Ken Carbone’s Wonderlust: How to Love Keeping a Journal

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Eighteen months ago, in this column, I began sharing my experiences as a designer and artist as recorded in my journals. Images from these books became the narrative and visual thread of each article, where I revealed my passion for art, my obsession with trees, and why I love to play guitar.

Pile of my journals.

The sound and friction of a pencil or the sensual glide of a fountain pen against the page offer a warm and very human primality.

Over the years, I’ve presented examples of my journals to audiences at museums, conferences, and design schools. Based on this interest in my practice, I developed a workshop on beginning and maintaining a journal as a fulfilling life activity. Here are some key takeaways from my workshop.

Why keep a journal?

The answer to this question is very personal. Commonly, a memorable life event that sparks a moment of reflection triggers a journal practice—the start of a career, a milestone birthday, or the onset of an adventure. In my case, I was inspired by carefully paging through Paul Gauguin’s extraordinary journal in a Parisian museum in the late 1980s. As thick as a phone book, Gauguin’s treasure contained sketches, watercolors, collages, vintage photos, newspaper clippings, and handwritten notes. That experience showed me that a journal could be a record for posterity, a vibrant laboratory for ideas and experimentation, a document of the creative process, and a “memory bank” of life experiences.

Images from Gauguin’s journal Noa Noa.

What is a journal?

Call it a diary sketchbook, log, chronicle, memoir, scrapbook, whatever feels right. In a few hundred years, it will be called a codex. I refer to my books as a “journal” and not a sketchbook because they contain visual material and an ongoing personal narrative. Typically, a journal records daily activity, but I don’t adhere to this time-based mandate and make an entry when and how often I feel like it. Looking at books about how other artists use their journals is always inspiring.

Books featuring the journals of Picasso, Peter Beard and Sarah Midda

Why a paper journal in the digital age?

Numerous apps and digital programs offer high-tech functionality for note-taking, record-keeping, and art-making. Instagram and Pinterest are great visual databases, while ArtRage, Brushes, SketchUp, and Waterlogue provide plenty of tools for creative play. However, writing and drawing in a journal or sketchbook stimulates physical and sensory muscles that lie dormant when working on a digital screen. The sound and friction of a pencil or the sensual glide of a fountain pen against the page offer a warm and very human primality.

The other advantage of a physical journal is permanence. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci, he closes with some advice: “Take notes on paper. Five hundred years later, Leonardo’s notebooks are around to astonish and inspire us. Fifty years from now, our own notebooks, if we work up the initiative to start writing them, will be around to astonish and inspire our grandchildren, unlike our tweets and Facebook posts.”

The floppy disk c.1982 and a detail of a da Vinci notebook c.1482

What type of book is best?

Oddly, while our digital devices increasingly dominate our lives, there is a growing market for pocket notebooks. In 1997, the Italian company Modo & Modo re-introduced a classic black notebook called Moleskine, quickly dominating the industry. Today, scores of brands built on this Italian model (a compact format, quality paper, sewn binding, silk bookmark, and elastic enclosure) make finding a suitable book easy.

However, depending on a book’s intended use, bear the following in mind:

Size: You want your book to be an always-ready, trusted companion, so portability is essential.

Paper stock: The paper should be compatible with wet and dry drawing tools. If it is too thin, “show-through” is a problem; if it is too thick, the book becomes uncomfortably bulky.

Binding: I recommend a sewn binding that allows the book to lay flat while in use. You don’t want to be fighting the “spring” from a stiff binding while sketching in a museum. Sewn bindings are equally important for hard or soft covers.

Orientation: Most brands favor vertical books. However, if painting watercolor landscapes is your passion, investing in a quality hardbound horizontal format with quality paper is best. Again, this is a personal choice.

Testing a few books until you find what’s best for your purposes is okay. Once you find THE BOOK, buy a couple of dozen copies to ensure that the identical book is available in the future, in case your model is discontinued. Keep these blank books somewhere conspicuous as a reminder of your commitment to journal-keeping, reassured by knowing that a fresh book is always ready.

A variety of notebooks based on the Moleskine model.

The Toolkit

Again, the tools you work with are a personal choice and should support how you want to use your journal. A poet, painter, collagist, illustrator, industrial designer, novelist, photographer, or musician will each choose different implements for journal entries. I advise you to select two sets of tools: one for “on the go” and another for while working in your studio.

My converted cigarette case for tools needed “on the go” and materials used in my studio.

Getting Started

It’s best to begin with a one-day creative blitz on a weekend. Purchase any journal (80 pages / 40 spreads is best) and pledge to fill every page in one 12-hour period. Be fearless but not foolish: you will fail if you try to draw a portrait of every friend and family member in charcoal! You’ll be awestruck by your brilliance if you decide to record every “red thing” you encounter in a single day.

Thirty years later, my journal-keeping is a life-enriching ritual. It takes some discipline initially, but it soon becomes part of your creative DNA. What you love will inspire you, and your journaling will be rewarding. Make commitment easy, and feel free to fill your book with meaningful thoughts and dreams TO YOU as an audience of ONE. Find your rhythm; there is no deadline. Forget about the destination, and you’ll enjoy the journey even more.

Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and TED X speaker. A recipient of the 2012 AIGA medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm 50,000feet.

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