My 6 favorite mixed media art journal & sketchbook techniques

Published by Nela Dunato on in Art, Inspiration, Sketchbook, Tips for creatives

If you’re interested in mixed media art journals, you’ve likely seen it all. YouTube is full of step-by-step techniques if you want to give it a try. While looking at other people’s art journals is fun and inspiring, over the years I’ve learned what I like and what I don’t like about making art, and this has led me to develop my own methods which work with my style and personality.

My 6 favorite mixed media art journal & sketchbook techniques

Some facts about my approach

  1. I love drawing.
  2. And hand-lettering.
  3. Acrylics take time to set up and clean up, and I don’t want to deal with that every day.
  4. I often create outside of my studio, so portability and cleanliness matter.
  5. I don’t like using other people’s images (photos, drawings, stamps) in my art.
  6. I like experimenting, switching, and mixing techniques, because I get easily bored doing the same thing over and over again.
  7. I can tolerate a bit of chaos and happy accidents, but I much prefer things to be intentional and neat.

While I’m willing to give every art technique a try, I discard some of them because either I don’t like the resulting look, or I don’t like the process. Aesthetics matter to me. I’m not really big on the whole “process over product” thing—I care about both. Sure, we should try different things and expand our comfort zone, but not completely ignore our own strengths and passions which made us want to do art in the first place.

So now that I’ve talked about my personal preferences a bit, let me share some of the techniques I use to bring more fun to my sketching/art journaling practice.

1. Drawing over a painted background

This is old news, but I love it. Pencil and ink drawings are fine on their own, but sometimes they can look a bit… boring. At least to me. I love a well-drawn detailed black and white ink illustration, but when it comes to quick and simple artwork, I feel like it needs an added punch of color. This is where a prepared colored background comes in.

Fire elemental ink drawing over bright color ink background
Fire elemental ink drawing over bright color ink background in a Windsor & Newton sketchbook

Depending on the type of paper and the media I intend to use for the drawing, I apply different mediums on sketchbook pages:

  1. Watercolor and color ink combine well with graphite and color pencils, india ink, brush pens, permanent markers, charcoal, soft pastels, and wax crayons.
  2. Acrylic combines best with paint markers, gel pens, and wax crayons, though it can work with some dry media as well (matte paint is better for this).
  3. Gouache works with graphite, color pencils, charcoal, soft pastels, and wax crayons.
  4. Gesso combines well with any dry or wet media, and can be tinted with paint, ink, or water-soluble pencils and crayons (see #6). Gesso also comes in black.

The point of this technique is to do it in advance, so that I can immediately start drawing when the inspiration strikes. I typically have a couple of pages prepared at all times. Occasionally if I have time, I’ll do a quick watercolor wash immediately before I start drawing (which takes a bit of time to dry).

Aqua Lady ink drawing over a watercolor wash
Aqua Lady ink drawing over a watercolor wash in a Canson Universal sketchbook. Video process of a similar drawing & more drawings from this series are here.

Compared to using purchased toned paper, the painted background will have an interesting texture that can inspire me to do a particular drawing. My Aqua Ladies series is a great example of this.

Since I love drawing on dark backgrounds, I have to mention my recent discovery: black gesso. It’s very opaque and has a finish that is smooth to the touch, but has enough grit to capture pencil marks. I especially love using white gel pen, water-soluble crayons, and gouache on top of it.

Poppies in the rain mixed media drawing on black gesso
Poppies in the rain drawing with Neocolor II water-soluble crayons and Van Gogh metallic watercolor over black gesso in a Handbook Journal

2. Paper cutting

I don’t do this often, but when I do, I’m always delighted with how much fun it is. I like the interplay of layers that add more interest and dimension to the motif showing through. It’s interactive, and can only be fully appreciated in person as you turn the page. The delicate tactile sense of lace-like paper makes you realize how difficult it is to control this medium.

