Not everyone is a wannabe…

Not everyone has that essential itch that leads to compulsively purchasing art supplies and doodling their life away. And even those that have the itch don’t always have it forever; many will be sketchbook artists for a while, then see another shiny thing called “Gardening”, or “Embroidery”, or “Gourmet Cooking”. Over time you might accumulate remnants of all these things, and then you can host a personal archaeology dig right in your own home! Nothing wrong with that at all, despite how we can turn our Willingness to Explore into an odd source of shame for exploring wide rather than going deep. Trust Mr. Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Yet even for those of us who have settled into Just One Thing for a while, it is easy to be stymied by indecision.  There can come a day when you have the Itch to Draw, and no idea at all What to Draw. Solving that conundrum was the focus of my most recent class, which ended up being the fastest three hours we have ever had together. Here is the lesson plan, free for you to use and share with anyone else who is One Of Us.

First, a reminder…

Sketching is supposed to relieve stress, not create it. If you are feeling too restless to sit still and doodle, it might be better to first go for a walk, or do some errands, or even tidy up your living room. My sketching time is much more fun if I am not fidgeting.

Aside from your art supplies, you might want to get a timer.img_20200217_1118522

Yes, yes, I know, everyone has one on their smartphone, but I like the kind of timer that ticks out loud and is easy to see at a quick glance. Because I was the only one who could see the timer, I gave the class a verbal two-minute warning so the bell wouldn’t surprise them. (My warning was met with laughter and sighs and groans, of course!)

First sketch: 5 minutes- Organic Matter

And we’re off! Start with a relatively quick warm-up, five minutes, no stress at all, just to settle in a bit. The choice of medium is of course up to you, so I started with pencil and a very dried-out leaf that I grabbed from the ground on the way into class. [Note: There is an old art school expression called, “Kill the Model.” If your leaf drawing comes out terrible, crush the leaf in your hand, throw it in the trash, and then if anyone sees your drawing you can say, “Yes, it really DID look like that,” and no one will be the wiser. I killed my model, which is why my drawing is so different from this leaf…]

Next, I handed out the viewfinders, a simple paper index card that had a hole cut in it and a pithy expression on top.img_20200214_1336422-1

These are the cheapest view-finders you could ever have because you make them yourself. I always have one taped inside the back cover of my active sketchbook, and sometimes use the viewfinder just to look around when I don’t have time for even a quick sketch.

Second Sketch: 5 minutes- Buildings

I also gave each student a handful of photos and told them to choose one picture that had both a building and greenery in it. img_20200214_1336522Then they were told to lay their viewfinder directly on the picture so the open ‘window’ area framed part of an architectural detail.  (You could easily use a magazine photo for this.) Then they drew a small square (about 1” x 2”) in their sketchbook in which to place their next sketch. Keep it simple, big abstract shapes, note the tones/values (darkness or lightness of each area) more than the color, even if you do use color.

Third Sketch: 5 minutes-  Greenery

Move the viewfinder around the same photo until the frame only shows foliage, such as the top of a tree, or a shrub, or a garden close-up. Again, small square in which to draw, big shapes, dark/light push/pull, color optional.

Fourth Sketch: 10 minutes- Paper Mountains

This is an oldie but goodie, says anyone who has ever taken a drawing class in art school. Grab a piece of copy machine paper, not tissue weight, but not cardboard either. Then crumple it up, let it relax a bit, and set it on the table. You now have a new view of the Himalayan Mountains if you use your imagination a bit. (Note: I killed the original model again…)

Fifth Sketch: 15 minutes- The Buck Stops Here

Currency is the artwork we take for granted every day.  For example, in America all of our paper currency has been upgraded for security reasons in recent years- all except the humble one-dollar bill. If you study a collection of one-, five-, ten-, and twenty-dollar bills, you will see that in many ways the single dollar bill is the most ornate. Without a magnifying glass, by simply staring, you will see how beautifully designed this currency is. You will need to draw it considerably larger than life, just to fit in all the detail you can see. I found the upper right corner of the front of the one-dollar bill most interesting.

Sixth Sketch: 15 minutes- Go Nuts!

…but check for allergies first, of course. I handed out walnuts, and a nut cracker, and told the class about a painting I did years ago called “Apples, Peaches, Plums, and Stones.” I had taken black-and-white pictures of all those objects, fascinated at how similar their shapes are, but how we can tell in an instant what we are looking at by the subtle textural variations, even in a monochrome rendition. I asked, “Why do you know that is a walnut and not just a nubbly chunk of sandstone? Show that in your drawing.” Some used the nut cracker, but most didn’t, they just observed, and drew, and painted.

