Put Down That Art Journal


Not to pick on any specific “How To” book on Making Journals, Scrapbooks, and Albums Beautiful, but this (see above) is the kind of craft project that is ruining a generation of art journalists. Besides instructions on how to splatter, carve, scrape, rip, applique, and glue all kinds of material (and paint) onto the blank pages, these books also invite journalers to add silverware, collage, threads, stamps, grommets, found objects, metallic doo-dads, and “encrustations” onto the prepared surfaces. Why? Why?

If the object of all this busy-ness is not to torture an innocent piece of paper then I don’t know what all this effort is about.

I don’t want to put any one’s hard work up here for ridicule so I’m not scanning in pictures of some of these “art” journals, but the results that I’ve seen of such over-wrought decoration reminds me of a criticism that the great Arthur Danto once leveled at the paintings of the superstar artist of the 1980s, Julian Schnabel. Danto said that Schnabel’s paintings had all the  hallmarks of “serious” art: they were large, the paint showed evidence of furious brushstrokes, the subjects were iconic, and the titles were anguished; the visible effort (Schnabel was famous for embedding his canvases with broken dishes and for heaping on the paint like it was Play-Dough) convinced a lot of naive consumers that his art was important. But to a connoisseur, all that effort did not hide the fact that the work was cliche and silly.

Same with the current style of art journaling. The distressed pages, the bulky hand-made bindings, the layered text, the bleeds (especially the bleeds) all make the journals look artistic…but no amount of applied crap can hide lack of originality, individuality, and content.

So throw away all your Art Journal How To books. They are only good at showing you how to imitate  art. What I want to show you, here in VivianWorld, is how to find The Real Thing.

I should know: when I was an expert at Christie’s auction house, most of my daily job was separating the fakes from the genuine article. Any antiques or decorative arts specialist sees a LOT of fakes in her line of work – some fakes can be quite good in theirown right and that can be kind of intriguing, but some stuff is just soooo bad that it was just insulting. In time, I ceased to be amazed that a person could mistake a strand of plastic Mardi Grasbeads for a pearl necklace (true story) and became plain disgusted. I wanted to yell at them (those people who dragged in hideous porcelain knick knacks, sloppy enamel jewelry, cheap knock-off objets) “Have a little self-respect! Stop settling for such crap!”

The next time you go into Home Depot (or Lowe’s, or your local home improvement center), you’ll find plenty of authentic art journal inspiration in the paint aisle. No, not the cans of paint: the free paint-color brochures that are there for the taking.

Paint companies spare no expense in producing these beautiful brochures — the photography is splendid and the production is lavish and the text is efficient and evocative. These brochures are not selling you paint: they are selling you  mood, desire,  fantasy. If you want to learn how to present a complex sense of yearning, recapture a delicate frame of mind, catalog a cherished memory, study how these paint companies do it.

I have before me a brochure for white paint, called “An Inspired Collection“. Besides the photographs of white objects and tastefully decorated rooms full of white walls and white-ish furniture, the brochure invites you to “open yourself to the possibilities of whites — the feeling of simplicity, openness, calm, elegance…”

And the brochure opens up to reveal paint chips: 28 shades of white. To show you cool whites and warm whites, “to help you choose the exact shade that speaks to you”.  (Hey — it’s January; this is a good month to think of new names for all the colors of snow, as long as we are talking about shades of white: Ice Queen, Winter Silence, Deep Stillness, Hush, Dream of Rio de Janiero, Vanilla Frost, etc.)

Among the 28 shades of white in this brochure there’s Heirloom Lace, Adobe White, Navajo White, Glazed Pears, Featherstone, Pegasus, Ash Mist, Dogwood Blossom, Mountain Grey, Moonlit Snow, Sentimental, Rose Dust, Peach Linen, Silent Delight, etc.  And that’s just the whites!

Now, I don’t for a minute think that every word in these brochures is totally sincere, but there are days when I need a boost to get out of a creative rut. Or I need help in switching my mind on. On those days,  I thumb through my paint brochures and something– an especially weird shade of green, an intense blue hue, a rich tint of red, a sales pitch in the form of a koan (“the possibilities of white”, for example) — will flip a lightswitch in my brain and brighten some dark hidden corner where I can excavate something new, maybe even something surprising.

