Illustrating a Journal

Editors at the National Geographic have long joked that they put the words in the magazine to keep the pictures from running together. Well, precisely the opposite is the case when it comes to journals — illustrations are essential in keeping the pages from turning into a vast undifferentiated sea of text. Even if you are the only one who ever reads your journal, you will discover that non-text elements will not only please you, but also make the process of reading back through old journals to find information vastly easier.

Can’t draw? No problem! Relax and do the best you can. I am a lousy artist, but I am also fearless and harbor no illusions that I need to please anyone except myself. Besides, the only way to learn how to draw is to draw, so you may as well start by filling your journal with what you can do, and then you will have the pleasure of a record of how your drawing improves.

If you really hate your drawings consider taking a class — the discipline of showing up plus the actual instruction are great for confidence-building and actual skills acquisition. Instructional books are also an option. A favorite of mine isDrawing Without Fear by Robert Dvorak, who is not only a great instructor, but also an artist whose style I particularly like. There are an endless number of how-to books available, so shop around and find one that speaks to you both in method and drawing style. Just don’t forget that even the perfect book is useless unless you actually read it and do the exercises. Many would-be artists fall into the trap of filling shelves with unread volumes. Start drawing first and then decide what you need to advance your skills.

My essential kit is a 0.5 Pentel mechanical pencil, my standard Journal pen (02 Alvin Techliner) and a small (6mm x 8mm) Winsor & Newton watercolor set with one or two Winsor & Newton Series 7 Retractable Sable brushes. It is everything I need but weighs a mere 3 ounces and takes up no space at all in my bag.

Watercolors aren’t for everyone, so if you want to fiddle with half-pans and brushes, consider a good set of colored pencils, or aquarelle pencils — water-soluble pencils that apply pigment like a pencil, but then can be brushed-out like watercolor. Aquarelles are especially useful where you want a watercolor effect, but the journal paper is too light to take wetting of watercolors without wrinkling.

Buy only what you really need and whatever you do buy, buy the best where it really counts. Tyros will appreciate the rich pigments of really good pencils or watercolor pans as much as experts do. One great sable brush is better than a drawer full of lesser swabbers.

Travel light
Tools matter, but keep it simple and as small as possible; otherwise your tools will end up gathering dust in a drawer. Think hard about what you need and only carry what you must. Avoid the fancy sets the manufacturers are so eager to sell. Instead assemble your own kit to match your personal tastes. And each time you work, pay attention to what you actually use; if something is getting left unused then leave it behind next time.