Illustrated Journals

I was flipping through one of my journals this week and was struck by how well my illustrations reminded me of the hour I spent sketching the scene. I usually only had time to sketch when I was waiting for something – my kids to get out of a class, or my husband to get done with kite-surfing or off of work. While I waited, I would pull out my little blank page journal and look for something to draw.  One book is full of rocks, telephone poles, Douglas Fir cones, lifeguard stands, marinas, mountains, coiled rope, plants, and tequila bottles.

Waiting outside of pottery class

Sometimes I just doodle or try to draw pictures of animate objects like my kids or dog – but those never turn out too well. Occasionally my daughter has given me a creativity assignment to “draw a monster” or take turns with a collaborative fantasy picture, where she starts something, I add to it, and we switch back and forth until the page is filled with giant snails, hot air balloons, unicorns, and lemonade stands. But my favorite pictures are the ones that I drew from real life – my life. These are the pictures that actually bring back memories of a time and place.

Regular Thursday Date Night at Ward Center, Honolulu


These are the sort of scenes that words can’t always capture. I suppose I could have taken pictures of all these places, but the act of drawing really forces you to pay attention to the details. You may not notice the curves of the lamp post or the structure of the table umbrella until you try to draw it. Who cares, you might ask, about the structure of table umbrellas, but the point is that it forces you to be where you are at that particular moment. It’s meditative. When I draw something in front of me, I’m not thinking about my troubles, or planning for the future, I’m just observing. And real sketching forces you to quiet your logical left brain, because your left brain doesn’t know how to draw (it tries to make you draw symbols instead of what is really there).

Two great books on this subject are The Creative License and An Illustrated Life, both by Danny Gregory. If you’re worried about your lack of drawing skills, these books will put you at ease, and explain how the simple act of drawing regularly can unlock your dormant creativity. Danny Gregory insists that we are all artists, and his books are the best I have seen for showing the sheer variety of personal styles. He gives loads of examples from his own and other people’s journals. They are all wonderful in their own peculiar way. I love to see how different people will draw the same thing in completely different ways.

Two Scenes from Kailua Beach Park, Oahu


There are enormous benefits to keeping a journal, but illustrated journaling is even better. That doesn’t mean that every page must be illustrated, but even leaving room for little tiny drawings of your fortune cookie, or spoon, or cat’s paw, can bring back a flood of memories someday. And when life bogs down into a series of chores, spills, obligations, and temper tantrums, it’s important to remember that we are creative beings. Next time you are waiting outside of dance class or soccer practice, resist the temptation to play games on your phone and pull out a journal instead. In the long run, it will be much better for your sense of well-being. “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance… and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” – Henry James

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2 Responses

  1. A very timely advice! Strangely, I have been working myself up to the same idea of journaling while waiting. My sketchbook and other materials are already in my bag, so it’s just a matter of getting my pen/pencil onto the paper!

    Great sketches, by the way. 🙂

    • Jamie McMillin says:

      Thank you! It really is astonishing how much time we lose just waiting. But “just” waiting gives us an excellent excuse to do something we may otherwise never sit down to do. You’re already halfway there!