How to Start an Art Journal and Grow as a Person

how to start an art journal

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Not only do art journals help you grow as an artist, they help you grow as a person. The only problem is they can be difficult to keep up with in-between school, chores, and work.

When was the last time you started a project, didn’t finish it, and felt like a failure? The long term is where you’ll run into hurdles, such as forgetting to fill in journal pages or feeling insecure about your artistic process.

When you’re done with this article, you’ll have the foundation needed to contribute regularly to an art journal and enjoy the benefits – personal and creative.

What You’ll Need to Follow This Tutorial


an art journal

  • An art journal with the right paper (thicker for painting or thinner for dry mediums)
  • Your favorite mediums, such as colored pencils or watercolors
  • Glue and/or tape (optional)
  • A bookmark (optional)

10 Steps to Starting an Art Journal You’ll Actually Finish


steps to starting an art journal you’ll actually finish

Your art journal needs to become a good habit if you want to see it finished someday. Below is the creative process I’ve used to finish up journals over the years, whether they veered closer to the writing or sketching part of the process.

Step #1: Repeat to Yourself Why You Want to Start an Art Journal


repeat to yourself why you want to start an art journal

This first step is vital for successfully starting and completing an art journal – why do you want to do one in the first place? This foundation will carry you through the rough patches where you’re too tired or too unmotivated to continue your creative practice.

If you’re coming up a little short on the inspiration end of things, let’s take a look at why other artists start art journaling.

  • Working on mindfulness or meditation by recording day-to-day activity
  • Growing as an artist to have a little ‘playground’ to experiment or study
  • Creating a one-of-a-kind book of future memories to reflect on

Some creators do a mixture of all of the above or come up with an altered book based on a brand-new idea. Whatever you choose, your art journaling is a unique process that can’t be completely replicated by anyone else.

Step #2: Decide How Often You’re Going to Commit to Your Journal


decide how often you’re going to commit to your journal

The only pillar more sturdy than your ‘why’ is your ‘when’. Art journaling thrives on consistency, so you need to pick a time frame you’ll stick to and commit to it over the next several weeks.

Do you have a really busy workweek and only have time for your journal during the weekends? Perhaps an hour of art journaling once or twice a week will be a good timeframe. If you’re busy on the weekends but have slower weekdays, a half hour of journaling Monday through Friday could be your go-to timeframe.

Your art journal shouldn’t take too much planning or thinking – that’s precisely the kind of mental hole that can trap you and keep you from actually creating.

Step #3: Pick Your Art Journal Type


pick your art journal type

Now that you know why and when you’ll use an art journal, it’s time to pick a type. Like music or film, art journaling has its own genres.

Some art journals function on a purely technical level, allowing artists to improve their ability to draw animal anatomy or illustrate landscapes. Other journals lean toward the writing end of the spectrum, focusing more on poems and notes with the occasional visual element.

My journal suggestions below are to add fuel to your creative process – your art journal type could combine these ideas or go in a completely different direction.

Daily Diary

This art journal type is the most simple on this list, focusing on your day-to-day life such as what you’re wearing, eating, or doing. This creative practice is easier since it requires very little focus or planning.

If a daily diary is still too broad of a category, though, you can choose a focal point for your journal. For example, writing about chores on Monday, then a trip to the park on Tuesday.

daily life

Artistic Growth – Technical

Another popular type of art journal is improving your technical ability as an artist. Alongside sketches or mixed media, you can add notes critiquing your work and measuring your progress.

Do you struggle with three-point perspective and need to practice more? How about needing a casual space to experiment with watercolor paper and nail down your painting technique? Choose a focal point for your artistic growth, then watch your improvement arrive in tiny, undeniable steps.

Artistic Growth – Creative

Are you eager to work on the emotional and creative aspects of crafting interesting works of art? Your art journal can be a go-to resource for all your quick notes, fun drawing ideas, and favorite inspirations.

Some art journalists treat this kind of journal almost like a scrapbook, collecting all sorts of concepts or quick drawings in one place. It’ll help you stay organized if you have a particularly wild imagination that needs to be tied down.

artistic growth - creative

Master Studies

This art journaling journey is quite popular with students and professionals who want to commit to growth. If you enjoy traveling to art museums or studying art books, this might be the best art journal for you.

For example, the art journal pages here could be a mixture of quick thumbnails, mini-paintings, and history notes on the master’s inspiration. One fantastic way of measuring your growth in this area is comparing past master studies to new master studies.

