First published: Artists & Illustrators Magazine, Feb 2022
Diaries can have all sorts of purposes. With the growing popularity of bullet journals, sketchbooks, and gratitude diaries, their positive effect on mindfulness and mental health are widely promoted. To keep a journal in some form is a popular ambition but rarely seen beyond the first few pages, which is understandable; writing an entry every day can seem a daunting commitment. In addition to this, numerous artists and hobbyists aspire to regular practice in the form of a daily sketchbook. Many of these books end up unfinished - or worse, un-started - tucked away on a bookshelf, first page still intimidatingly blank. How do you form this habit and stick to it? And how do you get past the first hurdle? Tea diaries are a great solution and an example of how your daily journal doesn't have to take the “Dear diary” format.
It is a well known stereotype that the British drink tea, and this is entirely true. We drink tea morning, noon, and night, sometimes 5 times a day. We drink it at work, in the garden, on a train, meet new people over it, offer it to strangers, on good days, bad days, and truly awful days. It is this that makes it the perfect companion to a diary. The routine of regular tea and coffee breaks is already incorporated into our daily lives and associated with the ups and downs that that entails. You don't need to start a new habit from scratch, just alter your pre-existing one with the inclusion of drawing or writing.
Tea diaries can be filled in a variety of ways and I tend to mix them all together. Some days, the motivation to draw something or write about a bad day eludes me. On these occasions, I take my mug of tea and create a ring on the page, then write a few words with the date to represent my mood. This method adds great visual intrigue, breaks up the text, and takes the pressure off. There's no rule that you have to draw everyday, so don't beat yourself up if you miss one. I'd recommend making a longer drawing or painting at least once a week. However, doing something small in your book each day, with a few notes about what's going on inside your head, encourages the habit. If you're stuck worrying about the first page, skip it and come back to it later, or stick in a post card that inspires you.
Image: Tea and Shortbread
Top tips for regular journaling:
Keep your sketchbook and your chosen travelling supplies with you at all times. This could be a portable watercolour set, or a single pencil.
Draw and write spontaneously; in a 5 minute window waiting for the kettle to boil, at a train station, or waiting for a zoom meeting. Don't worry if these end up unfinished. Quick, rough sketches sometimes capture more than the ones you pour over for hours.
Use simple but good materials. You don't need to spend much, but learning to draw or paint using cheap materials is like climbing a mountain in shoes that give you blisters. Make sure that your sketchbook is designed for artists, not a supermarket own-brand.
Technique: Mixing watercolours
Watercolours have a reputation for being notoriously tricky to get the hang of, but you can speed up your progress by actively getting to know your paints. Learning how your paints mix and dry is important. When searching for a specific colour, it's all too easy to pick the closest one in your set, resulting in unrealistic depictions and disappointing results.
First, test out all the ones you have in your pallet - labelling them can be helpful.
Next, try experimenting. Mix complimentary colours and vary the water ratio to see interesting results.
Finally, dedicate a page to mixing colours until you find the specific one you're searching for: a shadow in the morning sun or a subtle, pale cream - I do this before most pieces I embark on.
To establish a routine of regular painting, drawing, or sketching in the form of a visual journal. You may also include mindful contemplation through written elements as an additional goal.
20 minutes to 1 hour daily, or several times per week.
An artist or student grade sketchbook and any medium you choose.
For this project, I'm using :
A 12x12cm Royal Talens Art Creation sketchbook
Artist's grade watercolours
A Unipin Fineline pen, 0.3
Pencil and rubber
A Rosemary & Co Kolinskey Sable brush
What you will learn:
In addition to basic observational drawing and painting techniques, the most important aspect of this project is the regular practice it entails, which is both the hardest and most crucial part of improving a skill.
Subjects and process:
Painting a mug is one of my favourite pass-times and I usually set out to do so in the time it takes to drink my tea (although sometimes a longer sitting requires a refill). In itself, this is a productive exercise to create an illustrative still life, whilst improving and exploring observational drawing. This isn't limited to the realistic; small thumbnail images of decorative teacups, line drawings, and zen-doodle styles would also work to fill your diary with tea based paraphernalia.
Above: My favourite mug
Cake and biscuits are a similar temptation. I often paint these whilst I'm waiting for the first wash of my mug page to dry, with warm siennas and touches of blue or violet. It is invariably a joyful and indulgent painting; a quick glimpse of an illustratable and thoroughly delicious looking pastry is all the excuse I need to stop at a cafe and purchase such a treat... for purely artistic purposes. This can be a nice way to improve a particularly bad day; drawing and quiet creativity is cathartic, and in the form of a regular journal, encompasses the contentment you can find by writing your woes on the page. Not to mention there's a lot to be said for the rejuvenating qualities of cake.
Image caption: Contemplating biscuits
Image caption: Glorious cake
I've already touched on the use of non-drawn elements in your tea diary, and there are a variety of ways you can do this. Try sticking in your tea packets or tags with annotations. These are often beautiful and sometimes include sayings or uplifting comments. You can print your tea bags, or dry them to use the filter paper in a creative manner, stitching them decoratively or priming them as a painting surface. To create a tea/coffee ring, take your mug and spill your beverage onto a saucer. Dip the base of your mug into this and transfer it to the page, leaving behind a print. You can paint the base with watercolours for a stronger ring. A mixture of Raw and Burnt Sienna make an accurate tea colour.
Image caption: Alternative visual entries
Bringing your diary to a cafe, where the sole purpose of the outing is to find tea and cake, is also a worthwhile task. Stick in your receipt or pay-and-display ticket for good measure, perhaps printing out a photo of your decadently swirled latte. You can paint your chosen beverage on scene or take a picture for a later (longer) study. If you feel like more of a challenge, you can try sketching the cafe and people nearby. Alternatively, friends or family members often settle with a mug of tea, making excellent, if fidgety, muses.
Image caption: Christmas Morning
Tea diaries are fundamentally indulgent. They can be adapted to your style and ability, whilst holding a lot of potential. It is a particularly good pursuit for those who are inspired by visual journals but not confident enough to start a sketchbook. It's your diary; no one else has to see it and there are no rules. You can rip out pages you don't like, cover things up, make every page beautiful, or fill the book with messy sketches and studies splattered with ink and tea. Mine always include a few scruffy shopping lists and mind-maps dotted between paintings; it is never perfect.