When you don’t stick to the plan

This week I learned that it’s important to eat a balanced (metaphorical) diet of broccoli AND chocolate chip cookies.

The all-broccoli diet:

I’ve been following the exercises from the book “How to See Colour and Paint it” for the month of January. Last week, I spent two days on a lemon exercise. My brain fought me the whole way, because the lemon looked very orange in my warm light.

For the next three days, I worked on the same lemon, in the same setup, but lit with the cool light of my headlamp. The difference lighting makes is remarkable, which was neat to see:


The thing is, doing these exercises is hard work. I’m staring at a part of the lemon through a little hole in a grey piece of plastic, holding my paint covered knife up to the hole, wrinkling my nose – is that shadow more orangey than what I mixed? Or more purpley? Squint, mix paint, look again, repeat.

Encouragingly, I found a study that said frustration is a sign that learning is taking place. It makes sense: Learning happens at the edge of your comfort zone.

But after 9 days of the all-broccoli diet, I started forgetting that I actually know something about making art, and that it can be loads of fun.

The diet of silver cake sprinkles:

On day 10 I quit the plan in rebellion. I tried gouache (opaque watercolour) for two days. But it was reactionary, and it didn’t feel so good either. It was just the next shiny thing I was intrigued by. Kind of like those shiny silver cake sprinkle balls – intriguing, pretty, but maybe not so great to eat.

The balanced diet of broccoli and cookies:

Mostly, I wanted to get back into a place of comfort and confidence. So on day 12 I did a lunchtime sketch of the shelf beside my office desk. It was genuinely fun to do, comforting and familiar. Like oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. With raisins. A little bit indulgent, a little bit wholesome.


Broccoli and cookies are welcome in my life.





When you stick with the plan

Cube in Blue.jpg

For one week, I’ve more or less managed to stick to my plan (working through the book How to See Color and Paint it for January)! Success!

But it hasn’t been effortless. Here are some things I experienced:


On days 5 and 6 I started to get frustrated and feel the weight of the month stretching out ahead of me. I was painting a lemon and felt annoyed that I just couldn’t get the colour right.

It helps to ponder the notion that a large source of our annoyance is the expectation that reality should be any other way than what it is at this moment. Paul Foxton has a great blog post that expands on this idea.

It also helps to remind myself that I committed to this, and it is something I consider meaningful to do, so I need to learn how to enjoy the process even when it’s a bit wobbly.


I heard from two people on Instagram who are seeing my posts and are inspired to try these exercises. We never know how our actions might impact others!


A green block is green, a lemon is yellow, right?

Not exactly, – in fact not even close!

Surprisingly, we are not very good at seeing what is really in front of us. The process for painting these studies is: you look at a spot on your subject through a colour isolator (a grey card with a hole-punch sized hole in the middle). This opens your perception to what is really there, and stops you from being blinded by what you think you know.

In my latest set-up, I had a lemon casting a shadow against a light blue wall. I’d have assumed the shadow would be a darker blue. But looking through my colour isolator, wow, was that shadow ever green! So green, I didn’t believe it. I looked twice, mixed some green paint – and it matched.

This is another really great illustration of something useful when working with people. We read in books on facilitation and leadership that we should let go of our assumptions. But I think often they are so ingrained we can’t even understand they are assumptions. We can’t see the shadow as green, even though it’s right in front of us. Only when we look at it in a different way (with the colour isolator) can we see it as it really is. And once we see it the first time, it’s easier to see it again, and we understand more deeply that things are not always what they seem.


The cube image on this post… I love this cube! I was really happy with the result, and there are a number of spots on this painting that feel special.


Sometimes, even in this first week, I haven’t wanted to stick with this plan. I’ve repeatedly had to remind myself about last week’s military post, and that the alternative is spending time finding other things to paint (time that could be spent just doing these exercises and learning their lessons).

One month is a small amount of time looking backwards! And I know sticking with this will be beneficial. So my goal for week 2 is just keep on keeping on.


What artists can learn from the military


I read a lot of books and articles about leadership. I find it fascinating – how do you create an environment where others can do their best work?

The paradoxical thing is, I don’t manage or supervise anyone. I just find the topic compelling. And sometimes I get great insights for managing myself better.

