A Guide To Keeping a Reflective Art Journal

REFLECTIVE PRACTICE FOR ARTISTS

Being able to reflect is a fundamental part of learning and reflective practice is an invaluable tool to help artists develop their confidence, practice, self-awareness, identity and much more. Many artists forget about or neglect doing a reflective art journal because they aren’t sure where to start or if it will help them. This guide explains what a reflective art journal is, the benefits of keeping one and how you can start your own.

kick
Kick by gabriella travaline via Flickr. Image Source
Words collaged onto paper over a textured paint surface.
‘Mixed media texture’ by DJ Pettitt via Flickr (image cropped). Image source.

What is a reflective art journal?

There are many descriptions and ideas of what a reflective art journal is and what it should contain, often it’s a notion of a visual chronicle or diary of an artists’ thoughts, ideas, memories, hopes and dreams, sometimes these are combined with positive affirmations (positive and reassuring words or images). For me, alongside all of these (and anything else you want to put in your reflective art journal), there should be some element of reflection on your experiences to really help you learn and develop as an artist. This is what differentiates the reflective art journal from an information / research file, an artist’s sketchbook or a diary, all of which are sometimes confused with a reflective art journal.

A collage of words, numbers and images, including plant seed heads with washes of white paint over the top.
‘Inspiration’ by JillyM via Scrapbook.com. Image Source.

While your sketchbook is a good place to do observational work, experiment, take notes, collect relevant research, explore and develop your ideas, etc…, a reflective art journal helps you to learn from your experiences, supporting you to become a more confident and competent artist.

Gillian Hebblewhite

What is reflection?

Let’s start with the basics… what is reflection? Reflection is fundamental to all learning. It is a process that helps you become aware of, think about, and analyse your previous experiences to help you develop and transform your knowledge (ways of thinking about things) and practice (ways of doing things). There are plenty of models and frameworks to help you reflect. I personally like to use Kolb’s experiential learning cycle that has 4 stages:

Stage 1: Concrete Experience

Doing / having an experience. For example, you completed or didn’t complete a piece of artwork, a project, a mood board, etc… you saw an artist’s work that had an impact on you, you experimented with a new medium in your sketchbook and it went really well or didn’t turn out how you expected, you received feedback on your work, you experienced something that inspired or motivated you, you felt disappointed or not satisfied with an aspect of your work, you have been afraid to show others your work, take the next step or try something new, etc…

Stage 2: Reflective Observation

You observe, think about and reflection on that experience (how and why something happened), which then leads to…

Stage 3: Abstract Conceptualisation

Learning from and coming to conclusions about the experience, forming new ideas or modifying the way you think about something or how you want to do something, and planning. This then leads to…

Stage 4: Active Experimentation

You apply what you have learnt, new knowledge, idea/s, modification/s, etc… to see what happens, which results in new experiences. These new experiences can then be reflected on if needed and you start the cycle again. Learning is observed when you have worked through the 4 stages of the cycle.

A visual model of Kolb's reflective cycle.
Kolb’s Reflective Cycle by Saul McLeod via SimplyPsychology.org. Image source

[Critical reflection] asks us to think about our practice and ideas and then it challenges us to step-back and examine our thinking by asking probing questions. It asks us to not only delve into the past and look at the present but importantly it asks us to speculate about the future and act.

Department of Education and Training, State Government of Victoria, Australia (2007:1) From ‘A “Critical” Reflection Framework’
art journal #2
art journal #2 by Creativelenner via Flickr. Image source.

What are the benefits of keeping a reflective art journal?

It was only when I experienced the process of critical reflection as an art tutor and then a lecturer and health professional, did I really understand the benefits. I then realised how much this skill could have helped me decades ago as a young art student at college and university, where critical self-reflection was not specifically taught. I have kept a reflective art journal for many decades now and it has really helped my own practice and proved useful when I was working through decisions and what directions to take at certain points in my life. Looking back over my reflective art journals: my thought processes, what has influenced me and what I have learnt and achieved, is enjoyable, illuminating and motivating. It helps me to remember the obstacles I have overcome to be able to create the art that I create, and it gives me the space to plan what I would like to do in the future.  

A colourful collage that includes the words 'don't waste one more minute comparing yourself to others, this is your journey.
‘Your Journey’ by strawberryredhead via balzerdesigns.typepad.com. Image source.

A reflective art journal should be personal to you because there are many reasons why we choose to create things. It could be a rewarding hobby, a way to relax and/or something that improves or maintains your mental health. It may have helped you develop your self-awareness, come to terms with a transition in your life and/or create ways for you to become more involved in your community. You may be (or thinking about) selling your own artwork, studying for an art-related qualification and/or embarking on an art-related career. A reflective art journal will not only help you identify what drives your creativity and what you gain from creating your art, but also where you really want to take it. It can help you set goals, keep you focused on achieving what you want to achieve and improve your self-awareness, confidence and artistic knowledge and practice. There are so many benefits from keeping a reflective art journal, here are just a few.

