Visual Journals Need Visual Edits

She handed me her journal–pages splashed with color, thick with found items and inserts. “What do you think?” she asked eagerly.  Tough question to answer. It doesn’t matter what I think if she is satisfied. If she likes her work, if she found meaning in the activity or the result, then my opinion has no importance.

A journal, like a suitcase, can be over-packed. At that point, it's not luggage, it's baggage.

A journal, like a suitcase, can be over-packed. At that point, it’s not luggage, it’s baggage.

In another way, I’d like to know why she’s asking the question. Is this the art journal equivalent of “Do these pants make my tuchus look fat?” Is she asking for praise in a hidden way? Is she looking for suggestions? Approval?

I turned the pages of the journal. I’d heard of the technique–do anything. Some pages were sewn chaotically, combining junk mail and lace, tulle and magazine pages. The bobbin thread had become confused with the different tension needed for the different papers, and there were big loops and knots of thread. One page had a piece of ruler glued to it, the next one an angel next to which was stamped the word: guardian angle. When I smiled at the typo, which seemed to make sense along with the ruler, I thought (to myself): What this needs is visual editing.

It’s fun to slap things together and see if it makes sense. Occasionally.

It’s also interesting to ask yourself what you are doing and are you presenting a message or searching for one.

Visual editing is much like word editing. It’s done in stages. When you edit your -1writing, you first look for content, logic and flow. Does it make sense? Does it unfold logically?  Is it interesting?  Next you look for typos, meaning-gaffs, punctuation errors. Next you make sure all the visual elements–headlines, image credits, page numbers are in the same font and style within each category,  Three passes and you’ve done some editing for clarity and understanding.

Visual editing works the same way.  Is the journal going to be shown to anyone or is it private? (Since she showed it to me, it became public.) Is there a theme to the overall journal? If so, is it obvious or does it need an explanation? While turning a page and moving from front to back is the normal order of Western books, does this one create an order? If there are inclusions, attachments, found objects, how is space created for them?

There are guidelines for visual editing just as there are for word editing. To break the rules you have to understand them first. Yes, ee cummings and James Joyce broke the rules, but they first followed them, then knew why they wanted to break them. And some well-read people are still grumbling about that decision.

Personally, I’m not fond of splayed-out books that are sewn, spackled with gesso, layered randomly with paints and papers, and weighted down with found objects that don’t create a narrative that can be followed. But then again, I’m not the art police. If that makes meaning for you, it is your meaning. If you are satisfied, that is an important step for you.

In the end, instead of giving an opinion, I asked questions. “How did this book come together for you?” “What did you like best in making this book?” “What caused problems for you?” “How did you solve those problems?” “Will you keep this for yourself or will you give it away?” The answers told me a lot, including that my opinion was not required. So I kept it to myself. And we both parted with our perspectives intact.

Quinn McDonald understands visual editing, and knows that sometimes, no matter how much she loves that page, it doesn’t belong. Sigh. So she saves it for another time.

28 thoughts on “Visual Journals Need Visual Edits

  1. While I don’t maybe make a journal with as much “stuff” as the one you described, I do like to layer paints, shapes, etc. then go on with my meaning for that page. For some reason when I read this post I felt sad. It felt like another “you need to make art a certain way or it’s not legit”. From reading your other articles I don’t think that was the message so it was probably from my own insecurity. Then I read Kay Tee’s comment and felt reassured. If my art journals have meaning (and fun for me) while I’m creating then that’s all that matters because I’m not making them for others. If others do happen to look at them and like them, fine, but that wasn’t the point for me anyway. I just don’t like restrictions in the creative process because to me it is a set up for “not right, not good enough”, “not art”. Thus the sadness.

    • Every person who makes art gets to decide what makes meaning and do that. Lots of it. I don’t care if you put a two-by-four and a truck tire in your journal–if that’s what makes it feel like you. What made me sad was that a woman who had spent a great deal of time making art she liked wanted me to validate it–but would feel validated only if I liked what SHE did. That is sad. I’m pretty sure that the road to discovery covers a lot of ground, and my opinion should not encourage or discourage someone from doing what makes meaning for them. For heaven’s sake, I cut out teeny tiny letters and collage with them. Certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, either!

