What’s New

Painting the Farmers Market in Ink and Watercolor

Join this class on Skillshare, which is an online learning platform where you get a monthly subscription to take as many classes as you like. This link gives you a free trial.

Also, this class will be live soon on Udemy, where you only sign up for the classes you want to take. Stay tuned!

A farmers’ market or a produce stand is an irresistible subject for an artist, with the variety of colors and shapes in all the fruits, vegetables, and flowers. It’s a great chance to experiment and make a lively, colorful sketch.

In this class, we’re going to do a little produce stand in a French village, and we’re going to do it in s bold, graphic style that uses a lot of wonderful ink lines in addition to all that color.

You’ll learn how to use a dip pen and India ink, but you can also take this class using fountain pens, or regular inexpensive drawing pens—your choice!

We’ll work on capturing the different shapes and details without fussing over them, and we’ll make sure that our drawings have a sense of depth and feel realistic.

By the end of this class, you’ll be ready to head out to the farmer’s market and do your own colorful, lively sketches of the season’s bounty.

How Do I Settle on a Style for My Art?

collage of different art styles
With the help of some wonderful teachers, I made art in all of these styles this year.

It’s a question that every kind of artist grapples with:

I do these watercolor landscapes, but I also do abstract collage and sometimes I get really into architectural ink sketches. I can’t seem to focus on just one.

I write short stories, but I’ve also written three mystery novels and now I’m thinking about writing a biography. But successful writers pick their genre and stick to it.

I play classical guitar and I’m also in a blues band and lately I’ve gotten into the harmonica and I’d kind of like to learn percussion, too, but I’m never going to get anywhere if I don’t choose one.

Sometimes it’s a question of a creative person picking one of several very different pursuits:

I’m into photography, and I love to crochet, and also I do pottery. Why can’t I pick one?

So in the last year, during the shutdown, I’ve been meditating a little. Just a little. I put on the Headspace app for ten minutes in the morning. It’s not a big deal, and I don’t claim to be any kind of expert in mindfulness or meditation.

But here’s something anyone will learn in their first ten-minute meditation session: Thoughts are just thoughts. Feelings are just feelings. You can observe them and let them float by, like clouds on the horizon, or like cars driving down the road, while you sit alongside the road in your lawn chair and watch them go by.

You don’t have to jump on board and ride down the road with every Crazy Thought Car that goes zooming past.

What this has taught me is that I can differentiate between the facts, and my thoughts and feelings about those facts.

Fact: I do watercolor landscapes, abstract collage, and architectural ink sketches.

Thought: I can’t focus! I need to focus. I have to pick one. Real artists, successful artists, know how to pick one and stick to it. There’s something wrong with me. I’m doing it wrong. 

You see? Those are thoughts. Not facts. As thoughts go, they might be awfully persistent. They might hang constantly around the horizon, rather than drift away.

But there are other, equally viable thoughts that could be attached those facts. Such as:

I’m a polymath. I’m well-rounded. I contain multitudes.

Or, simply: I’m versatile. Flexible. Agile. Nimble. I do several things and I do them well.

Or even: I do several things and I enjoy them all. The question of whether I do them well or not doesn’t matter.

The question of whether a person can be successful doing more than one thing is not all that interesting to me–what is success? A certain salary? A number of awards? If you want a list of artists who are successful at more than one thing, or who work in more than one style, that’s easy to find. Look at all the actors who paint. Look at all the musicians who write. Or look at the ever-changing styles of Gerhard Richter, including his late-in-life stained glass work. I grew up with a mother who painted in watercolor and acrylic and wrote and juggled many jobs, and a father who made a living playing classical guitar, jazz guitar, and “whatever pays the bills” rock and pop guitar. People called him for gigs because he was versatile–he could do a number of things, and he could do them well. He’s also a photographer. For many years he was a sailor. He studies French and sometimes dips into Spanish and Italian for fun.

But the reason this idea of “let’s find examples of people who successfully do many things” is not all that interesting to me?  It’s because this is also thinking.

What I learn from my ten-minute meditations is that mindfulness meditation is not about replacing “bad” thoughts with “good” thoughts. It’s not about judging one thought as wrong or inadequate and replacing it with some better, more empowering, more useful thought.