Inventive color, carefully chosen words, uncluttered presentation: these are things that you will also learn from a simple paint brochure. No gimmicks — no splatter, nothing scraped, ripped, appliqued, glued, mounted, punched, threaded, or encrusted. Just a nice, clean, focused message.

And that’s enough. In fact, it’s plenty.

The next lesson is on Thursday: Another January source of inspiration.

32 comments to Put Down That Art Journal

  • Deborah

    I so agree … with the idea that so much of what is pushed as art seems tortured and makes me want to run away — fast! But I felt like the odd person out because the field seemed so innudated with this stuff. I’m happy to learn it’s not just me.

    And with the paint brochures! We just had our two story white living room walls painted. I reveled in the hunt for just the right white. I admit to being seduced by the names sometime, but color ultimately triumphs. Silver feather. Yeah.

  • admin

    There are some very excellent how-to’s and books on exactly this kind of journaling (my online workshops for example).

    But, I love this approach to color, Vivian. Paper artists have haunted the Paint Samples for years, but your approach is fresh.

    I adore subtle color shifts. Can’t think of anything more beautiful than 28 whites – especially in January.

    Although, here in Santa Fe, I would like to see the dingy version of white on the North side of my house go away. Snow *never* sticks around here, but this December has been a doozy.


  • Barbara Lemme

    Thank you both!

  • Oooo! Silver Feather — a two-word poem. Nice.

  • Barbara Finwall

    I sure do agree. I’ve tried to do these kind of journals but could never make them work. And when I got a page done I couldn’t think what the point was- and couldn’t make the darn book close cause it was so fat. I really hate the ones with the sappy poetry!

  • Jan

    OH OH! I love you both! My hubby knows when I enter a home improvement store that the paint dept. if the first place I’ll go. I have tons of sample cards..but only a few brochures! What a treasure I’ve overlooked! I’m so drawn to the art of both of you ladies (Vivian and Jessica) for many of the reasons you stated here. I LOVE LOVE color (whatever the name) and journaling. I’ve lacked the know how of drawing well..mostly due to lack of practice and knowing techniques. I’m learning so much from you both and can’t wait to begin my next journaling class next week!

  • Well! You sure shook the stuffing out of *my* art journal desire. As a scrapbooker and mixed-media artist, I have a large collection of those art journal books. They are very beautiful, but I too fail to see the point. If I see one more dunce cap or pair of butterfly wings slapped on a vintage photo of some staring-eyed Victorian woman, I will scream. Ditto with the Eiffel Tower, disembodied pointing fingers, and the word “cherish.” I have started and stuttered and stopped art journals so many times–one I began was an imaginary journal about a young woman in the 1930s who leaves the farm to go to New York City to be a children’s book writer. I wrote one imaginary postcard back home and quit. I too moon around the paint chips in Home Depot and Lowe’s and have made entire albums from the big squarish chips. The names of the colors . . . yes, that could be a whole journal itself. What color is January in New York City in the 1930s to a poor undiscovered children’s book writer . . .?

  • Jacquelyn

    um, you all have lost me. Seems that I don’t shop places that sell paint, have never had a paint sample. I guess I just want to look at cute kitty pictures and chat about how to safely rid my cat of stubborn fleas. Maybe I have to find another blog for that. HOWEVER, I do have to say that I have emptied 4 boxes in my progress of “staying put” and count 10 old tattered scrapbooks. Sadly my first is not among them….a Camp Fire Girls memory book. I loved making it so much that I just kept making them. What will happen to them eventually? Maybe all scrapbooks of all kinds should be donated to preschools and retirement homes. Far more interesting than most current magazines. Anyway, I think I will go back and read just how one uses paint color samples in journals or scrapbooks. Meanwhile will stick to empty scrapbooks from 2nd hand sources and my jar of glue. All I know is that my simple books of photos and memorabilia of some 50 years are heart warming and fun.

  • Janet

    My house has Navajo White, Designer White, Medici Ivory, Luminous White and Dover White, all different shades of white, and all complementing Leaf, Seafoam Green, Casa Garcia, Hemp and whatever other delicious colors we’ve put on the walls. We make Sherwin Williams proud. As for art journals, I just signed up for Jessica’s class because of something I read in the New York Times yesterday about how to stoke middle age brains – specifically to do things that take you out of your comfort zone which helps to develop new neuron pathways in your brain. As a non-artist, an art journal is a definite departure from what I know how to do. The idea of using something I draw, if no more than a stick figure, to try to communicate an idea sounds challenging. Finding Hobby Lobby to be the scariest place on earth and therefore a place I avoid, I think I’ll be safe from silk flowers, lace, doo-dads, etc. by sticking to plain paper, pens and pencils. I have a sister who’s become the family historian with her scrapbooks, which are actually interesting and delightful, so I know what you mean, Jacquelyn, about how nice some photo books and scrapbook can be. Junky journals not so much.