That was about all we did for the three hours, along with chatting and laughing and encouraging each other. It was one of the most fulfilling classes I have ever taught, for me and I believe for the students. That simple kitchen timer helped everyone to know where the boundaries were. In turn that led to more reasonable expectations. At the beginning of class I said, “You can use pencil, pen, watercolors, any combination, or you can just stare at your subject, it is entirely up to you!” That left everyone with the freedom to follow their own instincts rather than external suggestions.

It feels so good to just play with art supplies. Inspiration is all around us, and we each are hard-wired to have a personal favorite when it comes to subject matter. As for me, I love to zoom in, get hypnotized by a curious detail that other people overlook. The old “dandelion growing out of a crack in the concrete” trick. It always leads back to my favorite expression… “Look at THAT!”

Posted in Art-Making, Pen and Ink, Sketchbooks, Watercolor | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Take Care…but not too much

I wrote a blog post a week ago today, knowing full well it would never see the light of day. In it I was able to wail and rant and despair and simmer down and see the point in it all. That is not something I like to do in public, it can be embarrassing at any age, let alone when someone is officially crone age, with or without the wisdom bit.

And yet what does age mean anyway? That we have been alive long enough so that our feelings should be well and fully buried by now, that we have so thoroughly allowed ourselves to become jaded that, in truth, nothing hurts except maybe our joints?

When I was a kid I looked at all the really old people I knew, the grandpas and grandmas and nursing home people, and I noticed something I couldn’t understand. It seemed like every one of them had opted for membership in one of two clubs. The first club was ‘Happy’: nowadays I would use big words like contented or grateful or satisfied, but to a little kid, it looked like happy.

The other group was ‘Angry’. Again, I would now say bitter or mean-spirited or resentful, but angry works too. They were the old people who snapped at little kids to be quiet, or to get out of the way, or to stop acting like kids. Too much joy annoys these people.

I found myself at that intersection last Monday and had to choose which road to take: Angry Avenue or LetItGo Lane. Here’s what happened: When I arrived home that evening I opened my computer and saw a new email from a good friend, entitled “Friendship”.  I was all ready to settle in for a long chatty letter about how good it is to have friends we have known for over a decade, with whom we have shared laughter and a good bit of tears as well.

Instead the email announced in two short sentences that she was ending our friendship,  that I confuse her, and that she was not ready to talk about it yet. I realize this could easily sound very ‘middle school’, but to be honest, I was stunned and thrown off balance, because this was a woman whom I thought was 100% in my corner, as I was in hers. For a few days I found myself depressed and self-doubting despite all logic to the contrary. It was not, after all, a logical situation.

Then it dawned on me that no amount of fiddling inside my own head was going to make matters better, and that moreover, it would actually make matters worse. Whether I painted myself as the hero or the villain, I was still just making stuff up and taking it personally. I was giving entirely too my head-space to a situation over which I had no control. I realized I cared too much.

And why do we do that, why do we sometimes care way too much about a person, or job, or situation over which we have no control?

It makes no sense but it seems to be part of the human condition, right? Many years ago when I was going through a divorce (feelings oddly reminiscent of  last week!), I went through a ‘cartoon phase’. I had so many emotions reeling around in my heart and soul, not all of them kind. The cartoon below came to me at that time, and it has been universally applicable ever since.img_20200204_0957422

Eventually I always get to “Oh well.” We all do, and we can take as much time as we want getting there. In the olden days it seemed like I had time to build park benches along the way in my Land of Righteous Indignation so I would have a place to rest and gather recruits to see My Side of the Story. Eventually, after no one else was willing to listen to me, I would arrive at the exit labelled “Oh Well”, and I would leave my self-created parkland.

What’s underneath that reluctance to leave the misery behind though?

I think there are a couple assumptions underneath it all. One is “That situation/ job/relationship was So Perfect, So Wonderful!”  The other assumption is “That was the Last Chance I will Ever Have.”

In Watercolor, as in Life

I don’t have a great photo to insert here, of how wonderful a painting was right before I ruined it by going too far. (Why would I stop to take a picture when I thought I was doing just fine, right?) These two photos are close illustrations though. (The color is not accurate, but that’s not the point either…)

The photo on the left is of the first layers of paint right after they dried. In many ways this is the best part of watercolor, the wet, juicy part when the paint itself is swimming in a wetland of water, and that fluid feeling remains, even after the paint has dried.

The photo on the right shows the same painting at its overworked stage. You almost need a sip of water just to look at it, there is so much dry application of paint here. Ironically even the water looks dry. About fifteen minutes prior to this stage I knew it was good enough, but I pushed on because I wasn’t at ‘oh well’ yet.

Here is my second example, which many people might like less, but I like a great deal more.


