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Art journaling is a personal creativity practice where mixed media is used within a book form to facilitate personal expression and contemplation.

Art is so Practical: Learning, Self-agency & Reclaiming Creativity

thisIsYouIsn’t it weird how sometimes you find yourself doing things you think you’re not particularly suited for but then know you’ve got to do it? My dear friend, Lisa Stiefel (a wonderful ESL teacher), asked me to do a guest blog post on reflective learning and journaling. My first thought was – ‘Oh no, not more writing!!’* and my second thought was ‘Yes! Of course! Challenging, essential and something you stand for, you’ll figure it out, Tracee!’ Ha! Great!

I believe very strongly in the power of art making (not with kind with a capital A; the everyday kind), and the very practical things art making affords us: learning, self-agency, and reclaiming creativity. In this guest blog post I consider how we might create a recognizable and practical bridge between making and learning, in hopes that we can normalize qualitative learning activities and balance the rational-based learning embodied in today’s public school systems.

Both Lisa and I would like to hear any thoughts you have about this series and the topic in general. Enjoy the read!


*I’m in the process of writing a chapter for a book called “Demanufacturing Education” that will be published next year. I’m also co-authoring a book with an artist friend, Amanda Judd (working title: “Art Collaboration: A Guide to Inward Facing Collaboration”). For someone who doesn’t fancy herself as a writer (yet?), I sure jumped in the deep end! 🙂

Art is Not a Skill

I’m listening to the Unmistakable Creative with Dave Gray and I’m recognizing so many parallels with why I bother with art at all. Art for me is about learning, understanding, inquiry, expressing and communicating difficult concepts and emotions, as well as indulging in the ability to shape what we want in life.

Many people shy away from art making because they feel like they’re not skilled enough. This makes me extremely frustrated and I want to yell “that’s a cop out!!” I feel like people know better deep down in their hearts. There is not level of skill at which someone has the right to call themselves an artist. It’s not about skill. It’s about something much harder, which is why I think it’s so convenient to use the universally accepted excuse that they don’t have the technical skills to do it.

Making art is so much bigger than the technical aptitude that goes into it (although as David mentions, many times having the technical aptitude brings more confidence). Making art is about how you feel, what you’re thinking about, what you care about, what’s going on. And none of those things require you to be a Rembrandt to do it.

People who make art with little or no skill are exceptional people and I celebrate them! Their sense of courage and their ability to sidestep the judgement and shame that often accompany expressiveness is tremendous. I support these people wholeheartedly because they know what matters and they act on it despite what others think; they have courage. And they’re willing to exercise a rare power. Because they can.

I hope you enjoy this podcast as much as I have: Drawing to Make Sense of the World with Dave Gray.

I make art to evolve myself and my world.
I make art to get messy and to mess up.
I make art to understand what the heck is going on.
I make art to learn.
I make art to hone my instinct.
I make art to contemplate.
I make art to play.
I make art to be me.

Why do you make art? 

Dare to Share

I made a mistake the first time I ran ‘Stoke Your Creative Fire‘ online workshop: I told them they didn’t have to share their personal art making. I created a private online forum for people to share, but I also told them that what they were making was very personal and sharing was optional. Most people didn’t share. And I think that hurt them. It’s now time for some tough love.

Even though I still believe that your art making is and should be for yourself, and that you have to be careful who you share your personal stuff with, I’ve now reconsidered my policy on sharing. The benefits of sharing are staggering; significant enough to devise new approaches.

Benefits of Sharing your Work

Sharing your work is the ongoing journey that helps shape your creative voice. Without it, you don’t grow the way you otherwise would:

You become more accountable with yourself. It’s harder to be in denial about what you’re doing, feeling, wanting or trying to accomplish when you put something out there into the world for friends and perhaps even strangers to see. You try harder on behalf of yourself. You don’t half-ass it or you start to get much more clear that you are, in fact, half-assing it.

You raise your own bar. By putting your stuff out there, you are asserting a certain amount of conviction and overcoming excuses. You rise to the occasion and start aiming at your own standards because it’s so personal to you. I did this with the lunchnotes I make for my son’s lunch every day. I’ve done this for almost four years so far but only started posting them every day on Instagram. Since starting to post them, I’ve really upped my game. Recently my son (who rarely says much of anything) let me know how much the recent ones are so compelling to him. He’d love whatever I put in there, and I really try hard to create thoughtful pieces, but I have to admit that since posting them, I’ve notched it up and will continue to.

You become clearer about what you want and what motivates you. You can only copy other people for so long before you call yourself on it and then face the big question: what do *I* want???? And then you have to figure out how to say it in your art making. This forced clarity is really uncomfortable; if you don’t put it out there, you won’t face and move through your discomfort to discover what you really want.

You become stronger. When you share your art, you are taking calculated risks. Not everyone will understand what you’re doing or like what you’ve made. Some may decide to critique something that needs no critique. But by choosing to share, you increase your aptitude for courageous living, taking risks, being yourself and being able to face fears.

