Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Staying Home? Make an Altered Journal!

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It's springtime in Albuquerque and the streets are stunning right now: trees in full blossom, daffodils glowing golden-yellow in every yard, birds bustling in the branches, and hardly a car to be seen thanks to the sudden need to "self isolate" and keep a low profile. Many of us will be staying home more than usual, cancelling social activities and group meetings and doing our best to stay safe and sane. In other words, it's a perfect time to start (or to at least take a fresh look) at one of my favorite creative activities: journaling! 

Without a doubt journaling has been the single most valuable tool and practice of my writing and artistic life. Rarely a day has gone by that I haven't journaled in one way or another, whether it was to record my joy, work through my despair, or simply to find an inventive way to deal with plot-bunnies.

Although the majority of my journals fall into the category of hodge-podge grab bags, i.e., volumes of complaints, gratitude lists, poetry, and to-do lists all in one convenient spot, I've also written and created many journals dedicated to a single theme, e.g., nature, haiku, or travel. Over the coming weeks I thought it would be fun to share some of the different types of journals I've enjoyed best, starting with A, the Altered Journal.

In reality, "altered journaling" is a bit of a redundancy as any journal you work with is altered from the minute you fill in the first page! All that white paper quickly transforms into an individual form of expression that will never be matched again. But sometimes it's fun--and necessary--to go a step further beyond simply writing down your thoughts. That's where the altered journal comes into play, turning your words and ideas into a stand-alone work of art that can be enjoyed for the sheer beauty or individuality of the journal.
Starting an altered journal is easy, and relatively inexpensive. Most if not all of the materials you need are probably right in your house (great for when you can't leave home!). 

So, how to start?

- Begin with an old, possibly ruined book, one that's truly beyond its shelf life. Whether the subject is years out of date, the condition is poor, or it's just a book that never was, um, that well-written, choosing a hardback rather than a paperback to alter is often best. (Tip: unused, unloved cookbooks are an excellent choice. The size and paper weight is often larger and heavier than a novel or work of nonfiction, giving you plenty of room for writing and artwork.)

- Once you've got your book, I've learned from hard experience that it's imperative to not fall into the trap of journaling on every single page. In fact, unless you want to end up with an unwieldy, never-ending project that you will be sorely tempted to abandon halfway through (been there, done that) it's best to limit your page length. To make your journal easier to work with you can either remove a number of pages, or you can use thin coats of gesso to glue sections of pages together, leaving just as many surfaces to work on as you think you can comfortably handle. 

- If destroying books no matter how bad their quality breaks your heart, then how about using something like an old calendar? Once again, liquid gesso can be your best friend as you can use it to paint over any of the date pages or artwork you don't want while leaving a nice white (or any other color; a little acrylic paint mixed with the gesso works a treat) surface to work upon. 

- If you really want to keep things simple, try just altering the cover to any kind of blank composition book. Collage, paint, doodle--express yourself! 

- Another easy way to start an altered journal is to rework an old journal you already have, one that has served its purpose and you no longer want to re-read or keep. Collage or gesso over the existing pages, isolate certain passages to create found poetry, cut and tear the edges into interesting shapes and patterns. 

- For a super-simple altered journal, take a new or used greeting card and staple several folded blank or printed pages down the center. Consider using handmade, watercolor, construction, or even wrapping paper for your pages. 

- "Found" pages stapled or sewn together can create interesting journals in a wide variety of sizes. Recycle and combine old postcards, junk mail, and magazine cut-outs to create something unique and brand new! 

- How about making a journal out of used paper shopping bags? I have always loved drawing on what's called "bogus" or "kraft" paper, the same stuff they use to make brown paper grocery bags. Besides cutting down the bags into pages, you might like to fold one big piece of paper accordion-style or into a cube that opens into a series of smaller "pages."

Whatever you use for your altered journal, be sure to fill your pages with more than writing. Experiment with rubber stamping, glitter glue, ribbon and fabric, any kind of sticker, and your own artwork Most of all, enjoy the process and don't stress about the outcome. Whatever you make, I know it will be beautiful!

Tip of the Day: Currently it seems as if our daily lives and routines are being altered by the minute. It can be scary and for some people I am sure it has been deeply tragic. My sincere sympathies go out to those who have lost friends and loved ones. 

While we wait for things to improve, I believe it's truly important to stay active and to stay positive. Journaling in all its many forms is the best way I know to remain focused, involved, and engaged with your creative self no matter what may come. Wishing you all a safe and happy passage through these troubled times.

