Book arts. Part 2

The advent of visual diaries

During medieval times, handmade reference books, or “model books” (also “pattern books) were used as a source for teaching initiates and as examples of lettering, flourishes and ornamentation, which could be copied by scribes in illuminated manuscripts. Loosely, these could be considered early visual diaries.

Around the 14th century artists hand-bound their drawings in to model books, or albums, such as the one created by Italian architect and artist Giovannini de’ Grassi, which contains drawings of animals, as well as lettering. Two fine examples of early sketchbooks are the 13th century Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, an artist about whom little is known, and 15th century Italian architect, painter and writer Fransceso di Giorgio. It wasn’t until the late 15th to early 16th centuries that artists began to bind books with blank pages specifically for their purposes of recording notes and drawings relating to their studies. Some of the more famous examples are the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, which contain drawings, diagrams and notes on scientific investigations.

From left to right, Villard de Honnecourt, circa 1230 CE. Wikimedia. From a notebook of Francesco di Giorgio Martini, 1470, Wikimedia. Leonardo da Vinci’s Old Man with Water Studies, c. 1513 Wikimedia

These blank books quickly became a mainstay for artists, inventors and naturalists, as such many fine examples of sketchbooks and notebooks exist in museums and galleries around the world. A notable example, are the hundreds of volumes of drawings and travel sketches produced by English painter J.M.W Turner (1775-1851), now hosted at the Tate gallieries in the UK..

Despite the digital age, visual diaries are still a popular form of expression, not limited to professional artists and inventors, nor are they limited to architectural, botanical or anatomical studies. They come in a vast array of mediums, styles, and themes and while, for some creative people the codex is still king, the format for creative workbooks is as diverse and fluid as the work that goes in to them.

Experimenting with new ways to collect visual creativity is a popular practice and in today’s media rich world, an art journal can be a hard or soft bound codex, usually stitched or glued, a wire or spiral bound book, a ring binder, index cards, or even a stack of pages in a box. Visual diaries can also be digital. The point is not get hung up on the format; it’s the content and the process that matter.

What is a visual diary?

The term visual diary (also art journal or art diary) is an umbrella term used to describe a collection of informal, personal artistic work, created by one individual, more often in a bound format. It can include drawings, paintings and collage, as well as writing. Images are not limited to hand-drawn renderings, but can include printed or photographic material. The emphasis is often on collection, presentation and layout of material. Visual diaries can be used for practice, creative expression, recording insights and events, or for collecting ideas and inspiration.

Definitions and differences

Defining all the different kinds of visual diaries is complex and often the terms seem interchangable. These should not be confused with themed visual diaries, which I’ll cover in another post. Following is a list of some different kinds of visual diaries and their uses:

  • Sketchbook – a workbook used to support the creative process and to improve drawing and/or painting skill. These can be themed, used as a reference for further work and are used by new artists, doodlers and professional artists alike. Though they are seldom intended to be finished works of art, they contribute significantly to the volume of artwork on the internet. Sketchbooks are flexible in their contents and format. The do not need to be themed, or topic heavy.
  • Field journal – a journal used for recording observations on nature and science, architecture and culture or other relevant topics.
  • Travel journal – similar to a field journal, but designed for recording written and illustrated observations of experiences while traveling, as well as tracking trip progress. It is usually chronological and offers a portable and handy way to preserve the highlights of a trip.
  • Mixed media journal, sometimes known as an art journal – a multipurpose art journal which utilities a number of different art supplies (such as paint, collage, ink stamps, stencils, fabric and so on). It often incorporates writing, or typography and are usually expressive and colourful. Most mixed media artists utilise the entire page. Emphasis on layout and overall presentation. The process is equally important.
  • Scrapbook – loosely a scrapbook is a blank paged book for sticking other pieces of paper in to. Early scrapbooks were called commonplace books for keeping letters, recipes, drawings, reading notes – almost anything that could be stuck on the page. Modern scrapbooking has evolved to become an industry unto itself, where all manner of albums, embellishments, pre-printed background papers, and even kits can be purchased. Pages are often themed and richly decorated. In recent years digital scrapbooking has become a major digital industry also.
  • Gluebook or paste book – similar to a scrapbook, but dominated by collages of images taken from magazines and other printed material.
  • Smash book – a combination of scrapbook and gluebook, though it requires less expensive materials.
  • Junk journal – these appear to be handmade journals made from found material, bound in to book format. They are often quite decorative, incorporating many different types of paper, fabric and stitching. The point of the junk journal seems to be the use of scraps to create a piece of art in the form of a book.
  • Bullet journal – a method of visual personal organisation, which uses abbreviated notes for planning and can incorporate illustrated logs and trackers, and copious amounts of washi tape.
  • Omni journal – a hybrid journal which can include a planner, such as BUJO, an art journal and a scrapbook, or any other type of visual journal, all in one.
  • Sketchnote – a form of visual notetaking that uses text, illustrations and symbols to enhance notetaking, develop ideas or summarise important information.

I hope I have covered the most common types of visual diaries. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but a beginning to understand the many ways we present our visual creativity. I hope it inspires you to take one up yourself. The possibilities are endless.

Further reading

Medieval Super Models
Giovannino de’ Grassi and His Animal Notebook

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