February Studio Chat: The Simple Art Journal

Here is my first Studio Chat! Now that I am going gray I want to share what I have learned about creativity but I don’t want teaching classes or making instructional videos to compete with my art practice for time. I decided informal studio chats about creative practices would be the way to go. This first one is about how to keep a simple art journal. It also discusses how to tailor your art journal practice to your own needs and inspirations. I hope you enjoy it!


Simple and Spontaneous Book Illustration Technique.

This isn’t a tutorial, it’s just a video of me making a book by starting with a large sheet of paper. I loosely paint elements from my story or poem, divide the paper up into folios and then I have pages with the illustrations started already. I add more painting and then the text. I learned this in a workshop by the renowned book artist Timothy Ely. I used it a lot when I first started illustrating books and was intimidated by the process. I still use it sometimes to generate new and unique composition ideas. Enjoy!

How to Start an Art Practice Without a lot of Supplies

I meet a lot of people who believe making art requires a lot of time, material, space and/or talent. Actually making art only requires one medium and a little passion. People make art just with their cell phone cameras these days and you don’t even have to be a photographer to do that. What interesting compositions could be made by framing one’s surrounds, what painterly moods could be expressed just capturing the light of a particular moment?

For more tactile people all one needs is paper and a pencil or pen. One could draw on the back of paper out of the recycle, buy a ream of copy paper, find a notebook laying around the house, pick up a sketchbook or notebook at the store, use the inside of paper bags.

My sketchbook is a ream of cotton bond paper, it’s more expensive than copy paper but its takes watercolor paint a little better and is still a lot cheaper than buying sketchbooks. I keep these in a three ring binder but no one needs to be that fancy even. A folder, manila envelope, box. One could scan their drawings onto a computer, post them (or not) on social media, a blog maybe and then recycle the paper copies.

Obviously there is nothing wrong with buying a nice sketchbook or having a lot of art supplies. I’m just trying to make things as simple and flexible as possible so anyone who is stuck inventing entry barriers for themselves may be inspired to let that go. Drawing is the best foundation for all art in my opinion. Even if what you want is to make giant oil paintings beginning to draw will take you about halfway to that goal.

Honestly, if you don’t start to draw you may never make a single painting. If you keep a drawing practice the stage is set. You will, sooner than you thought possible, start painting. Or get carried off in some other art direction more fulfilling than you ever could have imagined.

So what are you going to draw on your little stack of paper or the notebook you just pulled out of the bottom of the desk drawer? Even if it’s a little uninspired notebook, half-empty, with lines and old to-do lists it’s going to become a magical art-book the moment you make one attempt to express yourself in it.

Drawings can be made in a few minutes, we don’t need to wait for a lot of time to sit down and draw. Commercials, waiting for someone to arrive or text back, coffee breaks. Every time we see a social media post that irritates us it should be like a drinking game but instead it’s our cue to put down the phone and grab a piece of paper.

Starting a new thing and finding time can be hard, I won’t deny that. We don’t have get mad at ourselves or our circumstances. Nor to we have to get mad at ourselves for getting mad at ourselves. The moment we notice we haven’t drawn for a few weeks is the moment to congratulate ourselves for giving passion enough of a presence to remember. The moment we feel frustrated at how many other things we have to do is the moment to have gratitude that we have a strong passion that is going to take us on an amazing adventure even if it seems a little slow compared to the movies we love to watch.

Some people know what they want to draw already. Faces, cats, dishware, shoes, gardens, boats, birds, abstracts…some people know what they love that they want to talk about with art. Go to it. Do not obligate yourself to be good, it is more important to try, to learn. Whatever your drawings look like, trust that they are beautiful because you took the time to make them. Because they are a product of and catalyst for your passion. Because deciding to make art without anyone else’s permission or approval is a subversive act of faith in the worth of your life.

You can worry about making your drawings “good” later. Even better, you can continue to cultivate your voice and discover more of your own beauty.

Some people don’t know what they want to draw, they just know they like art and want to make their own. No problem. Draw something near you. Draw something in your imagination. Draw something that seems like something you would like to draw. Doodle, scribble, put the pencil down on the paper and make some marks. Get to know the marks your hand likes to make. You can decide later what to draw, the important thing is to start. Let yourself start the thing you want to do. Let it be incredibly imperfect. Let it be a tiny seed that looks nothing like the grand oak you would like it to be.

Having Tea with the Artist’s Existential Dilemma

The other day I was perusing the internet when I read this beautiful quote by Courtney Martin on OnBeing’s Instagram, Make relationships that are reciprocal, not transactional. Makes lives that aren’t easy, but rife with good material. Make art that matters.

Inspired I looked up Martin and read a transcript from a commencement speech she made about the challenges of being an artist.

In one spot Martin talked about self-loathing and—not being the first time I’ve heard a creative person talk about self-loathing as a regular part of the journey—I decided to give the issue some thought.

My goal has always been to eradicate negative feelings toward myself. It’s a fight that emboldens it’s own enemy and becomes quickly futile. But what if these feelings are just part of the creative ecology? Not that all artists suffer internally, but that there is a required quota many of us have been assigned to. Or maybe an intense desire for honesty gets transformed into a plague of self-loathing for those that carry even a tiny seed of self-doubt.

It occurred to me to try a different approach. Instead of responding to self-loathing by dismantling my entire life and value system down to bare dirt and intently questioning each scrap of wood and nail as I build it back up, maybe I could just invite the self-loathing to tea as I’ve heard some Buddhists do, inspired by stories of Buddha inviting his own demons to tea as an honored guests.

Hello Self-loathing, it is hard to be an artist today, what would you like to talk about?

Perhaps I could have some influence if I take the time to make friends with this state of mind. Eventually I could level with it: I know you’d like to take this opportunity to scour every thought I’ve ever had to see if I am the real thing but I can assure you that it’s not possible to know and doesn’t matter. I am not strong enough to be something else, you are stuck being an artist and possibly a fraud. Is there something less existential you might enjoy doing today?

In the past I’ve benefited from a similar exercise I learned in one of Cheri Huber’s many books on mediation practice. When I became mired in melancholy I would sit down and write from the voices of the sorry feelings. It was quite amazing. Emotions that seemed overwhelming and debilitating would boil down to very simple issues once I let them rant for a while: You haven’t done anything social all week, do you hate me or what? That’s an easy fix once I see it clearly and then I feel like a human again.

Another example: I am really stressed out about that class I have to teach next week and I am dreading doing the prep.

It is easier to negotiate with a voice than a feeling: You’ve gotten a lot of feedback that would suggest you are good at teaching. But also, I don’t care if you bomb this class, I’ll still be here for you. Remember the last three times I avoided doing class prep but once I got started it was fun?

It’s still hard to get started but it’s easier after airing the discontent and worry. I also have more time to do the prep when I feel I can stop planning how to get a loan to build a tiny house in the field at my mom’s as any good failure would do.

I imagine many healthy people have these conversations in their heads automatically before they bog down without really being aware of it. Also, I’m not convinced this would help someone with clinical depression but it works well enough for me to suggest it.

There is a gift, I’m sure, in a propensity toward self-doubt. All of our challenges have the power to make us compassionate, to make us more resilient and capable. But most of all they are the terrain before us and we have a right to be intrigued with our path instead of worrying about how to get to the place we think we should be.