How art journaling schooled me on self-compassion

When I look back on my life, it is clear to me now where my experience of art making has helped me through tough times. However, when you’re in the thick of it it’s hard to see.

2016 was a heck of a rough year. For so many people, on so many levels. Me? Our little family had to leave our then home against our will and had to deal with a broken housing system alongside financial insecurity. That’s the quickest and easiest way to put it, but let’s just say we were treated like scum in the process. It hurt a lot.

A New Years Resolution I actually stuck to? Blow me.

When New Year’s Eve rolled in on December 31st 2016, all I could do was look back at the previous 12 months and see how RAW I was from the whole thing. Seriously, the only way I could describe how I felt in the second half of that year was it being like someone had taken a cheese grater to each and every one of my nerve endings – physical and mental – and continued to scour at them day after day. Dealing with our situation at home, alongside keeping up with my responsibilities as a mother, teacher and department leader damn well took everything I had to give.

I had decided that my Word of the Year for 2017 would be Create. I wanted to spend more time on self-care, and that meant actually making art just for myself, not just examples for students at work. The irony of being an art teacher and not making you’re own art 😂 #thestruggleisreal.

So I pledged to start my own art journal. This little bitty A6 sketchbook. I purposely chose a tiny book so I wouldn’t be intimidated by it or overwhelmed by filling larger pages. At the time I thought I’d just start doing it as a means to chill out at the end of the day and de-stress. Thankfully, I got much more than I expected out of it.


What I learned from art journaling AKA substituting the self-imposed beating stick for a paintbrush

Don’t torture yourself with it. Have some goddamn fun.

Do you know what I did for my first official journal spread? I decided I wanted to paint an abalone shell in realistic watercolour. You know, that iridescent/pearlescent rainbow shell thingy that is hard enough to capture in a photograph, let alone a bloody painting. Muggins here thought that was a GREAT idea, it looked so pretty in my head. Needless to say, I wanted to burn it after the first night of trying it out.

Thankfully I’m a stubborn fucker so didn’t cave in and declared it ‘done’ on the third night. But that taught me quick – if I’m gonna keep this up, I’m gonna have to not make this about making things realistic and laborious for the sake of ‘pretty’. Now I work much faster and spontaneously, and I’m happier for it. Now when I start getting bogged down into mind-numbing detail and expectations, I throw some paint on it (maybe a bit of glitter too ;D).

Perfectionism is for cowards. It takes courage to run the risk of getting it ‘wrong’.

Am I the only person who has ever avoided something they really wanted to do, simply because they didn’t think they could do it justice? I know it sounds crazy, and if you’re someone whose never experienced this then don’t judge! But I don’t think I’m alone here. There’s plenty of times I’ve done this in my life (this website for example, took me far longer than you’d believe to make happen), but for the sake of this post I’m gonna talk about it in relation to art making/journaling.

The ideas we have mean a lot to us. Some, more so than others. They speak to our values, our desires, the people, principles and things we love and hold dear. And the more they do so, the more precious they are to us. There are particular things I have wanted to make art about that I haven’t even gone near, because the picture of it in my head is so perfect and ideal that I don’t want to tarnish it with the messy process of birthing it into reality. Same for art journaling spreads – there are prompts I have seen or things I’ve wanted to journal about that I haven’t touched because I am waiting for the time I can ‘do them justice’.

Thankfully, I am breaking that cycle slowly but surely. The first time I consciously did it was for a spread based on ‘Strength’. I had this brilliant vision for how it was going to look like, took a deep breath, and started. The end result was not at all like I’d planned, and I cocked up a number of elements. That page is THICK with the layers and layers of acrylic I covered my failed attempts with! This normally would have bummed me out. But you know what – it didn’t. I loved it. To date it’s still my favourite spread because what showed up on the page captured more of what I was trying to than my own seemingly precious idea, and I was glad to have finally womanned up and done it.

Basically, it has helped me to learn to get over myself when it comes to my ‘precious ideas’, and to not let perfection make a coward out of me on the path to doing what I really want.

You don’t need to have all the answers. Leave room for the unexpected.

Following on from the above, learning to get over my perfect visions for my art journal spreads has meant a more intuitive and free-flowing approach. A lot of the time now I open my journal with more of a feeling or experience of what I want to capture rather than a particular vision of how it should look. On the flipside, sometimes you come across a particular cut out image that just SPEAKS to you, even if you don’t know what it’s saying yet, and use that as a starting point. When that has happened it’s been really interesting to see the page unfold as it tells it’s own kind of story.

Letting the process guide me rather than sticking to a mental blueprint has been really freeing, and a real lesson in surrender. As my spreads have embraced more abstract elements and textures, I find that feeling of Flow more readily and welcome thoughts and images as they come and go. And when it’s all finished, I see that a collaboration has happened where there have been moments of surprise and revelation, rather than an imposing dictatorship wanting to reflect itself back to itself. ‘Cos you know, sometimes you think you know best, but you really don’t ;).

Show up to yourself, again and again.

Ooh, this is a hard one. The everyday hustle can be such a grind at times. Family, work, friends, finances – obligations and responsibilities are out there in abundance. And somehow we find the time and the space for all of it, even if it kills us.

I once had an interesting conversation with myself on evening in that first month of 2017 after a few weeks of starting my art journaling. It was 11.30pm at night, I had crashed out on the sofa after an exhausting day of work, putting the boy to bed and stuffing something edible down my throat that took as little time as humanly possible to prepare. I had already popped back onto the computer to shoot of some more work emails I hadn’t had a chance to respond to or send during the day and plan a lesson or two. Now here I was, staring down a three episode re-run of Game of Thrones late at night, with a flicker of guilt growing in my mind about leaving my art journal closed for yet another night.

I hit on a thought, loud and crystal clear, as I stared blankly at Rickon failing to zig-zag his way to freedom:

How come I manage to drag myself to that computer every night at silly hours to do even more work, and yet can’t bring myself to get my arse to that table and do some art making for myself for 10 minutes???

You know what I felt at that point? ANGER. Like, what the fuck? Was I really not gonna give myself the same level of dedication as I give everything else? Even the stuff I actively didn’t want to do at times? I took one metaphorical look at myself, realised that’s some twisted shit, and parked myself down and did some goddamn art journaling. This was the result.


Now, there have been plenty of times I have stayed up after working at night and done an extra 15 minutes or so on a spread, because I’m bloody worth it too. And I may be dog-tired, but I sleep a hell of a lot more contently knowing I showed up to myself that day, as well as everything else.

What does it all come down to?


I hear things like ‘No worries, it’s nothing that can’t be fixed”. “It’s good enough” (code for ‘YOU are enough”). “Let’s try this”. “It’s no big thing” (yes, Flop from Bing, toddler mum here). I more often look for the more joyful, ease-full path where I can, and if I can’t find one, try make one. And not feel guilty in the process.

At a time in my life where I was metaphorically beating myself up at every junction, it became a practice in surrender and learning to trust myself, mistakes and all. That I was still worthy, that I am as much of a work in process as my journal, and that’s okay.

And I’m still learning more (time for that another day, this has been one long ass post as it is). And it’s not like I’ve got it perfected. But the more I’m showing up for myself in this small way, in this seemingly inconsequential way, the more I’m finding the courage to show up as myself in other places.

I hope that you got something out of this post. Are there any makers, creatives, or journalers out there who would like to share what they have learned from their own practice? I’d LOVE for you to share in the comments. Thanks for reading, if you got this far ;).

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