It’s about recognizing all thinking as thinking, and all feelings (the pleasant ones and the unpleasant ones) as feelings.

It’s also not about eliminating all thoughts and feelings. That’s impossible. It’s only about recognizing them when they drift by, and naming them as thoughts or feelings, and understanding that they are separate from facts.

So I’m not suggesting that you replace one thought with another. (Wait, it’s not that I can’t choose! It’s that I’m a polymath! That’s better!)

Nor am I suggesting that you stop thinking entirely. (I just had a thought about my art! Bad artist! I should just stop thinking!)

Instead, I’m just suggesting that you can observe the facts about your art practice in a kind, non-judgmental way: I enjoy these watercolor landscapes, and I’m also playing around with these abstract collages….

…and then recognize that all the thoughts and feelings that rush in to finish that sentence (and therefore I really need to choose! And therefore I’m an agile, nimble polymath!) are just that: thoughts and feelings that your very big brain generated all on its own, because it saw some facts and decided that Conclusions Must Be Drawn From Those Facts.

And if you can do this–if you can recognize that the thoughts and feelings about your art practice are separate from the facts–then maybe, just maybe, that will open up a little space in your creative practice to explore your art, and to follow your preferences wherever they might lead.

On the subject of following your preferences, no one says it better than Nicholas Wilton. He explains it so beautifully in this video. Notice what he says about how when you follow your preferences in your art, your art gets better, and then you learn how to also follow preferences in your life, and your life gets better, and it turns into a feedback loop.

So really, all I’m saying in addition to his words of wisdom is that in order to get to that place where you’re really following your preferences, it helps to acknowledge that all that thinking about your art is thinking, and all that feeling is feeling, and that you are free to acknowledge all those thoughts and feelings as they float by, and then turn back to your art and follow your preferences and go where it lights you up to go.

 

 

Mixed Media Animal Portraits

You have two options for taking this class:

Take it on Skillshare, which is a Netflix-style membership site where you can take all the classes you want for your monthly membership. I have lots of classes on Skillshare, so this is a great deal! This link gives you a free trial. 

Or you can take it on Udemy, where you only sign up for the classes you want to take. On Udemy, I have bundled this class with my class on painting chickens so you’ll have lots of extra examples to learn from! Go here to take it on Udemy.

This class is dedicated to making lively, expressive, personality-filled animal portraits—whether it’s your own pets, that goat you met at the county fair, or your favorite wild animal.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • How to use either watercolor or gouache, along with mixed-media supplies like colored pencil and markers, to create portraits in your own style.
  • How to use measurements, grids, and negative space to get the drawing right.
  • How to make a “color map” with colored pencil to establish a base layer of color and value—and to get over the fear of the blank page!
  • Different approaches to starting a portrait, by either building up dark tones first or beginning with light washes.
  • Finishing touches and texture with our mixed media supplies.
  • I’ll provide photos for you to work from, but I also encourage you to round up your own pictures of your pets or your favorite animals.

This is a really fun, whimsical approach to making a portrait in your own style. Once you see the technique, you’ll be able to paint all your favorite animals, and make portraits to hang on the wall or give as gifts.

Painting skies in watercolor and gouache!


Paint skies with me! You have two options for taking this class:

Skillshare is a Netflix-style platform for classes where you sign up for a monthly subscription and take all the classes you want. On Skillshare, I’ve divided this class into two parts. The first part is Five-Minute Watercolor Skies, and the second part is Vivid & Colorful Skies in Gouache & Ink . These links will give you a free trial to check out everything Skillshare has to offer.

On Udemy, you just sign up for the individual class you want to take. Go here to take this class on Udemy.

In this class, we’re going to explore two different approaches for capturing skies in a way that’s fresh, lively, and colorful.

First, we’ll use watercolor to do five-minute, wet-into-wet skies. The idea with these skies is to do them very quickly, onsite.  These are going to be loose and quite abstract. They might be inspired by what you see in front of you, but they’re not meant to be a perfect copy. After all, you have a camera for that.