  • Pale Joy. The color of January in New York City in the 1930s to a poor undiscovered children’s book writer is Pale Joy. Ha! You made me laugh at the word “cherish” — come to think of it, does that word EVER come up in normal conversation? Probably not; it’s one of those uniquely art journal words.

  • The paint brochures are a starting point — they are good for jump-starting the right brain. And they are so very evocative, linking color to hidden urges in a way that is much more subtle (but effective; remember, it’s to SELL you something) than a lot of color-field canvases. So says I. And oh! If only we could see that Camp Fire Girls scrapbook! I too buy empty scrapbooks — I love the faded papers. I’ll have to photograph some of my old books — thanks for the blogging idea!

  • Hi Janet! You’ll enjoy Jessica’s class: she won’t make you distress the paper or bend spoons for the binding. Don’t knock stick figures: a fine little book called “Love, Loss, and What I Wore” is totally illustrated with stick figures and it sold 100,000 copies and was turned into an off-Broadway play by Nora Ephron.
    Oh, Medici Ivory! Extra points for conjuring up Lorenzo the Magnificent!

  • Well, I must say I do CHERISH my copy of When Wanderers Cease To Roam. I realized that when it seems that the copy I ordered my cousin does not look like it will appear by her birthday.. I guess I will cherish the new copy as well.

    Meeting fellow paint chip hoarders cheers me greatly. Even though I secretly hate painting walls, I am a sporadic collector of chips.I love color, living in a muted world of winter, where red becomes a craving.

    I am enjoying the comments as well as your blog. This has been a very cheery place to start my day..Thanks.

  • Pale Joy. Love it! I cherish a great many things–old scrapbooks found in antique stores (always denuded of photos and memorabilia, sold separately, batteries not included). I just don’t like the word “cherish” stamped or inked on a page of art journaly stuff. Cherish what? I want to ask. Same with “Believe,” “Dream,” “Hope.” All perfectly good words but pointless when sitting by themselves among stickers and vintage wallpaper scraps. I spent a year looking for just the right shade of blue to paint our “middle” bathroom, now called the Beatrix Potter bath (based on her nature watercolors, not the Peter Rabbit books). Ralph Lauren “Faded Seafoam” was the winner. I’m dead with a sinus infection but must mush to the library anyway and I think I’ll swing by Home Depot to find a paint chip to match my face, something along the lines of greenish-white. Being here with fellow paint-chip lovers and journalers makes me feel better!

  • Janet

    Pale Joy – In January, the young writer hears someone likes her stories. Something good is coming. White Lies – In February, cold rejection blows in the doorway.

  • Nancy

    Some fashion maven from the ’50′s said it best, “Put on the accessories that go with what you’re wearing, then take three off before you walk out the door.” That goes for so-called art journals as much as for anything else. There is a minimum required to tell the story–anything else just obscures what you’re trying to say, it seems to me.
    Love your watercolors, have your book, thanks for all the pleasure.

  • Shelley

    I too love paint chips! While the names of all the whites are intoxicating, I don’t have a white wall in my house (except the sheetrock that has not been painted yet). My roomss are all about color ~ Hunter Green, Mango, Tomato, Magenta, some salmon and peachy shades to match my 1960′s tub and toilet. All painted too long ago to remember the exotic names, but the colors are still great – and next paint job will include paint chips and names in my journal for sure!

    While I don’t really enjoy the over-wrought decoration journal “art” style either, I have to say that if someone else does, and finds creative expression and joy in doing it, then more power to them. I don’t have to like it or want to do it, but I still think it’s ok for those who do. No accounting for taste and all that sort of thing.

    My Mom loved paint by number sets in the 60′s and while it’s definitely was not “ART”, it gave her an outlet for her creative urges and made her happy, and that’s at least part of what it’s all about.

