How to Start an Art Journal
Art journaling does not have to be expensive or complicated. It’s one of the most forgiving ways to make art because in an art journal, everything you make is safely contained within your own personal book. You may choose to never share any of your pages with anyone (or everyone!) so it’s a space where you can let loose and explore with colors, shapes, lines, and your words all at once. You may choose to leave your journals more free-form and expressive, or you may want to have more of a “finished” art product on each page. Here’s some ideas on how to get started.
If you’d like to see a video with some live examples of art journaling, you can check out my video, How Art Journaling Heals for some inspiration and then continue on with the prompts here.
Step 1: Gather Some Basic Art Journaling Supplies
- Unlined art journal, (If you like the tan-paged journal in the photo above, you can find it here.*)
- Paint – acrylic and/or watercolor are good choices
- Permanent artist pen in black
- My Favorite Art Journaling Supplies: There’s a lot you could do even with this short list of supplies, but if you are interested in a more complete set of choices, check out some of my favorite art journaling supplies.
Step 2: Make a Background
A beautiful background is always a great place to begin. The art journal can feel a lot less intimidating when you are not staring at a white page like this one:
Background #1: “Messy Acrylic Background”
Start with this very easy tutorial for making “messy” but beautiful background with acrylic paint. You just have to be able to scribble with paint.
Background #2: “Tissue Paper Painting”
I’ve heard from so many people about how much they love the tissue paper painting technique. All it requires is tissue paper, a brush, and water. It’s simple and fun.
Background #3: Watercolor Dots
(If you have watercolors, here’s a third option.)
1. Wet the entire page with water, and then brush on purple watercolor paint.
2. Next make “dots” with your watercolor brush of blue and purple all over the circle until it’s filled with color. You can let a few of the dots come out of the mandala like mine did if you wish.
Step 3: Choose a Theme for Your Page and Create!
Once you have a background, you have a great base upon which to layer images and/or text. Here’s some art journaling “prompts,” both visual and written, to get your creative juices flowing.
Create a Mandala
Mandala is a fancy word for a circle. In art, they frequently have patterns, though they don’t have to. To make your own, trace a bowl or cup to make a circle in the middle of your page. You can break up the mandala into pizza slices, concentric circles, or fill it with a series of smaller shapes, like I did with these swirls.
1. Use the watercolor dots background described above to make yours like mine, or a messy background with acrylics to change it up.
2. Once the page is dry, use a pen to make swirl shapes until you fill the circle. I like to use a gold metallic marker or white gel pen.
3. Make the mandala your own! Experiment with different shapes, colors, and sizes. Make a series and see which mandala you like best.
For a different mandala pattern, check out this step-by-step post on creating a flower petal mandala.
You might also like to check out some of the simple doodle patterns in this post: Doodle and De-Stress.
Trace Your Hand
Like the circle, our hand is a very familiar shape. Our hands are also one of the most expressive parts of our bodies, second only to our faces. Knowing this, you might choose to “pose” your hand in a particular way and trace this shape, rather than the traditional open palm with spread fingers. Let your imagination have a little fun with the metaphors connected to hands.
Even if you trace your open hand, you can get very creative with what you put inside. Use your hand to express something about your mood today, what you are “holding” emotionally, or what you would like to let go. For example, if I write about things I am holding emotionally – I might write words and phrases about the things that are weighing on my heart – I had a fight with a friend, I snapped at someone and felt bad, etc. Sometimes letting out my worries helps, and other times it makes me feel worse.
Pay attention to what you need. If I’m feeling down, often it’s helpful for me to journal about the positives. In this case, I might write words and phrases in my hands that help me to focus on what is going well. Inside my traced hand, I might write about feeling proud of how far I ran this week, that I made a delicious meal, or that I felt good about supporting someone through a tough time.
You can also fill the hand by journaling about your dreams and desires, or fill it with magazine photo collage images or drawings that speak to you.
Use Paper Cutouts
I’m a huge fan of using “failed” art pieces in my journal. There’s always at least some small part of an art piece that works. I save most art pieces for this reason. I keep a baggie in a drawer with watercolor paintings, drawings, doodles, etc. When I’m not sure what to do in my journal, or I’m doing a collage project either in my journal or on something else, I pull out this bag of tricks!
1. You can either cut or tear bits and pieces out of your art piece. Look for tiny areas that catch your eye. Using a hole punch is another fun way to create smaller art pieces out of a larger piece.
2. Next, place the mini art pieces on your journal page, playing with what feels right.
3. Paste your collage bits in place.
4. I’ve left this page more minimalistic, but you could doodle, paint, or write around these pieces to pull it all together.
Paint a Quote
Quotes are a great way to express what you’re feeling, but without the work of coming up with just the right words. The quote I used for this piece is such a great reminder of how much power we have over our feelings and perceptions. I love this quote, I find it so empowering.
