Collection Journals: The Specimen Jar

A new guest blog about art journaling by Margaret Peot

Art journals are a place where we collect and explore ideas, sometimes in a sketchy, shorthand-for-future-reference way, sometimes developing them into more fully realized visual thoughts. Many times, a traditional sketchbook works perfectly for this, but sometimes the things we collect for beauty and inspiration don’t fit into a sketchbook–so we collect them in different ways. Is a box of pebbles and sea glass a kind of an art journal?


An etching of a Cabinet of Curiosity, Lorenzo Legati, 1680

I attended a show of Cabinets of Curiosity at the Grolier Club on East 60th Street in New York, Rooms of Wonder: from Wunderkammer to Museum, 1599-1899. It was very inspiring, not only from the point of view of this idea of collecting-journaling (if a box of pebbles and seaglass and other ephemera be an art journal, then could a piece of furniture–an armoire–a whole room in your house be an art journal?), but also because the book structures were like Rooms of Wonder themselves–with tipped in, folding-out panels.


An illustration of a box of drafting supplies, tipped as a fold-out into a smaller volume

One of the images that interested me the most was of these embalming jars put together by the Dutch botanist Frederick Ruysch.


Opera omnia, volumes II and III (1739), an engraving of a pair of glass jars with juxtaposed specimens. Each jar is topped by a collar crocheted by Ruysch’s daughter, Rachel.

I did some additional research on Frederick Ruysch when I got home from the show and found additional images of his strange embalming jars on Public Domain Review:


More of Ruysch’s specimen jars. Many times, the things in the jars were unrelated scientifically, but would would be tied together by a kind of kooky (sorry, Frederick) narrative…


…And sometimes the creatures in the embalming fluid in the jars would be shown frolicking in a lifelike scene on top of the jar.

Now, I am not interested in getting involved in embalming, I promise you, but the idea of these jars filled with things, these collections, captured my imagination. The made me think of tiny museums, aquariums, terrariums, snow globes, fireflies captured on a summer evening, a shelf of canning jars filled with fruits and vegetables preserved for the winter. So, lacking an official specimen jar, I got out a Ball quart canning jar and started fiddling around with it.


A Ball quart canning jar with some black and white drawings. I cut a piece of paper to the size of the lid insert, and drew craters on it. I started with black and white, as I wanted to duplicate the monochromatic feeling of the Ruysch engravings.


The glass distorted the drawings and gave them a mysterious quality.


I found it was hard to differentiate between the drawings, so I cut some shapes into dark marbleized paper and stuck them down in the jar to visually separate the little drawings inside. Also, I decided I needed a fancy lid like Ruysch made for his jars, so I cut a slit into the cratered moon and mounted the snake and the water lily on this.


I slid some ribbons of text into the jar, and tipped a label around the edge of the jar, lacking Frederick Ruysch’s daughter Rachel to crochet something for me.

I am not sure where this is going for me–in a New York apartment, I don’t have rows of shelves on which I can make a hundred such jars and store them, gleaming, in rows–but wouldn’t that be neat?

The Wunderkammer show has closed at the Grolier Club, but there’s another lovely exhibition there through the middle of March, Through a Glass Clearly: The History and Science of the Microscope. The subject matter is interesting, and the old, letterpress-printed books with the tipped-in foldouts of scientific objects and observations are amazing.

Alternative Art Journals_150Margaret Peot is a painter, printmaker and writer who has made her living as a freelance artist for more than 20 years in New York City. Margaret lives in New York City. Visit her website at  and at Margaret is the author of Alternative Art Journals, and the host of two North Light Instructional DVDs, Alternative Art Journals with Margaret Peot and Alternative Art Cards with Margaret Peot.



Improve your mixed media art with books, DVDs, downloads & from the North Light Shop
Sign up for your FREE Create Mixed Media email newsletter for great tips, projects & more
Get unlimited access to mixed media art instruction ebooks
Download free mixed media desktop wallpapers

You may also like these articles:

This entry was posted in Guest Posts, Mixed Media Blogs and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.