Journal Reality–the Messy Journal

“What does your journal look like?” one of my class participants asked. She was putting away her own carefully crafted art journal filled with delightful patterns and colors that she had copied from magazines.

“What do you think it would look like?” I asked, knowing where this conversation would lead.

“Your journal would have exquisite artwork on every page, with beautiful handwriting in lovely colors. And the whole book would be perfect–no mistakes. You’ve been journaling a long time,” the participant said with the joy that comes right before the bubble pops.

Silently, I handed her my journal. It has a water-stained front cover and the elastic is over-stretched. She opened it, and gasped, involuntarily. She had opened it on a page in pencil, with an ugly sketch of a thing that might be a butterfly, maybe a moth, surrounded in what might be tire tracks.

She looked at me in real doubt. I was the teacher here? She flipped to another page. A drawing done diagonally across two pages, with a not particularly good illustration of a hand reaching up to find a pen on a table.

The participant looked at me with pity. “This is yours? Is it recent?” She was horrified. How could the instructor in a class have a journal that was so. . . ugly?

The class had gathered and I held up the ugly butterfly page. “When I saw this butterfly done in repoussé  and chased on a pendant, I loved the Asian feel it had. When I drew it, as an illustration, it was flat, missing the raised element of the repoussé and the deep outlining of chasing. The Asian influence came from the technique, not the illustration, and I didn’t understand that until I did the drawing. Had I added shading and definition, added a frame,  it would have looked like the pendant.

“Why didn’t you?” Another participant asked.

“I learned all I need to learn from what I had drawn,” I said. “Having learned it, I noted it on the page and then could move on.”

“And the . . .hand?” another participant asked.

“Hands are hard to draw, but this was not about the hand. This was about breaking the page–creating an artificial edge with a diagonal line across the page. Elizabeth Perry is an expert at it. I was not, so I practiced, and gave myself a chance to copy my own hand at the same time.”

My journals are not little artworks ready for framing. My journals are explorations on translating what I see into a flat surface. My journal is about experimenting and failing, and knowing why I failed. My journals are about experimenting and succeeding and knowing why it worked this time. Some pages have instructions for an idea, some a diagram that makes sense only to me. Some pages are beautiful, some are not. My journals are my work, my thoughts, my ideas, and they are not perfect. They can be a mess on the way to pretty good. And that’s why my journals make me indescribably happy.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and recovering perfectionist.   She teaches people who can’t draw how to keep art journals.