When you were 5 or so, you probably made art because it was fun. You delighted in the opportunity to paint anything?especially if you got to use your favorite color. Somewhere along the line, though, you buried your creativity and forgot how to make art because you were worried about what your friends thought or whether you were doing it right. Our fear of humiliating ourselves stops creativity cold. Personally, I don’t think art should be reserved just for those who can make a balanced composition. But if the thought of standing in front of a blank canvas terrifies you, perhaps a different approach to art could help you reawaken your creativity. I’ve found that visual journaling helped me be creative again.
A visual journal is a way of expressing freely any thoughts or feelings in visual form, but also including words. The neat part of that combination is you move beyond the limitations of our finite language into pictures and symbols that can sometimes communicate deeper than words. Also, it’s a small step toward allowing that creativity to flow—even if you only scribble in the pages of your journal for a while. And because you can close your journal to those around you, you don’t have to worry about what others think.
Don’t worry if you can’t draw very well. I believe that if you just want to focus on being creative, you don’t have to worry about skill. When you worry about skill, you get into a good way to do it, a not-good way to do it, the right way, the wrong way. You get into judging and criticizing. But the visual journaling process is about honoring your uniqueness as a person expressed in your individual way of creating.
Eventually, there will come a point when you’re comfortable with your creative flow and you’d like to start improving your art skills. Over the past five years that I’ve been working in a visual journal, I’ve seen improvements in my art-making skills. But I didn’t start out focusing on that. You can inhibit creativity with too much concern about mechanics.
As I’ve worked in my visual journal and taken various workshops in related areas, I’ve formed my own process for getting the most out of my journal and for sparking my creativity in general. Essentially, this process is my version of making mandalas. Mandala means “sacred circle” in Sanskrit and is the ancient practice of making art in circle form for self-discovery and self-actualization. It’s your visual journal, though, so you can use it any way you want—whether you’re creating mandalas or simply drawing whatever comes to mind. The mere act of expressing yourself can bring so much joy to your life.
The Tools of Visual Journaling The supplies you’ll need to get started are simple: a spiral-bound sketchbook in any size, crayons, colored pencils or gel pens. I recommend spiral-bound sketchbooks because you can lay them flat. I use 80-lb. paper in my journal because markers and watercolor aren’t likely to bleed through to the other side. Other supplies you can collect to help with your visual journal are photo journals with black pages like mine above (metallic gel pens work well with these), magazines, markers, glue, tissue paper, scraps of wrapping paper, scissors, stencils, a french curve to help you draw curved lines, ruler, compass and plastic lids to help draw circles. If you’re resourceful, you don’t have to spend a lot of money on visual journaling. Just get a sketchbook and then start with the simple materials and things you find around the house.
Part I: Preparing the Creative Mind
Creativity isn’t something you make happen. You allow it to happen. We always think it’s something we have to do. It’s more a state of being. That’s why you want to quiet the mind, to bring your focus inward. And when you’re in the state of balanced being, then the creativity happens.
1. Create a heart-centered space. Set aside a space in your home that’s your “creative space.” It doesn’t have to be big, but it should be orderly. Make it relaxed, like a child’s playroom. It needs to be a space where you’re not worried about being neat. Plan your creative area to allow for freedom, comfort and messes. For me, that’s a spare bedroom. I have shelves of art supplies and tables to work on. I also consider this my “safe space,” which to me is a place that holds a feeling of harmony and balance allowing me to focus completely on my visual journaling without fear of reprisal or criticism. This safe place is also a state of mind and heart. Whether physical or emotional, this kind of space allows you to approach your creativity with self-appreciation, compassion and protection.
2. Set your intention or question. Take a moment before beginning to create to sit quietly asking your body and consciousness to shift to a deeper state. Close your eyes and think of a safe place like the beach, and with deep breathing slow the activity of your mind. Then on the back of the page you’ll be drawing on, write your intention or question—what you hope to discover about yourself during this creative experience. It could be to feel more creative, more relaxed or simply to have fun. This intent establishes a connection to your creative source and strengthens your awareness of that source in all areas of your life.
