Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Few Thoughts about Visual Journaling

My head is spinning with thoughts inspired by Susan's post:

bead embroidery, BJP by Susan E
Susan E. of Plays with Needles posted about how tea is the Elixir of Life and about how the ritual of drinking tea figured into her mother's death. Tea is the subject of her Bead Journal Project for April, a detail of which is pictured above.

My head is spinning with thoughts inspired by Pam's post:

bead embroidery, BJP by Pam T.
Pam T. of Beads and Other Things posted about Anger and Fear, about her process with cancer and her Bead Journal Project for June, part of which is shown above.

My head is spinning with thoughts inspired by Celticat's post:

bead embroidery, BJP by Celticat
Mary (Celticat) of Contemporary Bead Art posted about Spanish Madonna and about how her beading takes on its own life, different from her sketches. Above is her Bead Journal Project piece for April.

And my head is spinning with thoughts inspired by these books:

books by Pat B. Allen
Pat B. Allen is an artist who writes about the artistic process, how we can know and express our authentic self and how we can find a spiritual path. Reading her book is changing my world. While this isn't a "book review" post, I am more than smitten with all that she says!

Here are my top 5 inspirational books (not in order, because it always depends on what I need at any given time). These are the books I always grab when I need a creativity boost or tools for banishing the internal critic:
OK, so what I want to write about today is visual journaling...

Let's begin with the root of this phrase... What is journaling? In my youth, it meant keeping a secret diary. Although the idea of writing my thoughts and secrets in a locked book was very appealing to me, I rarely wrote more than a few pages in any of my diaries.

In my middle years, several of my friends became enthralled with keeping journals, recording their thoughts, on paper. When I would complain of some life event or be struggling with a decision, they'd say, "Try journaling about it." I tried sometimes, yet it never seemed to work for me. Why? Maybe because...
  • I was embarrassed by my thoughts.
  • It seemed like too much work.
  • It seemed self-indulgent.
  • I thought I had to write stuff that was "worthwhile" or "important."
  • Writing from my brain (analytically, as I did then) simply repeated my thoughts (boring) and didn't get to the heart and soul of anything.
Who knows... it just didn't appeal to me. Not until Julia Cameron gave us The Artist's Way and permission to write and scribble and draw and cross out and never again read our words... Never, ever again read our crazy thoughts, our fears, our angers, our hopes, our prayers, our forgiveness... And gave us permission to let our hearts speak out, page after page, day after day. Then! That's when journaling seeped into my life and changed it forever, healing festering wounds and opening me to my own creative way.

No, I don't journal every day. I did for a while, when the Artist's Way was new to me... But still, I know when I need to journal. It's when I need to say something from within... something, maybe, that my intellect can not grasp or is not aware of... when I need to hear and acknowledge my own inner voice. That's when I write!

That's also when I bead! Much of my bead embroidery is visual journaling. It happens most easily and deeply when I work improvisationally... without a plan or with only the barest of thoughts tucked in the back of my mind.

So now, with the Bead Journal Project in its second year and 20 journal pieces behind me, I'm thinking today about what visual journaling is and about how we do it.

I believe there are many equally valid ways to use art and beads to journal visually.

For example, in Pam's June BJP, she boldly puts everything on the table... UGLY, FEAR, ANGER... it's all there, obvious and visual. She shakes it out of her pores and her guts and slaps it in our faces, acknowledging and honoring the part of her that normally would remain hidden. Is this not a gift to herself? To show the demon is to tame it!

Less in your face is the way Susan deals with the flow of her life, especially in and around her Mother's death. We don't know about that when we look at her piece. We know only of the peace she finds as she sails along in her cup of tea and plays with her needles. But Susan knows about the death and the missing and the sadness. She allows her heart to be touched by it as she beads about the contentment she finds in the rituals of drinking tea.

Even less revealing is the way Celticat beads and sketches. Her first act of visual journaling is her sketch, using pencils, crayons &/or water colors to record an immediate, impressionistic, gut-level sense of a place, person or idea. Not a photographic rendering of her subjects, Celticat instead allows her emotional slant and her feelings to blossom all over her sketches. This process continues in her beaded versions of the sketches. We don't get an obvious message from her work, as we do from Pam's. But we do have a sense that if we knew her visual language, we'd be reading an inner book when we look at her work.

