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"Art journaling is a way to have a visual dialogue with yourself," says Heather Neilson. "It is a personal expression and can help open up your creative intuition."

I am a walking color palette. Everywhere I look I am coordinating colors and objects. And I like to put all my thoughts in one place. Or, many places. My art room has consumed an entire sitting room in our house — books and magazines everywhere, cabinets full of art supplies crying out to be used.

With all this stuff it is only natural that it should be organized or displayed in fun ways. Ways to spark conversations. Ways to show off my stuff. After a couple of Google searches looking for a more artistic way of expression through mixed media, I stumbled upon art journaling. This is not your everyday scrapbooking world. This is art, self-expression encompassing all sorts of tools, mixed media and visions. And people of all skill levels can make these creations. Art journaling can be mind blowing.

Browsing through a new world of artists, I found Heather Neilson, an abstract artist and art educator who works out of the Whiting Mills art center in Winsted. Neilson guides you through many processes to individualize each project. In class and via Zoom, she helps transform your thoughts into journal pages. You can even make your own book. 

I connected with Neilson and we did some amazing projects. Her process is inspiring, motivational and exciting. I spoke with Neilson to find out more about her journey in art journaling and how people can get started.

What is art journaling? 

Art journaling is a way to have a visual dialogue with yourself. It is a personal expression and can help open up your creative intuition. Journals come in many shapes and sizes and you can even make your own from readily available materials. There are endless possibilities and material can include sketches, painting, writing, fabric, notions, collage papers, ink and more.

How and why did you start art journaling?

I started when I knew I wanted somewhere to explore my creativity. It was something I could easily set up and put away when not working on it. I needed something to handle and process the stresses of everyday life. Once I started, I realized that the possibilities were endless and would be a lifelong practice. It has become such an important part of my art practice that I love to teach it in workshops in my studio, online and in various art centers.

How do you spark creativity and ideas for your journals? 

I often start my journal pages with writing exercises. Sometimes I just begin doodling and pulling in paint and papers as I go along. I also spend a lot of time gathering things in nature or in my life that I study or think about that I can then incorporate into my journal.

Is there a right or wrong way to art journal?

I don’t think about art journaling in terms of right or wrong, but more “what if?” Also, I try to ignore and quiet the inner critic but, instead, allow the experience to be peaceful and joyful. I look forward to working on my journals rather than it being one more task on my “to do” list.

What kind of skills do you need?

The only skill you need is a desire to experiment and explore! This is a very personal practice so there is less pressure to produce final pieces or to produce something specific. 

What are some of the supplies you need? 

Use some sort of mixed-media art journal that you can purchase at any art store. Or you can even use an old book and cover the pages with white paint or gesso to have a great starting point. You can use paint, collage, markers, pencils, fabric, sewing notions (snaps, buttons, etc.), stencils, images, photographs. Basically, anything you can put in a book!

Describe the thinking process when art journaling.

Art journaling, and any creative process, helps balance the overly analytical side of the brain. It is a wonderful respite from the pressures of our modern world. The idea is to let your intuition and sense of imagination lead you rather than what may be “right or wrong.” Sometimes my approach is completely intuitive and can be a way to just explore the process. Other times I start with an idea. For example, compassion, hope or spring. Find a poem or piece of writing that can be a springboard for using words, images and color to create a journal spread.

What kind of student is attracted to your class? 

Typically, students are either curious about art journaling or already have an ongoing practice and want to go deeper. They may have heard about art journaling and had some creative experience. Frequently, students will say that it is a very soothing time for them in their busy, hectic lives, and bonding and sharing between students is common.

Where can someone just starting out and interested in art journaling learn more? 

There are many online resources! Start with searching YouTube and Pinterest and you will see many examples. Or take a class with someone in your area. My upcoming classes are at heatherneilsonart.com/workshops


How my project worked

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There is no wrong or right way to art journal. It’s what I wanted to do. 

I met with Neilson on two Saturdays, which gave pages time to dry.

I started with a small bear book, painted the cardboard covers and cut up various pieces of papers and other supplies Neilson had for me. I just tried to make everything flow, not really thinking too hard, and it all just happened. Time flew by. 

For the bird journal above, Neilson had me close my eyes in a relaxing exercise. I then was prompted to write freely in the book with whatever words came to mind. I then applied the bird photo through a process called photo transfer and applied various paint and stencil designs.

According to Neilson, these projects are often revisited and reworked. I am eyeing the left page and making plans for the second edition!


Inspiration for all levels

Need to see the finished product? These books will get your artistic juices flowing:

books

A World of Artist Journal Pages: 1000+ Artworks, 230 Artists, 30 Countries by Dawn DeVries Sokol

In My Bones: A Visual Journal by Orly Avineri

The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait, introduction by Carlos Fuentes


Tools of the trade

From basic to advanced, here’s a good list of gear to start with:

Faber-Castell watercolor pencils draw first then just add water 

Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pen Brush India ink pen - waterproof; write like a painter

Stencils – Tape over the parts you don’t want or use the whole thing

Acrylics – Golden Artist Colors are Neilson’s favorite brand

Rapidograph technical pens – Great for precise drawing. Recommended for the advanced artist

Wine corks – fun paint dabs and because a little wine makes it more fun

Faber-Castell Gelatos – mix them with a palette knife, smudge them over the stencils

Palette knife – for scraping, blending and slapping colors together

Faber-Castell Jumbo Grip graphite pencil, HB, silver – for sketching that can be covered up as you journal

Assorted paint brushes (and fingers!), moss, bubble wrap and any other tools that make marks

Books – blank journals, old books to cover parts up, small and big

Sewing machine – yes, stitch the paper and fabric together!

Notions – string/yarn, buttons, safety pins, etc.

A table with space


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Where to buy art supplies 

With some help from Neilson, here are our picks for the gear to get you art journaling:

Hull’s Art Supply + Framing, New Haven; 203-865-4855, hullsnewhaven.com

Jerry’s Artarama, West Hartford + Norwalk; 203-424-2911, yourartsupplies.com; store.norwalk-jerrys.com

Blick, Plainville; 860-747-5551, dickblick.com/stores/connecticut/plainville

Michael’s, statewide; michaels.com (“I think the nice thing about Michael’s is its accessibility to almost everyone,” Neilson says. “With coupons it can be a very affordable option.”)

This article appears in the June 2021 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.