Paper-cut anatomic heart in a red sketchbook
Paper-cut anatomic heart ink drawing in an A6 red Lega-Lega sketchbook

Paper-cut window with a woman reading a book in a sketchbook
Paper-cut window with an ink drawing of a woman reading a book on the page below

Paper cutting reminds me of stained glass windows, iron gates, and decorative window grills, which are my favorite architectural details—I always take photos when I encounter them.

Paper-cut skull over a page of ornament doodles in a sketchbook
Paper-cut skull over a spread of ornament doodles in a small sketchbook. Pentel brush pen, india ink, and white gel pen.

3. Adding different papers to a sketchbook

The biggest problem with sketchbooks is that there is no perfect one that works for all the mediums. I switch between drawing, painting, doodling, and note-taking, so it’s impossible to find “the one sketchbook to rule them all”. I have a favorite sketchbook that works with most media, though the thin paper is not ideal for watercolor, so I need to use different ones for that.

Some folks get around this issue by binding their own sketchbooks using different types of paper. The one time I tried making my own sketchbook, it took me a whole afternoon—no way I’m going to spend so much time on that again.

Then Lisa Sonora showed in her “Creative + Practice” course how she tapes various sheets of paper into her sketchbook. It never occurred to me that I could just… add more paper.

Dark sketching paper glued into a Moleskine sketchbook
Dark sketching paper glued into a Moleskine sketchbook

This changes so much. I used to pack multiple sketchbooks when I traveled, and now I can only bring one, with a couple of added pages of watercolor and toned paper so I can switch to whatever medium I’m in the mood for. I don’t worry about “wasting” a fancy sketchbook on doodles or notes if that’s all I can do. I can also add papers in various colors, to make things more fun.

The downside is that if you add too many papers to it, the sketchbook spine will struggle with it, and the covers will curve under the strain. On one sketchbook that I’ve filled to the brim, I had to cut the spine cover and tape it back to allow a bit more space for the spine.

Torn and patched spine of a thick Moleskine sketchbook
Moleskine sketchbook with cut and patched up spine

In addition to adding fresh sheets of paper to the sketchbook, I also glue in leftover paper scraps either as page flaps, or directly on the pages. I never throw away paper that can still be used!

Mixed media doodles on watercolor paper glued into a Moleskine sketchbook
Mixed media doodles on watercolor paper glued into a Moleskine sketchbook. Left: Watercolor, gouache, and Inktense watercolor pencils. Right: Watercolor and paint marker.

4. Drawing over text

You can do it in a printed book (like an altered book project), over your own writing, or collage pages and scraps of text directly into your sketchbook.

If you intentionally choose a text for a particular piece, it can add more meaning as people piece together bits of text that show through. For example, this drawing of a heart is laid over a scientific paper on psychology of coronary disease patients.

Anatomic heart drawing with water-soluble pastels over a page from a psychiatry book
Anatomic heart drawing over a page from a psychiatry book. Neocolor II and Stabilo Woody water-soluble pastels. View larger image in the Sketchbook gallery.

It’s also a cool “zero waste” hack if you want to get rid of some old books or journals, but you don’t want to throw them away.

Sometimes I sketch over text on its own, but usually I paint a thin layer of paint or gesso over it to decrease the visibility of the text. I prepare these in advance when I have more time, and draw on them when I’m in the mood.

Alice in Wonderland mixed media art journal
Alice in Wonderland themed drawing with Neocolor II and Stabilo Woody water-soluble pastels over collaged pages from the book and carmine red acrylic paint. Lyrics are written with paint marker.

5. Reusing art scraps

A couple of years ago I cleaned up my studio and thrown out many old drawings, but I cut out and kept some bits and pieces I liked. This gave me an idea to glue them into sketchbooks and give them a new life.

Tulip watercolor collaged into a mixed media art journal
Small watercolor study of a tulip collaged into a mixed media art journal

Lots of folks doodle on post-its, and I like to draw on leftover paper scraps—never waste good paper! These tiny artworks can easily get lost if they’re not kept in some kind of a container. In a sketchbook, they can be given a new context and inspire a more complex piece, or jumpstart me if I feel stuck.