What about you? Here are some questions for thought....
  • Did you keep a diary when you were young? How often did you write in it? What was it like? Is it important in any way to your artistic process now?
  • Do you keep a written journal? How often do you write in it? What is it like?
  • Do you journal visually? What is your process? What materials do you use?
  • Just curious... Have you read Art Is a Way of Knowing? Did you fill the margins and underline many passages like me?
my marks and notes in Art Is a Way of Knowing by Pat Allen
If you write a post on this subject, please let me know... I'd love to see a dialog about visual journaling!


  1. Oh Robin! Great thoughts on visual journaling! Definitely makes me think even further about things... and I have (as an 'adult') journaled for years, gobs and gobs of volumes of journals stacked away that I have written FULL. The whole beading it part of it is "new" to me, just since the BJP, and I plan on checking out the books you mention soon! Thank you for planting a way to learn more about it...

  2. Boy, you really know your stuff! My mind thinks I want to journal on paper but yes, deep down I think its a waste of time spent..I am not a person that can practice either..I need to jump right in.

    The bead journaling has been perfect for me. I may not fill a page with beads. But I am able to express my thoughts thouroughly in the written page that accompanies each entry. I thank you for helping me to realize that ability. I would never have guessed that this project would come to be so important to me.

    Warmest Regards,

  3. I probably tried to write a diary when I was young, but I got bored writing in it, so gave it up pretty quickly.

    Now, I actually keep a private blog which only about 5 people in the world can read. I try to write in it a couple of times per month or so. Mostly it's just a way to tell my Dad what I'm up to if he ever reads it.

    And, I think my beadwork is a very slow form of visual journaling. But, it isn't a journal about me, it's more about the world as I see it.

    And, I do not and would never write/highlight in a book! I can't stand that! I completely ruins them! Books are meant to be read!! LOL

  4. Interesting thoughts & ideas, Robin. I thought all day about how I would answer a question about visual journaling. I don't really do this, and I had to figure out why I don't. I use to keep a diary when I was a little girl writing secrets and dreams until the day my Mother found it and read what I had written and then punished me for the negative thoughts I had. So I keep my thoughts and ideas to myself. I can't help breaking out of that habit. Later on in college, I did a writer's journal for all the literature classes I completed. And oh yes! I did & still do write notes to myself in all my books. It is a way to make them personal to just me. I wrote about the pieces of literature I was reading and how it related to my life jotting down ideas for papers to be written or themes to explore. I use to write stories and had a whole website devoted to the antics of a group of Scottish Terriers. It was so much fun, but then when my first Scottie died, it all dried up. I had no more words. I had no more stories. I was helpless. I tried to journal, to do a diary, nothing, nothing and more nothing. Then I picked up a needle and beads, and all those words came through my fingers onto a piece of fabric. And you know what? All those words became tiny pixels expanding across the fabric using beads as my letters. I still don't share my emotions in my blog. It is still so hard for me to open up, because I'm still that teenager who got caught spilling out her emotions to be found and used against her. I wish I could be like so many others and explore my emotions on my blog, but I can't. My emotions instead spill out into my Art each bead or fiber at a time. My heart wants the world to be at peace, and happy so therefore all my Art is made to make a viewer smile. Smiles to me will conquer the world! So make Art with your heart, and pass on those smiles.


  5. Hi Robin,
    Like you I'm enthralled by the idea of journaling. In real life, not so much. I do keep a journal in which I talk and listen to God and that is about it. I've done visual journaling with paper and pencil and collages and hated most of it, but learned a lot about myself from the process. Even when I was doing the Artist's Way (all 3 X's) I couldn't do very well journaling as she wanted us too. I got bored with my own stream of consciousness and started writing that and that really bored me more. I finally figured out, that I don't journal well.

