Tiny Nomadic Studio

I know I write a lot about the thinking parts of art, but here’s a peek into the nuts and bolts of my practice. If you’re semi-nomadic like me, having a nomadic studio can help a great deal.

Drawing, ideally, is an extremely simple practice when it comes to supplies. Something to mark with and something to mark on are arguably the only supplies one needs. It’s like running is to the fitness world- and some runners argue that you don’t even need shoes. However, when most people begin these practices they discover they do have preferences and particularities in their practice- things they need. For example, I do indeed want shoes to run in! I also want socks, a sports bra, a not-too-bulky shirt, shorts that won’t ride up, SPF 50 sun block, a solid hair-tie and a snug pocket to store my house key and phone in. And this is perhaps the simplest of fitness activities. In the same way, I have preferences for my drawing and other art materials and tools.

As a general rule, art supplies and tools are a combination of figuring out hacks and getting what you pay for. All of these are based on the needs of the individual and what’s affordable. In pre-assembled kits, products are often selected to offer variety or the completeness of a set, and keep cost of the kit down. Or, if the supplies are high quality, the kit is likely to be expensive.

For starters, I don’t mind kits at all. Kits can be a great way to try something out, but usually they’re just the beginning. As an artist develops, materials get used up and replaced, tools get upgraded. Some items in an initial kit may be devoured while others are never unwrapped. This is because they’re designed for a generic artist- which hardly exists, even in the very beginning of one’s creative life. As soon as exploration begins, so does the individuation that results in the uneven usage of kits.

For me, 2018 has been the year of the never ending move. I won’t get into the nitty gritty, but the point is I’ve been in the process of selecting my materials and supplies back down to my own personalized “kit”. Like many artists, I have a lot of stuff. I had to pack up 99% of my studio for the move, but since I knew I’d be in flux long enough to want a little more than just my sketchbook, I’ve assembled a little nomadic studio. Whatever I chose had to include enough stuff to scratch my maker’s-itch and also be nimble enough to bounce from home base to staying with friends and family to camping- and all of these on repeat. I don’t want to compromise on my practice more than necessary, but a stationary studio lies somewhere in the future.

So, what do I want to work with? What scale can I work at? What travels well? What can I pack all my supplies into that won’t be too bulky or crushed during travel? Depending on what I pack it all in- what physically fits? What is sturdy enough not to be damaged or broken? This is an ongoing, puzzle-like process.

Walnut Shells for a project in the works.

Here’s the current inventory-

  • Brushes and a pen in my bamboo brush roll-up. These are ink, watercolor brushes, and a crappy old brush I used for masking fluid.
  • Envelope of extra pen nibs
  • Two ceramic watercolor palette dishes
  • Adorable Windsor & Newton travel kit of pan watercolors
  • Set of Royal Talons Van Gogh watercolors in tubes (supplemented with Windsor & Newton Colman watercolors where mine have dried out)
  • Set of 24 Koh-I-Noor Hardmuth woodless colored pencils
  • Windsor & Newton masking fluid for watercolors
  • Higgins ink in blue, red and black
  • Two empty Talenti sorbetto containers, for water
  • Washcloth to dry brushes with
  • Pad of Strathmore watercolor paper 6”x9”
  • Pad of Strathmore watercolor postcards
  • Pouch of drawing supplies (pencils, Micron pens, china markers, erasers… Maybe my drawing pouch calls for it’s own write up?)
  • Sewing kit I put together out of sewing tools I like that lives inside an eyeglasses case
  • Moleskine accordion sketchbook
  • Staedtler pencil sharpener
  • 14 walnut shells from the barn
  • Two packages of loose tea from a friend
  • Two thin boards, stack of random drawing paper all held together with elastic straps

There are a few items I’d like to draw attention to…

Bamboo Brush Roll-up.

First is the bamboo brush roll-up. This brush roll-up allows for air flow while protecting my brushes- both are important while traveling, there’s not always leisurely drying time and often no chance of stationary storage. I’ve used fabric roll-ups and plastic canisters for brush storage and I always get worried about them trapping moisture or mashing bristles. I think acrylic/oil brushes can handle a little more bristle contact than watercolor and ink brushes, but since watercolor/ink is my primary media, this is my preferred storage. Brushes aren’t cheap, yo! And if you do have cheap brushes that you like, you have to take super care of them because cheap brushes fall apart more quickly!

Second is the Talenti Sorbetto containers. What you need to know first is that Talenti makes excellent gelato and sorbetto, so you should just pick some up for the sheer pleasure of eating it. Or you can call it art supplies acquisition. I’m very picky about water vessels for watercolor painting. I want two of them, at least a pint in volume (hey Talenti, if you want to make a quart sized option… wink wink….), clear and wide at the mouth. One is for rinsing brushes and the other is for loading with clean water. Usually I use glass spaghetti sauce, pickle jars, or canning jars (as a general rule, do not use anything you’d eat or drink out of for this purpose). For my travel kit I wanted to meet these requirements with something plastic that wouldn’t break and had tight fitting lids. Talenti containers hit all of these marks.

Trusty old Staedtler pencil sharpener.

