Your Journal’s First Page: Five More Ideas

The more often I teach art journaling, the more I hear about that troublesome first page in the journal. It seems we can’t work in the journal until that troublesome first page it complete.

Bubble pages can be simple and gorgeous.

Some time ago, I wrote a post with five ideas of what to do with that first page some time ago, but it’s time for five new ideas.

1. Create a simple background, like bubble pages. Beautiful old books often have marbled paper end pages. You can create a lovely end page of your own.

2. Cut up some of your artwork that you aren’t going to use or don’t like. Even if you didn’t like the piece as a whole, a small square might be just right. Like the old patchwork quilts made from worn out clothing and bed linens, a first page collaged from your artwork is a lovely reminder of techniques you’ve tried.

Pieces from old artwork can be combined to form a new first page of membories.

3. Ask a few close friends to write their favorite quotes on the first page. You’ll have more quotes, and it’s a good way to create a strong memory.

4. Draw a permission slip on the first page. Give yourself permission to try new

A permission slip allows you to explore and experiment in your journal

things, to mess up and start over, to try some new art technique without the push of making something perfect. A permission slip is a renewable resource for your art!

5. Read something wonderful on Facebook, Twitter, or other places online? Open an email, cut and paste the great quote, add the source and send it to yourself. Copy one of the phrases in rubber stamps or your own hand-lettering on the first page of your journal. Fresh ideas are a great way to start your journal.

–Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach and the author of Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art. She’ll be at Antigone Books in Tucson on September 23, making permission slips and signing her book at 7 p.m.

Simple Does It

We are knee-deep in layers upon layers. I don’t mean clothing, although that is also true if you live in the Northern segments of the world, and fall is approaching in frost-toed boots.

I’m talking about art journaling and art work. The popular touch of the moment is deep layers of colors and textures, sometimes applied with whatever is at hand, without much planning. There’s a point in that–experimentation is a great rough door that pushes into the art world. But there are also limits.

You’ve probably been in classes where colors are applied over gesso, stencils slapped over that, positive, negative, metallics. All are barely dry when the punchinella and bubble wrap appear and another layer gets slapped on.

Popular culture fads appear everywhere–clothing, food, health problems (the hypoglycemics of yesterday have been replaced by the gluten allergic),  breast-feeding, and parenting.

After trying layers on layers and satisfying my “color and texture” thrill, the work seemed  not much of anything except color and texture. I started steering away from it before I started my book, and iHanna, the popular art blogger, noted with some surprise that there wasn’t a lot of layers in any of my work.

Here’s the secret: we don’t need all those layers to hide the fact that we aren’t artists. Or that we are. Sticking to simple makes defining what we look at easier to get down on paper. The human eye needs only 30 percent of an image to recognize it.

While driving down a big boulevard yesterday, I noticed that the non-native pine trees here really got blasted in our desert sun. Keeping my eye on the road, even quick glances showed the clear shape of a pine, and that each branch held a bunch of needles. I got home and grabbed my water colors and two stencil brushes–one small and one fat, that I use to glue book covers.

I dipped the dry brushes in paint and pounced them on the paper. On the left, you can see the underpainting of yellow (our glaring light) is still wet. As you move farther right, the dry brush technique shows the pine trees as rough and sun-blasted. Just as they are.

You can keep your work simple and have it be sharp, effective and clear. Glance at something quickly and see what you remember–it won’t be layers and layers, it will be shape and structure. That’s a good place to start.

Context is the clothing on the bone structure of meaning. It can change, but the bone structure–the simple outline, simple structure–that’s what causes people to nod heads and look for meaning. And, well, you know how I feel about meaning-making. It’s what makes you an artist. Not layers.

–Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach and author of the book Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art.


Using an Acrylic/Gel Skin

Yesterday, I made an acrylic gel skin with a palette knife and left it to dry. Early this  morning, I made another one, using my finger to mix the colors. I liked the circular effect on this one, and the darker blue/gray colors. Cutting shapes out of a paint skin can be a bit tricky. The scissors must be small and sharp if you are cutting small pieces, as I did. The metal sticks slightly to the plastic and it’s easy to get jagged edges or pulled pieces. Work slowly and steadily for the best results.

Tonight I had two skins to play with, the original red one made with a palette knife:

And the blue/gray/brown one, swirled with my finger:

When I saw the colors of the second one, I thought of the beautiful blue agave I recently lost to sun scorch. The neighbors cut down their 30-foot eucalyptus, and the agave, not accustomed to full sun for 12 hours, burned away.  I imagined that there was such a thing as a fire agave that burned on its own.

Cutting out spears from both pieces, I arranged them to create Fire Agave Burning Under the Full Moon.

–Quinn McDonald is an art journaler and the author of Raw Art Journaling, Making Meaning, Making Art, published by North Light books.

