I learned to embrace the irregularities and appreciate the end result. Perhaps I need to do more of that in my writing. Ignore the wiggles and blips and just let the words come. Sort it out with color later.
It’s been a dry year for writing. After steadily plugging away on my book for over four years, I came to an abrupt halt. At first, I put it down to my usual summer slow-down, the season when I prioritize family, cabin, friends and the outdoors over sitting in front of a laptop. But I failed to get re-energized all through the fall and winter and felt lost, drifting without that goal and sense of productivity. I had to do something.
It was a writing friend who pointed me down a new path. I’ve always had an interest in sketching and was intrigued when I saw a distant cousin doing “journal sketching” years ago. The idea stuck with me, so when my friend recommended Jane LaFazio’s online class Sketching and Watercolor: Journal Style I took the plunge.
The class included six lessons, one released every week for the students to work on independently. I ordered her list of supplies and waited eagerly to begin.
Week 1: Fruit. I watched her video, read all the instructions, and looked at her examples. Could I really do this? Setting pencil to paper, I took a deep breath and began to follow the outline of the fruit in front of me. This was a rough draft, after all, and I could always hit delete and rewrite it.
Pulling out my permanent ink pen, I traced my pencil lines. There was no going back here, each stroke of the pen was a final statement – a sentence I could no longer change. But it went surprisingly well and I forged on.
The final step was all new territory to me. I opened up my new set of inexpensive watercolors and stared at them. Now I had to mix colors, blend shades and capture the nuances of light and color. I still have a lot to learn about writing scenes, and this felt the same way. I needed to make this come to life, now with water and paint. With Jane’s reassuring voice in my head, I applied my brush strokes as best I could.
For the journaling aspect, Jane encouraged us to frame our paintings, to add words and context to the composition, and to sign and date it. She was right, it added the polish my timid start needed, the final edit to complete the story.
Now it was time to share my work. The final step was to post my painting on our class discussion page with a note about the experience. Just like reading my stories aloud in writing workshops and hearing others read, this became a valuable learning experience. We all opened ourselves to exposure, gave feedback and encouraged one another on this journey.
Week 2: Leaves. Who knew there were so many colors of green in the plants around us? Jane taught us to mix colors, to layer them on the paper and reveal the veins in the leaves. I reveled in the new techniques, but lacked material in our bleak Northland spring that had not yet sprung. Just as story and plot have evaded me as a writer, I had to get creative and find alternate ways to express myself. This time, foraging in the refrigerator and a tub of spring greens I found inspiration.
I liked these small compositions. I was not overwhelmed by a large expanse of white paper, and a complex layout. They were a manageable size, something that could be accomplished in one or two sittings. Just as the magazine stories I have continued to write this year while my book lays fallow. Short projects that were contained and manageable.
Week 3: Straight to Ink. Now this was a scary concept, drawing with no safety net. Committing immediately with no recourse. Sort of like those writing prompts I’ve done in classes. Write about the color Red for five minutes. Don’t look back, just keep writing.
I found that this technique forced me to keep my eyes on the subject more, and trust my hand to follow its outline. The longer I kept at it, the bolder I became. I learned to embrace the irregularities and appreciate the end result. Perhaps I need to do more of that in my writing. Ignore the wiggles and blips and just let the words come. Sort it out with color later.
Week 4: Flowers. I was learning to like sketching and painting nature. It’s very forgiving in its irregularities and loose symmetry. But my grocery story bouquet contained some brilliantly colored blooms, impossible to replicate with my student paints.
I queried Jane. “How do I make hot pink?”
Her reply, “You can’t. You need specific colors like Opera Pink to get it.”
Clearly my toolkit was lacking, so I researched the more professional paints she had recommended for those willing to pay the price, and pressed Order.
Perhaps this was like hiring a writing coach. When I found myself unable to navigate the divide between writing short magazine stories and the manuscript for a book, I sought to increase my toolkit. She guided me through exercises to grow my skills, to learn new techniques and put me on a course to continue working on my own.
Week 5: Shoes. I found great fun and inspiration in the shoes my fellow students chose, and how they rendered them with ink and watercolor. Students ranged from novices like me to those with obvious artistic talent, and I learned from every one of them.
Clearly this was why my writing coach instructed me to read every book in my genre that I could get my hands on. I learned what worked and what didn’t. What made me want to keep reading, and what caused me to quit reading some books.
I dove into my own closet first, then succumbed to the cuteness factor of my grandchildren’s footwear. Sometimes it’s the subject matter itself that makes a creation shine, whether it’s in print or paint.
Week 6: Man Made Objects. This lesson incorporated techniques for drawing to scale, maintaining symmetry and the artistic license in choosing what details to leave in or exclude. I stumbled on a bottle of Amaretto in the pantry. It contained plenty of challenges for getting the proportions right, and I worked through Jane’s methods to complete my drawing. But the thought of replicating the bumpy texture of the bottle and the shiny glass was daunting, so I set it aside. When I completed painting a kettle and teacup, that first drawing taunted me, daring me to complete it. I accepted the challenge.
Sometimes stories don’t go well. Chapters just won’t work. I’ve found that if I leave them alone for a while, rather than using blunt force to push through them, the answer becomes more clear. Or my confidence surges. And the end result is greatly enhanced. So it was for my Amaretto.
I have completed my class, but not my painting. I have a lot of practicing to do, especially mastering those finicky watercolors. I found that I look forward to these art projects, and they can absorb a whole morning or afternoon just as writing did in the past.
I went into this new venture hoping to stimulate my creativity, to open that side of my brain hoping it would spur on my writing as well. If I had my way, I would marry the two. Use my ink and color to illustrate my words. But I’m not there yet.
The biggest hurdle with my book is that I cannot see the true thread, feel the message I am meant to be sending, the audience I seek to serve. Learning to draw and paint hasn’t solved that for me, but clearly it has taught me many transferrable lessons. So for now, I will continue my new art and wait for the words to come.
Molly Brewer Hoeg returned to her hometown of Duluth in retirement to resume her love affair with the Big Lake. She writes for regional and national magazines, favoring stories connected to her passion for active outdoor pursuits. She has a book in progress about the months spent bicycle touring with her husband, which she calls her “forever project.” You can follow her adventures on her blog, SuperiorFootprints.org.