This is a method you can use when you’re sitting on a terrace with your friends, having dinner on a rooftop, and you just want to capture the light and colors in the sky before the sun goes down. It’s perfect for travel sketching and urban sketching.

And then, once they’re dry, we’ll add some details from the landscape with ink or watercolor to help give a sense of scale and place.

And if you really only paint in gouache, you can do this class in gouache as well. Just water it down a little and pretend it’s watercolor. You can get a lot of these same effects.

In the second part of the class, we’re going to take a little more time to paint really vivid, bold skies in gouache.

I’ll show you how to treat gouache kind of like watercolor to get light washes for clear skies, and also as backgrounds for something like a sunset.

Then we’ll do some dramatic daytime and sunset skies, and work on blending and shading to get convincing cloud shapes that still reflect your own style.

I’ll also show you how to use watercolor like gouache, by mixing tube watercolors with white gouache. So this is a great trick for watercolor painters who haven’t quite made the leap into gouache yet, because you’ll only need that one tube of white gouache.

Also, if you happen to have a color you really love in watercolor, but you don’t have that color in gouache, well guess what? You can just mix a little white gouache into it and bring it right into your painting.

Whether you’re primarily painting in watercolor or gouache, and whether you’re usually drawing from life in a travel sketchbook or working in your studio from photographs, these loose, colorful approaches to skies will add life to your urban sketches, cityscapes, and landscapes.

On People and Stories and Drawing

I’ve always shied away from getting people into my drawings and paintings. For years almost everything I did looked like this:

Drawings of buildings and streets in Italy

No people. Entirely depopulated streets and towns, as if all the citizens had been raptured or abducted by aliens.

Sometimes I’d drop just one little figure in, for scale.

street scenes in Mexico and New York painted in gouache with one figure walking down the street

But really, they were still drawings of buildings, with a couple little lumpy shapes to show that people do exist in cities.

But of course, if you’re into urban sketching, you can’t ignore the people forever. Over time (and with the help of some terrific teachers, such as James Richards) I started to be more deliberate about populating my sketches with people.

Still, these figures are accessories, like the street trees and lampposts and picnic umbrellas, meant to convey the sense of a lively street. They’re not about any one person doing any one thing–they’re about people collectively, like a flock of birds. And that’s great–I love these pictures. (I love all the pictures I’ve posted here–none of this is a criticism of my own art at all, just an observation about what I tend to focus on and what I don’t focus on.)

But lately I’ve been admiring the work of artists like Jenny Kroik, whose illustrations tell such a story about the city she lives in. I also admire her gouache technique, so I started making little studies of her paintings (“study” is an artsy word for “copy”) in my sketchbook, to figure out how she does it.

I was mostly working on technique but what occurred to me is that if you really want to tell a story in your sketchbook, you need to have people acting out that story.

This is hilarious, that I would only think about this now. I’ve been a full-time, professional writer for 20 years. I’ve written books about earthworms, cut flowers, poisonous plants, and I’ve written a bunch of novels. What I always tell people is, “That wasn’t really a book about earthworms. It was a book about people who study earthworms. Stories have people in them. If I’d left out the people and only written about worms, I wouldn’t have had a story. There’s no book in that.”

So I was thinking about this, and looking at Jenny Kroik’s interesting illustrations of interesting New Yorkers doing interesting things, and kind of envying her interesting art practice, and then I thought, “Wait a minute. I live in Portland. This place is interesting. Come to think of it, every place is interesting in its own way.”

And at that moment, Portland was having an interesting event: an epic snowstorm. I could see from my window that Portlanders were out in the snow, doing whatever Portlanders do. So I grabbed my camera (not my sketchbook, c’mon, it’s cold outside) and decided to go looking for stories. Here’s what I found:

Portlanders and their beverages, hours before the next wallop was predicted to hit and possibly knock out power: One last coffee run, and a trudge to the liquor store.

Kids carrying around enormous chunks of ice, for probably the first time in their lives, and somebody making the all-important Trader Joe’s run.

An unplowed side street getting turned into an impromptu dog park. A walk (with trekking poles, just in case) while FaceTiming with incredulous relatives who have never seen Portland like this.