Create a Gratitude List
Make a list of at least 5 things you feel grateful for this week.
Create a Dictionary of Your Feelings
Think about the word that describes the way you are feeling, or the way you want to feel, and look up the definition. Write this definition on your page and decorate around it. If you have an old dictionary, you might even cut and paste the definition onto your page. I find this exercise sometimes solidifies my feelings, and sometimes makes me re-evaluate them. You might even do one page per feeling in a particular journal such that you end up with a “dictionary” of your feelings. You can just write or use a combination of words and images on each page.
Record Something Meaningful About Your Day
Rather than telling yourself that you need to write down everything that happened on a particular day, why not use the space to think about something small, but important? For example, you might ask yourself one of the following questions:
*What’s one moment that I felt content today?
*What do I wish for most right now in the world?
*In 10 years, I hope that I look back and think, “I’m so glad that I…”
*One thing I really appreciated about this week was…
*What makes me feel really happy/anxious/angry/sad/excited right now is…
Give yourself permission to mix writing and drawing freely. Don’t worry about the quality of your drawings, let the journal be a space for experimentation.
You might write about seeing a horse on your drive to work and how it was beautiful and that the colors of the sunrise inspired you to journal today. Perhaps you write, and then paint orange and yellow watercolors over the background. You might then draw a little horse head next to your writing. Let it be free and imaginative, like a child would do. Trust me, when it comes to art, the younger they are, the more they know about artistic freedom and play.
Once you have a beautiful background, you may want to create some interesting lines on your page and use them as a space to write down your thoughts and feelings. I sometimes try to boil it down and write the “point” of what I’m thinking and feeling in big CAPS like this.
Step 4: Want to Learn More About Art Journaling?
Check out my e-book, Starting Your Art Journal, it’s a treasure trove of art journaling ideas and techniques to help you say all you’d like to through art and writing in your art journal.
Also, be sure to sign up for the mailing list to get the latest on art journaling tutorials, ways to use art to relieve stress, and inspiring artist interviews.
How do you creatively express yourself or let go? Have you tried art journaling before? Try one of the wash techniques and a quote, and let us know how it turns out!
*Many of the product links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you choose to click and purchase something, at no extra cost to you, you will be supporting the work of Mindful Art Studio to empower artists everywhere. Thank you!
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Hi there, I love the overview of Art Journaling you’ve given. I have some additional info on creating watercolor backgrounds on my site 🙂 As well as some prompts that may be helpful to your readers. 🙂
I find art journaling to be freeing and refreshing, and I appreciate reading about the benefits to mental wellness!
Welcome to Mindful Art Studio! It’s so lovely to have you here. Art journaling is great in the sense that you can try anything, do anything, and experiment so freely, right? Thanks so much for your input and the great resources.
Thanks so much for the inspiration. I have never Art journaled before, although I am an artist and teach art to adults. You have given me some ideas for a project I am doing at work with adults who all have learning and/or mobility difficulties. Can’t wait to get started next week.
I’m thrilled to hear it. So happy to be a resource.
None of the art journaling tutorials actually show where and how you can actually journal and your art journal. The page is so full of art I don’t see anywhere to write. I’d like to write at least a paragraph in my own handwriting.Can you point me to a tutorial that shows that? Or are these art journals just journals of art with no written words? They are very beautiful but I feel like it’s missing the point, it’s like everyone is so self-involved with how great their artwork is they’re missing the point the people want to journal in their art
Hey Holly – I understand the need to write! As I say in the tutorial here – you can write inside the hand or circle, you can journal on top of the tissue paper background – or write in between shapes. Have fun with it.
I can’t wait to get started! It will have to wait until this afternoon, sadly. I am not sure what I’ll start with, but being a cardmaker I have ink and lots of paper and paints too. Ooooh, I feel an art attack coming on!
OOH, I feel HAPPY HAPPY just reading this comment!! YAY for inspiration. As a card maker, you are in an EXCELLENT place to start. Ink is great to work with – you might even take some card stock and play with ink blots to create a starting point for your pages. This would be really fun. If you used some fun tape, you could create a simple accordion fold journal too. OH, the possibilities are endless, aren’t they? I have a post on making your own journals that would be really fun. Also, if you haven’t already, be sure to take advantage of my free email course, The Guide to Creative Self-Care
Please let me know if I can point you in any other directions creatively!
It’s so nice I like it .