Friday, February 28, 2020

February 2020 Round-up

Mixed Media: "Little Sparrow" for #TAE20

Mixed media, mixed weather patterns, mixed tasks at the day job: it's been one of those crazy, up-and-down chaotic months that in retrospect has been incredibly productive. Looking back over the past few weeks I'm astonished at what I've been able to do in spite of my constant feeling of "having no time." Which makes me think that even if we only have a spare fifteen minutes a day (like I have right now to write this post) it's amazing how much we can do. 

Here's a quick run-down of my month so far:  

1. I entered this year's Twitter Art Exhibit, #TAE20, for the very first time. Every year the exhibit selects a local charity to benefit from sales of postcard-size artwork donated from people with Twitter and/or Instagram accounts from all around the world. This year the recipient is Horry County Disabilities and Special Needs located in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a wonderful program using art classes for emotional, physical, and intellectual growth and healing. My entry, Little Sparrow, was painted, drawn, and scratched onto Arches 140-lb cold press watercolor and it was scary! First, I had never painted anything that small, and second, by having a deadline (February 17 to be included in the catalog) I had to work sure and steady with no comparing myself to other, much better artists, and no giving up! It was an excellent lesson for me on many levels and I'm so glad I participated. (With many thanks to watercolor artist Rita Squier for inviting me to take the challenge. Please be sure to check out her website!)

2. As part of my "make 2020 the year of art!" I've started attending a weekly drawing group at Albuquerque's OFFCenter Community Arts Project. It's a great group with the emphasis on gesture drawing and finding the "energy" in our subjects. In contrast to the tiny dimensions of Little Sparrow we often end up drawing on endless rolls of paper that cover not just one but several art tables placed together! 

3. Thanks to all this work with gesture drawing, I've also started attending life drawing sessions at the New Mexico Art League on Sunday afternoons. Talk about terrifying. Despite my attempts to "draw every day" I am way out of my comfort zone here, surrounded by master painters each creating work worthy of any fine art gallery or museum. It's awful! And I am learning so much! Very humbling, humiliating, and often (semi) humorous, I intend to stick with this truly ghastly experience until I can confidently say, "Look what I drew!" and be (semi) proud of my work.  

4. On a completely different note and going back to what will always be my primary focus--writing--I have officially finished the second draft of my work-in-progress novel, Ghazal. Whew. The entire project has taken me much, much longer than I ever imagined (e.g., I thought I'd actually have a third and final draft completed by now), but here we are at last. My plans for "what to do now" are to a) put the manuscript in a drawer until May (when I'm sure to incessantly complain about the challenges of writing a third and final draft), and b) throw my energies into ever more artwork, including my beading which has been a bit neglected while I've struggled to make sense of my WIP. In other words, I'm going to be busy sketching, drawing, painting, and designing while I let the manuscript (as well as myself) take a rest from the red ink. Yay! 

Tip of the Day: Never turn down a creative challenge or opportunity because you don't think your work is "good enough" or "ready" to be seen and shared. The only person who can ever stop you from growing, learning, and participating is you! Never give up, never say "no" to any opportunity, large or small. For more encouragement, be sure to check out my post on Never Give Up: 12 Reasons Why. Happy creating!

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Doodling in Three Acts

This past weekend I had a huge clean out of old artwork: old workshop assignments,  urban sketching experiments, lots of "let's just try this" paint-on-paper sheets that had served their purpose but weren't worth saving.  Among the items I found--and had forgotten about--was this crazy little set of sketches I've posted above. At first I couldn't even remember what they were and then I had one of those "oh, that's right!" moments when I recalled they were from a class I took several years ago on illustrating dogs and cats.

The point of the exercise was to think of drawing and telling a story as a series of three: 1) set-up, 2) action/conflict, and 3) conclusion. In other words, beginning, middle, and end. In the class we were given fifteen minutes to dream up three related scenes following these three steps and then quickly sketch them out. The instructions were to first draw a character (dog or cat) and then have something happen to that character. Finally, there had to be a reaction to the event--and with a twist, something unexpected. In fifteen minutes! Stick figures allowed, but . . . fifteen minutes!

For my first "scene" the best I could do at short notice was place a dog in a park next to a tree with a bird. Okay. That was my situation, or, Act 1. Second scene: the bird leaves the tree and flies onto the dog's head, giving us conflict and Act 2. My last and third scene illustrated the reaction: another dog comes along and admires the first dog's new head-wear: "Tres chic!" How stylish! I guess the dogs were in Paris.  

So there you go, three scenes; a simple little exercise that I then put away and never really thought about again. Which was very silly because it's absolutely what I need to use as I prepare the text and illustrations for my picture book WIP, The White Pony.