The third item is my Staedtler pencil sharpener. It’s one of those self-contained pencil sharpeners that keeps the shavings stored until you dump them and has ports for both graphite and colored pencils (the difference being the angle of the trim). A friend gave me this pencil sharpener years ago, declaring it to be the BEST PENCIL SHARPENER EVER- and she wasn’t kidding. It quickly sharpens pencils to a tip you could stab someone with and hardly ever breaks the end of a lead off (this happens once in a great while with colored pencils). I don’t know what gives it theses qualities or how it’s lasted so long, but I feel that when a humble pencil sharpener demands that you notice what a good job it’s doing it warrants passing that information on.

The most useless things in my kit are my blue and red Higgins ink. Have I ever used these? How did I get them in the first place? I think they are among those awkward items one can imagine uses for, but the interest in experimenting never quite hits that critical mass point, so they may get packed or given away.

The only items I use often but would like to swap out are my dear little ceramic watercolor/ink palettes. They are very cute and nice to use, but they clack against each other in the basket and aren’t able to save colors for future sessions (yeah, you can let paint dry in them and re-mix it, but I don’t always have time to allow for total drying before I pack up and some of the paints don’t re-mix well). My usual studio palette is plastic with lots of little wells surrounding four larger mixing areas and has a lid that can be used for even more mixing and for saving colors for later (not indefinitely, but for a few sessions). It is way too large to travel with, but if I could find a similar one that fit and would hold up to travel I’d pack up my ceramic palettes.

While I’m on the topic of editing- I should probably get those two little tea pouches out of the basket and put them somewhere more sensical… And swap out my walnut shells for ones I haven’t drawn already…

One thing I’d like to add to the kit would be a little hair dryer. Like a lot of watercolor artists, I struggle with waiting for paint and paper to dry. The really good painters simply wait and talk endearingly about the depth of pigment that develops over the drying process. Most of the rest of us ordinary mortals use a hair dryer. I bet a portable mini-fan would work well enough- although a cordless, rechargeable, mini-hair dryer would be ideal.

It doesn’t have to be super tidy as long as it works.

The whole thing is carried around in a small picnic basket. Picnic baskets have the advantage of being solid enough to protect the contents, maintain an upright orientation and the wooden lid can be used as a wee table on which work. And they’re adorable. So far I’ve been pretty satisfied with my set-up and have been traveling with it and working out of it while home. My hope is that in being forced to work small and with limited materials for a while, I can practice focusing in limited media and also develop ideas on a smaller and lower-stakes scale so I’m ready for more space once the time comes.

12 Failures

I know it’s late March and around this time New Year’s Resolutions are getting dropped, but I wanted to share one of mine that I’m still plugging away at.

First, I’m excited to share my thoughts on New Year’s Resolutions and fresh starts in general. I love New Years. I love cracking open a fresh planner. I love color coding my calendar. I love mapping out the steps to a new me. A better me. A bigger, stronger, faster, smarter me. I. Love. New Years.

I come up with a list of resolutions as long as my arm and sincere as my dog- and my dog is made of rock solid hope and enthusiasm. Thus, I leap into the new year with gusto, tossing my hat jauntily into the grey cold of winter like Mary Tyler Moore, armed with a handful of highlighters and that fresh planner I mentioned earlier.

I know the statistics, and I follow typical patterns of burnout and failure like many people do. I have made my peace with this. My attitude is that if I enjoy the fun of imagining my improved self, where’s the harm in that? And besides, if I drop my resolutions after a few months, that’s a few months of progress I made, right? For an easy and popular example, if I aim for a 90% improvement in my eating habits and achieve only 15%, that’s still a 15% win. And if I embrace the fun of beginning improvements like this, those 15% gains will stack over time. With this attitude- if I may brag a little- I can now do a full on handstand for a few seconds at a time. It’s not the most amazing feat of acrobatics you’ve ever seen, but it is better than my awkward, flailing kick-ups against the wall that I started with last year.

This year I’m taking a different approach, I’m going to try to fail twelve times. I was reading about how John Grisham had his manuscript for the Pelican Brief rejected 64 times (or some crazy, soul-crushing number like that) by publishers before it was finally accepted and he became a famous author. That’s a lot of rejections. I’ve heard these sorts of numbers before and always thought of these sorts of efforts as pretty badass. I value perseverance, but in my life this has often meant perseverance in a defensive way- staying the course on one’s commitments in spite of setbacks and duress. The persistence it takes to have a manuscript rejected 64 times seems much more proactive. Thinking this over has lead to the realization that no one is fighting me in my efforts, and thus my efforts must be proactive in nature in order to succeed.

The thing about being an artist, is that although I feel that art is incredibly valuable to the world, the nature of making that which is not in existence is that no one misses it if it doesn’t happen because they don’t know it’s an option. Another way of saying this is that there’s no awareness of a loss of something that never existed in the first place. No one would ever know they were missing out on the writings of John Grisham had he given up his efforts to publish. In musing on this, maybe it’s time for me to become a little more badass.