    I know people for whom this works really well, and I love that they can journal with words (more left brain) and with pictures (more right brain), but for me, I think I have to accept that it is sort of like sculpture. . . not something I really have a talent or patience for. It just isn't the way I work I guess. The only piece I've done in that fashion, except for small pieces, is "Hiding From Myself" and I thought I'd never finish it because it was so huge. Took forever! I think I'm just figurative in my outlook and yet my mind is perfectly capable of dancing on either side of my brain and the right side is where I go when I get tired of listening, bored with what someone is saying, or leap to from a scientific presentation--yet I need the concrete of thoughts nailed down in the figurative to really say something meaningful to me. I like to believe I dance on the right and make decisions on the left. I know that none of do that, but it is where I've learned to live.

    Yes, I've read Art Is a Way of Knowing and underlined and wrote some notes in margins. Not as much as you did, but some. I'm also forever writing phone #'s in books and then reading on and forgetting to put them in an address book. Man, I'm famous for that!

    Well, I've used enough space as well as someone else's, but not all of us journal and that is something I'm sure someone needs to know.

    If I want to get something off my mind and out of my soul and where I can see truth and handle it, I will journal about it and then destroy the pages! In the sense of being private, my working through is something I might express in my work, but not in the rarified, unthought form, at least not on purpose, that I know of.

  6. Hi Robin,
    Yes, these bead pieces are great illustrations of visual journalling and of working improvisationally. I always so appreciate the bravery of artists like Pam, because when I look at their work, I often feel relieved, as in, "Whew! I'm not the only one who feels this way."

    I've responded to your question about marking in books on my blog with a photo at

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. I did keep a diary when I was young and do write in a journal now although not everyday. I worked through The Artist's Way a number of years ago and it really helped me in writing. I'm trying now to get back in the habit of doing morning pages. That "brain drain" process gets rid of a lot of stuff!

    I don't do visual journaling. It's something I really want to do but am afraid of because I think you need to be "artistic." Doing the BJP is really helping me with that process!

    I haven't read Art is a Way of Knowing but I'm going to very soon - thanks for the recommendation!

  8. like many other people I have met I was hugely impacted by the YA novel Harriet The Spy. Her story inspired me to begin keeping a notebook
    of personal observations. I was 10 at the time. Have been keeping a written journal ever since.

    I do not find this process self-indulgent or boring. I find it highly stabilizing (and thus of ongoing value to those around me as well as myself) to clarify both my thoughts and emotions. And also to "go exploring" without any map of expectations.

    I started keeping a visual journal around this time last summer. Many folks seem to believe "art is for sharing" but to me the visual pages are as personal as a written journal. sometimes I post images of pages in progress on my blog and share some details of the process involved. But mainly it's something I do for myself and my overall creative goddess aspects.

    Here's a link to a recent post from veteran visual journalist Kelly Kilmer. Had read it directly before visiting your blog and seeing this post.

  9. I've journaled, off and on, since college (40+ years ago, ack!), mostly to express frustration and anger and to get clear about what my feelings were about a particular event or process in my life.
    I hadn't ever done visual journaling, despite working in "traditional" art media, until you started the 2007/08 BJP, robin. It's been a great gift to me to find an art form that allows self expression of a more personal nature than I've ever known before.
    Thank you so much...and thanks also for the book recommendations!

  10. Having been told as a child that I had no particular talent for writing or artistic things, I didn't pursue either until becoming an adult. I find it interesting that I indulge myself in both areas now. I started writing in a journal during an emotional period in my life. I don't do it consistently, but I find it helpful to get over bad patches. Since starting the BJP in 2007, I have poured so many emotions into my beadwork that it amazes me. Before that, beading was just a fun, artsy thing to do. Now, it is a way of channeling all those hidden feelings into safe, productive pieces of art. It has been literally a life saver for me. Robin, you will laugh to know I just finished an article for our Bead Society newsletter on what to do when you lose your Muse. I quoted you in recommending just sewing on one bead at a time. Arline

  11. I have journaled on paper since childhood, on and off. Rarely reading what I wrote later on, lest I tore it to tiny little pieces. During the time I spent with my partner, I stopped writing & singing.

    I discovered visual journaling with the BJP and this actually was part of a healing process, as if I was mending my life with threads and embellishing it with beads. Because the BJP includes sharing with others, I often feel constrainted, as I don't want to impone my "negativity" on others or my crazyness. However, thanks to the BJP and the amazingly kind responses I got from the community, I have learnt to relax, I have learnt that it is OK to share, through art and in real life. I am getting out of my shell (as we say in French) little by little.