This is alive, and juicy, and unforced, and I stopped at ‘Enough!’ Many areas are undefined, sloppy. (To be honest, it reflects fairly accurately what my actual eyesight is like these days. At any distance at all, I experience a combination of blurred and double vision, which makes painting challenging of course. I see things that aren’t there, as well as not seeing things that are. That sounds like a metaphor for life, but I meant it literally!) In this painting, I had the sense to stop, to say and believe, “That’s enough, no more fiddling.” I stopped when it was at its peak.

Erroneous Painting & Life Assumption #1: “If I just keep trying/ fiddling, I can fix this.”

Not in watercolor, 95% of the time. And in Life, when I catch myself saying, “It was So Perfect,” I have to admit, no. It may have been good, it may have been very good. But naw, it wasn’t perfect.

Erroneous Painting & Life Assumption #2: “That was my Last Chance.”

In watercolor when I keep going and going long after a painting is beyond rescue, it really means I am too cheap to break out a brand new piece of virgin watercolor paper and simply start a new painting. Not even “do this one over again”, because that is impossible. Start a Brand New Painting. I can use the same reference photo, I can even use more or less the same design (the same cropping, center of interest, color choices), but trying to create a duplicate-but-better painting is a recipe for frustration and disaster.

A new beginning in life is also never a literal ‘do-over’. That river water is long gone. It may feel like “That was my Last Chance,” but no. There are more jobs and people and relationships and circumstances waiting for me and for you, that we can’t even imagine in our little pea-brains at the moment, trust me. And in watercolor, if you are anything like me and dozens of my painterly friends, you already have a huge stash of watercolor paper that would make John Singer Sargent and J.M.W. Turner envious!  So have at it! Grab a new sheet of paper and go crazy! Try doing the backstroke in Endorphin Soup instead of the crawl in ShouldaCouldaWoulda Stew.

The distance between Here and Oh Well varies every single day. But what a comfort to know that ‘Oh Well’ and a fresh sheet of watercolor paper are always, always, just around the corner, one thought away.

Posted in Art-Making, Cafe Wisdom, Cartoons, Life Insights, Storytelling, Watercolor | Tagged | 8 Comments

In your heart you know

That expression, “In your heart you know” was said to me over twenty-five years ago by a man who was refusing to cooperate. At the time I had a big decision to make, I had weighed all the pros and cons, and I still was undecided. The deadline was approaching, so I needed an answer. In my infinite wisdom I thought of John, a man who loved the sound of his own voice (as do I at times), who was often free with his unsolicited advice. This trait of his, annoying to many, was just what I was looking for.

After a Saturday morning gathering of a bunch of us friends, I approached John in the parking lot and explained my dilemma. Relief was in sight, I knew he would have a crystal-clear suggestion. He looked at me, nodding as he listened, then pulled his glasses further down his nose so he could look me right in the eye. With no prelude at all he smiled and said,

“In your heart…you know.”

Then turned, walked to his car, and drove away.

I stood there, stunned. It was so utterly out of character for him, to be handed a bully pulpit and say no thanks. Where was the John I knew and loved, whose favorite sport was pontificating?

Then, standing in the middle of the echo, I heard what he had said, snickered, and said to myself, “Damn you John, you’re right as usual.”

To this day I remember the sunlight in that parking lot, the fresh scent of spring teasing us away from winter blues. It was one of those moments in life that burns deep into your psyche, your very being. Had anyone else said it, I probably wouldn’t have heard it, or would have brushed it off as new-age woo-woo nonsense. But out of Brother John it was a ten-pound pearl.

And it is amazing how versatile those five words are still. I use them when I get caught up in my drug-of-choice: “O.P.O.”.  That stands for Other People’s Opinions. Ugh, it is intoxicating and devastating, and everything in between. I can get so caught up in ‘blending in with the crowd’ that I forget that I too have a point of view. Carrying John’s pearl of IYHYK goes a long way toward helping me to listen without having to agree, to being with people who actually are not part of my tribe, but are interesting nonetheless.

And yes (I know you were waiting for it), it also applies to watercolor. In my heart, I know when something is ‘off’ in a painting, even if my head has no idea what needs correction.

Over the Hill 1

This first photo is of a painting that I actually thought was finished until I looked at the photo. Then, all of a sudden, when I saw it 1 inch tall and 2 inches wide instead of 8″x 10″, I saw a design flaw that was glaring.

Not that it would bother everyone, but I saw details on the left side (top and bottom), details on the right side (top and bottom), and  the crest of the hill, literally in the dead center of the picture, was bare and gently pointing upward, leading the eye up and out of the picture. The goal in any successful painting is to give the viewer a place to linger and wander for a while. This is especially important if I want them to buy it and live with it for a long time!  I knew changing the curvature of the hill crest by changing the sky would be impossible (in watercolor it would leave an obvious trail of “overworked!”) So I asked myself, “Do I just quit here and give it up as a lesson learned, or do I stare at it, not really thinking at all, until another option becomes clear?” Then it came to me, an intuition, rather than a calculation: “Plant More Trees!”