This is why: One of the main difficulties I'm encountering is stretching out my initial idea for the story into a traditional 32-page picture book. Now, however, weaving my words and pictures into groups of three is changing all that, helping me to think in terms of story motion and story conflict.

For anyone who's ever wanted to write a children's picture book but didn't know where to start, using this three-scene method might be just what you're looking for. To get started, first:
  • Choose a theme. It can be an original idea, or one based on an old, well-established public domain tale: Sleeping Beauty, Billy Goats Gruff, Little Red Riding Hood.
  • Next decide on a single medium to sketch out your ideas: pen and ink, graphite, watercolor pencil.
  • If you do want to add color, use a limited palette of three to six colors. Keep it simple.
  • For your three scenes, you can use either single sheets, three pages in your sketchbook, or one large piece of paper showing all three scenes.
  • Begin your first page or scene with a character and situation. In the class I took our focus was on dogs and cats, but don't let that restrict you. "Character" could be a chicken, a ferret, a Martian, or an actual child! After choosing your characters and their situation (playing a game, waiting for a bus, going to bed) on your second page draw a "conflict" event. On your third page, end with a resolution to that conflict.
  • If you like, add words or dialogue to any of the pages to tell the story more fully.
  • When you're finished, rinse and repeat! For instance, you could continue to sketch out several more stand-alone 3-scene stories, or you could keep working on your first idea, using your next groups of three to create a full 32-page picture book like I'm doing.
Keep in mind that using a quick three-scene sketch technique doesn't have to be about just writing children's books. For instance, how about trying it as way to work out a tricky part of your novel or screenplay? It can also be a method to liven up your journal or next Urban Sketching event, or simply be a fun creative exercise. The main thing is to have fun and not stress about so-called artistic style or ability.

Tip of the Day: If the thought of sketching anything at all is too terrifying, don't give up--photographs and magazine cut-outs can work just as well to tell your story. In some cases, they might also serve as excellent prompts to get the ideas rolling for your next set of sketches. See you next time.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Happy 2020!

© Creative Commons Zero/Dreamstime.com

2020--I can't believe it. I've been anticipating this year for a long time, ever since 2000 to be precise when I was teaching self-publishing and writing at the International Women's Writing Guild summer conference at Skidmore College. One of the perks of teaching was that instructors got to take classes before or after their own workshop sessions. I loved all the classes I took: poetry, memoir writing, landscape drawing, collage and cooking (!), and a stand-out workshop that combined creativity with what can best be described as "visionary thinking and planning." As an initial exercise to introduce ourselves we were asked to write down where we would be in 20 years time and what we saw ourselves doing.

I'll never forget what I put in my notebook: I wrote that I was living in Europe creating teaching plans for the United Nations! Well, who knows, there's still 350+ days to go, LOL--I might get a phone call any day now! But seriously, what I believe I was trying to express was that I wanted to a) live a life that centered on croissants and art galleries, and b) I wanted to share my organizational and teaching skills. In many ways I feel that's exactly what I'm doing right now, right here. Albuquerque definitely has a European flair, and the Internet has offered me all kinds of unique ways to explore, and share, my creativity. As the title of one of my favorite books states: Wherever You Go, There You Are. 

With that in mind, my goals for this year are very simple. By year's end I would like to have:
  • Completed a final, publishable draft of my current work-in-progress novel, Ghazal.
  • As well as a final, publishable draft of my picture book, The White Pony, including illustrations.
  • A way to sell my bead-, clay-, and artwork as a professional artist, whether through a site such as Etsy.com, or maybe just through my website.
Above all else, though, I want to enjoy what I'm doing, not look upon any of it as a second job, or a "must-do or life has no meaning" kind of vocational call. To achieve that end, my word for the year is going to be Relax, as in, go slow

I want to write and draw and make jewelry without pressure, without deadlines, and especially without hurrying, scurrying, or worrying. The best way I can think of doing this is to create a simple schedule and keep to it because I want to, not because I should or "have to," e.g., write blog post drafts on Mondays; work on only four manuscript pages at any given time, use my weekends for artwork and sketch walks. It's going to be a good year and I don't want to waste any of by cramming too much into my day. One slow and thoughtful step at a time, I feel, is going to be better for me than dozens of scattered footprints in the snow leading nowhere. Who's with me? 

