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Cool Art Therapy Intervention #4: Visual Journaling

Directions for visual journaling for wellness: Draw. Repeat.

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Art Journaling as a Creative Process

The "Cool Art Therapy Interventions" countdown is back; coming in at #4 is a popular technique most often known as "visual journaling." Visual journals are essentially "art diaries." They often contain both images [usually drawings] and words. Like an actual diary, their contents may be rough drafts that may later become finished artworks. And like an actual diary, they are meant to document day-to-day experiences, activities, and emotions and are often autobiographical in nature. Although they are defined as an art form, visual journals have been used for centuries as records of ideas and imagination. Da Vinci's drawing journals of flying machines and physicist Stephen Hawking's diagrams of the space-time continuum are just a couple of well-known examples.

Most art therapists recommend visual journaling as a way of exploring feelings and experiences over time. In fact, the importance of noting how artistic expressions change from week to week and month to month is one of the basic tenets of art therapy; a single image or art work is, in reality, just a snapshot of the moment. As you continue to create via a journal, your own visual language naturally emerges and evolves over time. There are some indications that drawing in a visual journal, even for a few minutes a day, has some health benefits, too. According to Elizabeth Warson, professor at George Washington University’s art therapy program, the regular practice of creating via an art journal can reduce your heart rate, increase serotonin flow and immune cells, and decrease stress responses. These findings complement previous well-known studies by James Pennebaker on the benefits of writing about distressful experiences and the physiological changes that journaling can bring about in the long term.

Lucia Cappachione is probably the most well-known art therapist who is devoted to the wide-ranging possibilities of visual journaling for wellness. While Cappachione is the not the first person to appreciate the possibilities that visual journals have for mental health, she was one of the first to formalize "creative journaling" for health and introspection. Her approach includes image-making, collage, words, and drawing with the non-dominant hand. Cappachione's The Creative Journal is one of the first self-help art therapy books that I used to explore my own visual language; for you "art journaling virgins" out there, Cappachione's books are a good place to start.

Visual journaling is a very cool art therapy intervention because there are so many ways to approach it. Revisiting Cool Art Therapy Intervention # 6, you could create a visual journal composed of daily mandala drawings. Or try making collage journal of words cut from magazines and print materials or mix photo collage [Cool Art Therapy Intervention #10] with writing, paint, and other materials in a sketchbook. Over the last decade, visual journaling has taken off in some interesting directions. For example, "altered books" are visual journals that involve taking actual books and changing [altering] them in a variety of ways. Anything goes-- you can draw, paint, collage, over-write, or even destroy pages as a form of artistic self-expression. So rather than working with a sketchbook or journal with blank white pages, the nature of the book itself provides a stimulus for creative journaling. In fact, old hard cover books found in the dollar bin are some of the best for use as future altered books. As an example of an altered book ala Psychology Today, check out Ron Huxley's altered DSM III. If you are mental health professional, I recommend Huxley's idea as a way to reframe your perceptions about diagnostic categories and the meaning of "mental disorders" in your work and life.

For a wonderful primer on visual journaling, take a tour of art therapist Kelly Brown's blog devoted to the medium of "art journaling." Be sure to download Kelly's guide to how to integrate art and writing in a journal, basic techniques, and how to incorporate art journaling into your life. If you decide to take up visual journaling, try to make it a habit. Just like any wellness practice, a visual journal is more powerful if you make it a regular part of your life or routine. Find a time when you devote your complete attention to it and use it as a meditative retreat, letting out whatever comes to mind in images and words. And if you want to deepen your experience, it may be worthwhile to work with a therapist who can help you explore the content of your images or make suggestions for taking the process in different directions.

Visual journals are places to play with ideas, to contain emotions and life's dramas, and to serve as a source of self-care, making them one of the coolest art therapy interventions for just about everyone. Coming up next: Cool Art Therapy Intervention #3: It's About the Metaphor.

© 2010 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT

The wonderful art journaling banner is courtesy of Kelly Brown, art therapist, blogger, and art journal devotee. Thanks, Kelly!

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