Over the Hill 2

I began extending the right-hand forest more toward the center, in decreasing sizes so it would look like the trees were continuing behind the hill. Then, in another IYHYK moment, I realized that I had to stop altogether mid-brainstorm, because it was late afternoon in my apartment, the daylight I use for almost all of my paintings was leaving, and I was running the risk of overdoing it, simply because changing the light source to electric light (even to color-correcting bulbs) changes everything in watercolor.  So I stopped and carried on the next day with tidying up the details.

Over the Hill 3

“Over the Hill” by Bobbie Herron

I like it well enough, but of course when I look at it, I relive my entire process, and can’t see the final product as a simple whole. It may be part of the show and sale that begins five weeks from tomorrow at Dos Amigos Restaurant here in Concord NH. It all depends on what secret paintings are still hiding inside my paint palette, just waiting to be liberated in the next few weeks by water and brush, to land on another glorious sheet of pristine white watercolor paper.

When I think of all the work and all the people who were involved in  creating each tube of paint I have, each brush, each piece of thick, thirsty paper, I am amazed that at the very end I get to do whatever I want with the fruits of their labor. Each painting of mine is infused with an invisible layer of, “Thank you thank you thank you”, which I see better than anyone else does. In my heart I know I am one lucky girl.


Posted in Art-Making, Cafe Wisdom, Views from Aloft, Watercolor | Tagged | 5 Comments

New beginnings…or “Onward Through the Fog!”

As I said in my last post, sometimes you have to be willing to close one door before you can open another, even if that means standing in the dark hallway alone for a while. I feel very comfortable in the hallway actually: it’s all about how you look at it. Recently a friend told me she thinks I have problems with commitment. Two days later another friend marveled at my bravery, at my willingness to experiment and try new things throughout my entire life. PotAtoes, poTAHtoes, right? Do you focus on the endings or the beginnings? It’s up to each of us of course. For now though, I’m more focused on sniffing out the next adventure.

Financial Security vs. Retail Therapy

As part of this new phase in my life, I decided yesterday to take a hard look at my finances and see if I will be able to tighten my expenses belt enough to make up for the small bit of revenue I will be forfeiting by leaving my very-part-time job. Yes, I can do that, but it will take the same amount of vigilance that my sainted mother put into counting her pennies. I will never forget the day I stood by her in the grocery store (I was probably about 25 years old) and she stated in a righteous tone, “I am NOT paying THAT for a loaf of bread!” She acted personally insulted that anyone thought they could get away with charging that amount of money for a loaf of bread, when undoubtedly it was only a few pennies more than last month, and it was generic not-so-special bread to begin with. It is so much easier to rein yourself in if you never cut yourself any slack in the first place.

God bless you Ruth, I am not willing to follow in your steps exactly, but I can take a lesson or two.  I can go about my day with only a cash purse when I am out shopping, so I am not tempted to whip out my credit card for an impulse buy. Like everyone, I have a few expenses that I see as essential, like health insurance and electricity and yes, internet access is right up there as well, but my ability to justify and fritter away money has really crept up in recent years. I am very comfortable wasting $20 five times in a week when I would never blow $100 in one fell swoop.  So I am following the same wisdom people get from tracking food calories and applying it to budgeting money. First, I need a plan in both instances: a goal expenditure of either calories or dollars for each day. Then I need an extremely easy way to track my “budget vs actual” reality. With calories it is through an app on my phone, and it is working: after six weeks I am seeing good results. With money, I am going to make it even simpler. I go to the ATM machine each Sunday and withdraw a specific amount of cash. That cash has to cover groceries, coffee dates, personal impulse buys, and when the money is gone, it’s gone for the rest of the week. Credit card is reserved for doctor appointments, prescriptions, and emergencies only.

Caffeine, get thee behind me!

This new practice is enlightening and actually enjoyable because I am not being a slave to a budget: rather it is a way to take back control of my life and become aware of how easily ‘retail therapy’ has slipped into my life. I live in the middle of a small city, and my neighborhood might as well be called the Coffee District. Within a two-block stroll there are no less than five very active cafes, three bakeries, and a dozen ways to spend money and consume calories that would be best saved for very special social events with friends visiting from out of town. Instead they all can easily become my ‘extended living room’, a place to take a book, or sketchbook, be with people without being with anyone at all, and indulge in gastronomic luxury.

No more. Now my regular cafe habit is limited to a Tuesday morning date with my good friend L., followed by a blog-post hour and a second cup of coffee. Then home to get on with the work of the day.

