What Is an Illustrated Life Journal and How to Start One?

Learn all about the wonderful art of illustrated life journals and find some top tips for creating one of your own

Life can be hectic. We rush from one place to another with barely a moment’s pause to stop and appreciate the present moment. But our increasingly stressful routines mean we are finally starting to wake up to the need to prioritize mental and emotional wellbeing as a way to combat the fast pace of modern-day living.

Life journals and diaries do just that. They are a wonderfully therapeutic way to document your daily thoughts and feelings, and ground yourself in the present moment. Traditionally, this has been done through the medium of writing, but lately a new trend has emerged: illustrated journals.

Kate Sutton is a freelance illustrator who finds peace and inspiration through the daily practice of illustrated journaling.

Kate Sutton (@suttonkate) has worked as a freelance illustrator for over 15 years and is an expert on illustrated journaling. Her clients include Waitrose, Howies, Tofurkey, The Wall Street Journal, and The Lonely Planet magazine, to name a few.

For Kate, illustrated journaling is an important part of her life. She describes her journal as a kind of sanctuary she can carry with her everywhere, as well as a great way to explore, create, and express herself, without worrying about the outcome. On a more personal note, it has helped her through some very difficult times, including the loss of her mother.

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An illustrated life journal documents experiences with illustrations instead of words. Photo by Kate Sutton.

What is an illustrated life journal?

An illustrated life journal is the same as a regular journal or diary, except that you draw your life experiences instead of writing them down. Many people like to complement these drawings with texts such as titles or notes in fancy lettering.

What’s more, you don’t have to have any previous drawing experience to start one, although it is a great way to practice and improve your skills. Try to see it instead as more of a therapeutic exercise, expressing life’s experiences in a creative, original, and personal way through illustration.

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Create powerful memories of a holiday or important event with illustrations. Photo by Kate Sutton.

Benefits of creating an illustrated life journal

Kate believes that illustrated journaling is not only an effective way to bring you a sense of calm and peace by absorbing you completely in the present moment, it also allows you to express yourself and how you see the world in a completely unique and original way.

Your drawings will then serve as a powerful visual reference to help you recall those events later on in life. Imagine for example, a beautifully illustrated journal of your favorite holiday that can transport you back to that moment whenever you look at it.

In short, illustrated journalism has many benefits including:

- Reducing stress and anxiety.
- Improving your storytelling and drawing skills.
- Helping you to deal with and process difficult emotions.
- Creating vivid memories.
- Grounding you in daily life.
- Helping creative ideas to flow more easily.
- Improving overall mental wellbeing.
- Giving you an original way to view and interpret your experiences.
- Experimenting with different mediums and techniques.

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Your drawings will serve as a strong visual reference to help you recall events later on in life. Photo by Kate Sutton.

Creating your own illustrated life journal

To start creating your own personal illustrated life journal, you'll need the following basic materials:

- A moleskine sketchbook with a paper weight of at least 120 gr so that your pens do not leak through to other pages.
- A Tombow Dual Brush Pen which has two tips, a brush end and a finer end for detail, and dries very quickly.
- A Posca pen for fast-drying, vibrant color that can cover larger areas (although a chunky felt-tip pen or highlighter in bright colors will work just as well as alternatives).
- A fine-liner for adding details or text.
- A regular pencil for sketching rough layouts.
- Colored pencils.
- A camera or camera phone in case you want to document anything you’ll draw later on.
- And finally, a pencil case for storing it all together.

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Pens, pencils, and a sketchbook are some of the basic materials you need to start your life journal. Photo by Kate Sutton.

Finding inspiration

There are so many ways to find inspiration around you, from the seasons, to the books you love, or even objects around your house that mean something special to you. One of Kate’s main sources of inspiration is nature. She regularly takes walks in the countryside and uses the illustrations and diagrams in old nature books and manuals to help prompt her creativity.

Another way to be inspired is through children’s books. Among Kate’s favorite children's illustrators are Sarah Jacoby, Finnish artist Tove Jansson, and Pat Hutchins. Illustrator Carissa Potter Harson is another major influence.

Kate also recommends looking at maps for inspiration. She particularly loves the illustrated book Maps, by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielińscy, for its detail, color, and hand-drawn type.

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You can draw a lot of inspiration from nature. Photo by Kate Sutton.

Finally, she uses Pinterest or Google to look for a particular image if she needs a better or more detailed reference to draw from, as well as to look up other artists for inspiration.

If you’re still not sure where to begin, a good exercise is to write a list of things that make you feel good or happy on a post-it note. They can be big or small, from your first cup of coffee in the morning to a beloved relative or friend. You can then use this as references to start drawing on your page.

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Things that make you happy can be small, like a cup of coffee. Photo by Kate Sutton.

4 top tips for your illustrated life journal

Use a limited color palette

Begin with a limited color palette - just using two shades that complement each other is enough. You can use a lighter color as your base color to draw the main shapes first, and a darker one over the top to add the details.

Texts support ideas

Use supportive texts to label your drawings so that you can remember what they were about, why you liked them, and what they meant to you.

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Use supportive texts to label your drawings so that you can remember what they were about. Photo by Kate Sutton.

Always be prepared

Take some post-its with you wherever you go to jot down ideas as and when you come up with them, as well as your journal and pencil case. You never know when you’ll see something that inspires you enough to stop and draw. If you don’t have time to stop, you can always make a note of things you see to draw them later on.

Practice makes perfect

Make a daily “gratitude list”. Every morning or evening, just take a few minutes to make a list of things you are grateful for that day, right down to the smallest detail. Then practice drawing those things in your journal under the header “today, I am grateful for”.

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You never know when you’ll see something that inspires you enough to stop and draw. Photo by Kate Sutton.

If you would like to learn more about developing a regular drawing habit and exploring a creative mindful practice using your own life as inspiration, check out Kate Sutton’s online Domestika course Illustrated Life Journal: A Daily Mindful Practice. She will teach you fun ways to create an illustrated journal, as well as digitizing your work, adjusting your drawings in Photoshop, and sharing them to social media.

You may also like:

- What Is an Inspiration Board and How to Create One for Your Bullet Journal
- Lettering Tutorial: How to Create an Idea Sketchbook
- Character Designer Félicie Haymoz Illustrates Her Inner World in This Draw Yourself
- Illustrating Nature: A Creative Exploration, a course by Laura McKendry
- Exploratory Sketchbook: Find Your Drawing Style, a course by Sarah van Dongen


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