art journal you may not need to remove any of the pages. 


Step 3.  Glue ephemera to your page spread (Figure 11).  Ephemera is the beautiful term for things made out of paper.  You can also sew, staple, or tape ephemera to the page to create your collage.  The main point is that you adhere different materials to the page to strengthen it.  Ephemera also adds visual interest, texture, and depth to your pages.  I like to repurpose old phonebook pages, atlas pages, newspapers, magazines, used giftwrap, tea bags, mesh bags, travel documents, holiday cards, and envelopes into materials that I layer onto my journal pages to make them thicker.  Now instead of throwing out a piece of paper, I creatively imagine how I might use it in one of my designs.  Every scrap of trash becomes a treasure.



Figure 11


Tip:  I keep all of my ephemera organized in an expandable folder (Figures 12 and 13).  I put the glue on the object to be adhered as I find it sticks better than placing the glue directly on the page.  I also temporarily place a layer of wax paper over the page and run a brayer over it a few times to make sure that the glued items are adhering (Figure 14).



Figure 12



Figure 13



Figure 14


Step 4. Use a large paintbrush to apply a thin, watered down layer of acrylic craft paint to the page.  I like to apply 2-3 colors in the same color range, letting the paint dry in between applications so I don’t get a muddy effect (Figure 15).  I purchase acrylic craft paint (about a $1 a bottle) from my local arts and crafts store.  You can also use Gesso, a thick glue-like liquid used to prime a surface for painting, before applying the acrylic craft paint or in between applications.  I find Gesso strengthens thin pages and creates a painterly effect.  Gesso can be found in the art supply section of a crafts store. 


Figure 15


Tip:  Expired credit cards are a useful way to spread paint across the surface of the page.  They create a unique set of broad shapes that are difficult to achieve with paintbrushes.  I used a credit card to apply first gesso over the globe photograph in Figure 15 and then a layer of orange paint see Figure 16.



Figure 16


Step 5.  Use stamps, stencils, bubble wrap, plastic wrap, fingers, baby wipes, paper towels, brushes, etcetera, to apply a contrasting patterned layer to the page (Figure 17). 


Figure 17


Tip: I keep all of my supplies in portable bins, containers, and baskets on my coffee table in my living room, so they are never are out sight, always easily accessible, and easily portable to my back porch, which is where I do most of my writing and art journaling (see Figures 18, 19, 20).  I used to keep everything on a shelf in an upstairs closet, but I noticed I didn’t art journal nearly as much when I didn’t see my supplies daily.  Also since everything is so portable, it makes it easy to stow out of sight when company does come over. 


Figure 18




Figure 19



Figure 20


Step 6.  Create a focal point (Figures 21 and 22).  I got this idea from art journaler Kelley Spurgeon (2013) to create a focal point on each page that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your writing since the artwork is often done before your writing.



Figure 21



Figure 22


Since I have been teaching myself how to draw and dabbling in various mixed media techniques, I like to provide my own sketches as it’s a way to help me practice what I’m learning (Figure 23).  But you could quite easily use photographs or magazine cutouts if you prefer not to draw your own focal point.



Figure 23


Tip:  Have a few pages ready (collaged and painted with the focal point already on them), so you have a place to write your thoughts and you aren’t delaying writing in your art journal because a page isn’t available.  You can use a color scheme to designate days of the week, a semester, or a stage in your academic career, or a phase of a research project.  Imagine bright yellow to mark the final phase of your dissertation writing!  I’ll create several pages at once, placing wax paper in between pages to keep them from sticking to one another.  If you flip through my journal, you’ll see pages-in-progress (see Figures 24 and 25).   



Figure 24



Figure 25


Step 7. Fill in the page.  Use pen, markers, pencils, stickers, stamps, and labels to fill in the page with text.  You can also fill in the page with additional drawings, photos, and ephemera.  Confession:  Some days I like to use a lot of negative space—negative space in the art world is referred to as the empty space on the page.  I think this is because I’m craving more space in my hectic life (Figures 26-30).  Other times, I fill almost the entire page. 


Figure 26


Figure 27


Figure 28


Figure 29


Figure 30


Step 8.  Have fun with it!  Just like in life and in writing, mistakes happen.  Let them.  Remember art journaling is not about being perfect.  Instead, think of it as yet another tool you can add to your creative toolbox to help you as an academic writer.  And keep trying!  If at first, like me, you create pages that you don’t like, just keep at it.  I find pages that I didn’t originally like I grow to love.  Plus, years later, I’m so glad to have a record of my thinking.  For instance, while I certainly don’t want to relive the week I was diagnosed with whooping cough, I know I’m going to want to remember it.  With my art journal, I’ll capture more than just the words.  And that’s just one of the many reasons why I heART journaling (Figure 31).


Figure 31




Bunkers, T. (2011).  The art journal workshop:  Break through, explore, and make it your own.  Beverly, Massachusetts:  Quarry Books.

Cameron, J. (1992).  The artist’s way:  A spiritual pat to higher creativity.  New York:  Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penquin.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013, August 26).  Pertussis (whooping cough)—What you need to know.  Retrieved from www.cdc.gov/features/pertussis/

Spurgeon, K. (2013, Summer).  Journal junkie:  Mixed-media confessions.  Cloth paper scissors® Pages: The creative guide for art journaling & Bookmaking, Summer 2013:  110-116.

Stevens, D. D. & Cooper, J. E. (2009).  Journal keeping:  How to use reflective writing for learning, teaching, professional insight, and positive change.  Sterling, VA:  Stylus Publishing, LLC.


Other Sources to Draw Inspiration from:


1)   Art journaling by Somerset Studio, a magazine published by Stampington & Company®

2)   Cloth paper scissors® Pages: The creative guide for art journaling and bookmaking, a magazine published F + W Media, Inc.


1)   Anne, M. (2012). Creative Thursday:  Everyday inspiration to grow your creative practice.  Cincinnati, OH:  North Light Books.

2)   Scott, E. M. & Modler, David, R. (2010). The journal junkies workshop:  Visual ammunition for the art addict.  Cincinnati, OH:  North Light Books.