How to Improve Your Art with an Observation Journal

An artist’s ability to observe the world around her is at the heart of any successful piece of art. You can take many classes on art techniques, but the only way to increase your power of observation is to practice practice practice. Even the greatest of artist such as Leonardo da Vinci practiced observation by keeping extensive notebooks. These observations naturally found their way into Leonardo’s art and inventions. Arguably, Leonardo’s art and inventions would not of been successful, nor had the enduring power that they enjoy, without Leonardo’s dedication to noticing even the most mundane details of daily living.

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a world where there are no modern distractions: no blaring televisions, no radio channels chatting in your ear all day, no podcasts, no laptops, and no cell phones full of texts and other instant messages. Leonardo da Vinci had an advantage that the modern artist does not have: unfilled time. After working all day, it is easy to imagine Leonardo sitting at a table top filling his journals full of his latest musings. Undistracted by modern day technology and constant messaging, Leonardo was able to truly hone his power of observation. 

So what is a modern artist supposed to do? Sure, it’s easy to think we can just turn off all the distraction, but do we really have to? 

Lately, there has been a ton of media messaging on the benefits of gratitude journals. The simple idea of a gratitude journal is that once a day, for just a few minutes, you write down 3 to 5 things you’re grateful for. It’s considered a mindfulness practice and has the benefit of generating more gratitude in your life. Some people spend just a few minutes when they wake up to write in a journal, some do it while they are waiting in line, and some do it just before bed. Each person is free to create their own style of journaling, which makes it accessible to everyone, even with all the distractions of modern living.

With a small twist, we can use the gratitude journaling trend to practice our power of observation as artists. Here’s how:

1. Select a journaling method. The type of journal that you use is not nearly as important as the act of consistent journaling. You can use a simple notebook, a three ring binder, or any journal that you already keep. Alternatively, you can keep a word document on your laptop, or on Google documents. If you use a smart phone, you can use any journaling app, or a simple note taking app.

2. Record your observations. This is actually the fun part. As artists, we can get caught up in creating finished or beautiful artworks to represent our observations. This is absolutely not necessary for your observation journal. You can simply write a few words down, i.e.: “the sky was lightest at high noon.” If you’re keeping a journal on a smart phone, consider a photo to record your observation. And of course, drawings and clippings work well too. 

Keep in mind that all observations are fair game, as long as you find the observation interesting. For example, a landscape artist might be interested in recording observations noticed while hiking outside, similar to the observations recorded in Leonardo‘s notebooks in this article. These types of observations night might not be interesting at all to a political satire artist who might be more interested in observing body language of political figures or current news events. Contemporary Pop artist might be absolutely intrigued by the color palette of candies displayed while standing in line at the grocery store. Let your own curiosity be your guide.

3. Make a routine. In the beginning, make a commitment to making a few observations a day. Remember, they do not need to be earth shattering revelations. These are just things that you were noticing as you move about your day. You might find it helpful to set a timer and try to make an observation at the same time every day. However, if you’re busy with work and life, you might be more successful recording an observation while waiting in a line or instead of scrolling through social media account.

Over time, the things you learn from your observations will make their way into your artwork. They become the underpinnings of new ideas and ways of seeing that eventually are expressed as a finished piece of art.

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