3. Ground and center. Getting out of your head and into your body is vital to moving through blocks to your creativity. Deep breathing, dancing, chanting, visualizing and even doing some yoga postures are all helpful in grounding yourself. Be open to fully experiencing your feelings and creating from the richness of their message. Trust that the images will come.
Part II: The Creative Process
As you start drawing with crayons and colored pencils, remember that you don’t have to make a masterpiece. Think of your intention and then give yourself permission to be creative and see what happens.
4. Imagine and let the creative energy flow through your hands. Become a small child who finds pure joy in creating. As you draw, observe your thoughts, feelings and inner images without judgment, criticism or comparison. Nothing is too crazy here. Generate ideas, and then see how you can relate and hook these ideas together. Once you begin to rearrange and relate seemingly unrelated ideas, then you can begin to organize them into something unique and different. Take a risk. But don’t stop there. Embellish and expand your idea with details. You won’t ruin it by “going too far.” This is your authentic self. Focus on the process and not the end product. You can even add words to your art. Writing is definitely part of visual journaling. I often write little verses or poems about my art. Writing is a natural extension of this creative process. And if your “inner critic” begins to awaken and move you out of that childlike space, tell it gently but firmly to go away. Remember to keep breathing deeply and evenly. Dancing or moving can help you stay grounded and connected to your feelings. Stay with your creation until it feels complete.
5. Honor and accept your creation. Wait until you’re done creating before you start interpreting your art. When you feel you’ve completed your image, be open to what it may say to you. It may even confirm what you’ve always known about yourself. Look back at your intention or question and then look at your images. Again, don’t judge. Staying in touch with your feelings and not getting intellectual is the best way to access what’s most helpful for you at this time.
6. Have gratitude. Your creation is an aspect of you, but not all of you. Loving and accepting it is to increase your sense of self-worth—an important part of being creative. Voice some words of gratitude silently or in a song, dance or poem to the creative source within. Talking with a good friend about what you’ve done is another way of honoring your creation.
Beyond the Process
I have these steps numbered, but you can move around, skip steps and rearrange the order. I typically express my process on a spiral model—moving inward for the first part and moving outward as I create—and can skip back and forth rather than follow 1 with 2 and so on. You can also break these steps down further and develop your own process. I’ve found that linear steps tend to appeal to the logical left brain, and by skipping around you can better engage the right brain.
Another thing you can do is further personalize your journal. In my workshops I usually have the attendees do a collage of cut-out magazine pictures on the front cover and the inside front cover of their visual journals. The front represents the outer self, what the world sees. The inside cover is going to be the inner self, what we keep hidden. Decorating these covers is truly a lot of fun and they always turn out great.
Creativity Every Day
Here I’ve talked about starting a visual journal to reawaken your creativity. When I started my visual journaling process, it was during an unhappy time in my life. I joined an art therapy group once I’d realized I’d stopped my art-making process altogether. Once a week we’d get together and move inward through our visual journals. And a funny thing happened: I started working in my journal on my own. It was so much fun. Sometimes when I was feeling challenged or needed to be creative, I’d simply pick up my crayons.
But how do you fit such a joy-producing ritual into what’s probably an already busy life? You can find ways of weaving creative acts into your life. Take your journal with you to play with as you’re waiting for an appointment. Or, create a work of art with the meal you’re preparing. You probably have a lot more time in your day than you think to make art. Set a schedule. Think: “I’m going to be creative for 15 minutes.” Don’t make being creative the last thing on your list. Get it up there in importance.
Once you’ve become comfortable with your creativity, share it. When you get together with friends or family, rather than doing something passive like watching a movie, create. Draw, fingerpaint or take a pottery class. The depth and quality of communication and respect you’ll share with these special people can go beyond your imagination. And best of all, you’ll recapture the joy of that 5-year-old who couldn’t wait to paint.
Catherine Anderson is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society, Watercolor West and the Rocky Mountain National Watermedia Society.