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OK, everybody. Let’s all take a deep breath. The elections weren’t totally bad news, and (Delaware! Colorado! West Virginia! Alaska!) there’s a lot to be thankful for.

Let’s all enjoy this moment (see above). Ahhhhhhh.

White sheets: Is there anything more restful? More inviting? More open to interpretation?

White sands: a landscape of purity, silence, cleanliness. An oasis for thought and invention.

Whistler’s Symphony in White: contemplative, gentle, and dignified. You don’t even notice how you are being manipulated by the artist, how you are brought into the space of the picture and then escorted around it, directed by the artist’s visual clues to go exactly where the artist wants you to go.

I do have a point to make but first, I want to mention that during my travels to the Gracious South these past two weeks I met with some of the most lovely readers and artists and art journalers (thank you, everyone at Charlestown, for inviting me to speak to such a wonderful community of creative activists!). I welcome follow-up emails whenever I do a workshop and I hope this post will answer those who have sent me questions about working with images and text in their art journals. Hint: the above photos are relevant.

Secondly: I always get a kick out of hearing from readers who have managed to find my book in far away places. Further away, even, than Oregon: last month I got an email from a reader in Switzerland. Her name is Elizabeth Hitchman and she’s a professional graphic designer in Zurich (here’s her website: and she wrote to me about how my book (When Wanderers Cease to Roam) about living on the shore of the Long Island Sound communicated to her, living in her land-locked nation. Go figure.

She also told me something about her design philosophy that hit home with me, and I want to share it with you all. She said:

White space is a crucial part of every design.

Do you see where I’m going?

A lot of art journalers tell me that they run into problems when they try to combine images and text on their pages. They over-do the doo-dads and the layering and the collage and the washes — what I call torturing the page. And on top of that they add text. And they are unsatisfied with the result.

Torturing the page, or just painting all over it within an inch of its life, or having a wild fun time letting rip with your artistic impulses: this is fine if your art journal is all about making a record of your trials and errors, testing your aesthetics and experimenting with techniques, searching for your style and artistic vocabulary.

But at some point, most art journalers want to communicate something with their work. And that’s a whole different paradigm. That’s where some control, some editing, and a lot of awareness of the psychological needs of your reader comes in. That’s where design comes in.

And the most important design rule is (thank you, Elizabeth Hitchman):

White space is a crucial part of every design.

Willem Kalf was a 17th century Dutch painter, called the Master of the Still Life. He painted incredibly detailed (some might say, “busy”) compositions — and look how he uses white in this picture:

And look how important (crucial, even) the color white is in this photograph:

Do you see how necessary white is in a good design? Do you see how that blank space gives a design breathing room, gives it time to slow down the pace, gives the overall picture the room to send its message in an orderly, calm, understandable way?

White space is the most elegant part of any design.

If you are trying to communicate something with your art journal, you have to give your message the room — the space — to breathe. Don’t crowd your page, and your reader, with too much information (visually or textually).

Psychologically, your reader needs to breathe, to feel invited and to feel at home in a restful, clean, space. So use the white space on your page to welcome in your reader, to make her feel at ease. And then use it to ever so gently manipulate the reader’s experience of your page, to guide your reader’s roaming over the information you are presenting (the way Whistler ushers you around his picture Symphony in White).

Give your readers some white space, and they will thank you for it.

By the way, I’m speaking at Molloy College on Long Island this Sunday, Nov. 7 at 3:00. I’m bringing my slide show and will spill everything I know about getting creative. Come and join the discussion –

Molloy College, Wilbur Arts Center  (admission is free)

100 Hempstead Ave., Rockville Center, NY 11570


7 comments to Breathing room

  • Maryann

    Totally awesome! Thank you!

    Sooooo wish I could come hear you speak!!!

  • And look at all the white space on your blog – makes the text and photos stand out. Great lesson.


  • Sallyann

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.
    I have been viewing journals via blogs for the last several years and have always come away feeling overwhelmed by the pages I have seen. My mind just couldn’t seem to take it all in. I had begun to believe I just didn’t understand today’s “art”. And truth be known it has been one of the reasons I have not completed an art journal.
    I have had lots of false starts but filling every inch of the page left me feeling so unhappy with the result.
    Thank you for sharing this concept. I think it will really help me to give art journaling another try.

  • Barbara Lemme

    Oh, how I agree with Sallyann! I have begun cutting up those old trial journal pages to use in other less busy ways.

  • Joan/Jesse

    Would you consider a “how to” and/or Q&A section under your CATEGORIES tab? I tried to find your tutorial on painting trees wet in wet…had to wade through pages of dialogue before I found it.

    My question is this: Do you always paint wet in wet?

    Love your book (WWCTR) and have read it over and over again.

    Am I being totally pushy and rude?

  • nadine

    Gosh, how lucky is that guy who got a hug from that tiger?

  • Wish I still lived on Long Island – I’d love to hear you speak!
    Just found your blog, love it, and plan to explore more. I’m a fabric artist, but learned a lot from this post alone!

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