Making Acrylic/Gel Skins

Acrylic skins are made with acrylic paint and gel medium. Why not just mix the paint and gel medium on your journal page? Because creating a skin is more versatile. The skin can be cut, stamped, printed, or stenciled. It adds an interesting texture and color to your art journal pages.

Here’s how to make your own acrylic/gel skin:

Cut a piece of plastic wrap about 12 inches x 12 inches. Smooth it out on your work space. Put the plastic wrap on a light piece of paper so you can see and control the color mix. Drip several colors of acrylic paint on the plastic wrap. Don’t use tube watercolors, as they aren’t plastic, and right now, you want plastic.

Once you have all the acrylic down the way you want it, pour about the same amount of gel medium over the paints, spreading it around as you pour. This is semi-gloss, so it will be clear, but not have a high shine. If you want a high shine, use gloss. You can also use matte medium, but it has a tendency to be a bit translucent rather than transparent. Don’t dismiss it, it’s quite an interesting effect, particularly when mixed with gloss gels.

Using a palette knife, blend the paint and the gel until you get an interesting mix. Do not over-stir, otherwise you’ll get a muddy color instead of different color blends.

Once you are finished blending, the hard part starts–patience. Before you peel the skin off it has to have cured overnight. Peel it off to early, and you won’t get a single piece, but rather rubbery bits. It does need time, so I like doing skins before I go to bed at night. That way, they are ready the next day. I deliberately made this uneven–thinner and thicker places. I think it’s more interesting to play with.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer, training and certified creativity coach. Her book, Raw Art Journaling, Making Meaning, Making Art is for art journalers who aren’t illustrators, but want to have a colorful journal. Her book is available on Quinn’s website, and for a limited time, shipping is free.

A Map of Your World

The newspaper had stories on Burkina Faso, Oman, The Cape Verde Islands. I couldn’t remember where Burkina Faso was in Africa, if all of Oman was north of  Yemen and if the Seychelles are close to Cape Verde islands (they aren’t.)  None of the stories had a map. I could have gotten up and gone to Google Earth, but it would have made for a clearer story if there had been a map. A map adds context. But we are no longer used to maps. We rely on photos for emotional food, but we dieted away our spatial-relationship food.

We may not need paper maps as long as there is a GPS system to tell us how to get where we want to go. But don’t we need to know where we were and how we got here? If life is a journey, don’t we want a map of the trip?

My dirty secret is that I hate using GPS systems. They make me feel dizzy and disoriented. I have the same problem as digital clocks– I need to know where I’m not as well as where I am. I need to have a sense of connection, of space, of logic on the freeway as well as downtown. A few days ago a friend and I were driving to the airport. She had mistakenly programmed her GPS system for someplace else. And while we could both clearly see the airplanes landing a few miles away, she headed in the other direction because her GPS system told her to.

My favorite three reasons to use lots of maps:

1. Maps help us figure out the world around us. Most people who don’t live in Arizona think the entire state is desert, with saguaro cactus and drifting sand, like the Sahara. (The Sahara doesn’t have saguaros, but that’s another blog.) When they hear it snows in Flagstaff and that the road to the Grand Canyon is closed due to snow, starting in November, they think I’m making it up. A topographical map, showing elevations, helps explain why that is.

2. Maps help us figure out where to go next. This isn’t necessary about physical geography, this is also true in writing. I use a mind map to organize almost everything I write, and once I organize the studio, I can complete the map of where things are. This is a goofy map I’m making because the room is small and doubles as the guest room, so I often have to disappear things in a closet. A strict rule of putting things in the same place every time and an Excel spread sheet (I can search for items in different ways) helps me locate gesso, spray bottles and sponge brushes once the guests are gone.

3. Maps help us know what’s beyond the horizon. We usually care about our houses and our back yards. It’s also important to know what’s in your back yard, what’s in the next state, the location of the nearest gas station, food store, body of water, firehouse, and friend. A good map can do that, particularly if you add to it or draw it yourself.

Which reminds me. Draw your own maps. They don’t have to be elaborate or even exact. Drawing a map helps you think spatially, locally and globally. And that has to be a good thing.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer, life and creativity coach. She draws lots of maps for fun. And to write well.

I Don’t Care About Your Unsigned Opinions

The internet’s anonymity has made a sniper’s target out of bloggers, teachers, neighbors. Emboldened by anonymity, the snarky sniper sneaks in and leaves a vicious comment and darts back into the night. Coward.

The coward wants to shock and hurt, not help. Unable to give worthwhile feedback, the word-sniper hides behind anonymous comments, unsigned evaluations, and no-name surveys.

If you don’t sign your name, if you won’t admit to your own opinion, I cannot take you seriously.  Those who make suggestions and sign their names, well, that’s something I can work with. I often make adjustments to classes based on evaluations, but never on unsigned ones. Even flattering unsigned ones. You can’t take someone seriously who isn’t serious about their own opinion.

