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How Would a Visual Artist Use a Commonplace Book?

What is a Commonplace Book?

I have a new obsession: commonplace books!


I accidentally stumbled upon them while researching Morning Pages.  And I'm in love!

What are commonplace books?  I'm so happy that you asked!


A commonplace book is a personal compilation of knowledge, ideas, quotations, and observations collected by an individual. It is a notebook or journal where one gathers and organizes information from various sources for future reference and reflection.  They are more like a database than a diary. In the past many people used commonplace books as a way to order their ideas and make them easy to refer back to. Each entry was classified and ordered by subject and category- making them a useful way for scientists and scholars to take notes.


Here's a brief overview of its historical development:

  • Ancient Roots: The practice of keeping a commonplace book can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. Scholars and philosophers, such as Seneca and Cicero, maintained personal collections of important thoughts, quotations, and ideas. These were known as "loci communes" in Latin, which translates to "commonplaces."

  • Medieval and Renaissance Periods: During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, commonplace books became popular among scholars, students, and intellectuals. Manuscript culture thrived, and commonplace books served as a means to compile and organize knowledge. These books contained excerpts from classical texts, biblical passages, legal principles, and personal reflections.

  • Zibaldone: A zibaldone is an Italian vernacular commonplace book. The word means "a heap of things" or "miscellany" in Italian. The earliest such books were kept by Venetian merchants in the fourteenth century.

  • Influence of Humanism: The humanist movement in the 14th to 16th centuries greatly influenced the popularity and development of commonplace books. Humanist thinkers, like Erasmus and Montaigne, emphasized the importance of personal reflection, education, and the gathering of knowledge. Commonplace books became vehicles for preserving and sharing intellectual ideas. 
  • Early Printed Books: With the advent of printing in the 15th century, commonplace books evolved alongside the availability of printed materials. Individuals began incorporating printed excerpts, quotes, and passages into their collections, alongside their handwritten entries. The printing press made the dissemination of knowledge more accessible, which impacted the content of commonplace books.

  • Enlightenment and Beyond: By the 1700s, commonplace books had become a way to store and organize information. They were commonly used in homes to record wise sayings, thoughts, and definitions. They were also used to enhance domestic bliss. Some households had commonplace books which were used to collate ethical or informative texts, recipes, and medical formulas. Many influential figures, including scientists, writers, and thinkers, kept commonplace books to record their observations, ideas, and discoveries.

  • Recent History: Some famous people who had commonplace books are Ronald Reagan (he collected jokes), John D. Rockefeller (he had a business journal - his famous red book that he carried everywhere), and Virginia Woolf (organized her thoughts in a commonplace book).  There are many more.  I think Bullet Journals are very much modern commonplace books.

Throughout its history, the commonplace book has provided individuals with a means to gather, reflect upon, and preserve knowledge, ideas, and inspiration. It has served as a personal repository of intellectual exploration, creativity, and reflection across diverse periods and cultures.


Here are the key characteristics and purposes of a commonplace book:

  1. Collection of Knowledge: A commonplace book serves as a repository for recording and storing information. It can include passages from books, articles, poems, speeches, or any other written material that the person finds interesting, insightful, or valuable. The aim is to capture and preserve knowledge that can be revisited and utilized later.

  2. Personal Reflection: In addition to collecting external knowledge, a commonplace book often incorporates the individual's own reflections, thoughts, and insights. It becomes a space for personal commentary, annotations, and connections made by the person recording the information. This allows for a deeper engagement with the material and encourages critical thinking.

  3. Organization and Categorization: Commonplace books are typically organized thematically or by topic. The person creating the book categorizes the collected material to facilitate easy retrieval and reference. They may use sections, headings, or indexing systems to structure the content according to their own preferences and needs.

  4. Inspiration and Creativity: Commonplace books can serve as a source of inspiration and creativity. By gathering a wide range of ideas, quotes, and observations in one place, individuals can draw connections, spark new insights, and generate original thoughts. It becomes a resource that stimulates intellectual curiosity and fuels creative thinking.

  5. Personal Intellectual Journey: A commonplace book is not merely a passive collection of information. It is a record of an individual's intellectual journey, reflecting their interests, influences, and personal growth. As the book evolves over time, it becomes a reflection of the person's evolving thoughts, ideas, and worldview.

Overall, a commonplace book is a tool for knowledge management, self-reflection, and intellectual exploration. It encourages individuals to actively engage with ideas, curate their own sources of inspiration, and develop a deeper understanding of the world around them.


Here are the steps to help you create your own commonplace book:

  1. Select a Notebook: Choose a notebook that you find visually appealing and practical for your lifestyle. Consider factors like portability and flexibility.
  2. Determine Your Categories: Decide on the categories or themes that will guide the organization of your commonplace book. This will help you structure the content and make it easier to find information later. Categories could be broad topics like "inspiration," "quotes," "ideas," or more specific themes relevant to your interests or projects.

  3. Collect and Record Information: Begin collecting information from various sources such as books, articles, websites, podcasts, or conversations. Write down quotes, ideas, interesting facts, or any other content that resonates with you.

  4. Add Personal Annotations: Engage with the collected material by adding your own reflections, thoughts, or connections. Write down your insights, questions, or comments alongside the recorded information. This personal touch enhances the value of the commonplace book and encourages deeper engagement with the material.

  5. Organize and Categorize: Sort and categorize the collected information based on your chosen categories. Assign relevant tags, labels, or headings to each entry to make it easy to locate specific content. Consider using an index or a table of contents for quick reference.  (This is my biggest takeaway from years of using a Bullet Journal.)

  6. Regularly Update and Review: Keep adding to your commonplace book regularly. Make it a habit to record new information, insights, or ideas as you come across them. Set aside time periodically to review and revisit the entries in your commonplace book to reinforce your knowledge and find new connections.

A commonplace book is a personal tool, so feel free to adapt and modify the steps to suit your needs and creative process. Make your commonplace book reflect your personal style and preferences. Add visual elements, sketches, or graphics if desired. Experiment with different formats, layouts, or organizational systems to find what works best for you.  The goal is to create a resource that supports your intellectual growth, inspires creativity, and enhances your overall learning journey.


On Monday we'll talk about some specific ways artists can use a commonplace book!

Thanks for stopping by!