Should Artists Keep Art Journals?

orchid-still-life.jpgI have journals and notebooks scattered all around my home. I love them. And I love to write in them. I’m just not very consistent about when I write or what the purpose of my writing should be. So sometimes, often, I have two or three journals going at once and I’m writing about different things that I do in each of them. I can frustrate myself when I want to find something that I wrote and I have to look in all the possible places. On the other hand, I’m often pleasantly surprised when I open an old journal and reread things that I wrote.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about possible benefits of keeping a journal while I do my artwork. Knowing myself as I do and knowing my propensity for starting a new journal on a whim, I decided to give this idea of an artist’s journal more thought before diving in. I have made drawings in sketchbooks from time to time, but I’ve never really made writing about my work a priority. What I have in mind is along the lines of Van Gogh’s diaries.

van gogh diary

I started to think about keeping a journal while I was doing a plein air painting of water lilies a couple of weeks ago. Water lilies only stay open for a few hours when the sun is bright and overhead. Plein air painting is both fun and challenging. I love to be in nature and watch the light expose the contours and colors of everything. I feel challenged to complete a work on location though because the light changes so quickly that the window of opportunity is narrow. Two hours is pretty much it. I’ve continued to paint up to three hours, but after that long, the sun has moved a lot, causing both shadows and colors to be quite different from when I started. My point is: time is short and there is a lot to figure out and do sort of on the fly during a brief window of time.

Speed is essential, and it takes time to develop speed. The things that slow me down are getting a good composition and color mixing. The little 6 x 8″ painting below took nearly three hours to complete on location.


6 x 8 ” oil on canvas panel.

Back to the water lilies—I’d been painting a couple of hours in the sun. I was hot and tired and I wanted to go home. I also wanted to finish the piece I was working on so I began to think about how I could get faster. I could paint every day instead of two or three times a week, which definitely helps. I’ve given myself challenges during past summers to paint every day for a month or 50 days. At the end of that time, I can honestly say that I could complete a 6 X 8 ” painting in two hours instead of three IF I was very choosy about the subject matter I decided to paint. There are a lot of variables that impact the time needed to finish a piece.

Or I could figure out a different way to get better and faster while in the field. That’s when journaling came to mind. Like I said, it takes time to plan a composition. It also takes time to understand how things grow. Tree branches grow differently on different kinds of trees. Clouds are all different. Flowers all grow differently. And then there’s the whole color and value thing.

peonies diary

Dawn Clements recorded the progression of peonies from opening to wilting and falling off the stems. She worked on the above piece for days, and she thinks of her drawing as “particular moments that would have otherwise slipped away.”

“There is another private and messy place where I observe, think freely, and notate, especially when I am away from home. That place is a folded-up piece of paper I carry in my handbag. It is both a drawing and a book; a collection of daily uncensored observations, notations, transcriptions, thoughts, and information. It is not designed to be completed, even if eventually it may become finished. In a way, it is always finished and never finished.”  — Dawn Clements

Most artists who keep a journal or diary include other diary-like activities. They document their joys, concerns, interests and goings-on. For many, posting updates on social media, based on journal notes. Still others are finding ways of connecting the idea of diary to their studio practice.

I like the idea of having a collection of observations, notations, transcriptions, thoughts, and information. So I’ve decided to give journaling on location a try. I plan to allow myself an hour before I begin painting to observe the scene I want to paint. I’ll work out the composition and do some drawing to familiarize myself with the shapes of things. If I don’t finish a piece on location, having things written down or drawings will help me remember what I was thinking about when I chose and scene and painted. It’ll help me remember what colors I mixed together to come up with the colors used in the painting, too. Color mixing is one of those “on the fly” things that’s done fast in the field and that can cause problems later when I want to finish up a piece in my studio.

I won’t know the benefit of taking the time to record observations in a journal unless I try it for at least a while.