Let me make a wild guess: I bet you don’t think much of your artistic ability. You’re not alone! I can’t figure out perspective, don’t know how to mix watercolors, and I’m often not thrilled with the finished painting.
Yet playing with watercolors in my sketchbook has become one of my favorite traveling activities. If a klutz like me can learn to love it — when I don’t have a clue what I’m doing — anyone can. Here are 14 ways I’ve found to develop my watercolor practice wherever I am. I’ll focus especially on watercolor, but many of these ideas apply to other media as well.
1. Create A Dedicated Space At Home
Although I’ve dabbled in different art forms off and on for years, what made all the difference was when my husband Barry built me a separate art space in our Eureka, California, apartment last August as a birthday present. My “studio” is as basic as you can get — a sheet of plywood attached to two walls overlooking a small side window. But it works. Later in the year, when we arrived at our winter home in Guanajuato, Mexico, he did the same thing.
Not having to mess with getting my supplies out and putting them away again has been transformative, and I now use my watercolors every day. The habit of doing art at home means it has become a habit when I travel, and I practice watercolor wherever we go.
2. Buy A Limited, Portable Set Of Supplies
Every book or website I read promises to keep the list of required supplies simple — but never delivers. For years I was intimidated by all the “necessary” items I was supposed to buy, with all their technical labels. Frankly, I don’t know if the pages in my sketchbook are cold or hot press, and I don’t worry about it. Maybe at some point it will matter, but right now I’m just happy painting on paper and creating images. All the subtleties can wait.
- A multimedia, portable sketchbook
- A set of watercolors. I’ve been very happy with my Prang set.
- A waterproof pen, so ink doesn’t spread. I have Micron #7 and #8 pens.
- An HB, a 2B, and a charcoal pencil, which provides a dark, rich texture.
- A paper stump, which is a cigarette-shaped drawing tool used to blend, smear, or smudge.
- An eraser
- A pencil sharpener
- A small plastic dish for water
- Tissue paper, to dilute mistakes while still wet
3. Copy Shamelessly
Throughout history, artists have copied the masters. It’s not illegal to borrow from others as long as you don’t claim ownership or make a profit. If you’re worried about the ethics, I suggest: a.) adapting, rather than copying; and b.) following a range of artists, not just one.
I keep a list of artists whose work I admire. They each inspire me in different ways: some for their use of color, others for their whimsy, and others for how they arrange images on the page. I study, imitate, and adapt, and somehow in that organic process of composting, my own style has begun to emerge.
4. Forage The Internet
You can find simple images of anything to guide you. Yesterday, for example, I searched for “draw simple cat,” and came up with 30 or more images, one of which I adapted and added to a painting. I do the same with other images, such as arches, bridges, doorways, windows, staircases, etc. With any search, I’ll find an abundance of free YouTube videos and tutorials.
5. Start With A Simple, Loose Sketch Of An Object
I recommend placing the object anywhere on the page except the center. Asymmetry is more interesting than symmetry. And an image doesn’t have to be perfectly aligned; in fact, sometimes it’s more visually arresting if it isn’t.
Artists say that drawing is about learning to see, which I’m sure is true, but in my experience, you don’t have to draw literally, you can improvise. Recently, when an architect friend visited us in Guanajuato, I watched enviously as Rebecca recreated in her sketchbook the dome of the baroque Templo de San Francisco opposite our house. I don’t have that skill. But she pointed out that my casual approach had advantages, too. It reminded her that she didn’t have to draw what was in front of her, she could make things up.
6. Consider Adding Zentangles To A Page
Created in 2004, “tangles” are miniature abstract images in pen and pencil, using dots, lines, curves, and circles to create patterns of beauty and order. Many of these forms — sometimes called “sacred geometry” — are easy to create, and add a fun, playful dimension to the page. You can find hundreds of Zentangle-inspired patterns online or entire books on the subject at your public library. My paintings often include one or two tangles.
7. Cut Up A Few Shapes
Cut up a few shapes on cardstock to use as starter templates, like a circle, half circle, square, diamond, heart, stars, and moon.
8. Decide What Else You Want On The Page
After you draw an image, what then? You can include more images, shapes, tangles, handwriting, journal notes, and letterforms — a term used in calligraphy to refer to a letter’s shape. Things don’t have to fit logically together or make sense.
Or maybe add nothing. A lesson I keep learning is that it’s OK to leave parts of the page unfilled. Sometimes my paintings end up being more crowded than I like — maybe an example of what Mario Praz, an Italian art and literary critic, calls horror vacui (Latin for “fear of emptiness”).
9. Take All The Time You Need
In theory, I like to leave a painting in the middle and come back to it afresh. This is especially helpful when I’ve finished painting one part of a page and am not sure what to add.
But I’m a person who likes closure, and sometimes I feel an urge to finish a painting in one sitting — not always helpful! Recently, for example, I painted a clothesline attached to a tree. After I added other elements, I realized one end of the clothesline was hanging midair. Feeling a need to fix the problem, I impulsively painted a hill behind the clothesline to obscure the untethered end. Alas, the hill didn’t do the job. I was left with just a dull brownish hue!
Art offers many life lessons — in this case, patience. When I’m able to relax, trust, and not rush, I often approach the painting with a clearer perspective.
10. Create A Border Around Your Painting And Date It
This is a trick I learned from a nature journaling class I took from the artist Jan Blencowe. A simple border has a surprising effect — it makes the painting suddenly look more finished and authoritative!
11. Keep Your Sketches
I don’t have many rules, but one I follow faithfully is that I never tear out a page and throw it away. For better or worse, all my paintings are part of my journey and have something to teach me.
12. Use All Your Paint
I hate waste! When I have extra paint on my brush, I dab it on the next page, where I’ll marble the colors into the following painting. Leftover color on a virgin page has another benefit — it reduces the likelihood of “artist’s block,” or fear of a blank page. Another version of horror vacui.
13. Sketch Anywhere
Right now I’m sitting on the terrace of our hotel in Alamos, Mexico, surrounded by tables and chairs and listening to a blues singer through the hotel speakers. I like having a surface, so I usually paint somewhere with a table.
Rebecca sat on our terrace, painting the dome of the church on her lap. Later she sketched the 133 steps of the University of Guanajuato from a perch opposite. Of course, if you sketch in public, passers-by may stop and stare, which could be intrusive or a welcome icebreaker, depending on your point of view.
14. When Traveling, Use A Sketchbook As Downtime
Travel can be very intense, with all the unrelenting new stimuli and sights. I find the external experience of traveling is beautifully balanced by the internal experience of creating art in a sketchbook, the perfect vehicle for absorbing the day’s stimuli.
Using a sketchbook is not exactly a meditation. The mind is still making decisions (“shall I use a blue or green here?”). But problems on the page feel very different from those elsewhere in life — much more tangible and concrete.
Lately, as I’ve been drifting off to sleep, one of my watercolors will come to mind. Last night, I imagined myself laying my cheek against the yellow tree I had just painted. I fell asleep feeling the slightly rough texture of the sketchbook page against my skin. Such a strange, dreamlike image.
But maybe not so strange. As my imagination revealed, interacting with color is a physically intimate experience, one which brings deep, sensual joy.