Saving [watercolor] time by spending [pencil] time

Speaking of having a plan and sticking to it, I launched a new sketchbook this morning, dedicated to Planning Paintings. In the past I have done some  pre-planning in my head and some of the adjusting mid-watercolor.  Now (and I smile admitting it) I am happily using a pencil in a sketchbook to work out design choices on paper, before I even think about filling my water pail and opening my watercolor palette. Every painting student is taught this their first semester of school, and in my case “sketch first, paint later” was taught as a mandatory step, of course. That black-and-white thinking went out the window decades ago, as soon as I was no longer answerable to a professor. Now it feels good to return to it, seeing it as just one approach among many.

Below is a photo I took at a pond in Northumberland, UK in 2012. Like most folks I instinctively do a bit of composing before clicking the shutter, so much of the work is done already. But looking at this photo, I thought, “There are even more design options I can consider here.” The one I tackled first was locating the horizon line in the frame of the painting.


Wallington Hall, part of the UK’s National Trust, Northumberland.

Do I want the sky to take up the top 20%, 40%, or maybe none of the picture plane at all? 

Do I want the small hut to be a dominant element (done so by making it either larger or by having it a pale color against a dark background) or do I want it to blend quietly into the scenery, letting the natural world be the theme and the human element a minor component?

These are choices that would have been subconscious at best had I not taken the time to pull out a sketchbook, and pencil, and ask myself, “What options am I overlooking?”

Overlooking options is something we all do, every day. It is a necessity up to a point, but a pause now and then can be enlightening. Choices about calories, and money, and artistic design are everywhere. Becoming aware of choices allows us to make better choices, or at least make our poor choices intentionally! (Yes, I do that too.) It feels good to own my life, every bit of it. I spent years trying to hold other people and circumstances responsible for my lot in life, and it just didn’t get me anywhere. Today I choose to take responsibility for my actions, thoughts, opinions, and choices. It is heady stuff, but has led me to feel quite rich in ways that have nothing to do with bank balances.

Posted in Cafe Wisdom, Sketchbooks, Watercolor | Tagged | 5 Comments

Knowing when to quit

My intention when wrote that title was to simply talk about a watercolor technique, specifically how do you know when to stop fiddling with your painting and call it good. As soon as I typed the title, though, I realized how great it feels to know when to quit a whole bunch of things. It’s that time of year for me, endings and beginnings. I look at all the automatic charges on my credit card, subscriptions to video services and online exercise programs and charitable organizations and I ask myself, “Which of these would I sign up for today if I were starting with a blank slate?” It is so easy to keep doing things because you have always done them. In January, I question everything.

Checkbooks and datebooks

If you want to see where your values are, look at your checkbook and your datebook. That is not an original thought, I assure you, but it is an old truth that I carry with me. In January I look at all my weekly/monthly commitments and ask myself, “Am I still willing to spend what little time or money I have left in this life on that activity? And if I eliminate a few things, what might I be making room for?”  It is reinvention time.

Teaching vs Learning

I have been teaching at my local art school since October 2017 and have derived a lot of enjoyment from it. Aside from meeting a wonderful collection of folks, I have learned how to have a lesson plan that is solid yet flexible. My classes attracted some naturally shy people, and hopefully I was able to help them get more comfortable experimenting with like-minded explorers. My classes were never directed at developing advanced, specialized expertise, though; my goal, instead, was for each student to acquire  a heightened level of comfort and excitement in order to sustain interest for the long haul. I would rather instill hunger than technique.

And now it feels like this role has run its course. Sketchbook Skool (an online teaching organization that has been my guiding light and a resource I encouraged students to explore) changed my life in 2014, but I see now that it is not for everyone. I already had ‘the creative itch’:  in 2014 I had reached another plateau of restlessness that was not assuaged by weaving or gardening or cooking, or even by writing. I wanted my full eyesight back so that I could paint the way I used to paint. And Sketchbook Skool taught me, “So if ya can’t do that, you can still have fun playing with all the art supply toys, ya know.” Sketchbook Skool removed my ambition and gave me back my joy. It left my Inner Critic baffled and aimless. That Critic had nothing to pick on, because every time it said, “Ouu, that line, that mark is wrong!” my heart’s response was, “Yeah I know, I love it! Isn’t wonky so much more interesting??” That is what I learned from Sketchbook Skool.

And that is what I have tried to convey in my classes: the sheer joy of ‘mark-making’ can exceed any other pleasure you have as an artist. What if Joshua Bell cringed every time he hit a wrong note when he was learning to play violin? He never ever would have become a virtuoso. It is that simple. What I have tried to teach for the last three years is that reacting to our moment-to-moment successes and failures uses up energy better spent on the next drawing. Keep going, keep practicing, until it feels like something is missing when you go a whole day without a hot date with your sketchbook.

This Saturday January 11th is my next class at Kimball Jenkins, and February 8th will be my last class there. All are welcome, no experience necessary. Just sign up online at  Kimball Jenkins School of Art , bring your supplies, and we will see how much fun we can pack into three hours.

