What I did this summer: took an art journal class! Starting in early June until just a couple of weeks ago I spent 3 hours every Tuesday night at a local continuing education center learning how to make my art journal both pretty and practical.
During each 3-hour session, we covered a wide variety of activities and prompts. We had long writing sessions, very active studio projects, and quite a lot of literary inspiration taken from authors all the way from Tim O'Brien to Grace Paley. The following list comprises my favorite techniques gleaned from the class that I thought were easy, effective, and something you might like to try too.
1. Write an illustrated letter. Write it to yourself, your best friend, someone you haven't seen in a long time, or may never see again. In class we wrote about an experience from the past, but the technique can be used for any topic at all. To illustrate our letters, we wrote on tissue paper then traced small images from books of clip art. I placed my illustrations randomly across the pages. We then folded our letters and put them in envelopes we decorated and glued into our journals like Nick Bantock did in Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence.
2. Choose an object that has a special memory for you, then write about it, followed by a drawing. For this exercise I chose a seashell that reminded me of one I used to play with at my grandmother's house when I was little. First I wrote out the memory, then I did a quick sketch in class. Later at home I finished the drawing, giving it more detail. It's an image I am now going to use more frequently throughout the rest of the journal, almost as a motif or symbol of some kind. Tip: Working with a special object like this could be a good way to find your "logo" or "brand" as a writer or artist.
3. Make a map. Playful, imaginative, or absolutely accurate, map making is a great way to stimulate your creativity. The choices are infinite; for instance you could make a map of your backyard, your life history, your goals, or where you went on your last vacation. In class we took our cues from old, heavily illustrated maps filled with sea nymphs, countries and territories that no longer exist, and artwork that deserved to be framed. Using collage, rubber stamps, and colored pencils I made maps of fictional places I am currently writing about; two of them for my next book, Overtaken.
4. Illustrate your daily writing exercise. For this project we wrote a story in class using my favorite technique--magazine cut-outs of people. I wrote a story set in Barcelona (a place I've never seen, but oh, do I want to go there) and then painted 3 small watercolors to go with it. Rather than painting directly onto my journal pages, I cut down watercolor paper to fit and then simply glued the sheets in.
5. Make a family tree. This exercise was so much fun I'm still working on it. There are many ways you can approach this, from drawing a literal tree, or any other design you like that allows room for listing family members, to going online to find all kinds of formal templates if you want a more traditional look. In class we made family trees of our real families, but I've since taken it further by making trees for my fictional families. I've added collage and rubber stamping to the pages to add more life and detail to both approaches.
6. Mandalas. Mandalas are essentially illustrated, meditative circles used for focus and spiritual contemplation. Making your own is both very relaxing and very self-expressive. In class we used pre-printed templates as guides that we then painted with watercolor, but you can use any medium: colored pencil, oil pastel, even crayon. An excellent book on the subject is: Mandala: Luminous Symbols for Healing, 10th Anniversary Edition with a New CD of Meditations and Exercises by Judith Cornell.
7. "Old Master Drawings". This technique was perhaps the simplest, but in many ways my favorite. Using sepia, indigo, terracotta, and white colored pencils we proceeded to make simple but beautiful sketches of driftwood on Kraft and Canson papers that we then glued into our journals. Whatever subject you choose to sketch, the combination of materials gives your journal a very "finished" old-world look I find utterly charming.
8. Illuminated Letters. I love ancient, hand-lettered manuscripts complete with gold leaf, intricate calligraphy, and of course those amazing illustrated letters that begin each new page or chapter. For this exercise we again used templates from books of clip art, but rather than just color them in, we traced the letters onto plastic vellum and other nice quality papers. I personally loved the vellum and want to buy more of it; colored pencil just glided over the surface like velvet, making it hard to stop drawing. When cut out, the letters can be glued into your journal to add a magnificent touch of luxury and color to your next piece of writing.
9. Letter to the Future. Ah, where do we go from here? Where do you want to be in two years, six months, next week? Tell someone special and seal it with a kiss. I wrote a letter to my muse and we have a date to check out the contents in November at the start of Nanowrimo. Just like Tip #1, we put the letters in decorated envelopes and glued them into our journals.
Tip of the Day: Even if you haven't held a paintbrush since kindergarten, don't be afraid to try art journaling. Sometimes the most important things we have to say are best said without words. The beauty of the art journal is you can have both: stories, thoughts, images, favorite recipes, family photos. Anything and everything goes. Best of all--there are no rules, just the invitation to show up at the page and have fun.