Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Thoughts on Keeping a Journal

I’ve been intending to write a blog post on journaling and sketching on location – the raw material for my blog posts. The day has come, partially inspired by a wonderful new blog, “Artists Journal Workshop” hosted by Cathy Johnson, a long time journaler. She has a book coming out on the journals of several artists and is sharing in-dept interviews on her blog. For more on that go to: http://artistsjournalworkshop.blogspot.com.

Many, many years ago I started a carefully crafted journal in a beautiful leather binding and with pages I could take out and rearranged to my heart’s content. It was intended to be carefully thought out and reflect the highlights of our life. I always seemed to be a year behind. Finally I just gave up.

Almost ten years later, in 1976 I started another. This time my plans weren’t nearly as grand. I just wanted a notebook in which I kept ideas for paintings, what flowers bloom in May, when do the sage grouse strut, what birds did we see, lots of sketches and even some painted ideas. I happened to start out in a 8 ½ x 11 hard bound blank book. Little did I know that keeping a journal would become a way of life. I’m now in the middle of volume 37. My journals get hard use. I frequently thumb through them to look for information, or just to enjoy where life has taken us.

Soon I realized I wanted to capture more than just simple notes: watching beaver storing their winter food supply at Schwabacher Pond in Grand Teton National Park; or the five minutes of orange light when the rising sun first hits the Douglas Firs on the western edge of Klamath Lake -- Moments in time I want to remember forever.

It didn’t take long before I realized I had developed a format which works for me:

1. Keep it personal, but not private. I enjoy letting others peek into my journal
2. I want all the art in my journal to be my original work. Prior to digital cameras and the computer the art was all done on location. Now it is a mix of on-location work and at home work. I can download the camera onto the computer and start a drawing a few minutes after coming home – while the excitement of what I just saw still has my juices rumbling. I may draw some published (magazine) photographs for practice, but never in my journal.
3. Preferably entries should be done right now, not the next morning or even that night. Better to write while the action is in front of me rather than trusting my memory to catch enough important details. Sometimes it is too dark to see my page, but I still scribble away, just dropping my finger down to pick a lower spot for the next line of writing. Too often I busy photographing a ‘happening’ but I start writing as soon as possible, or jot down phrases between shots or paint brush strokes.
4. It is a ‘working journal,’ not an end product. I feel free to scratch out words, whole sentences. I stop drawing if the bird has flown and I don’t remember what its tail looks like. I dare to try a difficult pose even if the odds of it turning out well are slim. It is such a joy when a field sketch works.

5. I am hard on my journal. I put it in the car, usually on my lap, nearly every time we get in the car. I learned early on a hardbound journal lasts longer if I put a cloth cover over it right away.

One day it dawned on me how handy it would be to have my drawing equipment right there with me too …. So I added pockets to my journal cover. I sew a good sturdy cover out of denim or light canvas and add the pockets. That cover goes from one journal to the next until it is too frayed to continue on. Meanwhile each finished journal gets a simple cover made out of a different piece of fabric. Bozeman, Montana has two wonderful fabric stores where I find most of my cover material.

Key items in or on my journal:
1. Six inch ruler (clipped on so it doesn’t slip out)
2. Assortment of pens, pencils, and ‘click’ eraser
3. Waterbrush ( a paint brush with an internal reservoir of water)
4. Elastic band to hold page open when it is windy ( black band on back cover)
5. “Reserve Pocket’ (Tied down pocket -- I’m always losing a pen so I try to keep an extra set of pens and pensils here).

About a year ago I added a fountain pen to my everyday work materials …. But fountain pens pose problems. We often drive from one elevation to another. Unless the fountain pen is stored with its nib upright, the pen will bleed ink. To solve this I made a little leather pouch to hold it. The pouch stays either hanging on my neck or hanging from a knob on the dash of the car. No more bleeding ink.

My paint is the simplest part. I have an ancient metal box of Pelikan pan watercolors that once belonged to my mother. When a pan is used up, I can just squish more tube paint into the pan and give it a day or two to dry. I even added a four more pans for more favorite colors.

Brushes I keep in a rather flat plastic box. I drilled holes in the lid so the brushes will dry, and I pack some tissue next to the handles so they can’t rattle about and end on their noses. The box even has room for more pencils – water soluble graphite is one of my favorites.

