Starting an Art Journal

Journaling is a great way to express emotions that are too difficult or too personal to show the world. It’s also a way to keep track of your life: the daily events, the emotions that come and go with each day, the changes that occur as you grow. Life is a process worth remembering, but our brains can only hold so much at a time.

Journaling can go beyond just recording what needs to be recorded. Journaling can help you work through difficult emotions as well. Keeping an art journal can allow you to work through your emotions while creating something that can put your mind at ease.

So how do you start? You get yourself a beautiful journal! 

You can use anything as a journal; you can use a composition book, a sketchbook, an ornate journal, or you can even create your own journal.

This woman has done amazing things with a plain old ruled composition book! Go check out her page to get some great ideas for creating a journal out of a 99 cent composition book.

Creating an Art Journal from a Composition Book

Altering a book is another way that you can create your own art journal. You simply choose a book and create your own journal on top of the words written in the pages. Some journals even incorporate the author’s original words into their journaling through the use of blackout poems, a cool technique where you find words on the page and black out everything else, leaving a jumble of words that can be read together to make a poem or a story.

Your alterations can be very simplistic…


A Simplistic Altered Book Page

Or very extravagant…


A Very Ornate Example of an Altered Book

Altered books can be great ways to explore a more creative side of journaling.

So now you have a wonderful blank slate, but what do you fill it with?

Art journals are not solely used for therapeutic purposes. Some art journals are used to remember a vacation; others are used to remember the mundane things of daily life in a more exciting way. If you want to get the most therapeutic value from the art journal, you should push yourself to fill the pages with emotions, feelings you may or may not understand, and issues you cannot seem to process other ways. 

There are a lot of great prompts out there on the internet that can give you direction, but a general list always helps as starting point:

  • How are you feeling today? (I know this is general, but it’s usually a really good starting point!)
  • Imagine your inner critic as a monster. What does he or she look like?
  • Think of a few of your core beliefs and create pages for them.
  • Think back to a time when you were going through something very difficult and how you got through it.
  • Imagine the person you want to be and create a page about what makes that person unique.
  • Think about your favorite place. Why is it your favorite? What does it look like? How does it make you feel?
  • If you could give advice to your younger self, what advice would you give? And why?
  • Journal about a big change that occurred or is occurring in your life. Try to include your emotions about the change.
  • Pick one insecurity you have and journal about it.

Art journals can be created in any manner you would like, but mixed media journaling is the most common and the most fun! These websites have great ideas about how to layer multiple medias into one journal.

Now go get yourself a journal and start creating!


The Spiritual Circle

“Mandala” is the Sanskrit word for circle. Some translate it to “spiritual circle”. It is generally used to represent a spiritual wholeness or a representation of the universe. Mandalas are often circles filled with a repeating pattern.

Mandalas have had a long history. They have been used in many cultures to represent a spiritual wholeness. Tibetan monks used to create huge mandalas out of sand and precious stones. After taking days or weeks to complete them, the monks would sweep up the whole design and dump the pieces into the closest body of water as a representation of the circle of life. The Navajo Indians had a similar practice, despite the fact that they had never seen the mandalas that the monks created.

Mandalas have showed up all over the world in a variety of ways, but they all represent the same general concept: Mandalas are circles that represent the individual or group of individuals creating it, or the universe as seen by those individuals. 

Using this concept, mandalas can be very revealing when used for art therapy. The first step in creating a mandala is to meditate, clearing your mind of all things. Meditation seemed pretty far fetched to me when I decided to start my own mandala, but I found a great website that taught me how to meditate properly. This technique, called the Vairochana’s posture, helped me relax enough to clear my mind before starting to draw.

Before I began meditating, I drew a circle on a piece of paper. If you are anything like me at drawing circles, you will probably want a compass. Or else you will end up with something more reminiscent of an egg, or an alien head, than a circle. After I had a perfectly assisted circle, I split it up into 8 pieces because I had seen so many mandalas with repetitive patterns, usually in 6-8 generally sections.


Begin with a Circle Divided into 8 Sections

Clearing my mind completely took me half an hour in a dark room. It probably wouldn’t have taken so long if my adorable, and slightly needy, pup hadn’t been knocking her thick head against my door for the first 20 minutes.  Once I was completely cleared, drawing took over. Meditating lowered my heart rate significantly and drawing seemed to keep it down significantly.

My reduced heart rate didn’t seem to be enough to completely keep my mind clear through the process. All of the studying that I’ve been doing on the nervous system kept popping up in my head. Quite honestly, I’m surprised that I didn’t start drawing neuronal processes in the middle of my mandala.

