By Gelsey Plaza
Colored pencils, crayons and watercolor palettes of every imaginable color. Gel pens, pastel markers, black soft-ink pens and jars of Ecoline liquid watercolors. Pages of sketches and drawings scatter the white drawing desk, which is covered with glitter, stamps, photo collages, vases, notebooks, journals and drawing tools. It’s the serene yet chaotic workspace of young Belgian artist Nina Blasband, 21, who illustrates bullet journals and other stationery by hand. Strings of lights dot the perimeter of the desk in her bedroom.
For the past four years, Blasband has been creating and selling $36 personalized bullet journals — known as “bujos” — on her website to customers who use them to track their daily schedule, moods, goals, memories, accomplishments and stories.
Blasband, an equestrian, creates her bullet journals for horse lovers. The animals need 24/7 care and attention, so the horse journal section contains a health check and a budget page, drawn arenas to detail exercises and pages for pictures, quotes, reflections and goals. Blasband’s horse Gazelle, an Arabian mare, inspired her to create additional horse sections at the end of each month. “I was 13 when she was born, so we truly grew up together and have created a little world of our own,” Blasband said. “People think I’m crazy when I say that, but she has a great sense of humor and loves to smile on command.”
“I think it’s a better way than having an agenda and then a notebook for notes from classes — and then one for all your homework and then one for all your grades,” Blasband said. “I just have everything in this single one bullet journal, and that’s a lot easier for me.”
Blasband sketches from her home in Brussels, where she lives with her parents and two younger brothers. Her dad is a computer scientist who started his own business, greatly influencing Blasband to take a leap of faith and start one too. Blasband’s mother was an interior designer before becoming a full-time mom, horse mom and dog mom. Blasband enrolled in her high school’s art classes and learned through trial and error. She always wrote everything down but got bored of looking at the same agenda every week in store-bought journals. Then a lightbulb clicked for her: Why not design one herself and put as much color and imagination into it as she’d like? And why not sell a few too? That part was her mom’s idea.
Adele Boon, a longtime friend, recalls how Blasband would bring her drawings to high school. Boon was always in awe. “I don’t have a horse myself, so I use the equestrian spaces of her bujos as a dedicated space for my studies, which is super useful,” Boon said. “I like to be able to kind of separate my personal life and my student life.” She studies European studies in Maastricht, Netherlands, so as a busy student, bullet journaling offers her a record of the fun and sad moments of her life — and even the mundane ones.
Each of Blasband’s journals lasts for six months, with each month illustrated in a different theme. Her favorite theme is flowers because they are beautiful, versatile and colorful, she said. Other themes include horses, outer space, city life, travel, ocean waves, sunsets and dogs. Blasband creates mood boards, Etsy-inspired photo collages full of ideas, in order to figure out the perfect patterns and color schemes for each month. Her favorite artistic medium is watercolor, as it creates a serene rainbow effect on paper.
“Each page is different. It’s like a new surprise every day,” said Aline Dony, one of her customers. “The drawings are so beautiful with color, and it makes me happy when I open it. I prefer Nina’s bujo because it’s from Belgium, and all is homemade — just with a lot of talent.”
After she paints and draws the whole bullet journal, she then uploads the designs to be printed. It takes six to seven weeks after sending the journals off to print in Belgium to receive them back. Once the finished bullet journals arrive, Blasband ships each order. The July-December journal must be sent for print by the beginning of March, so Blasband must complete the journal’s drawings and designs by the end of February.
One downside: “I have the hands of an 80-year-old,” she said. “I only have a couple weeks to get all of the drawings done, so it’s very intense — lots of repetitive movement, and it really hurts.”
To get into the groove during long hours of painting, Blasband watches “Friends” in the background. She also enjoys listening to music while working under her string lights. “It’s all very, very cozy and fun, and it’s like meditation but work,” she said. She will listen to pop music or anything with a catchy beat when she must get many things done in a given timeframe, but she prefers to listen to slow and soft music when she is in the zone.
On Instagram, she puts up daily stories and schedules consistent posts at least three times a week. “I want Instagram to reflect my brand and my products realistically but also be relatable to horse owners and artists,” Blasband said. “I do try to take a day (or) week to either do games or share other people’s content on my stories instead of creating to give myself a break and not feel like I have to share everything I do.”
Social media is a powerful advertising tool, but it has made it possible for copycats to take Blasband’s ideas. When individuals copy her drawings, she usually direct messages them and asks them to give her credit. But once, a newer brand wanted to expand and create stationery, so they DM’d Blasband asking to collaborate. She agreed but never heard from them again. A couple of months later, she saw the brand’s “Bullet Agenda,” and its write-up described Blasband’s product perfectly. “That was a bit complicated and sad honestly, but (the brand) didn’t last long and aren’t selling anything anymore,” she said. Fortunately, her business is flourishing, and her Instagram following offers a colorful and welcoming community.
“I think everyone who says they don’t need paper and they have everything in their brain — I think they’re lying, and they’re the people that are always late and are always missing appointments,” Blasband said. “I promise that writing things down is the only way to make sure you have everything in order.”
Gelsey is a magazine journalism graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @gelsey_plaza.