    Thank you Robin, thank you all ! :o)



  12. Robin, I appreciate what you wrote! It's a lot to think about. I did some writing in my "morning pages" about this blog post. My first memory of journaling was in college for an English class. I drew & wrote was our assignment. I still enjoy going back & looking at the drawings & reading what I wrote. The Artist Way and your encouragement was the next time in my life when I wrote regularly and I did it for a number of years. I think my jewelry work became a form of visual journaling...expressing my thoughts & stories in metal. Attending classes in Process Painting was another powerful pathway into my inner images. Recently, attending your lecture on the Bead Journaling Project got me really interested in making images again on a regular basis. Unfortunately, I haven't been sticking with it. I plan to purchase Art as a Way of Knowing so I can write in it (the copy I was reading belonged to the library). I believe that visual journaling is most useful for me because so many unexpected images arise when I don't interfere with my process.

  13. I have read Pat Allen's "Art is a Way of Knowing" a few years back. After reading your post, I think I may have to dive into her "Art is a Spiritual Path" and her web site!

    I just bought a set of Crayola markers and though I've been keeping a journal of words for a few years now, I've started using the markers and pencils to draw or sketch, or even just color the blank page, in the morning when I get out of bed.

  14. Many years ago I had the opportunity to take a workshop with Pat Allen. It opened up unknown worlds. A group that I met weekly with adopted her process to our group - intention, drawing for a period of time, witnessing. Even now, I still do an intention and witness with certain things.

    I've journaled both in writing and drawing. A few years ago I decided to throw away most of my journals - dozens of them - because they were private and I didn't want anyone to read them. I have no regrets about that decision, and have continued to toss collages, drawings, and sculptural work that was personal or part of a personal process. I realized that for me, holding on to some of those emotions or periods of my life was holding me back.

    Thanks for your post on visual journaling.


  15. søren5:25 AM

    Robin, this is a great post. I haven't read Art is a Way of Knowing and I've been meaning to - thanks for reminding me!
    I used to keep mostly written journals with little occasional sketches and lots of things of interest taped in - then one sucky year, I just wrote and wrote and wrote - huge scribbly pages to boys who had broken my heart (I was maybe 18?) - while also staying out all night at a diner and drawing portraits with my friends - and then after that I kept books of tiny precise ink drawings with some descriptions -
    and then one winter with a mental breakdown, pages and pages every night -
    and now, a sometimes tarot card journal, several collagey/painting/mixed media ones (do you know the work of Juliana Coles? I use her workshop ideas), one with ideas for dolls and fabric projects, one with drawings and positive thoughts...
    you have me thinking many things this morning! And I really need to be making someone a birthday present instead.
    but thank you!

  16. I started reading the book. Introduction made me cry. I'm really glad I found this book. Thank you Robin !

  17. Anonymous6:45 AM

    I've read with interest all of the comments about written journaling. I have tried it but don't know exactly why I didn't continue. Perhaps for some (maybe all!) of Robin's reasons.
    Unless I missed it, did anyone mention "verbal journaling"? I think I do a LOT of that, at least I'm told I talk to myself a lot. Does it count?

  18. I recognized myself in your description of why journaling hasn't worked for you. In my bead pages I find lots of thoughts that go around. My husband keeps asking why I call them pages and I keep telling him because it's a journal. I don't think he gets that it is. I am trying to keep journals with drawing and painting, a place to put the poems I write that I actually like and paste in some pictures and inchies that I make. My journal which I only started AFTER starting the bead journaling is a catch-all for any type of art I feel like or for memories but I only put happy things in it. My morning pages can be negative and bitchy but my art journal is the opposite. I want to look through it and enjoy it and share it with my family and friends so I put only what I am willing to share - even with myself- in it. I hear of people who say they burn their journals. Well, that is what I may do with morning pages but when I put lots of effort into depicting a thought, event or poem I want to keep it. Words in my journal are few, pictures are the main thing.

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Thanks you for joining the discussion on this post today!