It’s intimidating to put people front and center. I did a lot more in the way of preliminary sketches for these than I would normally do. Something I learned from Marc Taro Holmes: It’s perfectly fine to do seven or eight pencil sketches of a person and just pick one to ink and finish. Studio artists do this all the time: they’ll work up a lot of sketches before committing to a big painting. But I tend to forget that even within a sketchbook, a sketch can have sketches. (This in spite of every teacher who has ever taught me to make thumbnails, including Shari Blaukopf.)

Anyway, this is what I got out of Portland’s snowstorm and a lot of idle time to think about art: Where there are people, there are stories. Those stories might be small–a woman trudging through ice to get to Trader Joe’s–but isn’t that what cities and towns and villages are made up of?  A million small stories that somehow come together to tell us something about the place?

Plus pretty buildings and trees and streets and lampposts, of course.

Drawing Interiors in One and Two Point Perspective

Hi folks! You can take this class on Skillshare, which is a membership-style platform like Netflix where you can take all the classes you want for one low monthly fee. This link will give you a free trial to the first part of the course, Travel Sketching Interiors in One-Point Perspective.    Here is a link to the second part of the course, Sketching Interiors in Two Point Perspective.

Or you can take both classes combined on Udemy, where you only sign up for the classes you want to take. See it on Udemy here.

Here’s a bit more about the course:

When we’re doing travel sketching or urban sketching, sometimes we forget about interiors. But when you travel, or even when you’re out and about in your own hometown, you’re inside all kinds of interesting spaces. That could be your house, or the apartment or hotel you stay in when you travel, or maybe it’s an art museum, a cathedral, or the café where you have your morning coffee.

All of these are places you can capture in your sketchbook to just help evoke a sense of place and remind you of little moments in your everyday life or your vacation.

The trick with interiors is that you need to really understand perspective. So in this class, we’re going to work on simple one and two-point perspective, which will help us build the room and place all the furniture within it. You might be used to doing this outdoors, on the street, but we’ll work on applying those techniques indoors as well.

Once we work out how perspective works inside a room, we’ll get really creative and playful with ink, watercolor, markers, colored pencil, and any other mixed media you’d like to use.

Although we’re going to be working from photos in this class, the idea is that we’ll create quick, simple sketches that you can absolutely do on location.

Some Thoughts About the Bee Gees, The Little Prince, and What Exactly Is the Point of It All

I loved the Bee Gees documentary on HBO, so much so that I would consider it worthwhile to pay for a month of HBOMax just to watch it. I am not ashamed to admit that I love their music, which takes me back to happy moments in my childhood. I also loved learning about their songwriting process, and I found it to be a moving and complex story about siblings working together. (I am literally only just now realizing the parallel to the Kopp sisters story. I’m not real insightful sometimes.)

One thing struck me: Over and over, through the years, you hear them say that their very specific goal was to be FAMOUS. And you know, when that’s your goal, you make very particular career decisions. You see this play out time and again as their fortunes rose and fell.

There are a lot of different reasons to make music or art, and they don’t have to be about fame or fortune. Just look at Seth Rogen and his ceramics.

Most of us WANT to make some money doing the thing we love, or…well, doing something, but what is the money FOR?

I mean, it’s to put food on the table, obviously. We all have long lists of things we’d do or buy if we had more money, but underneath all of that is the idea that if we had more money, our days would look different. We would do something other than what we’re doing right now.

I guess this wasn’t the case for the Bee Gees. Fame was the point. As long as they were doing “fame,” they got what they wanted. But I think that for a lot of us, we struggle with what we actually want and what we’ll do now to get what we want someday.

So it’s kind of like…we spend our days doing this thing that earns money so that someday we’ll have enough money to be able to stop spending our days doing that thing and instead spend them doing something else.

I think a lot of self-employed people in particular struggle with this: We get an idea to do something, but then there’s this question: Am I doing this because it’s something I genuinely want more of in my life, or am I doing it in the hopes that I’ll make enough money that I can then stop doing it and go on to do whatever I genuinely want more of?

Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference. And the difficulty is that if you put a lot of time and energy into doing a thing, you’ll generally get more of that thing. But maybe what you’re really hoping for is the freedom to have less of that thing.

