Practical and Pretty: The Two-Journal System

When I started my first nature journal back in 2016, I began with a single sketchbook and I used it both outdoors and inside. Sometimes I glued in paintings. Sometimes I took it outside to sketch and I often had my best work positioned right alongside my experiments. The problem was that as time went on, I started to get quite attached to my book. I was limiting how I used it when I was outside; I didn’t want to do drawings that would turn out bad and in my mind ruin the aesthetic of the entire book.

A nature journal page by Alex Boon showing a hillscape and alder catkins

At this time, I began to feel quite constrained by my journal and found that the book was starting to limit my activities. I just wanted to keep it looking nice! Over the following years, I devised a system that allowed me to both make pretty aesthetic books AND actually fulfil my desire to explore, improve, and experiment.

This is what I call the two-journal system. Artists have sketchbooks that they use to work up ideas into final pieces and writers go through many notebooks and drafts. We can do the same as nature journalers. We can have a book that allows us the freedom to explore AND a book that we keep for best and we only put our best work into. I call these the “messy book” and the “best book” or my outdoor and indoor nature journals.

It doesn’t matter that both of these are sketchbooks. It’s good to have a sketchbook that is only for best and that you treasure. Just keep in mind the different intention of the two different books. The intention is what sets the two books apart. I also have a vastly different practice for each of the two books.

Your messy nature journal is your place for freedom, for experimentation, for fun, for mistakes, for getting outside.

A nature journal page by Alex Boon showing a range of plants and insects

The best book is reserved for your best work. Your best book might contain art or writing, and it can also show a development of your skills over time. You can carve out time for work at your best book knowing that if you want a spark of fun or freedom, the messy journal is waiting to help you find inspiration.

I find that having both the best book and the messy book goes both ways in freeing your mind. You know that you’ve got somewhere where you can go for freedom and experimentation and fun. And when you’re in that book, you don’t have to do your best work.

But if you do want to create beautiful things, you know you’ve got somewhere to go and do that. If it doesn’t work out right away, you can always go back into your messy book to try a few things out first.

A nature journal page by Alex Boon showing rough outdoor bird sketches

There’s no timeframe or specific routine that you need to have for transferring between your messy and best books. Some people like to write up every now and again. Some people use messy nature journal for a project and then write that up later. I don’t actually write everything up into my best book either. I keep quite a lot in my messy book because I sometimes prefer to describe the experience that I was having at the time and not relate it later.

The two-journal system can really help stop you becomingconstrained by one approach or the other. You can make pretty pages AND you can make expressive one-off pages with plenty of mistakes. It really is the best of both worlds!

This is an extract from the “How to Start a Nature Journal” video course. This course can be purchased as a stand-alone and it is also included as a part of the Nature Journaling Circle membership, which also features monthly live classes!

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