Travel Log

If you love to travel and want to record your memories in a more organic fashion than your phone’s photo gallery, try this type of art journal. It’s the kind of spontaneous and one-of-a-kind creation you can pass down to your children or keep as a family treasure.

Also known as paper ephemera, travel-based art journaling frequently mixes quick sketches, travel notes, and memorabilia. Plane tickets, stamps, restaurant receipts, hotel cards, and brochures are popular journal additions.

travel log

Spiritual Journey

While sometimes miscategorized as being religious, spirituality doesn’t require a doctrine, worship, or belief in a deity. It’s a personal journey you take to learn about who you are, what matters to you, and your place in the world at large.

Art journaling with a spiritual focus is often freeform, focusing on anything and everything related to your spiritual growth. For example, let’s say an artist feels connected to the cosmos and wants to explore that philosophy in an art journal. They could do paintings of celestial bodies or write down insightful questions they’ve been asking themselves.

Recording Dreams

One creative practice that can provide fascinating glimpses into your subconscious is recording dreams in your journal. Whether you remember them clearly or hardly at all, art journaling lets you analyze what’s going on beneath the surface.

I’ve had dreams that, when I reflected on them a few years later, completely changed the course of my life. While I usually remember my dreams, I occasionally forget them, and an art journal ensures you won’t have useful revelations or ideas slip through your fingers.

Step #4: Find a Notebook or Sketchbook


find a notebook or sketchbook

Art journaling can be done in just about any notebook or sketchbook you have on you. Un-lined sketchbooks are usually more popular since they give you the space to dedicate certain pages only to visual elements.

One of the most enjoyable elements of building your own journal is looking at all the little details that surround it. Some art journals come with built-in folders where you can easily store magazine clippings, spare photos, or Post-It notes.

Other journals come with elastic binding to keep your book from randomly flying open and spilling out your hard work. VANRTTO’s hardcover sketchbook has elastic binding, a built-in bookmark, and an inner pocket so you have all the tools needed for spontaneous creativity.

Just make sure you choose a journal or sketchbook that fits the mediums you want to use. Very thin paper will buckle under wet media, while toothy paper doesn’t make it easy to write.

Speaking of which…

Step #5: Choose Your Go-To Mediums (and Make Sure They’re Compatible)


choose your go-to mediums

Art journaling is easier when you’re not accidentally ripping out your pages with too much acrylic paint. It’s time to choose compatible mediums that suit your art style and your specific type of paper.

Below are a few suggestions for filling up your journals, whether you enjoy oil painting or want to try your hand at mixed media.

Pencil and Ink 

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the classics – pencil and ink give you the versatility to draw and write without breaking the budget. Journals usually have thinner paper perfect for dry mediums, too.

Just be mindful your journal pages may smudge if you do really heavy pencil drawings.

Watercolor Pencils

Watercolor pencils give you the best of both worlds – you can write and shade like a regular colored pencil or add a little water to do a spontaneous painting. You’ll need thick journal paper for this, though, so don’t use these with copy paper.

watercolor pencils

Water Soluble Oil Pastels 

Soft and easy to store, oil pastels are a beloved medium for art journals (especially if you travel a lot). They’re fun to smudge around during experimental sessions or blending spontaneously with a brush.

When they dry, they generally don’t smudge and are pretty resistant to fading, too. Just be mindful that they can sometimes make journal pages stick together.


Easily one of the most popular mediums for both writing and drawing are markers. These can be used for splashy thumbnails on the go or scribbling down a song that suddenly emerged in your head.

If you think you’ll use a lot of markers, try to use art journals with thick paper – heavy markers tend to bleed and mark the pages beneath them.


Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint is one of the friendlier mediums for art journals since they dry fast and can’t be wet again. You can easily create a watercolor-like effect or more subtle results like oil.

Acrylic paint is also very flexible when dry, so the risk of cracking or peeling off the page is extremely low. Just make sure to use a thicker cardstock or toothy painting paper so you don’t bleed paint into the other pages.

These are only popular journal suggestions, so don’t be afraid to test your artistic skills with other mediums or paper. Some painters will do mini oil paintings in their books by using solvents that speed up the drying time.

Step #6: Get That Blank First Page Out of the Way With Something Inspirational


get that blank first page out of the way with something inspirational

Blank page syndrome is often the biggest barrier standing between an artist and a full art journal. When you’re afraid of ‘ruining’ your purchase, try the following tips on for size.