When attempting your own mandala, I would recommend continuing to focus on only your breathing and the muscle movements in your hands as you draw. If you’re like me and you start wondering exactly which muscles you are using to move your hand, just stop! It ruins the meditation and then you have to start all over again, which is extraordinarily frustrating.

I personally like to begin drawing everything in pencil and then filling it in like a coloring book, but most people just go right in with color. If you are a dive into color type, feel free to just start with whatever paint, crayon, or marker you prefer! And more power to ya!


The Basic Outline of the Mandala

Once I finished my basic sketch, I began filling it all in with color. Color can be an important symbol, so make sure to let your mind run free and choose colors without thinking. You should still be in a relatively meditative place here, so just relax and do what feels right in the moment!


The Final Stage of Coloring

Completing your mandala should feel good! Look at what you created! Go you! Now you get to interpret it.


My Completed Mandala!

There is no book to tell you exactly what your mandala means because only you can look at your mandala and say what it means in your life. Each person interprets colors and symbols just a little bit differently. That’s what makes each person so unique and wonderful!

However, I did find a great site, called Creative Counseling 101, that gave me some great questions to ask while interpreting my mandala:

  1. Are there any repeating patterns in my mandala?
  2. Does anything represent my past or my future?
  3. Do I see anything that represents something about my life that needs attention?
  4. Do I see anything that represents something about my life that is competing for attention?
  5. Do I see anything negative? Is there anything I drew that I am blocking?
  6. Do I see anything that represents pain or trauma?
  7. Do I see any hopes or dreams?
  8. Do the colors I chose mean anything important to me?
  9. Are there any unique parts that stand out as important?
  10. Does my mandala tell a story?
  11. Is there an overall “big picture” feeling about the mandala?

With these questions in mind, I looked at my own mandala. The fact that I chose to use a lot of colors of pink immediately stood out to me. I view pink as a superficial color, so it’s odd that I would choose to use so much. Then I noticed the stormy clouds and dark skies on the outside edge. These darker areas are very separated from the rest of the circle, which looks very bright and natural. Overall, it looks like the center circle is a small protected area set away from the dark skies on the outside. This is pretty representative of my life. In the past few months I feel like I have carefully constructed my own little world by cutting out negative people and things out. My mandala is very representative of this stage of my life, not that I could’ve consciously thought about that when I was drawing. 

Art Therapy to Increase Self-Awareness

I came across this art therapy lesson plan the other day and found it to be fascinating! It discusses the generals of art therapy as a field and discusses various techniques. If you want a good general overview of art therapy, definitely look at this site!

The lesson plan also suggested some exercises that may be useful. The exercises are designed for art therapists to use with their clients, particularly in group settings, but the exercises can be used in a self-guided manner as well.

I decided to try my hand at the “Draw Yourself as an Animal” exercise.

I had a particularly challenging internship over the past summer where I helped care for several African elephants and white rhinos. They were amazing creatures, particularly the elephants. I absolutely adored their family structures. Elephants are extremely emotional, caring creatures who express love easily with other elephants in their social group.

I like to think of myself as a very caring person, so I chose an elephant to be my personality projection. In addition to the personality projection concept, I integrated the family sculpture technique that I came across in my research last week. This technique draws on how a person feels about his or her place in the family structure.


Watercolors and pen

I created the background of the image using watercolors on watercolor specific paper. Watercolors can be really fun to paint with. You can change the amount of water to change the hues, which makes them really great for sunsets (or sunrises if you’re a morning person, which I am definitely not! The only sunrises I see are when I’m staying up from the night before). Then I drew the elephants in with a Sharpie, which was trashed afterwards. I learned that watercolor paper is extremely rough on a Sharpie. RIP my dear drawing implement.

When I was painting this I definitely realized some things about how I was feeling about myself. I drew myself as a baby elephant, despite the fact that I am a legal adult. I keep trying to think of myself as an adult, but at the end of the day I still feel like a little girl trying to walk around in her mother’s heels.

I also look like I am falling behind my family, which is very fitting based on how I have been feeling lately. I adore my family, but lately I feel as if I am constantly running to catch up and stay connected while I’m attending college. This is an extremely upsetting for me, but I didn’t quite realize how disconnected I felt until I began trying to put my feelings into an image.

And that is the beauty of using art to work through emotions. I found out things I didn’t even realize about myself as I tried to draw myself on paper.