When I started writing this blog post (in my favorite cafe this morning with oatmeal raisin cookie in hand), my intention was to focus on an article in the February 2020 issue of  Watercolor Artist Magazine . In it, the author asks six artists the question, “What’s your #1 strategy to avoid overworking a painting?” The answers are brilliant of course, and I may well talk about that in my next post. For today though, my fingers wanted to explore a larger version of the question:

How do you know when you’re done? 

For me it is more of a realization, an a-ha, than a decision. I may wobble, and ponder, and weigh pros and cons. But then, out of nowhere, my gut quietly whispers, “Yup, we’re done here.”

A painting, a project, a hobby, a job, a relationship, a focus. How do you know when you’re done? How do you know when you are long past done?

These are very good questions for this time of year. Endings make room for beginnings, and both can be exhilarating if we let them be.


Posted in Cafe Wisdom, Life Insights, Views from Aloft, Watercolor | Tagged | 5 Comments

Taking stock of the soup we are in

A year ago today, Christmas Eve, I was in the midst of my second major right-eye retinal hemorrhage in two months, each occurring at the beginning of an extended holiday weekend. I hadn’t driven my car since mid-November 2018, and as a result of that second hemorrhage, I was forced to forfeit my car and my ability to drive in early January 2019. Everything I loved, everything that makes my particular life worth living, (reading, painting, drawing, and writing) was slipping through my fingers. I had lost the sight in my left eye about thirty years ago. Secretly and silently I was planning my exit from this world if the sight in my right-eye was to vanish as well. It was the lowest low point of my life, sounding like the cymbal crash of a 46-year glaucoma drum roll.

And today? A crooked smile crosses my face I must say. I am not living the life of a Hallmark movie ending, and yet as I sit on the verge of “Old Year’s Week” (Dec 26-31) it is instinctive to pull back from the myopia of daily life and see how far I, and perhaps we, have come.

First off, I have seen the retinal specialist regularly in the last year, with several treatments (pharmaceutical injections into my eye), and further vision loss has been slowed. In January 2019 I deepened my connection to Future Insight , the statewide agency based here in Concord, that works with people just like me as they adjust to independent living with visual impairment or blindness. I can’t say enough about that organization, rich with wisdom and adaptive equipment and, above all, heart. They also host a monthly peer support group where men and women of all ages and all stages of vision loss get together to check in, shares joys and struggles, and encourage one another. Although, for now, I have more sight than most of the members, they welcomed me with open arms, saying, “We have each been where you are now, and it is not easy at any point in this journey.”

Last February I wrote a blog post called,  “Why Giving Up Doesn’t Work” and felt a subtle but unmistakable shift in my writing. Now I feel a ‘pull’ rather than a ‘push’, to write a post most weeks. I found there is a convergence of pleasure, humor, and clarity when I am seated at White Mountain Gourmet Coffee each Monday, with my inexpensive tablet computer, Anker keyboard, a simple cup of coffee, and one of their spectacular oatmeal raisin cookies. I expect words to flow rather than feeling I need a plan and a theme. It just happens.

In March I resumed teaching sketchbook art at my local art school, something I was sure had been taken from me because of the retinal problems. Since then I have led a class at least monthly, and although the attendance is low, the quality of the people who show up to learn together has been very satisfying.

With these new delightful companions, I found myself looking at my friends and acquaintances through new eyes. Most relationships are give-and-take, right? I recognized I have friends who tend to be ‘takers’ and I cringed when I realized I too can take on that role if I’m not careful. I decided to turn that inner flinch into a call to action. I asked myself, “Who do I know who only hears from me when I need something?” Then I made a plan to correct that bad habit, one person at a time.

Early Spring: I developed a new friendship with an author, and was privileged to be one of his readers for a soon-to-be-published book. I renewed my passport and booked a flight to London to finally meet in person an online friend who has become a soul sister over the past three years. I also lost a dear friend with whom I had had weekly coffee dates for a couple years, and I utterly fell apart at his funeral. Yet another reminder that none of us have any time to waste. The shift continued to deepen, a stronger and stronger sense of “To Thine Own Self Be True” in every aspect of my life. May 5th -15th was spent in England, my first time there as a guest of a UK citizen rather than as a part of an American tour group.  Much slower tempo and a good amount of time on my own as well, walking and going to cafes and sketching everywhere I went. Upon returning home, the adjustment to being back in the States and on my very predictable home turf was a struggle as always, made worse by the inability to grab the car keys and treat my cabin fever restlessness with joyriding.