At the moment, it’s popular to have online evaluations for training sessions, and the instructor gets the opinions with no name. Some of them are deliberately hurtful simply because the class participant could act out without accountability.

But I know who you are. You are the person who was not paying attention when I gave directions because you were texting.

You are the person who came back late from every break, and as you sat down, interrupted the class to say, “So where are we now?” You are the one who asked if class was really going to last till 4 p.m. because you wanted to go to the mall.

Your group (no matter what group you were in) never completed the exercises because you were argumentative and disruptive. You told me you didn’t need to be in this class, that you already knew everything in the book, so you made phone calls and answered emails.

Here’s something important about unsigned comments: they tell me about you. How unhappy you are. How angry you are. How difficult it is to help you. Your opinion is not about me or my class. It’s about your need to have someone prove they accept you more than you can accept yourself.

This is your class. I study, research, develop, prep, work, and try to keep you engaged. That’s my job and I love every minute of it. If you don’t want to learn, I can’t make you. I don’t even want to make you.

You are an adult, and how much you learn is entirely up to you. I’m not your mom or your parole officer. I’m the instructor and I’m  paying attention to the people who are concentrating, asking good questions, trying to figure out the exercises. They want to learn the material, they want to use it. I’ll stay late, skip my break, recommend reading, explain something in a different way, and give them my email to make sure they get what they need.

But you, the one who made comments under your breath and then gave me a bad evaluation without signing your name? You don’t matter.

-Quinn McDonald is a training developer and instructor who cares deeply about interested people who want to learn, alternative learning paths, and helping the unsure. She cannot help people who think training is punishment.

The Late Bloomer

Kids want to grow up fast. Do what adults do. Feel powerful. Unfortunately, most adults don’t feel so powerful. They feel helpless, burdened with responsibility but not so much authority.

I skipped grades when I was younger, got out of high school and college really early. It didn’t make any difference, of course. Every job made me “start over” and “prove myself.” For years, I thought this was a lack of ability on my part to show I was smart and capable. It took years to figure out that all the proof rested on thorny cultural facets–that women deserve less pay, that women need to prove themselves more than men, that women as seen as weak and hysterical.

Dillweed from Glen Moore's

Worse, I was a late bloomer. The youngest in my class, and slow to develop curves, I had to use wit, humor and smarts to negotiate my life. Unfortunately, I was also impatient, perfectionistic and, well, angry at all this nonsense.  Why couldn’t employers just use my skills? That attitude didn’t help.

As I got older, I began to see the advantage of being a late bloomer. You draw different battle lines in different places. You waste less energy. You spend more time solving the real problem–the underlying problem, rather than the superficial drama. In fact, you don’t care about the drama so much any more. You’ve seen so much drama, little of it fresh, and most of it is not about you.

As a late bloomer, you give up the need to prove who you are by words, and focus on doing. What you do becomes your proof statement, and people interested in results begin to pay attention. People interested in externals still shrill loudly, but it matters less, because there are those results. (My favorite was the woman who looked at my generous hips and hissed, “If you can’t control what you put in your mouth, how can you control the people who work for you?” to which I replied, ” Not a problem, as I wasn’t planning on eating them.”)

Now that I own my business, I am grateful to have been a late bloomer. I know how to pace a project, I know how to separate “urgent” from “important.” I stay calm when others amp the histrionics, as I’m not interested in the attention. I get work done. I work with a better quality of people. Yes, many years were spent fraught and living in disappointment. But I’m a late bloomer and life is good.

–Quinn McDonald’s book, Raw Art Journaling, Making Meaning, Making Art was possible only because she is a late bloomer. The book takes the long view of art and meaning-making. Quinn’s glad she waited. Oh, and if you use the link above to order it, you’ll get free shipping. Use the code at the bottom of the page.

Memory of 9/11

When TV shows us images of September 11, 2001, we see New York. It’s where 3,000 people died. It’s where the iconic towers of American commerce were attacked. But there were two more places that figured in the 9/11 attacks–Washington, D.C. and a field in Pennsylvania where, for the bravery of airplane passengers, the third plane did not reach its target.

I lived in Washington, D.C. in 2001, and I remember that rare and brilliant blue day. I can’t forget the people scattered across the lawn of the Pentagon, I can’t forget the images on TV, or people jumping from the towers because choosing their death was better than burning to death.

And I remember papers. Papers floating down from the sky. Important papers. Unimportant papers. Papers that the day before had held contracts, employment records, financial records. In a second, they were not important anymore. There was no one to need them, no one to ask about them.

