Why do I art journal?

A friend asked me this question on Facebook last week and I loved it so much I wanted to share it, and my response (which I’ve expanded with pics and additional thoughts), here.

I have a question about this type of art, and trying to understand it better. In my head, art is something that should be displayable. It seems these journals are not that way. What is your view? Obviously you invest a lot of yourself in these and I’m trying to understand your purpose.

—Sara M. Smith

Practice and Self-Expression

Sometimes journals are practice, a place for me to try new techniques or color combos or new marks. I often pull things out of my journal to work on in a bigger art piece, so it’s a great training ground. I often work in my art journal when I don’t have other projects going on so I can stay in practice and make art. I never have the excuse that I have nothing to work on! So for this purpose, you can think of it like a sketch book on steroids. This journal spread was the color starting point for my Women’s Work Series:

Here’s my favorite piece (called Sojourner Truth) from the show. It’s currently available for sale in my Etsy shop. (You can see all the pieces from this collection over on the “Art Catalog” tab on the left.)

Sometimes my journals are about self expression, a way to process thoughts and feelings I have. That might be explicit in what I put on the page in the form of text or images, or it might be just energetic mark making as a way to express frustration or anger. I have a huge journal I’m working in right now that is sorta my quarantine journal, so there are lots of thoughts in it about this time we are living through right now. Some people treat theirs as sort of a cross between a scrapbook and a diary and put really personal stuff in it. If I have a super personal thought in the journal that I don’t want to share with the internet, I tend to cover it up with layers of stuff. It might not be visible but I know it’s there. Or it might just be a word or phrase with the date. Those pieces of information allow me to remember the time period surprisingly well. Here’s a page from my quarantine journal:

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what you are feeling is grief

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It says, “What you are feeling is grief.” I feel like I’ve had waves of grief swell up at different points during the pandemic. I think other people feel it too since I had several people ask for prints of this.

I’m involved with an online art journaling community and it provides monthly themes (they call them seasons), so sometimes I work along with the season and produce a whole journal to go along with that. This is a really recent one of those for the Season of Bloom:

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Page through @misty.granade’s Season of Bloom journal

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The Season of Bloom was really fun for me because I tried techniques that I hadn’t used before. We had to boil our book with plants to eco dye it. It’s pretty scary to throw something you’ve made into a pot of boiling water with a whole mess of onions skins in there for dye. But it’s also really liberating. Can I mess it up? Yes, of course I can. Can I fix it or start over? Yes, I can do that too.

Some books have themes like my Prayers for Nature (it was also a Get Messy Art season journal but ended up with a particular slant because I turned it into a prayer book of sorts):

Several pages from my Prayers for Nature journal were featured in the Summer 2018 issue of Art Journaling magazine. So lots of people saw those spreads!

This book is the first altered book I made and it’s just a lot of different things but ultimately a testing ground for techniques and supplies and also holds a bunch of life stuff that was going on for me at the time:

Art Outreach

I display my journals during art show receptions for people to pick up and handle and look at. There’s nothing like encountering an art book face to face. Even the best pictures can’t do justice to the feel of a handmade or altered book filled with paint and collage. It’s one of the few mediums that actively encourage people to handle art because you literally can’t turn the pages without handling it! I have a friend whose journal has been on display at a gallery that hosted a group show of journals.

I also take them to schools and talk about art. I have friends who are teachers, and I’ve talked to their classes about making art journals and what the uses and practices are. It’s a great way to get kids involved in a way that is more accessible than museum art. EVERY kid has doodled on their notebook during class at some point. These journals allow them to see the power of the pencil or pen in their hand and that is my favorite thing.


Part of the magic of meeting up with fellow journalers is being able to handle their books and look at them up close. We also collaborate to make journals together or make a spread in another person’s book so they have a memento of your time together. I have several books I’ve made at retreats where we’ve worked around the table adding to mini journals in a round the table round robin so you end up with a book where everyone has worked in it.

The other part of community for me is Instagram. Many, many people see my work on IG daily. I post what I’m working on nearly every day. And I interact with folks there all the time! I’m pretty sure some of my posts have been viewed more often than some art in museums. I have a relatively small following, but if one of my spreads is reposted by the Get Messy Art Journal account, then potentially 38,000 people see it. That’s a monstrous reach!

Selling prints

I mentioned a few paragraphs above that I made prints of spreads to sell sometimes. I don’t ever plan on that in my journals because I use a ton of commercially-printed materials. Fair use copyright says I can make ONE original piece of art from pieces of printed material, but that I can’t make prints to sell from that original work of art. Sometimes I end up with pages that have no copyrighted materials on them but that’s super difficult for me to plan out ahead of time. If I like something and want to use it on my page, I’m going to do that no matter if it’s copyrighted or not.

Sidenote: I’ve had a terrifically hard time selling prints in my Etsy store after the one person who requested the print buys it. So I’ve opted to just not do prints right now as it’s a lot of trouble for me to photograph it, get it professionally printed, then photograph the print so I can list it in my Etsy shop. Not to say I’ll never do it! But it’s not something I’m doing right now.


While my journals can’t be displayed like a painting to hang on the wall or a sculpture, I find that I handle mine rather a lot! I show them to people whenever they ask (and sometimes when they don’t). So maybe they aren’t art in the traditional display sense but they are certainly art in the way so many items we cherish are art. I have a crystal bowl that I got as a wedding gift. I don’t use it often, but when I do, it brings a great deal of beauty to the activity at hand. I can live with my journals being in a category like that bowl: something bright and precious that I only handle occasionally, but take a great deal of pleasure in when I do.