Kerrie Woodhouse

Whimsical Watercolour

Sketchbook, visual diary or art journal?

art tipsKerrie Woodhouse

A few years ago, when the creative itch first started to trouble me I decided I needed to equip myself with a sketchbook. I was on holiday and with only one small bookshop  nearby the closest thing I could find was something labelled 'visual diary'. Later, a bit of research turned up yet another possibility... an art journal.

So. sketchbook, visual diary or art journal?

What's the difference?

Which one should a beginner take up?

Was I doing this right?

Should a beginner get themselves a sketchbook, visual diary or art journal? What is the difference? Which one is best for you?

I set about to do yet more research. Of course. That is my left brained way. My default setting. It turns out that there is no International Federation of Creative Taxonomy handing out clear definitions or a set of instructions. I ended up forming my own meanings for each of these things and I would like to share them with you.  Hopefully this will leave you one less avenue for procrastination and free you up sooner to get creating!

(Want to know more about how I use my sketchbook to stop procrastinating and get creating? Click here)

Visual Diary


This is a helpfully descriptive name in itself.  A record of one's life (diary) in the form of pictures (visual) as opposed to words. The emphasis here seems to be on documenting one's life, capturing moments or details of the every day. I love that idea. I appreciate any sort of tool that helps me surrender to the present and notice the small delights of the day.  Or perhaps even the not so delightful bits... the important bit is the noticing, being present.  It also solves one of the dilemmas that a beginner faces - what to draw.

Unfortunately this also raises another issue for the beginner - how to capture these moments when you have perhaps not yet gathered the necessary drawing skill.  One approach is to make peace with being a beginner and give yourself permission to produce drawings that you will probably never want to show to anyone. Doing something badly is the first step towards doing that thing better. If you can let go of the attachment to an attractive outcome and surrender instead to the process of keeping a visual diary, you can only get better at it.



A'sketch' is a rough or unfinished drawing, according to the dictionary. Therefore a sketchbook comes with an in-built licence to be imperfect. It is a place to try things out, to think aloud... but on paper, if you see what I mean. Sketch things from your imagination. Or from photos, or from your life. Here you can practice and prepare for more polished things in the future. Or not. For some, sketchbooks are enough in and of themselves.

I always used to associate sketchbooks with dry media, pens and pencils. But the sketchbook gods are more forgiving than that. Depending on which dictionary you look in you may even find that the definition of sketch is a rough drawing or painting. Many sketchbook artists will add watercolour to their pen or pencil sketches.  If you want to see some marvellous sketchbooks, take a look at Urban Sketchers. Typically urban sketching is of things you find in towns and cities.  Browsing through the Urban Sketchers sites is like travelling vicariously on other people's holidays or peeping into their lives. You get to see their world through their eyes.  Sounds like a visual diary... doesn't it?

Art journal

Now the name art journal scared me a bit at first. Art? As in fine art? High brow sort of stuff?

Actually, no. Well, not unless you want it to be. Those with a lot of skill from years of practice inevitably seem to transform any page into a work of art. But the term art journalling is often associated with a process that requires no prior drawing or artistic ability. If you let it, an art journal can be the most forgiving of the three. Splash paint in it like a five year old. Scribble furiously with a marker. Stamp, collage or stencil. Or draw a finely detailed portrait. Maybe just some words.

Anything goes.

Now we get down to the essence.

sketchbook visual diary or art journal

Anything goes

What I have learned from my investigation, is that if there is a rule, this is it: anything goes.

The benefit of exploring these different options and labels is seeing just how broad the scope really is.  The label offers some sort of direction. For me, visual diary emphasises documenting your life. I associate sketchbooks with freedom to be loose and unfinished. Art journals are about healing - therapy in paper form. One of those angles probably resonates with you more than others. Go with that one. It is the right choice.

Choose whatever media you want.  Draw or paint things you love or things you hate. From memory, imagination or reference. Part of your daily life or the one you wish you had. You can paste things in, you can rip bits out.

You can call it an art journal, or a sketchbook or a visual diary. Heck, you can call it Gertrude.

It really doesn't matter.

Just make sure you take it out and make some marks in it.


Want some help with your sketchbook practice? I have a class full of tips on that…