It’s been such a hard year that I’ve been thinking a lot about how to fill my days with activities that are pleasurable in the moment, with no future outcome in mind.

The Little Prince book coverAnd that got me thinking of this passage from The Little Prince, where a man is selling pills that quench your thirst, so you can save fifty-three minutes a week by not having to drink.

The little prince replies, “If I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water.”

I guess my point, which I admit is half-baked, has to do with finding the intrinsic value in doing the thing you’re doing, or finding a way to do more of the thing that has intrinsic value. I’ll leave that for you to ponder and I’ll do the same.

Join Me for a Flowery Valentine’s Day Zoom Event!

 

Photo of Amy Stewart and Teresa Sabankaya in her flower stall

 

On Tuesday, February 9 at 5 Pacific/8 Eastern, I’m going to host a Zoom chat with the delightful and charming Teresa Sabankaya. Teresa is the florist I interviewed for Flower Confidential. Here we are together in those days, back when we were young and cheerful and our hair more closely matched the color we were born with.

Teresa and I felt an immediate bond because we are both Texans. The joke is that if you meet somebody from Harvard or Texas, you will know it within five minutes because they will tell you. That was true of me and Teresa. But I also adored her seasonal, garden-grown bouquets, which at the time she sold from a flower stall in downtown Santa Cruz, where I used to live.

Now she’s written a gorgeous book of her own, The Posy Book, in which she explores the old-fashioned language of flowers and tells us how she makes her delightful posies (which she also ships!)

This chat is quite deliberately timed for Valentine’s Day and will certainly be a floral-themed lovefest. Please join us to talk about the flower business, to learn more about Teresa’s sentimental posies, or just to hang out with your gal pals for an evening.

Please register here! We can’t wait to see you.

Meet Aspiring Ceramicist Seth Rogen.

Seth Rogen is probably the only ceramicist to have 8 million Instagram followers. He got into ceramics the way many of us get into art–by following his interests, his enthusiasm, his curiosity. If you scroll down his Instagram feed, you’ll see that he’s a longtime collector of ashtrays–don’t laugh! They’re really interesting ashtrays!–and then he went to a pottery studio and made something, and then, being Seth Rogen and having all the money, he had his own studio and kiln built, and now there’s no stopping him.

He takes the most wonderfully pedestrian approach to his art. When he posts a new piece, he generally says something like, “I made this thing and I like it.” When he made some pots he wrote, “I made these pots and planted these plants in them.”

In this lovely interview he says, “I do like tactile things; I like to produce tangible work. With movies, we spend years on them and then they’re very intangible. They don’t have weight, they don’t occupy a physical space. You used to at least get a DVD or a Blu-Ray, and you don’t even really get that anymore. I don’t like to keep my own movie posters around because those are just advertising for the product, not the product itself. I do really like being able to create an artistic expression that is a thing that I can pick up, hold, show to people. It is just so different from what I normally do which has no mass to it.”

In other words, he’s doing it because it scratches an itch for him. It’s personally satisfying. He’s obviously not trying to build a business or win any awards. He says, “It’s been fun because I can just explore and play around and try different things. If something turns out terribly, it’s not ultimately damaging to my overall reputation as a ceramicist.”

Be Seth Rogen, everybody. Just go make your pots. Explore and play around and try different things, and don’t worry about your overall reputation as a ceramicist, which is just another thing that has no mass to it.

Donate to the International Rose Test Garden, Win Some Paintings and a Book

 

 

I live just down the street from the International Rose Test Garden in Portland and I visit it so often that I think of it as my backyard. It’s a very nice backyard.

I’m usually there with my sketchbook, so when the time came for a fundraiser to do some important work at the garden, the staff asked if I’d donate some paintings to sweeten the deal.

So. Read all about their fundraising campaign and make a donation here. You’ll be entered into a drawing to win these four paintings, all original gouache 5×7 paintings on 7×10 paper, signed on the back by me, PLUS a signed first edition of Flower Confidential, my book about the global flower industry.

Even better: Donations are being matched by a private funder!

Get over there by January 31, 2021 to make a donation.