How many journals do you really need? The short answer is, it depends . . .
For some, one, omnifarious volume is all they need, where anything and everything goes. If you’re disciplined and you can commit to one journal, something like a bullet-journal might be all you need. I confess I am not a bullet journaler, so I am not qualified to testify to its pros and cons, moreover, I am not motivated enough to commit to the upkeep. And, I’m messy. Which is why I always have more than a few journals going at any given time. Most of my journals are sketchbooks, some are themed, but all are related to specific projects or themes.
My current journals
Pen and ink trees
Since trees are my favourite subject to sketch, I keep an A4 sketchbook for rendering trees in pen and ink. This sketchbook has good quality, smooth paper so I can do finely detailed renderings which can be scanned and made in to prints when the need arises. The trees can be either a faithful rendering of an actual tree, usually from a reference, or something entirely made up. What I’m interested in is finding the best way to render the textures and shapes I see. I use this sketchbook when I don’t want to just scribble or knock out some quick scenes, since much of the time I spend hours on one tree.
Pareidolia is the tendency of recognising images or patterns in a random display of shapes and lines, such as seeing faces on the side of a natural land formation, or in the clouds. I see blob creatures. Some of them are common enough – a dog in the dish soap as I wash up, or my utensils forming a crane-like bird – others are more alien, but still very recognisable as creatures. I see them so often I decided to make a watercolour journal for the sole purpose of recording them. Sometimes I will lay some loose watercolour paint down, wait for it to dry and sketch over it with pen and ink to see what I can make. This journal is good for exercising creative muscles when I’m not really sure what to do, but I know I want to paint. It’s useful too for observing the nature and reactions of watercolour when it hits a wet or dry page.
Two project journals
I’m working on a fairly large project at the moment which requires a great deal of thinking and sketching. For the thinking I keep a journal of visual notes, where I can capture ideas and develop the concepts of the project. This journal is structured and somewhat more organised and has a lot of information crammed in. The second book is a cheap sketchbook for sketching thumbnails of scenes that will later become properly rendered work. It has to be cheap because I know I will fill many sketchbooks in the coming months with copious thumbnails. Doing it this way allows me to keep the momentum going without being too precious about what goes in it as it doesn’t have to be tidy, or in order. Both journals are equally important references for the project, but with two distinct intentions and functions. Having two journals enables me to capture a lot of information quickly and helps me keep the two separate elements of the project organised.
As well as the other three, I like to keep a journal with smooth watercolour paper. I use a refillable leather cover and tear down sheets of 190 gsm hotpressed watercolour paper to sew in. I use this journal with watercolour and pen and ink for when I just feel like playing. I don’t always get time to do do this, but it’s there and I’m not worried about how long it will take to fill or what it will look like when it’s done. I also love that I can remove the complete signatures and bind them in to a more permanent book.
The pros and cons of so many journals
Some reasons to keep seperate journals
- Themes: Themed sketchbooks, such as a nature journal or artist’s reference journal provide a good reference for artists and a way to expand the mind’s visual library. It makes sense to have dedicated journals for these occasions.
- Projects: keeping all your projects in one volume, no matter how big, could become complicated. Giving each project their own home gives it substance and consequence, and since you’ve dedicated an entire journal to it, you will hopefully be more motivated to complete it.
- Occasions: perhaps you want to document a particular event, such as the birth of a child, or a vacation. Having separate journals for each big occasion allows you to organise those important moments in to distinct volumes. You’ll be able to find them easily and enjoy them.
- Mediums: You might like to keep individual journals for different kinds of mediums, such as one for multimedia projects and one for watercolours, or one just for coloured pencil to practice and hone your skills. Since watercolour paper is not cheap, it feels like overkill to lay down a sketchy thumbnail in pencil or ink, so it makes sense to keep a cheaper, more accessible journal for these.
- Size: A large sketchbook is good for home, but if you want to take it with you when you go to the beach or travel with it overseas, it can be cumbersome, especially if you’re carrying a full pencil case, brushes and watercolours. A smaller, more portable sketchbook makes sense for this and can be added to the bookshelf when it is complete.
As much as I am committed to the many journals system, there are disadvantages, and it’s not for everyone. Sketchbooks are not all created equal and it can take awhile to settle on a model you love. It’s easy to get sucked in to buying the new trending sketchbook or journal, and there’s a risk of finding yourself with half a dozen unfinished journals (and projects). This can get quite expensive, especially in Australia, where journals with good quality paper at an affordable price can be hard to come by. Buying multiple copies is not always an option. This can feel like a barrier at times, especially if you find one you love, but it is costly and not local. Expensive journals and sketchbooks can be daunting if what you want to do is fill pages with doodles, sketchy practice pieces, or scribble out notes for projects. If the goal is to improve your basic drawing skills I would recommend one inexpensive sketchbook. A cheaper journal allows you create permissible messes and reduces the fear of the blank page while still honing your skills. If mixed media or watercolour paper is what you need it might be more economical to buy sheets of paper (often sold in packs of 10, at least in Australia) and cut them down yourself to bind in whatever way you wish. For pen and ink or pencil there are plenty of good options at lower prices. In fact, yesterday I was surprised to discover Derwent Academy’s Artist Visual Art Diary with 135 gsm paper that is smooth enough and thick enough to deal with ink and water-based markers. This means I can justify having a couple of on the go for different projects.
Another disadvantage of multiple journals might be that finishing one can take much longer. If you’re driven by completion, or the achievement of filling one cover to cover, this could be a source of frustration since your attention and time is divided between more than one journal. I like to live in my journals and I don’t mind sharing my time between multiple sketchbooks so time is not a factor I consider. For me it is as much about mood as it is about the practicality of keeping separate volumes. But they can take a long time to fill, especially because some of them I favour more than others.
Too many journals can be distracting and off-putting. You probably have too many journals if you lose track of what goes where, you have too many unfinished journals from years ago or you just lose interest/momentum in some of them and never pick them up again. If that is the case I’d suggest finishing one of them before picking up another.
An alternative to multiple journals is using loose pieces of paper instead of a codex style journal. You can use whatever paper you like, cut to whatever size you like and either keep them in a ring binder, in a box, stick them on a wall, or share them with others.
At the end of the day is is more important that you keep journaling, whether you’re sketching, keeping a bullet journal or writing your manifesto. Do whatever enables you to keep that momentum going. After all, creativity begets creativity.