Daydreaming on Paper
July/August 2003
Artistic Techniques for the Artistically Challenged:
Fun With Margins

In some ways, keeping a diary has gotten a lot more complicated. In fact, hardly anybody even keeps a diary these days. Everybody has a journal, and the journal has everything from haiku to fan fiction in it. Then there are those who take the journal to a whole different level, where it becomes the art journal. Every page is painted, hand lettered, stamped, and collaged to form a richly layered, mixed media extravaganza. Looking at other people's art journals can be wildly inspirational, but also a little frustrating. I applaud the move toward journals that are more visual and artistic (and the move toward more people making art in general), but I have been known to hurl a copy of Somerset Studio across the room while in the throes of a bout of good, old-fashioned envy.

If you come from a background in which a little blank book was simply a repository for words, this trend toward the illuminated journal can be a little overwhelming. If you are not in the habit of adding images and color to your printed page, you might have a little trouble knowing where to begin. Even if you are familiar with the joys of drawings, stamped images, and watercolor washes, you might not know how to create a page layout that shows these things off to their advantage. Or, if you are a lazy diarist like I am, you may simply be interested in ways to spruce up your written words without spending All Day at the drawing table (assuming you have one and assuming that the surface of said table is sufficiently free of books, stacks of papers, napping cats, and half-eaten sandwiches to serve its actual purpose). This is where I come in.

Artistic Techniques for the Artistically Challenged will be a recurring series of articles aimed at helping you take baby steps toward a visual journal. It will focus on simple techniques; it will be written with the absolute beginner in mind; and, unless a certain product or tool would make a world of difference in the ease of doing the technique or in the appearance of the end result, it will focus on techniques that can be done with stuff you probably already have. Doesn't that sound exciting? I know you are on the edge of your seat, so, without further ado, let's get started!

Fun With Margins

The first step towards having fun with margins is to actually have some. This concept has been lost on me for a long time. I have always been rather stingy with my diary pages, filling every square inch with writing - sometimes even running off the page. While the practice was thrifty, it did not make for pages that were very visually interesting. One day, I discovered the margin. I have not been the same since. Leave your computer screen long enough to go get a few pieces of fairly stiff, not too thick cardboard, a pencil, a T-square or ruler, and an X-acto knife. Scissors and/or a paper trimmer will be useful, too. You, my friend, are going to make some margin templates.

The first thing you want to do is to cut a piece of the cardboard to the same dimensions as your journal page. The pages in my current journal are 4¼" by 5½", so that is the size I cut my cardboard. Stick the cut cardboard inside of your book just to be sure it fits. You may want to trim it just a millimeter or two. Once you are satisfied with the fit, you can go on to the next step.

Decide how wide you want your margins to be. Since my journal is small, and since I was venturing into new territory, I opted to start with a meager ¼" margin all the way around. For the sake of simplicity, these directions will assume that you are doing the same. Take your T-square (or ruler) and measure ¼" from any edge of the cardboard. Use your pencil to mark that measurement with a dot. Measure and mark two more dots along the same edge. Then, use your ruler to connect the dots and draw a line all the way across the cardboard. Now, repeat this same sequence of measuring, marking, and drawing a line along the three remaining edges of the cardboard. When you have finished, your cardboard should look something like this:


At this point, all you have to do is cut out the inner square formed by your guidelines. Do this with your X-acto knife. Take your time and be sure to use some sort of padding so that you don't scratch up your work surface (an old phone directory works well for this). Voila! You have just made your first template. Do not discard the inner square cardboard piece that you have cut out; it will come in very handy. Consider it a bonus.

Now that you have the basic technique down pat, consider doing one or more of the following:

  • Create templates for margins of different depths. For example, in addition to the ¼" template, I have ones for ½", ¾", and 1" as well. Use a pencil or pen to label the templates and the inner squares so that you can tell at a glance what size each one is.

  • Create templates so that you have a different depth of margin on each side. For example, you may want the top and bottom margins to be 1", while allowing ½" on the sides. Or,...

  • ...go crazy and let each side be a different depth. Or,...

  • ...go hog wild and place your "margins" in odd places. For example, you could create a template that would allow text on only the bottom portion of the page. Or, maybe you'd like a small square of text in the upper righthand corner. Or,...

  • ...go completely Out Of Control and create a template with two or more text squares cut out!

  • If you really want to shock the neighbors and scandalize your kids, break free of squaresville and use cookie cutters to create margin templates of other shapes. Combine this idea with any of the others above and be prepared to wreak havoc in the neighborhood.

To use your templates, all you have to do is place them on your page and write in the open area. Templates are faster and easier to use than measuring guidelines on each page or even using masking tape or correction tape. When you remove your template, you have a neat, orderly section of writing and some nice, clean space around it. I think you will find that even this unadorned clean space dramatically improves the look of your journal pages. You can leave the margins as is, put them to work, or decorate them.

Ideas for Functional Margins

Even though you may have created margins so that you could add more visual elements to your journal, the irony is that margin space provides even more room for writing. You could use it for:

  • Annotations, corrections, comments on, and postscripts to your diary entries.
  • A quote that is pertinent to that day's entry.
  • That day's horoscope.
  • Noting whatever you were reading, listening to, watching, eating, or wearing that day.
  • Any of dozens of other daily things that you regularly track in your journal
  • Notes and reminders to yourself.

You could combine function and form by writing these supplementary words in a different color of ink or pencil. You could write them in calligraphy or some other pretty lettering. You could write bigger or smaller than you did in your entry. The goal is to provide some sort of contrast between the "fringe" writing and that of the main text so that the entire page is more visually appealing.

Now that you have a nice collection of margin templates and have spent a little time playing with your words, are you ready for a walk on the wild side? Proceed to page two.


© 2003 Dawn R. Vinson. All Rights Reserved.