I read that, in the military, a lot of time is spent on strategy – thinking about the plan, incorporating what worked and what didn’t work the last time. But then, once the plan is in place, you simply do the plan. You trust that the thinking done ahead of time was sound, and you do what you decided to do.

Compare this to my usual approach. I do some thinking, and make a plan. I might, say, decide to paint 30 still life paintings, because I know it will help my understanding of colour and light.

But then after 3 paintings I start waffling, and worrywarting. Oh, maybe I should be painting mountains! I love mountains. Maybe I should be using different pigments. Or, no, I should do more watercolour! Yes, that’s a great idea.

In short, I waste time fussing that could be better spent painting.

For January I’ve hatched yet another plan. I’ve joined a challenge to paint or draw from life every January day. My intention is to work through the book “How to See Colour and Paint it”. It’s a good plan. The purpose is to get better at seeing and mixing colour. Each painting is of a simple object, from life, done with a palette knife – that way there’s no thinking about fancy brushwork or blending strokes, you just mix a colour and lay it down.

If the past is any indication, I’ll get a few days in and OH LOOK A SQUIRREL decide I should paint something else. I keep thinking about this military way of doing things, trying to remind myself to just stick with the good plan I’ve made.

Happy new year and thank you for reading,



Vitruvian Studio Drawing Fundamentals: Week 2


Lines, lines, lines… more lines. That is what I have done for week 2 of the Vitruvian Studio drawing fundamentals course. 40 pages of lines this week.

Sounds easy enough – you have an exercise sheet with 4 lines on it, each about 3 inches long, each at various tilts. Then, holding the pencil in an underhand grip, you draw a line in one sweeping stroke to match the angle of the one you see… and you draw another next to that one, again and again until your paper is grey with lines. And repeat.

In simplicity comes an opportunity to learn more about oneself. I watched my thoughts try to play all kinds of tricks – persuading, cajoling. I’d find myself exhausted at the thought of starting, and when I finally told myself “just one sheet” and began, the tiredness vanished.

Probably the most pervasive thought is that if I don’t enjoy these drawing exercises maybe I will never really enjoy drawing or painting, so I shouldn’t bother. It’s a tricky one. How much do we need to enjoy practice, versus the fruits of our practice?

And maybe more importantly, what happens if I decide to enjoy practicing? Can I pull it off?




Vitruvian Studio: Drawing Fundamentals Online Course


Chimp Skull

In December I signed up for the Vitruvian Studio online Drawing Fundamentals course. I started in earnest, but then life happened. Now that it is March, my schedule has cleared a bit and I will try again, starting over at the beginning.

To be honest, it is not a very exciting course. It is akin to a musician practicing scales, or an athlete repeating a simple drill. Yet having a deep, intuitive command of the fundamentals are what make guitar solos and breathtaking gymnastic feats possible. I am trying to just be zen about it and embrace the simplicity. It is not easy but it is a good practice that can benefit many areas of life!

Vitruvian starts at the beginning, with the premise that if you cannot draw a line to match the angle of another line, how will you be able to draw a portrait?

Step 1: Learning to sharpen a pencil.

As a first step, I learned how to sharpen my pencil. Sounds crazy, right? The Vitruvian course does not actually require or even suggest this but others do (for example Watts Atelier and Sadie Valeri Atelier). Using a razor, you whittle away the wood exposing a long bit of lead, then sand the lead into a needle-like point. Like this:



This seems to have a few purposes. First, it encourages a light touch, otherwise you’ll break the tip. Second, this exposes a long flat expanse of lead so you can draw fat strokes for shading. Finally, once started, you don’t need to sharpen again for quite a while – your pencil sharpens itself as you draw.

I’ve broken some pencils so far! But I hear this is normal, and the whittling can be relaxing, and a good lesson in patience. Actually, all of this stuff is a big lesson in patience.

Step 2: Assessing angles.

Here, I have many pages like the top page in the photo below – with 4 lines at various angles. Vitruvian teaches us to assess the tilt of a line by using a “clock” metaphor. You ask yourself – is that line tilted at 2 or 3 or 4 minutes past the hour?

Each minute represents a shift of 6 degrees (so 1 minute past is 6 degrees, 2 minutes past is 12 degrees, and so on). Of course your angle may be 4 or 10 degrees, but the clock metaphor gives a useful starting point. Each of the lines below matches a particular minute on a clock face.