  • Els

    Pointed hats on babies and crowns on crows, wings on anything that doesn’t sport them in nature, these are a few of my least favourite things…

    Art Journaling as seen in the how-to books is a way for scrapbookers to take their work to a new level, and rather to simply chronicle events, to lend some soul to their work. And really, isn’t that what art is all about? A means of expressing one’s feelings; one’s soul? I may not be a fan of some of the more cliche expressions, but I laud anyone trying to express themselves through art.

    Oh, and my favourite “white” – found on my trim and moulding? Goosefeather. The slightest rosy undertone there…a soft white, as the name implies.

  • I was one of those scrapbookers who quickly grew bored and took my work to a new level. On crop nights, other scrappers stared at my stuff with pity. I made tiny, weird things. My favorite project was The Dinner Party–an imaginery dinner party-in-a-box starring Margaret Wise Brown and anybody I wanted to come. I made invitations, menu cards, place cards, a diary and more in a decorated wooden box. My husband became alarmed that we really *were* renting the Eric Carle Picture Book Museum on May 24, 2008.

  • Oh, I have enjoyed this lively conversation about art journals. I have always held them in awe, kind of like collages, since I feel I have no talent in that direction. I am still laughing about the conical hats/wings/BELIEVE comments. Finding other reverence-impaired people is a joy, as is discovering the blogs of the other people in the comments. This is all bringing much color and laughter into my life right now.

  • Kim

    I am the recipient of three “altered art” books, made for me by a woman who has a charming cottage/shed/art space filled from floor to ceiling (cutely and neatly in bins) with snippets and homemade papers and doo-dads and spoons and lace and game pieces … You get the idea. The first book that she gifted me with was a wee small one, with a little quote on friendship and some ribbon and a key. The second one was a bit larger, with more quotes and accoutermonts. The third was upmteen pages, bulging with quotes and poems and doo-dads, all beautifully put together, and totally overwhelming. When she gave me this book, she sat down at my kitchen table and made it clear that I was to sit with her and look at and comment on each and every page (and each and every dear poem, quote, piece of lace, bent spoon, tea bag, tiny book, etc.). After I would express appreciation over each detail, she would kick up her leg and laughingly crow “wa hoo!” and then look once again at the book like a dog who has just dropped the ball at its human’s feet. The “gift” was something of an emotional burden ~ It seemed to be more about how wonderfully creative and insightful and perceptive she was, and how lucky I was to have her in my life. I am a lover of friends and gifts, both in the giving and the receiving, but this one was a powerful statement that really had nothing to do with giving. As a result, it’s now a bit challenging for me to look at altered art and artful journals with an open heart and eye, but maybe I’ll get there again one day!

  • hmm … there are art journals, and then there are art journals. I have in mind the Extreme Visual Journals of Juliana Coles … not your wings & crowns fare, for a certainty. Visual art has added more to my written journaling than anything else has in 34 years of keeping a journal … I say shop your books and artists carefully but do NOT dismiss art as part of a journal. Tra la.

  • I have to say that I’m very sorry that I not only bought bit also recommended your book to my friends, students and blog readers.

    It sounds like you are lumping in Altered Books/Altered Art with Art Journaling. They are VERY different things.

    I thought that the whole idea of art journaling was to not only document one’s life but also to share (in book form) one’s inner self. Some people are not comfortable with writing and prefer to use quotes and the like.

    I have been teaching bookbinding, collage, mixed media and art journaling for over 12 years now. I have never ever considered someone’s artwork that they created CRAP. NEVER. If it’s genuine, real and honest-how can you call it crap?

    Next time you should maybe do some more homework before you write a post like this dissing people’s hard work.

  • Deborah

    It seems to me that Vivian has done substantial research on this topic, and she mentions that she is not trying to undo the hard work of others. I think it’s important to understand that some of us feel bludgeoned by certain art forms, whether it’s the style (in my case) or the insistence of the artist in sharing, as in the case of another reader.

    I do find the distinctions of altered art and art journaling interesting. When I bought Vivian’s book, I considered it “illustrated” rather than either of those above.

  • Hey, you know, some people need that jumping off place that the art journaling books and classes provide, or they’d never wrangle up the courage to go for it. I know that they give me new ideas. And what about pure FUN? Isn’t doing something for pleasure okay? Seems a bit harsh to dismiss this way of self-expression to me.

    There are days when I do art and there are days when I glue and paint with abandon and it ain’t nowhere near what I’d call art. Both are valuable to me. I have a problem with labeling other people’s work as art or not art. Why limit the pleasure of others? What good does it do you, and what harm does it do them when you put them down?