Papers, light and dark. © Quinn McDonald 2011

That day changed our country forever. We began to make decisions based on fear. We became suspicious and frightened, We were happy to give up freedoms for safety, but no one could make us safe from our own fear. Our President told us to go back to shopping.  Shopping. It was a defining moment. For a few weeks after 9/11, people cared more, came together more, believed more. And then we changed back to consumers. Frightened consumers. I can’t bear to talk about it much, but I spent a day in the studio working on art. It’s better than shopping for me.

I keep seeing those drifting paper in my nightmares. So I cut out hundreds of squares of paper. I piled them up and stacks and stitched them to watercolor paper. There are two pieces–two contrasts.

Hand-stitched gampi, text block, washi and handmade papers.

One is made of pieces of white paper, stitched with ivory waxed linen. I chose different shades of white to represent the passing of time, the aging of paper.

Dark papers: mulberry paper, text, book pages, washi papers stitched with black pearl cotton.

The second piece is dark. It represents the people who will never come back for their papers, those who will never need the loan, the passport. It represents everything in a life we can lose so easily. It represents who we are and who we can be.

–Quinn McDonald still believes in the innate goodness of people. She won’t give it up, no matter how many papers fall from the sky. She became a life coach after 9/11 and finds the work far more rewarding than shopping.

When the Desert Smells Like Rain

It doesn’t rain often in the Sonoran Desert. If we get eight inches in a year, it’s a lot. Compare that to New York, which gets 45 inches a year.

Imperial sand dunes, Arizona. © Quinn McDonald, 2011

When you don’t get a lot of rain, the sun bakes the surface of the earth and hardens it. You can bend a shovel trying to dig a hole in your yard.

When it rains in the desert, you can smell it miles away. The scent is a mix of dust and wet asphalt. There is the oily smell from the creosote tree and the brittle snap of ozone that lightning leaves in the air.

Sometimes the rain never touches the ground. But monsoon rains bring downpours. The water hits the earth, bounces up, loosening dirt clods and gravel. The ground is so hard it can’t absorb the rain. The rain runs off into lower areas, dry creek beds called arroyos, fast and thick. The ground can’t absorb the water, so the arroyo runoff pushes debris ahead of the force of water. The power of the water is unbelievable, just eight inches of depth will push an SUV off the road.

Planting the hope of rain © Quinn McDonald 2011

When you smell the rain, you go out and water your yard. The hose water holds down the dust. The dust holds down the grain of sand, and the small rocks won’t bounce away when the rain comes. Yes, that’s exactly what I said–you water your yard so the rain can soak in. If you don’t do it, your yard will be pitted with gullies, and your plants won’t be soaked, they’ll be bare-rooted. Water will tunnel around them, expose their roots, and they’ll die.

Why is this important if you live in an area of regular rain? Because this story is not just about rain. It’s also about ideas, imagination and creativity. If you wait for the occasional brainstorm, you will know it’s approaching, but you won’t benefit from it. The ideas will flash across your mind, bounce off your consciousness, and run off the surface of your imagination, leaving you without nourishment. Leaving your barely established ideas bare-rooted. You’ll have a hundred pages in your art journal, all very nice, all with a clever saying or layers of color, but with no connection. With no unifying idea. With no body of work.

To allow the brainstorm to sink in, to nourish, to create groundwater that forms wells of ideas, you need to water the surface of your creativity regularly. How do you do that? By working on a creative project regularly, even if you don’t feel like it. By spending time in your studio, even if you don’t create anything specific. By experimenting and having aimless fun, which is another name for practice.

A regular creative practice prepares you to make the most of the big idea, the powerful brainstorm. When the desert smells like rain, ideas are blowing in. Go out and water your lawn.

-Quinn McDonald lives in the Sonoran Desert and waits for rain.

Perspectives: Backgrounds for Journaling

It’s inevitable that I’m going to have to try digital work for journal backgrounds. I’m a pencil-and-paper kind of journaler, but trying out digital art could produce some interesting effects.

My go-to topic is nature–leaves, spines, dust. Every morning, when I get back from my walk and pull my water bottle from the freezer, I’m amazed at the complexity of air frozen in water. It occurred to me that this ever-changing perspective was a great place to start with digital work. The ice in a water bottle looks like many things

Seed pods:

Pineapple tops:

A wind-blown feather. These aren’t complete. Instead, they are the beginning of photographs I can change and work with to create something new, different and imaginative. There are so many spaces that can be made interesting here.

I know there are talented nature photographers. I know I’m not one of them. And just like with raw art journaling, I am not in competition with the brilliant photographers, artists, designers. I’m thinking of the fun of using this image and changing he perspective and background to bring out the cold.

This one has potential to be a burning landscape. Here it is turned on its side with a bit more red added:

Looking at something common with fresh eyes is always a new experience. Maybe this isn’t my next big project, but the idea of changing perspective is an idea that never grows old.