Friday, October 12, 2007

Drawing from Life - The Journal as Art

"How much virtue there is in simple seeing" intones Thoreau, a line if ever there was one to tape on the inside cover of a journal.
Jennifer New / Introduction
Jennifer New's book about drawing - Drawing from Life - the Journal as Art - is very unusual book about 'drawing'. It's not a 'how to' instruction book, nor is it an art history tome. What it does instead is look at the multi-faceted way in which people use images in journals

It features 31 journals generated by several different people - who each draw and make images in different ways and for different reasons. Not all of them are artists. Some are designers, quilt-makers, illustrators, art professors, film-makers and professors of medical illustration - while others are musicians, cognitive scientists, doctors and geologists. (Rightclick the image to open the image in a new tab/window to see some of the names.)

This author really seems to understands her subject and her contributors. She seems to have managed to really got under their skins - maybe the journals helped? Here's the quote again which I used to start Tuesday's post. (It bears repeating because I love it!)
Not surprisingly journal keepers have specific material requirements about their supplies....avid journalers are on the brink of being book fetishists, collecting jounals on trips and receiving them as gifts. they can recite names of companies that produce blank books the way people know wines or shoe labels (care for a Daler Rowney?) and are on more than nodding terms with a wide array of pens and art supplies...
Recognise that feeling anybody?

She starts her book with an extensive commentary on the nature of keeping a journal and the different approaches people adopt - exploring in some depth the question of what exactly is a journal.
Visual journals may provide stronger records of the cultural milieu in which they were created than their purely written counterparts. Rather than describing the stuff of the day, they are often made from it.
Her book then divides into sections with contributors allocated to each section according to the nature of their journal-keeping. The author introduces each individual and their own particular way of seeing and keeping a journal. However, much of the richness of this book comes from actually being able to look at the diversity which exists in 'seeing' from different perspectives and the associated drawings and images produced as a result.

I'm just going to touch on a few aspects of what this book is about - words don't do it justice. However I do very much applaud the author for having found so many different people and different styles. What was particularly interesting was to find so many people wedded to the idea that it was important to continue to journal by hand and not by technology.

- recording visual information collected - of dreams, scientific investigations, geological events and volcanic eruptions, back to nature experiments, people on the subway in New York, things seen on daily walks - and the passage of time

- artists making images out of photographing their meals, the detritus of daily life (hoarded in the back of Moleskines), drawing heads on post-it notes stuck on calendars, and working on pages over time and using many different materials
Journals serve as file folders for future works
Exploration - Conventionally, as one would expect, this section includes people who have travelled very extensively - producing journals through a combination of drawing and biking and/or while travelling to all manner of places around the world - often writing with brushes and making records all the while in the memory of the experience of a place. However there are others who explore concepts and ideas inside their heads. One contributor is a cognitive scientist and engineer who travels a lot and needs a journal to keep working - he draws diagrams to help him solve mathematical problems on long plane journeys. Others such as David Byrne are visual thinkers - his journal is where he keeps his ideas for his music - sometimes written, sometimes images, often visual as the spatial relationship of words and drawings on a page are vital to the understanding of an idea. This section also includes the 1,000 Journals project. 1,000 journals were set adrift between 2000 and 2003 and have been on creative journies ever since. (The world premiere of a documentary about this project airs on the 4-5th November at the AFI Festival in Los Angeles)
It's an interesting book--it's not about the visual skill level, it's much more about the thinking that goes into the process. Personally, I found the variety of approaches very inspiring.
John Clapp (children's illustrator and art professor) - comment on 'Drawing from Life' - the book in which he is included
Creation - the artists (in the widest sense) in this section all rely heavily on their journals - seeing them as crucial tools.
The Journal records the process, which John Dewey and his descendents, the post-structuralists, valued over the product. In his famed lecture 'Art as Experience' Dewey argued that the value of art is not as a relic, a museum piece to be admired from afar, but as an aesthetic experience.......A journal of creation serves as a witness, scribe and memory. It is a continuing dialog of the creative impulse from inkling to eventual realisation.
Jennife New - Introduction to Creation
An architect who uses the latest technology for work also uses daily watercolours and a journal to provide the seed-germ of creativity required to design and solve problems. Some keep logs for studios or holidays, while others record the progress of paintings or quilts or film or gardens. Some keep them just as a way of making something different - to keep the creativity juices going.
'Looking at journals is a lot different to looking at a finished drawing. You start to see and almost understand how the ideas evolved into a final product.'
Thomas Oslund (Principal Design Director, Landscape Architects) - commenting on why he is inspired by the journals of others
I found that the content of this book opened my eyes to ways of seeing and recording which I'd never ever thought of before never mind contemplated trying to emulate.

Pencil rating: Overall I'd give this a rating of 4 pencils. It's a book which excels with the collection and comparison of so many journals - and experiences, ways of seeing and images. Notes and themes from the analysis of people's impulses to record their daily lives using drawing will resonate I know with a lot of people. Anybody reading will respond in different ways to the intensely personal experienced which are often recorded on the pages of the different journals. However, I also suspect that this is a book that people will either adore - or look at in confusion. It probably depends on whether you're the sort of person who is interested in keeping a journal.

One last thought - I was particularly struck by how many of the people who kept a journal with images had been doing it for years. Maybe there's a gene for it?

Note about the author:
Jennifer New is author of the best selling Dan Eldon: The Art of Life. She teaches at the University of Iowa School of Education and lives with her husband and children in Iowa City.



  1. I bought myself this book last Christmas and was very inspired by it - it's full of beautiful stuff and I liked the way there were so many different approaches to journalling.

  2. Buying yourself a book for Chirtmas is a very sensible habit of which I totally approve!


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