Every year around January, I get the itch to start an art journal. More than just a sketchbook, art journals often include writing and collage work. Maybe I’m just attracted to the format — it’s a book! — or maybe I hear art journals calling because they are my next big art form. Whatever the reason, I have a collection of art journals waiting for my attention.

That’s where the problem is. While I have lots of materials to work with (including a studio full of collage papers, stamps and inks, pens, paints, and old magazines), I’ve done very little work in my books. Most of them have only a few pages filled. Otherwise they are empty, blank slates just waiting for my attention.

What is keeping me from diving in? I’m pretty sure it’s fear.

While I’m attracted to the collages and layered art works I see in the many books I own on art journaling, I have little experience with most of the techniques involved. I am a beginner. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m going to make mistakes. All of that makes me uncomfortable, and faced with a huge blank page in one of my books, I freeze.

Fortunately, I remember how I learned new techniques when I started quilting years ago. I had just pieced my first bed-sized quilt and was debating with myself. Should I stitch the layers together by hand or use my machine? Every time I looked at my quilt top, all I could think was how big it was. I didn’t want to commit to hand-quilting it until I was sure I actually liked the process. I made a small quilt, only 12″ square, and tried hand-quilting that first.

My hand-quilting test. This little quilt is only a foot square. Quilt by Kit Dunsmore
My hand-quilting test. This little quilt is only a foot square. Quilt by Kit Dunsmore

The little quilt was a great way to practice a new technique and find out if I enjoyed it at all. I had hours of quilting to do, and if I didn’t actually like hand-quilting, I would be likely to give up before my bed quilt was finished. Luckily, hand-quilting proved enjoyable, and I had no trouble getting my project done.

I’ve applied the same philosophy to art journals. I made a tiny book, about 4″ by 5″ in size, and let myself journal in that. The little pages aren’t nearly as intimidating to work with. I can mess around without using a lot of materials up or investing a lot of time. It’s an easy way to enjoy the self-expression that draws me to art journaling without all the angst about what to do with an enormous page. If I mess up, it’s literally no big deal. Turn the page and try again.

A spread in my "Start Today, Start Small" journal.
My teeny art journal “Start Today, Start Small”

The only journal of the dozen I own that is full of entries is my Start Today, Start Small journal. I keep hoping to launch into the bigger journals, to get swept up by inspiration and make huge, complex spreads. For now, I will keep thinking small. Better that I should do a little something today than not do anything at all.

Do you use baby steps when you are learning something new or preparing for a big project? What tricks help you to get started?

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