A reflective art journal may help you:

  • Identify what you have achieved, enjoyed, and discovered by creating your artwork
  • Identify your artistic hopes, aspirations and values
  • Identify what you want to achieve as an artist and how you might go about achieving them (without becoming overwhelmed)
  • Focus on what really matters to you
  • Capture what you have learnt
  • Evaluate what you have tried
  • Improve your self-awareness
  • Improve your knowledge and practical skills as an artist
  • Develop your confidence
  • Develop your own visual language and style
  • Progress academically and/or professionally
  • Write an artist’s statement (who you are, what and why you create)
  • Document your progress for your own and others future reference. One day your reflective art journal may help others (who may want to research you and your work) understand how you viewed the world, your creative processes, ideas, influences, etc…

Do something today that your future self will thank you for.

Sean Patrick Flanery @seanflanery
‘Believe Art Journal’ by JillyM via Scrapbook.com. Image source.

How to start a reflective art journal

As I’ve said already, a reflective art journal is personal to you. They can be personalised in so many ways to meet your own needs as an artist or creative. Alongside reflections, a reflective art journal can include all kinds of things: images, poetry, found objects, positive affirmations, collage, drawings, colours, textures, etc… Don’t be afraid to try new things in your reflective art journal. Challenge yourself and be brave.

I’ve put together a list of prompts / questions, which follow ‘The what?’, ‘So what?’ and “Now what?” framework, to help you start your reflective art journal. From these prompts / questions you can apply Kolb’s experiential learning cycle (or another model of reflection) to help you learn more from your experience.  

In My Art Journal - February 2011
‘In My Art Journal’ by Christine Urias via Flickr. Image source.

Prompts / questions to help you start your reflective art journal

  • How is your artwork progressing?
  • How does your artwork compare to your previous work?
  • What has been going well and why?
  • What are you finding hard and why?
  • What are you enjoying most and why?
  • Would you want to do anything differently?
  • What medium / media are you using and why?
  • What techniques are you using and why?
  • Have you encountered any obstacles or barriers in the past concerning your art? How did you overcome these? What did you learn?
  • Are you currently encountering any obstacles or barriers concerning your art? How are you (or how could you) overcome these? What are you learning?
  • What have you learnt about your own or others’ art this week?
  • What has inspired you today? What has inspired you this week?
  • Is there anything you would like to do differently and why? How could you do this differently?
  • What skills do you think you need to improve? How will you do this?
  • What has helped you generate ideas and inspired your own artwork?
  • How / where did you find these ideas and inspiration?
  • Have you researched any artists, art movements, etc… that have helped your own work? How did it help?
  • What have you learnt from analysing your own or another artist’s work? Could you incorporate what you have learnt into your own artwork? If so, how?
  • Have you received feedback from others about your work? How did this make you feel? How could you use this feedback?
  • What do you hope to achieve tomorrow? this month? this year? What steps can you take to achieve this?

Just a little note on any feedback you receive (I’ll be writing a blog that includes getting the right feedback from the right sources). Many people may want to offer advice to you or give their opinion on what you are creating which you may or may not find helpful. Try to get feedback from people who know about art (or what you are creating) and the process of creating art (or what you are creating) or you may find yourself being steered in the wrong direction or, even worse, disheartened with your creations.

Back to starting a reflective art journal… I personally write my reflections in Word on my computer (double-spacing the lines) and then I print them out ready for me to cut up, rearrange and glue into a plain A4 note book. This allows me to expand and introduce other things into the reflection/s, add colour and make connections – it could be a list of ideas on how I could do something differently or how another artist has approached something similar. I may then analyse a few pieces of their work, which I prefer to handwrite directly into my reflective art journal next to an image of the artwork. My reflective art journals are quite messy – which I quite like as it gives me plenty of freedom to really work through the reflective cycle. Sometimes I tear pages out, cut them into pieces that are meaningful to me, rearrange and glue them back into my note book to form the basis of a new reflection and then continue to develop it. Lately I’ve been reflecting on using mindfulness techniques as a starting point for my abstract drawing and my experimentation with sgraffito techniques using different media for some plant inspired artwork. Sgraffito literally means ‘scratched’ or ‘scratched away’ in Italian. Britannica (2014) describes sgraffito as ‘a technique used in painting, pottery, and glass, which consists of putting down a preliminary surface, covering it with another, and then scratching the superficial layer in such a way that the pattern or shape that emerges is of the lower colour’. I’ve asked myself what has gone well and why? What has not gone well and why? How could I do it differently next time? Why am I drawn to and enjoy sgraffito? How have other artists used this technique and what could I learn? I set aside some time each month to do some reflections on my progress, the things I have learnt and to evaluate my goals.

Sgrafitto_technique_with_paint_by_Gillian_Hebblewhite_2021

Sgraffito technique with paint by Gillian Hebblewhite 2021 © via Flickr. Image source

I hope this blog has inspired you to start a reflective art journal or given you some new ideas for your reflective practice as an artist. I would love to hear about your own experiences of keeping a reflective art journal and your top tips.

References

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

McLeod, S. A. (2017, October 24). Kolb – learning styles and experiential learning cycle. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/learning-kolb.html

State Government of Australia, Department of Education and Training (2019) A “Critical” Reflection Framework [online] State Government of Australia, Department of Education and Training. https://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/childhood/professionals/support/reffram.pdf

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