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Jumpstarting a Visual Journal Project

Visual Journal Examples

What is a visual journal?

A visual journal is a mixed media project that uses a hardback book as a base. These are sometimes referred to as altered books, but in my class, I view them as journals to encourage a personal connection to the student. Students work directly in the book using paint, colored pencils, collage, markers, and whatever materials they have access to, to create works of art inside the book. The student can use it as a space to express themselves or simply to experiment with materials. The possibilities are endless and I love allowing students the space to make it their own. This is the most student-directed project I teach.

Visual journal materials

What supplies do I need?

At a minimum you need a used hardback book, a stack of magazines, scissors, and glue. From there, whatever materials you have on hand you can incorporate into your visual journal. When looking for a book choose a hardback book, otherwise it will fall apart, a book with non-glossy pages, otherwise paint will not stick to the pages, a book that isn’t too large, such as textbooks, and avoid thin pages, such as dictionaries. (You can check out everything I use to teach this project here.) Check out my full list of recommended supplies below:

  • Used, hardback book
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • Magazines
  • Newspaper
  • Collage paper
  • Sharpies
  • Colored pencils
  • Acrylic paint
  • Tempera paint
  • Watercolor
  • Bleeding tissue paper
  • Paint pens
  • Gel pens
  • Stamps
  • Mod Podge
  • Packaging tape
  • Hole puncher
  • Access to a computer and printer for images

How do I get started?

When I introduce visual journals to my students I always start with examples. I pass out my personal visual journals while going through a project overview, expectations, and examples in a PowerPoint (you can get the presentation lesson pack here). I explain that every Friday they will be working in their visual journal. It provides a break from our current project and gives them time to create whatever they want. After the PowerPoint, I take questions and tell students to get to work. The very first day they work on their visual journal I encourage them to flip through magazines and pull out any images or words they like. Next, they begin collaging those found images together to create their first page. This collage reflects their aesthetic and introduces them to basic collaging technique.

Visual journal how to handouts

How do I help inspire my students?

Once students get started on their visual journals I try to keep it hands off from there. In my intro level course I start class every Friday by introducing a new material they can use in their visual journal. That day they can test out the new material I introduced or choose to do something else, but every Friday they learn a new technique to add to their toolbox. Throughout the course I give students access to handouts that show different ways to use materials, collaging techniques, ideas, and more. After students have already moved through my intro course I leave Friday visual journal days very open ended. They can work on a new page, catch up on a project, or have free art time. As long as they are making art, they can do what they want!

Emergency sub plans + other fun things…

One aspect of visual journals that I love is how easily they can be plugged in when needed. If you suddenly have to be out, leave prompts for students to complete in their visual journal. If a student finishes an assignment early, they go straight to work in their visual journal. I love having prompts on hand in my prompt jar or fun worksheets, such as roll-a-design, to help inspire them. Once student have base knowledge of what to do in their book, they can easily work independently.

Colored pencil visual journal page

To sum it all up…

For a quick review, this is how I lay out this project for students:

  • Bring in a used, hardback book to work in.
  • You must use at least two different materials in your book.
  • By the end of each semester you must complete 12-16 pages (this varies based on my schedule that year).
  • You get to create whatever you want, as long as it’s school appropriate.
  • Have fun, express yourself, and try something new!
Visual journal examples

This truly is one of my favorites projects personally and professionally. I hope you and/or your students love it too! The key to success with the project is to view it as a learning tool, not necessarily a displayable work of art. 60% of students will submit scribbles on a page. But, as long as they have enough scribbles on pages to meet the minimum page count, used at least two materials, and spent class time working, they were making art and deserve a good grade. 30% of students will create solid work and you will have so much fun looking at their creations. 10% of students will connect so deeply to the project they will take it with them wherever they go and contact you years after they graduate to let you know they still work in their journal from time to time. That 10% makes this my favorite project and the other 90% will still enjoy it too.

You can read more about the stories behind my visual journal pages here.

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