Tip of the Day:  What can you do to rein in the near-universal tendency to "hurry, scurry, and worry"? One simple solution might be to look at everything you do as play rather than work. Instead of saying "I'm so busy working," try, "I'm so busy playing!" Even cooking dinner or walking to work can be a chance to play. Until next time, thanks for reading; wishing you a brilliant New Year!

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Happy Holidays; Celebrating 2019!

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It's that time of year again: Deck the halls! Eat fruitcake! Review the past year! Well, okay, maybe "review the past year" isn't on your usual holiday to-do list, but for me it's an important part of the season.

This December it seems particularly important to look back and figure out where I am right now. 2019 flew by at such an incredible--and alarming speed--that I often felt I was racing against myself, struggling to keep up with the (too) many projects I wanted to accomplish by year's end. The irony was that the things I wanted to do, especially the revisions to my work-in-progress novel, Ghazal, needed me to go slow. Second drafts just can't be rushed. Consequently, the entire year felt a little "off" to me, as if I could never quite get it right (whatever that means). All the more reason, I think, to use this month with its short days and long nights to take a breath, forget about measuring my progress along some imaginary growth-chart, and simply appreciate what made the year special and fun, starting with (of course!):

  • Ghazal, my work-in-progress novel. I had wanted to be finished with my second draft by the end of the year, and really, I'm not so terribly far off. Just another 60 pages to go. Who knows, maybe I will get those pages done by New Year's Eve, but if I can't, c'est la vie! I'll have a glass of champagne anyway. 
  • My August-September trip to the UK was both a surprise and an adventure in every sense of the word. Super fun and has given me a lot of ideas for both writing and artwork. The only problem was the trip was a) too short, and b) I want to go back. Like tomorrow.
  • Beads! So many beads . . .  An accidental online ordering situation delivered enough beads for me to make several hundred necklaces, bracelets, and earrings--a few hundred more than I'd been planning to make. On the bright side, though, I don't have to go shopping for a long time, and the beads are beautiful. I am inspired! 
  • I took a class in working with metal clay which turned out to be exactly what I needed to learn in preparation for making all this unexpected jewelry. Mere coincidence?
  • I kept to a good drawing schedule, doing my best to "draw every day," a practice that included Inktober, (an October drawing challenge to work solely in ink for the month). Drawing for me is both relaxation and a way to improve my illustration skills, slowly but surely.
  • Living downtown for a year now has given me the opportunity to walk much more than I have in years. The difficult part, though, is choosing which direction to go: the zoo, the museum, parks, coffee shops? The walks are never boring and never the same. Best of all, they give me some good "thinking time" for planning out my WIP revisons.
  • Somehow I found the time to help out once again organizing the annual New Mexico chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Enchantment Show. The show is a collaboration of local artists and writers working to a set theme. This year the chosen theme was "Serenity" and it turned out to be one of our best years. From a healing walk in the snowy woods to a little mouse gathering his courage to tackle the big world, New Mexico talent was on full display!
  • Midway into the year I moved into a new studio and office space with lots of room to spread out my writing, my beads, my paints and pencils. (Now if only I could figure out how to live there . . . )
  • A goal that totally eluded me was completing my illustrations for my picture book WIP, The White Pony. So many reasons: I couldn't coordinate my "style," I couldn't settle on a single medium or color palette, I didn't feel that my work was "good enough." As a way to tackle all my doubts and insecurities I bought a very inexpensive sketchbook and a set of colored pencils and allowed myself to just draw like a little kid. Working on these "prelim thumbnails" has helped immensely, taking the pressure off and allowing me more room to explore. Highly recommended if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.
  • Using a Moleskine Cahier Notebook and writing one hand-written page a day, I wrote a novella: The Seaweed Collector. I also created one collage a day to go with each written page. I don't know how I did this. It was a surreal experience that I don't fully remember with a lot of detail. I just sat down every day, usually in the late afternoon, and listened to the story in my head. 
  • In a similar vein, I wrote several flash fiction stories while in the company of my writer's group. Just like daily drawing practice, timed writing exercises are a fun and practical way to "stay creative every day," with or without a writing group.
  • After returning from the UK, I had the opportunity to put together a proposal for a writing and drawing workshop event that was, unfortunately, cancelled. No matter--it's a good proposal and one I can offer again in the future, hopefully in 2020! Can't believe that's only a few weeks away . . . Until then, however, I'm going to take it a lot easier and enjoy the cocoa and twinkling lights. I suggest you do the same. Happiest of Holidays, everyone. See you next year.
Tip of the Day: "Achievements" don't have to be monumental. Some years, just getting up in the morning and going to work can be major accomplishments, taking you into the new year with optimism and confidence. Go for it!