    That being said, I do love your book, but my mother took it away from me at Christmas.

  • Apparently it’s escaped your notice that most of the people keeping ‘art journals’ aren’t necesarily the kind of artists who would be frequenting Christie’s and be able to identify 28 different colours of white.
    Art journals aren’t meant to be ‘Art’ they’re meant as a form of self expression. Altered books *are* meant to be ‘Art’ and are a whole different thing.
    I have to agree with Kelly, as someone who has also taught art/visual/illustrated journaling for many years. The kind of people working hard to use these how-to books are mostly fledglings who don’t consider themselves ‘Artists’ but ‘people who enjoy making art’. Many of whom have lost confidence through being told that they aren’t talented enough to ‘Artists’ in the first place.
    The very last thing they need is ‘Art’ critics who call their work crap because they think all art should have a capital ‘A’ and be on a par with a brochure by a very expensive and professional graphic designer.

  • Thankfully, everyone has their own tastes and style of working. I don’t like watercolor paintings myself, but I appreciate the time and effort that goes into it. I like my journals messy, but I understand that does not go for everyone.

    What I do find disturbing is when someone who offers advice on the subject and has written a book looks down on what isn’t her taste in art journaling. I don’t ‘get’ certain forms of art journaling or mixed media either, but I would never call it crap. Let others do what they want to do. If you don’t like it, look the other way. Simple.

  • Cindy

    Art along with beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

  • I would never throw away my art journal how to books! There’s a ton of inspiration between those pages. It just seems so rude to put down someone’s art, just because you don’t like it.

  • Brenda

    I am always in awe when I read an honest blog entry. All these years of being given “art journaling” books that left me cold, perusing magazines on art journaling…I thought I should like it, but I didn’t. But I couldn’t figure out why. Thought it was me. Thanks for being bold enough to say what you really think (and thanks, too, for making me feel less alone).

    Also love that you’re 52 and publishing your first book. A dear friend of mine started writing at 70, and now has her 8th mystery novel coming out from St. Martins (w/a 92 year old protagonist). People like you keep me going!

  • Vivian:

    First off, love your book. Your book is my style. I’ve read it and enjoyed it immensely. A friend came over the other day, saw it, borrowed it, then bought one for herself.

    Of course, everyone has their style, likes, & dislikes. I know folks love the art journal, altered art, and scrap booking, and there are tons on books on the subject. It makes them happy doing it and giving it to others, that’s all fine by me.

    But I prefer my own writing (calligraphy?) and sketches and watercolor, regardless of my level of skill or execution. The purpose of my illustrated journaling is to remember the people, the words, and the images, so that I can recall years later the enjoyable event. I don’t glue stuff in or slather paint on it’s pages. It’s not a crafty book for me.

    So while altered books and the art journals are not really my style, I am interested in partnering with others that enjoy illustrated journaling because I want to compare notes, ideas, and techniques. So I’ll be back.

  • Purseonality

    I think it’s important to encourage people to create. I also think it’s inhumane to discourage people who may not have the best artistic eye or formal training.

    That said, maybe the How-To books should focus more on “Why-To.” I have seen a few books and a LOT of videos that are purely technique, slapping stuff on a page without really considering WHY it’s going on the page.

    I think of it in the same way as walking into one’s kitchen and grabbing random ingredients, dumping them into a bowl and hoping something delicious will emerge. Sure, I might actually enjoy peanut-butter pesto pot pie…but maybe we ought to encourage people to think about each ingredient before dumping it in the bowl–what flavors do we want to highlight, what textures are we aiming for, what subtle undertones do we want to emerge?

    It’s good to encourage people to experiment and get their hands dirty and liberate themselves…but isn’t art instruction also about getting people to listen to their intuition? Getting them to ask their inner voice about what exactly they want to express? Shouldn’t we put some thought into Why we are putting that ripped piece of ephemera in that spot, and Why we chose just that piece?

    Even Annabel the painting elephant was said to be very picky about which colors she combined in her individual paintings. She may have been just an elephant sweeping a brush across a canvas with her trunk, but even that elephant put thought and soul into what she painted. Her paintings tended to reflect her moods. When she was not feeling the mood, she didn’t paint at all.

    THAT is art. Maybe THAT should be what we try to teach.

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