I really like the idea of saving failed art pieces. I have been doing a lot of art pieces lately, (mainly watercolor). I have started an art journal, but I only have one page done and have had it for over a month now. It is intimidating when you don’t have a clue as to what to put in it. I have a writing journal that I write in every day even several times per day. I have been doing that for the past 12 years, (I have a lot of full journals). Anyway, I want another avenue to expand my creative side. I don’t have much to work with other than paint and things of that sort. However, I am interested in doing embossing and stamping in my art journal, but unfortunately I will have to postpone that until later. But I’m glad I found this site. It is encouraging. 🙂
You are right! You don’t need much to art journal, and given that you already have the habit of pouring yourself onto the page, I think cutting up old part pieces is a great place to start. You might like my post on creating messy backgrounds, or my free workshop on cutting your own stamps given what you’ve said. These are really fun ways to play. Mostly, just know that art journals are an “anything goes” kind of space. PLEASE give yourself permission to play, explore, and have it be imperfect and playful. That’s the wonderful, healing purpose. Of course as you practice more, or take classes, your skills will increase too.
I have both an art and a written journal. Sometimes what I do is to take a phrase or sentence within my written journal that has strong visual images (for instance I once described my emotions as bubbles) and then use this as inspiration for a piece in my art journal. Or I’ll take a phrase and as Amy has done, actually translate it onto the page. I suffer with Borderline Personality Disorder, Post traumatic stress disorder and depression so it’s really therapuetic for me to see the changes occuring within myself. The therapist I’m working with has her background in art therapy so if there’s something significant I’ll show her and we’ll talk about it. If you’re worried about starting I would suggest making fake pages for your journal. Then if it turns out well you can stick them in and if not, your lovely journal is not “ruined”. I simply couldn’t get over the perfectionist in me who didn’t want to put rubbish in her lovely journal. Till I got the confidence to just do it, this was a good solution. I also found that due to the nature of my illnesses while it felt good to get them out, I didn’t want to see these painful images everytime I opened my journal. To get round this I put a small amount of washi tape top, bottom and centre to hold the painful pages closed. Washi tape is wonderful for this because it’s repositionable and won’t harm the paper pages.
Also, a final point… i don’t think it matters how often you journal. Sometimes I spend a whole day doing nothing but art if I’m down, others I won’t pick up my art supplies for a whole week. Sometimes i can’t write or do art because I’m too painfully numb. Just don’t EXPECT anything of yourself and you’ll love it.
I hope this helps anyone struggling to get started.
Wow – this is such a great set of suggestions! I love the washi tape idea for hiding anything that you may not want to see, and the “fake pages” frame on creating on loose paper. It sounds like you have come up with some really great strategies. Thank you so much for sharing with us!
Thank you for your tip.. I was just wondering from many times how to start a art journal with cheap things.. Your website help me a lot.. And I am so happy today and just deciding when to start maybe this evening or after posting this comment. I am so grateful of you. Keep sharing your ideas with us
I would really love to know what I am trying to achieve with art journaling. I have tried it many times but its never really stuck with me yet. I think I need to understand why I am doing it and what I am trying to end up with. I love the idea of having a completed art journal full of really important visual imagery but Im not sure what the point is. I think thats what I mean!
I think I do get your question! People art journal for different reasons, or a combination thereof. Mine is a mix of emotional container where I express myself and a place to explore beautiful images, and also a way to explore creating in a repetitive, mindful way. I think if you give yourself permission to let the journal be unattractive, but meaningful, it may open up more avenues. Is it possible part of you wants it to be expressive and the other wants it to be pretty and then you feel stuck?
Yes you have a great point! I am tackling my perfectionism at the moment ( in my life and art work!) so this could be part of that coming to play! I created a page yesterday evening and am liking it. I am an ex graphic designer so I am trained to be accurate and this is holding me back I think, in lots of ways. I would love to be more expressive – these things get drummed into you don’t they!
I just wanted to ask.. Is background truly necessary for the art journal?
This is a great question. No – the white of the page is a fine background for drawing or just writing. I have a mixture of pages with and without. In my opinion, there is no right or wrong in art journaling, that’s the whole idea – a space where anything goes. Have fun!
Wonderful site, i have 3 art journals all uncompleted but i only started last late year. i love paints and inks. i find they make me happy, even if i do splotches and dollops of paint on page and use my fingers to move it, it makes me happy and eases away my stress.
Naseema – First of all, what a beautiful name! And it sounds like you are well on your way to doing all the right things in your art journal – that kind of freedom is so important, and something many people struggle to find. I’m so happy you have that. Please let me know if I can point you in any other directions. I also have lots of tutorials on YouTube.
Thanku. I read almost all your posts. Today I am back here to get some prompts as I have hit a wall
Thanku for the art and mindfulness you have helped me find again
Anuradha: I’m so happy that I was able to help! Cheers! Amy
Thanks for the inspiration & tips! I have recently started an art journal and I love it. Unfortunately I found that when paint of gesso gets in the fold of the paper it runs to other pages and kind of ruins what I did earlier.