Scrap ballpoint pen doodle collaged into a mixed media art journal
Ballpoint pen doodle paper scrap (bio-mechanic looking thing with red gems) collaged into a mixed media art journal. View entire sketchbook spread here.

Very recently I’ve started playing with collaging pieces of painted/scribbled paper into my sketchbook to draw over. I especially like reusing old planners and other junk paper. (Recycling is a bit of a theme in this post.) It’s something I can prepare when I have time to deal with the hassle of acrylic paint, and then use my stash of scraps when I want to get started quickly.

Painted paper scraps for mixed media art journal collage
Graphite, acrylic paint and gesso on newsprint

6. Water-soluble pencils and crayons

Watercolor pencils were my first tiny step into the world of “painting”. I was used to the precision of drawing media, and found watercolor painting frustrating for a long time. I loved how easily I could blend water-soluble pencils, and used them in most of my sketchbook drawings for years.

I discovered water-soluble crayons a few years ago, and at first I didn’t know how else to use them besides applying them on paper and dissolving with water into a wash. I didn’t see the point of doing that, since watercolor is much better for this kind of application. They’re also less precise than pencils, and I tend to work on smaller formats. Later I experimented with applying them over various surfaces: acrylic paint, gouache, white and black gesso, matte acrylic medium, even PVA glue. That’s when I fell in love with them.

I wrote an entire article about using water-soluble pastels on my old art blog.

Surreal drawing with eyeballs in a mixed media art journal
Surreal drawing of eyeballs over the pages from a psychiatry book. View larger image in the Sketchbook gallery. Derwent Inktense and Mondeluz watercolor pencils, Neocolor II and Stabilo Woody water-soluble crayons, white gouache, and PVA glue in a Moleskine sketchbook.

Since they’re much waxier than pencils, they can stick to literally anything, even plastic and glass. I always had trouble drawing over thick layers of paint—crayons solve that problem, and they’re surprisingly opaque. I use them on black surfaces as well.

I don’t like getting paint on my hands, but I made an exception and started smudging crayons with my fingers, and this changed how I work with them. Instead of being a support cast in my mixed media pieces, water-soluble crayons have become the star of the show by providing intense colors and painterly texture.

Sometimes I use them as a base layer activated with water, acrylic medium, gesso, or gouache and then draw over that. Other times I start off with watercolor, gouache, or acrylic paint, and draw with pencils and crayons on top of it. They blend together well, and create soft effects I’ve grown fond of. (The heart drawing under #4 is an example of this.)

SkekSil the Chamberlain mixed media fan art drawing
Fan art of the skeksis skekSil, the Chamberlain. View larger image in the gallery.
Pentel Kanji Fude brush pen, Van Gogh watercolor, Derwent watercolor pencils, Neocolor II crayons, and Signo white gel pen on a gessoed Windsor & Newton sketchbook

Since water-soluble pencils and crayons from Derwent, Caran d’Ache, Stabilo, and Cretacolor can usually be purchased open stock, I only buy the colors I need, instead of splurging on entire sets. This is especially important to me if I’m buying a brand I’ve never used before.

Mixed media can look any way you want it to.

Watching videos and taking workshops is a wonderful way to try out new techniques, but it’s up to you to adapt them to your style. I know how strong the siren’s call of new art supplies is. I often see something cool in a video and wonder “Should I buy that?”

You may not need as many supplies to create art you enjoy. If you’re wondering how to develop an original art style, one way is using different art supplies from everyone else, that give your art a look that isn’t quite common.

I’m all in favor of being open to experimentation, and I also recommend discernment. If you don’t enjoy a certain technique, let it go! It’s OK to simply not like something, even if a famous art teacher is harping all about it.

What are your favorite mixed media techniques?

Feel free to share in the comments, and tell me why you like them.

If you try any of the techniques I mentioned here, let me know how that went!

Other posts where I’ve discussed mixed media art journal techniques


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