Favorite Inspirational Quote

Do you have a favorite quote that’s changed the way you look at life or even yourself? Consider putting this on the first page of your art journal to get you inspired to commit.

You can even frame the quote with a beautiful border or a mini-collage to get you in a creative mood every time you view it.

Childhood Photo

Your art journaling experience is to improve as a person as much as an artist. A childhood photo on the first page could be a reminder to be the person you needed when you were younger.

It can also be a way to remember what it was like to create art as a kid, carefree and unconcerned with social media pressure or making money.

childhood photo

Literally Just Scribble

Sometimes the best way to start an art journal is to go hog wild and just scribble on the page. It’s hard to be intimidated by a blank page when it literally doesn’t exist anymore!

This scribbling can still fit the theme of your art journal, too. You could do a cluster of stars and planets for a cosmic-based spiritual journal or write a bunch of names of places you’ve traveled to for a travel log.

Step #7: Do Your Best to Commit to Your Journal for the First Two Months


commit to your journal for the first two months

Now it’s down to the art journaling aspect – the most difficult, yet rewarding part of your journey. According to recent studies, it takes around two months for a new habit to ‘stick’ and become second nature.

If you’re worried you won’t be able to commit to your journal for that amount of time, try some of the following tips:

  • If you have a daily diary, set a timer for ten or fifteen minutes every day to contribute to your journal. This method is useful when you need a little instant accountability to keep you on track.
  • Try smaller drawings or mini-paintings instead of filling up the whole page. This approach is not only much easier and faster, but an entire page covered in these little works of art looks spectacular.
  • Don’t show your art journal to anyone for the first two months. This approach not only keeps this space vulnerable and simple, but it can also help you avoid the pressure to look polished and ‘put together’.

Step #8: Consider Not Showing Your Art Journal For a Little While


consider not showing your art journal for a little while

While I just touched on this in the previous section, this aspect deserves a spotlight since it’s such a huge issue nowadays. In the age of social media, many creators feel pressured to showcase everything for fear of losing a paying opportunity or more followers.

While social media is helpful for growing your career, you need to create private work to grow as both an artist and a person. Uploading every single thing you create can make you subconsciously start to view yourself through the lens of followers and potential clients.

Taking a break from outside pressures is essential to avoid burnout and continue enjoying what you love to do.

This doesn’t mean you can never show your journals. Once you’re finished with your art journal – or got it off to a good start – then you can upload bits and pieces or the entire thing at once.

Step #9: Look to Other Artists for Inspiration (But Don’t Compare Yourself!)


look to other artists for inspiration

When you start an art journal, you may be tempted to check out the social media feeds or videos of other illustrators and designers. While there’s nothing wrong with looking to others for inspiration, be careful not to compare your journey to theirs.

Some fantastic artists with compelling art journals and sketchbooks are RAMDARAN and the late Kim Jung Gi. Watching them flip through their books is a lesson in spontaneous creativity and technical experimentation.

That said, you may feel intimidated by the skill on display, and it’s here I invite you to look outside your fears.

Even the most accomplished artists have hard days. There are times they’ll peer through their sketches or poetry and not see success, but where they’re coming up short. Any frustrations or fears you have about your progress are a common and natural part of growing as an artist – and as a person.

When you start an art journal, you give yourself the chance to make mistakes and take them as lessons.

Step #10: Celebrate Your Wins and Your Failures in Equal Measure


celebrate your wins and your failures in equal measure

Your art journal is going to have pages that irritate you or reaffirm your inner biases. It’ll also have pages that inspire some of your greatest works of art or change who you are.

It’s easy to celebrate successes, but more difficult to celebrate (perceived) failure. Art journaling is a commitment to personal growth, which includes the growing pains of what you’re trying to create or who you’re trying to be. It means you’ll sometimes do master studies that don’t come close to the original piece or write a poem you cringe at later.

Bob Ross regularly approached failure with a cheery and good-humored perspective. One of his best-known quotes is: “We don’t make mistakes. We have happy little accidents.”

Five Tips for Writing Interesting Things in Your Art Journal


tips for writing Interesting things in your art journal

If you’ve ever gotten frustrated putting a pen to paper and feeling your mind go blank, you won’t want to miss the tips below.

A Spur of the Moment Poem

There’s something special about a poem written briskly and straight from the heart. Consider an experience you went through lately or an emotion you’re feeling in the moment, then write a poem.

This form of self-expression can lead to all sorts of fun work or personal revelations, especially when you view them later.