Do you have any tips on how to avoid this? I thought of taping it shut with washi tape before applying gesso, but maybe there is a way simpler solution I haven’t thought of?
Yes i have this problem at times too! The only secrets I know are to put parchment paper on the pages behind the ones I’m working on and then go really really slowly and carefully so that I put a small amount of gesso in the margin and don’t let it drip in. This does work when I’m careful.
Thank you for your reply. I tried your suggestion yesterday and it worked like a charm. Makes me love my page even more 🙂
Thanks so much for such an informative and encouraging post, Amy! I stumbled across your blog (via Pinterest, I believe) on Christmas Eve and excitedly read several posts. I’ve “lightly dabbled,” we’ll say, in art journaling, but am interested in developing a more regular practice. This is very helpful!
I’m so happy I could be of help. If you haven’t already, be sure to grab my Guide to Creative Self-Care – it’s got some great tips on putting together your regular creative practice. You’ll find it here: http://mindfulartstudio.com/free-guide-to-creative-self-care/
Thank you, Amy for this wonderful site! and art journaling! I stumbled across this today as I’m trying a new resolution for 2018 – to let my creativity flow instead of letting it be stifled. Right now, I have art supplies strewn all over — stuffed into junk drawers, tossed on shelves filled with husband’s doo-dads, tucked into cabinets with cookbooks and candles. I have artwork stored in a garage and hidden in a corner of my husband’s man-cave covered in a sheet. I decided at this point in my life, I need to start going down and embrace that creative path and claim a space of my own at 54. I’m really excited about this! Thank you!
It’s so lovely to welcome you into our little community! It sounds like this is the perfect moment to begin art journaling, and also, to begin welcoming a space for your art into your life and your home. My free Guide to Creative Self-Care class has a section on making an art studio at home that might really help you. You can find it here: http://mindfulartstudio.com/guide/
I like MANDALA design done by you. I am not a creative person. But my son likes to play with colors and he forces me to do painting and drawing with him. Nowadays after getting into it I also like to play with colors sometimes.
I think getting or easing, yourself into the creative process any way you can is wonderful. Kids are such great resources that way. Sometimes copying is a good place to start, and then you can innovate from there.
Indeed Amy, this is I think the best way to jell out with kids. And, I think this a very necessary part of parenthood to be involved in such activities. Rather than scrolling our smartphones, we should be doing this. It is productive to both, the kids as well as the elders.
Hi Kim: I’m so glad you liked it – yes I love to art journal with my kids! XO Amy
Hi there, I’ve just invited some friends round to do some art journalling – none of us has tried it before – and I’ve attached this blog post to the email invitation to let them know what we’re going to be doing. I am really looking forward to trying this and using some of your tips.
Thank you for getting us started.
Oh that’s such a fun way to get started, Maggibee! How amazing! You might also all enjoy my free class: http://mindfulartstudio.com/creative-self-care-e-course/
When painting in a journal whether it is watercolor or acrylic, how do you prepare the page first so there is no bleed through? Do you Gesso and dry before painting?
I use mostly Moleskine and Strathmore journals and do not prep pages. I don’t like the texture that gesso creates. I don’t stress about bleed through, but rather paint on the page that gets the bleed! 🙂 I try to take a mostly wabi-sabi imperfect approach to my journal. I fix certain things, but others not.
Thanks so much for your prompt reply. I have a no name art journal that I purchased and I will probably have to Gesso since the pages aren’t very thick. I was also told that watercolor paper needs no prep and doesn’t bleed through, is this true?
A good quality watercolor paper, that’s correct. I am a big believer in buying a quality product and working with it a lot. I find that having to gesso pages, etc can lead to poor results, frustration, and not creating. If that doesn’t sound like you – no worries and carry on! I like a thicker page though. Happy experimenting!
I am grateful to you for your inspiring guidelines. You have ignited the spark. Let me work at my journal.
I’m thrilled to have motivated and inspired! Happy creating! XO Amy
This is an amazing post Amy – so thorough, helpful and full of juicy inspiration. I written a blog post and actually linked to this post. Thanks for the work you do. https://janehinchliffe.com/blog/art-journaling-idea
Thank you so much Jane! And thank YOU for the very helpful post!
All the best,
I really love how you have broken it down into steps. I think this would be most helpful for people who are short on space/time as each step can be done on a different day. I have written about it here https://24steps-art-and-design.co.uk/challenges-of-daily-art-journaling-challenge-yourself. Hugs xx
Hello….nice article….just that the definition of mandala was really strange. Im a mandala artist and reading a sentence like: mandala is a fancy term for a circle did not give a very good impression. It is a complete artform like others and eapecially helpful in mindfulness
Hi Ayushi: Thank you for reading and your comment. Indeed it is a beautiful practice.