Using personal photos in your art journals and sketchbooks

If you fear facing the blank page of your journal—especially if writing is what gets in your way—this one simple technique will fill your pages (and creative soul) effortlessly.

It’s also a terrific use for all of those photos stored and forgotten in our devices.

As part of the ROOT: 30 Day Journal Project, I’ve asked several artists who keep visual journals, sketchbooks or art journals to share their creative process — especially as it relates to our theme of exploring rootedness.

catherine anderson photographerCatherine Anderson

shares how she reconnected with her roots after an international move through the practice of photography combined with visual journaling.

Photography is my meditative practice. I can lose myself – and find myself –when I have a camera in my hands.

By isolating portion of the world around me through my lens, I can let go of the distractions that might surround me, and see more deeply the color, the shape, the pattern, that is speaking to me. 

I found photography as a practice after I had been uprooted. 


I chose to leave my roots – the country where I had been born, where my mother and father had been born, where my children had been born – for a journey to a new country, but I never expected to feel the deep sense of displacement that stayed with me for years, a sense of not knowing where I belonged.

Symbols of belonging

During this time I decided to consciously search for trees to photograph, in particular, trees that had been blown over by the wind exposing their roots. They would understand how I was feeling.

catherine anderson photo smooth rocks seaside

But, as is so often the case, my soul knew what I needed more than my conscious mind, and in my search for my kindred trees, I found it was the rocks that called out to me.

They gave me a sense of being grounded, of being connected to the earth beneath my feet. Their color calmed me, their shape made me feel part of the earth, and their solidness made me feel safe. 

In my search for a symbol of disconnection, I found my symbol of belonging. 

Using personal photos in a journal

When it comes to journaling, my images give me a canvas on which to journal. 

I start by opening up the image folder on my computer and look to see if a particular image calls out to me.

When I find it, I print it out on a color laser printer to a size that will fit my journal, and start playing on the page.

catherine anderson photography art journal sketchbook

I am not faced by the blank page, I have my image.

I allow the shapes, lines and patterns of the image to guide me as I work on the page, adding layers of color, paper, and words. 

Journaling with images, not just words

I believe that the soul speaks to us in images, and images allow us to bypass the thinking mind, which so often houses the harsh and critical voice we often hear when we are doing creative work. 

Words have always made me feel vulnerable. Images feel safe to me, as I can share my feelings without the need for words, knowing that I am not exposing my soul to those who will not understand. 

Visual journaling using my photographs has allowed me to become more comfortable with sharing my thoughts on the page, and I learn so much when I take the time to listen to what my images have to say to me.

Often they know much more than I do. 

Catherine Anderson is the author of The Creative Photographer published by Lark Books in 2011. Her journey of self-discovery has taken her from attorney to photography franchise owner to creativity-workshop facilitator. She loves being a creativity mid-wife assisting others to give birth to their creative eye.

Catherine teaches photography related workshops in her studio in Charlotte, NC and at Art and Soul, the John C. Campbell Folk School and the Buddhist Retreat Center in South Africa.

Catherine’s work has been featured in Collaborative Art Journals and Shared Visions in Mixed Media by L.K. Ludwig, Collage Lab by Bee Shay, Interactive Art Workshop by Kim Rae Nugent as well as Life Images by Somerset. Her photographs from the exhibition Children of Ixopo: Hope and Survival in a Time of AIDS are in the permanent collection of Winthrop University.

Catherine’s website is 

All images in this post are by Catherine Anderson.

5 Responses to Using personal photos in your art journals and sketchbooks

  1. Suz August 23, 2014 at 12:46 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this with us; I was completely struck by what you said about words making you feel vulnerable & images feeling like a safer way to express how you feel; for me, that’s it exactly, I just didn’t know how to put that into words.

  2. Sharon August 15, 2014 at 3:52 am #

    Great idea thanks for sharing.

  3. quinncreative August 8, 2014 at 7:19 pm #

    This is a wonderful idea, even for us non-professional photographers. I’ve always used old paintings or even paper palettes to write on, but this is an even better idea. Thanks for sharing!

  4. susan August 8, 2014 at 2:26 pm #

    thanks for sharing this beautiful guest artist. Love what she does with her photos esp within the journal. Suki

  5. Julie Bernstein Engelmann August 8, 2014 at 1:14 pm #

    This is really inspiring, also for artists facing the blank canvas. Thanks for sharing.

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