When I hike I want to travel light. I’m usually carrying a camera so I put my art supplies in a fanny pack. It is just big enough to hold a 6 x 9 spiral bound sketchbook with better paper, my brush box and paint box, a little jar of water, hat and gloves.


  1. 37 VOLUMES!!!!! Wow, that is really a way of life with you. Fascinating to have a look inside. Love the cover and the necessary equipment. Hmm, seems like you have enough material to write that book!!! :)

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this, Elva. I've often wondered about the kit you've put together for all your time in Yellowstone and other places. I love your first line about "Keep it personal, not private." Thank you for clarifying that thought for me.

    Outstanding information here.

  3. I have to admit, when I go to Yellowstone I also take along some good paper: 140# arches cut 8 xll or thereabouts, some nice slick Bristol for careful pen and ink. But most of the sketching goes right in the hardbound journal or the 6x10 Aquabee..... and hopefully I checked before hand to see if any of my watercolor is going to run out.

    And I'm finding I really like Strathmore's Aquarius II (80#) for ink and watercolor. The journal and the pouch sketch were done with that paper.

  4. Thank you for sharing these journal secrets! I am just getting started with journaling, so I am intrigued to see the tried-and-true ideas from the experienced journal keepers!
    I so enjoy your Flickr nature postings!

  5. Fantastic post, Elva! I love your line "working journal, not a finished product." I think this is key when trying to develop the habit of journaling.

    Your cover and pen holder...... Well, good thing we live far apart as if we ever went out in the field together, they would have to come home with me for a bit :)

  6. I like how you've added the pouch to your journal cover and that the cover itself doesn't stay with a journal but moves on to the next. I'm definitely a "personal but not private" kind of journal keeper too. I love for my grandkids to flip through the pages. I'm trying to get them to make some of their own.

  7. Dear Elva,
    Lovely post! Your journals are precious treasures. But you say, "Personal, not private." Thank you for sharing. You're such a lovely lady! Please keep up.
    Kind regards, Sadami

  8. I really felt relieved when you said you mark out sentences, words etc. because I seem to have to do that. For some reason I felt a little guilty that I don't always think things through as I am journaling. So much to quickly get down etc. I am glad someone else does this especially someone as accomplished as you are. I like the "personal not private" and the "working not finished" aspect of it too. Mine are definitely not finished.

  9. I am often asked about the game that launched for all your time in Yellowstone and elsewhere. I love your first line of "Keep it personal, not private.

  10. Another enjoyable peak into your treasure box of a blog, Elva.

  11. I enjoyed this post. I have to tried to do sketch books in a subject and never finish them. I like this idea. Altho I am not in the same caliber class of drawing as you are it gives me hope if I just DO it I will improve. I just added you to my follower list. I just realized we are in the same town.

  12. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing your experience. I have been trying to reconcile my hesitations and my fears of not drawing the perfect page and my desire to just record the new bloom, another bird or the light on the snow between the aspen in the winter. By wanting to do too much I end up with nothing, much like your 1st attempt. The immediacy of taking a picture is always tempting and then intimidating.
    Your practical comments were very helpful. I will dare to jolt on paper what makes our life on the mountain so wonderful!

  13. Preferably the marking should be done immediately, not the next morning or even the same evening. Better to write when the action is in front of me that my confidence enough memory to capture important details.

  14. Elva, thanks for comment..but cant find YOUR name in book. ours is in there. I sent you an email to hotmail with our phone number ..

  15. ...great post. Thanks for all the info! I'm working on trying to do more with a journal. I tend to draw...or write....I need to combine. Love all the tips you have here... (also love the weasel in the previous post!!)

  16. Thanks for being so generous and sharing your thoughts with us. I have also started a journal, but there is no system to it, reading all you have said gives me a lot of hope!
    Thanks Elva!

  17. Elva, as so many have expressed, this peek into your method and supplies is invaluable in many ways! So very encouraging. Thank you so much for this post, as well as your endearing art and detailed narrations of your nature adventures. You are a blessing.

  18. Hi Elva, I love your journal cover with all it's handy pockets, and the leather puch you made to hold your fountain pen upright is gorgeous with the tassel and little beads hanging from it. It looks very native american to me, I love that. Very handy as well as beautiful - a great idea!