      • Quinn,
        Thanks so much for taking time to respond to my comment and clarifying. I understand now what you mean about the validation. I even projected your comment onto me through her unseen (by me) art. I automatically thought (without actually thinking it – if that makes any sense) “if Quinn thinks that person’s art isn’t “good” and IF it’s anything like mine then mine isn’t “good” either because Quinn said so and she is a “real” artist. How’s THAT for an inner critic?! 🙂 It wasn’t until I read your response to me that I consciously realized that I had extrapolated beyond the point of neurotic! Thanks for such patience with a neurotic, late blooming, insecure artist! You respond to your readers way beyond anyone else that I follow. I value that a great deal. Also, I enjoy reading others comments and learning from them.

        • You are really brave and strong to know how your inner critic manipulates you. I have (at the moment) a minimalist-jag. It may change at any time. As a coach, I try hard not to give people my opinions when I think they will shape their opinions about themselves around what I say. We are all neurotic. That’s what makes it interesting to talk to others!

  2. Reblogged this on Cheri Nordstrom and commented:
    Great points, all of them. I’ll be creating an art journal to give to my senior as a Christmas gift…I’m a little bit nervous because I want to put a lot of thought into it, yet I want it to look effortless and spontaneous. But…this is the first “shared” visual journal I’ll be creating, and I want it to be very special.

  3. “Are you presenting a message or searching for one?” I really like that question about the purpose of a journal. It certainly has me thinking. I have a journal where I search for meaning, it’s just writing for the most part, and private. My art journal tends to have insights from the former . . . I’m a spasmodic art journaller.

  4. I’ve been struggling with the editing process in my photography. This is the first time I’ve tackled a long term topic and it takes a lot of storage, a lot of looking, and frankly takes a lot of my energy. I have to try to make a story with those images and I don’t want the story to be haphazard. Whereas my journals are private and for myself only, I want this photo project to be meaningful for more than just me.

    Have you ever seen Peter Beard’s photography? It combines poignant photos with etchings and scribbles made of animal blood. He lived in Kenya and also worked with Iman shooting fashion photography. I saw his journals at an exhibit of his work. They were behind glass and looked like they wanted to escape. They were giant encyclopedia-sized things with scribbled notes and snail shells glued in. They seem to have made an impression on me because I often think of them. I always thought of a journal being decidedly 2-d but his was anything but. 🙂

  5. Interesting. I always love seeing art journals that are well-organized and flow, however that isn’t how I work. Mine are probably much like the person you describe here. Kind of a mish-mash of pages, but they make me happy, so I’m OK with that. I have a couple that are more orderly and themed and I like them, but it is harder for me to work that way. I like your questions you asked her. It probably helped her clear up her own ideas about what she was doing.

    • Mine can be organized for a few pages, but then I have other ideas. That’s fine for me. But there was a lot running under the surface of that question. Much of it was desperation–what to do that was OK.

  6. very much appreciated the way you interacted with her with your questions….and i would think that your choice of questions may have helped her sort through the why of what she created in ways she may not have processed.

  7. My feeling is there are no rules in art …. it’s what speaks to the artist at that time. IF the journal is packed with different techniques, bursting at the seams, somewhat chaotic…then maybe it’s just what was going on in their lives…art is most often the reflection on what is going on inside the artist – whether they realize it or not. I hope the artist of the journal realizes what I did a long time ago … to create art for yourself – and never apologize for it it…it is what it is.

    Nice article.

  8. Yes, very thought provoking. I do some of this art journal stuff, because everyone else is, so I feel there must be something in it, but I just don’t GET it. Thank you for helping me to keep exploring if and why I should get it or get something out of it….

      • Gosh, ok, so yes, I do enjoy the process, and I love looking through/back at pages that I’ve done. So perhaps that’s good enough for now and I should stop looking for the ‘meaning out of my life’ bit for now. Thank you so much for your comments, and your blog in general, it’s wonderfully thought provoking.

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