A Song From a Musical Dream

Do you ever have dreams that take a musical turn, creating new melodies or lyrics from deep within your subconscious? When roughly six out of ten American adults rarely or never remember their dreams, these are artistic nuggets you want to hold dear.

A Nagging Frustration or Fear

One art journaling tip you can try is writing down an affirmation that helps you tackle fear or frustration.


a nagging frustration or fear

For example, if you want to start a print-on-demand site and are afraid you won’t sell anything, write that fear down in your art journal. Underneath it, write down three encouraging statements that help you stay focused on your dream, such as:

  • My audience is out there just waiting to buy some cool merch from me
  • All successful e-commerce shops had to start somewhere and so do I
  • I will commit to marketing my shop three times per week to get more visitors

Something You’re Grateful For

When stress or uncertainty threatens to take away your concentration, art journaling what you’re grateful for can lift your spirits.

A few things you could include are (but definitely aren’t limited to):

  • Having plenty of art supplies such as paints, pencils, or sketchbooks
  • Having your electricity and Internet always running
  • Having clean, fresh drinking water at all times

A Cool Story Idea for One of Your Art Projects


a cool story idea for one of your art projects

Art journalists frequently use their art journals as a way to store ideas until they’re ready to work on them later. If you regularly come up with interesting plot lines or character design ideas, jot them down with quick notes so you don’t forget.

This type of art journaling doesn’t need to be a mini-novel. If you’re short on time or short on writing space, you can save these ideas with:

  • A short story of one hundred words or less
  • A haiku that encompasses a theme you want to explore
  • A few keywords based on mood, design, or setting

Five Tips for Drawing or Painting Meaningful Things in Your Art Journal


tips for drawing or painting meaningful things in your art journal

Now that we’ve covered the writing portion of art journaling, it’s time to look into the visual element. Your art journal is where you can explore new techniques or record daily life without the commitment of a longer piece.

(Unless that’s what you want in your art journal, of course!)

Here are a few more tips to help your journal become a resource you can reflect on later:

Quick Studies of Everyday Life

Not all life studies need to be meticulously detailed snapshots of a bustling plaza. A marker doodle of your coffee mug or a quick painting of your shoes is just as fascinating.

What makes everyday life studies a great choice for art journals is how they add to the ‘diary’ aspect. Recording your surroundings in a journal can help you appreciate your life more and find magic in mundane settings.

quick studies of everyday life

A Cluster of Tiny Thumbnails

Do you frequently come up with ideas for paintings and barely know where to put them all? Lay flat your art journal and do a spread of tiny thumbnails so you can keep everything in one place.

The tiny thumbnails are quick to make and so small you don’t have time to get wrapped up in detail. This approach gives you plenty of room to focus on just a few details, like a focal point or a bold color palette.

A Self-Portrait in Different Mediums or Art Styles

Some artists start an art journal to record themselves in the most classic and straightforward way possible. A fun idea you can try is remixing your own image into different mediums or art styles.

Have you ever seen yourself framed in a journal magazine collage? You could even do a mini-series dedicated to famous art movements like Baroque, Art Deco, or Minimalism.


a self-portrait in different mediums or art styles

A Fanart of Something You Like

If you’re low on ideas, there’s nothing wrong with putting fanart in your journal. In fact, fan art can be a way to celebrate your favorite media and get back in touch with stories that left an impact on you.

You can combine this art journaling with written commentary on why you fell in love with a series in the first place. Writing down your favorite themes, scenes, or quotes are just a few details you can add to pay homage to another artist’s work.

Turn Random Shapes or Blobs Into a Final Piece

Some artistic professionals start an art journal so they can finally make art without expectation or social pressure. This exercise is a fascinating form of self-expression because you have no idea where it will lead.

If you want to create some truly unexpected art journaling, create some shapes with your eyes closed first. After you open them, try transforming the shapes into something you’re interested in.

The Drawfee Show has a fantastic video where several artists do a prompt to turn random shapes into finished drawings. The results are both hilarious and incredibly creative.


An Art Journal is a Fantastic Tool for Artistic or Spiritual Growth

When you start an art journal, you start the path toward becoming a more creative, brave, or curious version of yourself. The cool mini-paintings and creative writing are just the icing on the cake.


an art journal is a fantastic tool for artistic or spiritual growth

Do you want to supplement your journal with online art classes so you can learn even more? Sign up for a one-month free Skillshare trial to access multiple art journaling courses. This online community is overflowing with insightful art classes for all skill levels.

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