Review: The Decorated Journal

The Decorated Journal: Creating Beautifully Expressive Journal PagesNow, I'm not the sort of man who likes to crochet cozies for his fountain pens, nor the type to accessorise his planner with dangling hand-wrought cameos that match my tie. In fact, if you listen to my wife, you will no doubt hear laments about my inability to even tell the difference between off-white, eggshell, and creme provence, which apparently is the hallmark of a person sorely in need of an expensive interior decorating course. But, these failings aside, I do have an artistic streak that blazes briefly every now and then, inspiring me to consider all the things I could do to bring a dash of beauty into the more mundane corners of my life. A corner in question: my journals.

Once, while shopping with a friend of mine for "design idea" books, I noticed him thumbing through a coffee-table-sized tome that barely had 50 pages, and asked him if it was any good. His response was, "It's $75, and $60 is for the white space." And so it is with many of the books I've seen on the subject of keeping a creative visual journal. In fact, it's one of the reasons why I've left every single one upon the shelves, except for one. That's The Decorated Journal, by Gwen Diehn.

In this book, Diehn follows up on her previous book, The Decorated Page (which, unfortunately, I have not yet seen), with a work that stands quite well on its own. The subtitle, "Creating beautifully expressive journal pages," is actually a bit misleading, if not intimidating. After all, why would you wish to buy a book that seemed to be written only for those people with artistic abilities? Beauty and expression are closely tied to one's artistic sense and technical skills, are they not?

No, not so, and this book not only helps the reader to overcome that misconception, but also avoids the major fault that so many similar books share: it forsakes the touchy-feely emotional approach to its topic, which usually engenders the occasional page with a picture of a cat, a word balloon, and a piece of belly-button lint, not to mention huge margins with motivational text drawn from philosophers and success merchants. (Ah, white space!) Instead, its purpose is to lure the muse in a more concrete fashion, to show you how to experiment with ideas, text, doodles, jottings, splashes of colour, scraps of newspapers and discarded theater tickets, all laid together in an effort to capture an instant, one that will allow reflection into the past and into our minds. And this does not rely upon developed artistic abilities, but rather in discovering what is important at any one moment, a primary purpose of keeping a journal.

A glance at the contents will give you some idea of what Diehm is trying to achieve: sections on materials, viewing the world (creatively, naturally, spiritually, symbolically), working in stages and layers, bookbinding, and customising your journal. She writes as a skilled teacher, providing historical background, setting starting points and goals, instructing in the technical use of the tools, and providing the inspiration to trigger the student's own explorations.

Throughout it all, she maintains a clear prose style that merges the technical with the creative, never getting caught up in sentimentality, nor falling into the trap of relying upon commercial ephemera, those expensive "scraps" mass-produced for scrapbooks and journals that make so many projects look exactly alike. Instead, she advises in the use of ink, pencil, watercolours, glue, computer print-outs, the contents of your pocket, and anything else one happens to have at hand, demonstrating how they might be combined to achieve works of art.

The book is absolutely brimming with gorgeous and colourful examples of journal pages from many different artists, using them to illuminate ideas and directions within the text, and many of these designs are well within the grasp of the average doodler, should they have the guidance that Diehm so deftly provides. The emphasis is on ideas, not on whether or not the reader is a skilled artist or draftsperson. We all have ideas, she states. The key is how to unlock and express them.

At just 125 pages, I had at first wondered how the author could provide a thorough book on the subject that wouldn't be lacking in key areas. I must admit that she pulls it off. Part of it is due to her straight-forward writing, free of fluff and filler, but much of it is due to her judicious use of white space, or lack thereof. The text, the illustrations, the examples, and the sidebars pack every page with instructions and inspirations without feeling crammed, and the book actually feels like one several times its size. It's an excellent buy, and one that could prove essential if you've ever wanted to express yourself in a journal. What you create as a result will be far more valuable in the future.


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