So first, I look at each of the four lines on the top sheet and ask myself “how many minutes before or past the hour is that?” and then compare the line to the bottom page. I mark whether or not I got it right, and write the answer next to the line.

Step 3: Learning to hold the pencil.

Another thing that sounds crazy – didn’t we learn this in grade school? Apparently not. In order to draw smooth, straight lines, you need to be able to draw from your shoulder – you hold your hand in one position and move your entire arm to draw a line. So you hold the pencil in an underhand grip, and brace your pinky knuckle against the page, like this:


It took me a couple of weeks to get used to this and it felt really awkward at first, but I am much more comfortable with it now. The chimp skull at the top was drawn almost entirely using this grip. This not only encourages a light touch, it also prepares you to hold and use a paintbrush.

Step 4: Line Matching.

Finally, you try to draw long, fluid strokes that match the angle of each line, drawing from your shoulder. You continue until your paper is filled with lines, like this:


The emphasis is on repetition, so I have about 25 sheets like this to do before I move on to the next step.


Why is art so expensive?


Morning at Hurricane Ridge

I’ve been painting these little landscapes (4” x 4”) and thinking about selling them on my Etsy shop. One of the hardest parts of selling your own art is finding and sticking to a fair price. Of course, selling art is a business, and it is the responsibility of a business owner to make something that brings value, for a price people are willing to pay.

With art, people’s expectations of a reasonable price seem a bit skewed.


Starting with the shadows and a limited palette of 4 colours

Take for example this little 4” x 4” painting. Being that it is so small, and that I am not a well-established artist, I might consider charging $60. Does that sound like a lot? It might, since you can likely get a postcard with a similar image for a dollar or two. But consider what went into the creation of this particular painting:

  • Travel to Olympic National Park for inspiration and reference photos
  • Purchasing supplies
  • Preparing the birch panel (sanding, plus two coats of sealer to prevent “support-induced-discoloration” which is when impurities in the panel slowly turn your painting yellow over time, more sanding, plus a coat of gesso)
  • Choosing a reference photo
  • Making thumbnail sketches (rearranging things from the photo to create an effective composition)
  • Drawing onto the panel
  • Finally, painting!

The last four steps might be considered “creating the painting” and those took me about 2.5 hours.


Getting there…

Then there is the training and study I have done to this point – like any professional – time and money spent on books, online courses, DVDs and workshops. And there are fees and time spent on maintaining an Etsy shop, a website, this blog, and Instagram.

Maybe people are reluctant to spend on original art because they think artists don’t really deserve to get paid for something they enjoy, something that “must be so relaxing”. (And isn’t that unfortunate – the perception that our pay should be contingent on how much we dislike our work?)

Painting is many things from fascinating to frustrating, but for me it is generally not relaxing.

It’s more like a rollercoaster – This painting is going to be so fun! Then… aargh, how do I mix that colour? What colour IS it? It’s grey – but is it a warm grey or a cool grey? I’ll add a little yellow – nope, ok, some red… Oops, I dropped my brush right into the paint – guess I must be tired since it is 11 pm and I worked all day! Never mind, deep breath, put on some music – oh! Lovely – that pink underpainting really adds some nice warmth to the sky!

I hope this post sheds some light on why original art is priced the way it is, and if you are an artist, I hope this helps you explain to others why you deserve a fair price for your work!

Painting an Apple in Gouache


Lately I’ve been trying to find the perfect medium for painting outdoors. Watercolour is convenient, but it is particular – it’s hard to cover your mistakes and easy to be too tentative.

Oil paint is lovely, buttery and vibrant, but it is messy to travel with, and it takes so long to dry that it is impractical for overnight hiking trips.


So I’ve been experimenting with gouache. Specifically Holbein Acryla Gouache, in a tin that used to hold magnetic poetry. I’ve got a Masterson Sta-Wet sponge and paper in there that I’ve cut to size – these keep the gouache from drying out. I’ve taped a 4″ x 4″ gessoed birch panel into the lid for painting on.

With my design sketched out, I’m ready to start painting!


And… it worked! You can wipe off the palette paper as you work, with a damp paper towel, and mix new colours right on top. Gouache will take some getting used to, but I think it will be worth the effort. It’s a great practice medium – I can be ready to work in minutes. The main thing I’ll do differently next time is start on a toned board, instead of the glaring white – I see more of these in my future!