You find your creative voice. If you don’t share your work, you may be denying that you have a creative voice, or you’re not fully realizing your creative voice, or perhaps you’re embarrassed about not being in touch with your creative voice. Hiding from it doesn’t help you get in touch with it. Sharing it helps you find it.

You become well-positioned to share your creative voice in its fullest. Through regular sharing, it will eventually become salient that you are growing and changing. You will be able to see it in the quality of the things you’ve shared. At some point, you’ll be ready to really take ownership of the creative voice you’ve found in yourself and since you’ve been sharing all along, it won’t feel like any ordeal to reveal more of your voice. People will have become acclimated to what you share and when you finally hit stride with it, they’re ready for it just as you are. Plus, your truest friends will have cheered you on this whole time and they’ll be there to help you celebrate your creative voice.

You break out of bad habits. As much as we want the attributes listed above, many of us are still not willing to share. We still live in a culture where shame and shaming is pervasive: shame keeps us from doing what we really want and causes people to criticize others for who they are. However, with the techniques listed below, you break old patterns of comparison-mongering, negative self-feedback, shame and looking at the negative.

Self-Compassionate Ways to Share Your Art

Let’s say you make a piece of art that you’re not entirely happy with or that you filled with completely personal reflections. You’re not likely to want to share that. There are ways to share that allows one to partake in the benefits of sharing while maintaining privacy. You can ease into the benefits listed above by taking these semi-private approaches to sharing. Here are some self-compassionate ways to share your work:

Make it Hard to Read: 1. Scribble Write:  You can write your reflections on the page in an illegible form. Who has to read them? Really? No one else needs to read them and nor really do you. It’s enough to write them even if you can’t read them. 2. Write super tiny. Most people won’t go through the work to read anything super tiny. 3. Write around in a circle. Again, too much work involved in trying to sort out any secrets.

The Cover Over You can write a stream of conscious writing on the page and then cover over it with paint or collage so that it’s not longer readable. You may decide to let certain words peek through but essentially the mood and intent is captured regardless of ability to see them.

Create a Feature Sometimes I’ll write something I’m thinking about on another sheet of paper and then integrate it somehow on the page: create a flap so you can close it (open the page to read it) or rip it up and collage the pieces into the page so only snippets can be seen

Put the Writing Within the Image You can tuck words in shadows, between lines, in foliage, anywhere where it will visually appear to be texture at first glance. Basically look for hiding places. It also makes the art more mysterious and rich.

Subsection-share When you take a picture of your art to share in social media, just take a picture of a selective section of it. Close-cropped photos always look fantastic anyway. Plus, the affect will make people more curious and appreciate that you’re not an open book.

I wrote really tiny, illegibly and in a circle. The important thing to me is that I expressed myself, whether you are able to know the full extent of it or not.
I’ve written things I’m uncertain about on the backside of the decorated gift tag attached to this spread.
You have no idea that there’s a whole lot more writing on this page. Nor do you know that I’m conscientious about what’s written there.

So, my new policy is that you should share what you make. This is the path toward finding your creative voice and give you the self-recognition that you are a truly creative soul.

Old Book, New Story

Someone once asked me what kind of art journal I use because they were having a hard time finding the perfect mixed media journal. I see little debates about this, too: getting a journal with thick enough paper, with adequate texture, etc etc. Maybe these things should matter to me more than they do. Fact is, I don’t give them a whole lot of thought.

I have a stack of books that I pulled out of a recycling bin and I just upcycle them for my art journals. I’ve learned a few things about what works and what doesn’t and I was looking for some company when I was ready to make another. So I invited some friends to join me. If you’re interested in making your own art journal out of a book, perhaps this can inspire and help you, too!

Using an old book for an art journal may not seem practical for folks who have high standards about sketchbooks. But I love it for so many reasons:

  • No more ‘blank page’: the book content offers a background for your art and your subconscious thinking. Marks are already made!
  • Upcycling is the way to go: as much as recycling is good for our earth, upcycling is even better. It’s repurposing something without the effort or money involved in breaking it down into a reusable material; you just use it.
  • Every upcycled art journal is totally unique: you’re not going to find another just like yours. And it’s infused with personality from day one, unlike a blank journal.

What do you like about using a book for an art journal?


My Weird; My Empowerment

Day 8 of Ally Oop we’re exploring change. Yesterday we wrote about things that hold us back or ways we hold ourselves apart from our true self; today we cover that with an empowered rendering of ourselves (whether it be collage, sketch, colors, whatever). I have been on a little exploration of my own that has been going on for a few weeks, having to do with saturated color, unexpected use of color, and distorted and imperfect portraiture. So when it came time to use my writing from yesterday as a palimpsest, I knew I would be trying this style out again and listening for meaning.

Part of my captivation is in how it looks; part of it is this internal thing that’s going on when I make it. Today it was perhaps the most obvious to me as it has ever been: making this kind of portraiture feels like a basic, personal truth.


I worked on it throughout the day in bits and pieces, getting called over to it to add more. At one point, as I considered it there on my art table, my gut had this to say about it: “truth.”


I wondered whether my gut was talking about working in that way or commentating about this being the depiction of my empowered self.

“Both,” my gut said, “they’re the same.”