Mid-year:  To put an end to an annoyingly angsty few weeks, I chopped off all my hair. Actually a stylist did it, cutting off way more than I had asked, turning that face in the mirror into someone I barely recognized. It didn’t matter that my friends loved it, I was disarmed and disoriented! Several weeks later though, I realized something as innocuous as a haircut could set me free in unexpected ways. Not having to fret over straggly hair that no longer existed, I wondered what other opportunities I was overlooking. A friend from twenty years ago came to mind one day, and I decided to ‘google’ her, hopefully to reconnect and to apologize for a minor hurt I knew I had inflicted on her many years ago. The first word that came up in the search was ‘Obituary”, and I cringed when I saw she had died in March 2018 of pancreatic cancer. What a powerful reminder: when in doubt, be kind. There may never be time to set things right.

Another book crossed my path last summer, Untethered Soul , right up my spiritual alley. I also saw the movie All Is True in my local theatre– three times. It is about the private life of William Shakespeare, and it moved me deeply. It didn’t matter that many of the details of the story are fictional imaginings. I am drawn to any tale that explores the dichotomy of a person’s inner vs. outer life, because it is so easy to think that what we see on the outside is the truth, possibly the whole truth. I doubt it is ever so.

A shift in painting focus

At the end of June I received in the mail my copy of The Apocalypse Variations by Marc Taro Holmes. This man, who has been an encouraging leader in the Urban Sketching movement of the last decade, has pushed past painting from rigorous on-site observation, to envisioning and painting a world where the glorious landscapes themselves (which he had so skillfully portrayed for years) no longer exist due to climate change. The images in this book are stark and dramatic, as are his words. He offers no simple answers, but rather conveys a very personal sense of despair, loss, and then a small glimmer of hope that there may still be time to stop the insanity surrounding us all.

As much as it may sound like I live in a little pink bubble of creativity, that is not the case, and like all other Americans, I was drawn into our national crisis with the Mueller investigation and the continued illegal and immoral shenanigans of so many of our leaders at the federal level. Having said that, it all still feels so far removed from my daily life of making ends meet, deciding which bus to take to the laundromat, and shopping for my small bit of weekly groceries that I can carry up those two flights of stairs in one trip. I am so grateful that I can actually manage taking care of myself these days without being a burden to others, and then I look around and see that my country is on fire and all I can offer to help put out the flame is a teacup of water. It is not enough to simply not be adding to the problem, I must find a way to be part of the solution as well. But sad to say, other than voting and being a generally decent person, I have yet to find a civic duty niche for myself.

A shift in my own artwork approach

Thanks to a recommendation from a UK friend, I ordered up ten full sheets of 22 x 30 inch Saunders Waterford watercolor paper in July, enough to make forty decent-sized paintings in the style I have admired since I first discovered the teaching of  Ron Ranson  in the 1980s, This misty, evocative style was front and center in my studies back then, but sadly I abandoned it all when I lost the sight in my left eye, and as a result lost all depth perception. The lovely, controlled hairline details I had become so skilled at painting suddenly become impossible, and I found myself either painting clumsy fat skid marks or missing the paper entirely. (Ironically, Ranson himself was monocular in later life. I would have loved to have had a chance to ask him about his transition to what a friend of mine calls ‘pirate-sightedness’.) I often feel like a beginner these days, but now I see there is a way to cash in on watercolor’s ‘uncontrollability’. That is where the freshness and beauty resides.

Later summer: The dog days of August got into my apartment, and a bit into my soul as well. Although I am not technically bi-polar, I am well aware that I thrive on “gee-golly-ouu-shiny’ new ideas, and I love a tangent far more than a well traveled road. August and September found me doing the drudge work of implementing several brainstorms of early summer, rearranging my furniture so the easel is now right by the north window for one. I also superimposed a Monday-through-Friday routine so I either write or paint five mornings a week, and only run errands and socialize in the afternoon, after the real passions of my life have been fulfilled first. Healthy living in general seems to take more effort, time, and focus than I want to give it, but I have learned the hard way that living ‘from the neck up’ (as I have done my whole life) comes with a high price tag. So in my mid-sixties I am stumbling along learning to take care of my body as well as my mind and spirit. Perhaps on a related note, I have had three fierce head colds this year (including right now), and they leave me with very little energy to do much more than simply rest and keep generally out of trouble.

Finally autumn… I discovered the way to loosen up my artwork was to work bigger in every way. I resurrected my Pike palette from the 1980s, set up my watercolor easel, and am working on quarter Imperial sheets all the time now (11” x 15”) using an interesting brush called a hake (another tool used in the Ron Ranson style.) I am trying to reintroduce some foundational habits into my work by making sure I have good light, an ergonomic work area, and a decent chunk of time to drop into The Zone. Painting with others is also important and in November my niece and I visited with Urban Sketchers Boston on a crisp Sunday afternoon, had a great time, and I hope to make a return visit in the near future, by myself or with friends.

