"My journals are a collection of things I'm curious about," John Clapp says.
As a children's-book illustrator and art professor at San Jose State University, those things tend to be related to the visual vocabulary. A recent reading of a book by an Oxford neuroscientist, for instance, led him to jot some notes about classroom use of emotional intelligence versus rational intelligence. A page or two later there's a drawing inspired by a magazine article he read about Toni Morrison.
Hoping to become a comic-book artist, Clapp started keeping a sketchbook as early as seventh grade. He now has twenty books from his adult years, which he keeps on a shelf in his office. In addition to a running daily journal, he maintains a small one for every children's book he illustrates. They help him to remember a project in chronological order: "a nice little artifact at the end of the process."
He tries to be proactive about the journal, making a daily drawing of some kind. Recently he set himself the task of drawing portraits of writers. Halfway —into a clunky likeness of Aristotle, he grew bored and began playing in the margins with a loose sketch based on something he'd just read about Shel Silverstein. Abandoning the initial exercise altogether, he followed Silverstein, —trying to figure out how the illustrator-cartoonist worked. Clapp calls this deconstruction of another artist's style a "forensic approach" and likens it to "trying on someone else's hat to see how you look."
Clapp considers his books to be journals, sketchbooks, and diaries all in one. Still, he is the first to admit they are slim on intimate details. He has been greatly influenced by one of his colleagues, Barron Storey, whose books Clapp calls "aggressively personal." By comparison, Clapp's journals tend toward the observational. "I'd like them to be more personal. I try sometimes to be more reflective, but if you keep a journal for a long time, it's just like —handwriting. It returns to who you are."
Clapp frequently reminds students to let go of their egos. Loosely quoting the painter Frank Auerbach, he says that style is not about having a program; —it is about how one responds in a crisis. In other words, your immediate, intuitive reactions are your style, and learning to act on intuition allows an artist to circumvent his or her ego. "A journal," Clapp comments, "is the friendliest place an artist can practice being honest with himself, which is a scary thing to learn how to do."
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