If you have made it to this point reading my Tale of 2019, I applaud your perseverance. The message I want to convey is not so much about the details, as it is about seeing the threads that string one’s life together. I often feel I am adrift when I do not see those threads (oh ye of little faith, yes indeed.) That is why for some time now I have taken an hour or two at the end of each month to look back and take account of my accomplishments, struggles, and insights. Perhaps this is symptomatic of a solo life: after all, who has time to take stock when living in the middle of a family whirlwind? But whirlwinds eventually slow down and stop. What I experienced this year (with losing a bit more eyesight and the freedom of driving) is not that far from the experience of empty-nesters I suspect. Even though you knew it was coming, your whole world has suddenly shifted, and there is a black hole at the center of it all.

What can one do?

Well first, don’t panic. Even when you feel to your very marrow that you are utterly alone, you are mistaken. And if you do panic, that is okay as well, just don’t hurt yourself too badly in the moment.

Then after the panic, the shock, the big harrumph of it all, it is never a bad idea to gently take pen in hand and look back at “the facts, ma’am, just the facts” of recent months or years. Make a list of your accomplishments and your true friends, they are good reminders to have in writing for the down days. You, and I, and everyone else, we are each an essential cog in someone’s evolving life. Your impact matters, even when it feels inconsequential.

Your readership matters too. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for spending some time here this past year, it means a lot to me. As always, feel free to share any of these posts with friends who paint or write or are wannabes. And chat back your own thoughts here as well.

We are all in this soup together.


Painted Christmas Day 2019

Posted in Art-Making, Journaling, My Story, Storytelling, Urban Sketching, Watercolor | Tagged | 8 Comments

Dowsing for the Ultimate Watercolor Secret


My alternative to smartphone scrolling…

This morning I was working on a lesson plan for my next  Sketchbook Adventure Club class this Saturday (theme for the day will be ‘Watercolor 101’), and honestly, I was struggling. I had way too much to say, insights into the ins and outs and predictable pitfalls of this magical medium, and was at risk of losing everyone in an avalanche of detail. Then I suddenly asked myself:

“Why does watercolor have the reputation of being so difficult?”

It is for one reason and one reason alone. It’s not the paint, the paper, or even the brushes. The challenge every single time is the dang water.  Yup, that’s the big secret, it’s the water. The part that is absolutely free. In watercolor, evaporation is your best friend and your arch-enemy.

Watercolor is often a race against the clock.

Dry art media (like pencil, pen, markers, pastel) afford you the time to draw a little, then look, and ponder, and go out for coffee, and return and carry on.  Wet media (like acrylic and oil) have their own drying tempos, but they are each a stroll in the park compared to the stop-and-go sprints of watercolor.

Some experts say there are four stages of evaporation in watercolor, and about a gazillion things you can do to cooperate with or sabotage these inevitable phases. The stages are wet, moist, damp, and dry. Think of a paper towel, not really mysterious right? But what you can successfully accomplish during each of these stages, now that is where the real art of watercolor comes in.

Beginners are taught about the materials, but are never taught about the dance.

The dance of multi-layered drying times. Watercolor has a starting gun at the beginning of every brush stroke, as the evaporation process begins over and over again. The good news is you can get to know this obstacle course so well that the starting gun will no longer startle you.

Here are some things I have learned: I work mostly from observation rather than from my imagination, so I do a lot of ‘mental painting’ before the first wet brush stroke hits the paper. By simply staring, observing, and selecting my focal point first, I make a lot of decisions in advance, deciding what areas I want juicy and soft, and what areas will need crisp edges. Then I create a light pencil sketch of the most important areas in order to confirm my design. By the time I pull out my brush and palette, I have done a lot of the work (which is actually play of course). Then the only challenge left is to practice, practice, practice in order to become skilled at understanding the wetness of the paper, and of the brush, and how much wind there is. A metaphor sometimes helps…

A human bird call

Have you ever been walking in the woods, heard a bird singing, and tried to call back with your own rendition of their language? However feeble your attempt, sometimes it gets the bird’s attention. It continues to sing, and you continue to try to improve your own whistle.

This is exactly what painting is for me. I see an image before me, a landscape, a still life, a shadow across a pile of bricks and rubble, and I am drawn to call back, however feeble my attempt. Sometimes my ‘whistle’ is pretty good. Sometimes it’s like I have been eating crackers. No matter, I still whistle.

So my watercolor lesson is, “Don’t worry if occasionally you have a mouth full of Saltines. Some days, for no reason at all, you will confuse the robin by being right on pitch yourself, and downright lyrical. You and the bird will be amazed. It is worth every failed attempt for those silent inner happy-dances of, “Yes! This time I got it!”

Evaporation Happens.  Sally forth, brush in hand, whistling all the way.


Last night I amazed myself. You never know!


Posted in Art-Making, Cafe Wisdom, Sketchbooks, Storytelling, Uncategorized, Watercolor | Tagged | 3 Comments