The parameters of this exercise are as follows:

  1. Each month I will apply for things. This includes shows, competitions, residencies, commissions, grants, asking to use spaces/times/audiences for workshops (this one is very mindfulness-drawing project specific), etc.
  2. If I get accepted, I can celebrate and then refocus on meeting my rejections goal! I get to participate and get another notch in my working artist belt.
  3. If I get rejected I can celebrate a fresh star on the failure tracker I drew on the front of my planner.


Therefore, as I’m accepted to things, I need to keep applying for things because my highest goal is to fill up that failure tracker. Also, if I get accepted too much, it means I will need to set my sights higher in order to reach my goal. I suppose conversely, if I get rejected too much I can use that information to calibrate my submission efforts.

The goal is to turn rejections into a sense of progress. Although many of these opportunities I’ll be trying for are a zero-sum game (I will either be accepted or not accepted) my artistic life as a whole is not. At the end of 2018, I will have progressed to a certain degree- this is a given because I am always progressing- but whether or not I was able to participate in the larger community will be determined by how much try to participate in it. Another idea I tell myself is that the entities to which I’m applying won’t (usually) know where my own level of confidence about my request is at. My work will or will not be a good fit for the opportunity and I will be selected/not selected on that basis.

So now we’re at the end of March, and I’ve managed to make some progress on getting rejected. I keep tossing my Mary Tyler Moore hat into the air still and looking over residency applications. I have only one rejection tallied on the tracker so far (a residency), and a new piece in a show in Buffalo, NY, and another application in limbo- waiting on acceptance or rejection in the next few weeks. In the meantime, I have work to do.   

Art is Hard, Part 2: Why You Need to Learn to Draw

Art is hard. Learning to make art is hard. It’s very vulnerable and labor intensive. The hard part is there because, aside from the ocean of media options and the technical skills involved, art is not as subjective as many people seem to think.¹ I feel pretty strongly that learning to draw is a crucial foundation in making art. Learning to draw isn’t about making pretty pictures, it’s about learning to Listen accurately.

Sincerity of self expression is powerful, but I think it gets more than its fair share of the glory. The silence framed between notes, the volume of empty air the cathedral stones define, the blank space around poem on the page- that which draws the audience into Listening is what draws the audience into Relationship with art.

Sincerity of Listening is powerful. And I feel that the practice of learning to objectively draw is powerful in learning the skill of deeply Listening.

Let me first explain my capitalization of the word Listen. I’m folding some language together here, so bear with me. One common problem in relationships comes from our inability to listen, really Listen, to people. We can hear them, but Listening is a mind and heart opening act. We do our best to loosen our grip on what we know (or assume) and approach the other with a vulnerability to accept, process, and hopefully understand their reality. This kind of Listening emcompasses a host of complexities beyond the spoken words. And when we understand, we say “I see what you mean”. Ha!

Here’s another way to say it. A friend of mine- Chris Dorman- writes kids songs and has one that goes “When you listen with your ears, you hear. When you listen with your eyes, you see. When you listen with your body, you dance. And when you listen with your heart, you love.” (I cannot find a link to just this song, so if you want to hear it you’ll have to learn about how apple blossoms turn into apples on his new show Mr Chris and Friends) I like this song because it applies the word Listen to that deeper, more holistic, meaningful sensing and knowing the world. Thus, I capitalize Listen because I think its uses extend beyond the sense of hearing.

How does this apply to drawing? Well, one of the hardest aspects of learning how to draw is learning how to draw what you see, not what you think you see. We humans are extremely good at processing visual information, but part of our speed and skill in this is because we’re also very good at developing symbols for things. When we draw, often enough we are drawing symbols. Eyes are football shaped with a dark circle in the middle and curvy lines swooping off the top, hands are circles or squares with lines pointing out from the center, trees are thick rectangles with bumpy round shapes perched on top, you get the picture (ha!).² Learning how to Listen until you see what is actually present and draw it is a skill that must be practiced.

Back to the subjectivity or objectivity of this. I think the lines between subjective and objective are somewhat of a false dichotomy while at the same time being useful concepts. Representing something with as much accuracy as possible so that another viewer understands what’s being represented can be measured against the informal democratic agreement of what reality looks like, and for our purposes, this is a good objective measure. Can I tell in your drawing if fur is soft, glass is transparent or the sun is shining through a window and not the floor? Yes? Then good job, objectively speaking. You have done a good job sincerely Listening.

But, of course, it is your unique lens through which you translated it and that is subjective. We can’t escape our subjectivity, but we can try to Listen with sincerity- practice and hone that skill of Listening. After all, what good is your unique lens on the world if you don’t bother to clean it? To grind it and polish it? To focus it and make sure the image is true to your eye? What do you offer your audience if not a relationship founded on sincere Listening? Do you see what I mean?

¹Caveat, people can do whatever the hell they want. I’m not going to bother splitting the “what is art?” hair or the “art versus craft” hair.¹* This is about my experience.¹**

¹*Anyone who knows me knows I cannot actually help myself and I am always splitting the “craft versus art” hair and the “what is art?”¹*** hair. The thing is, I honestly get annoyed at myself from this constant looping and this annoyance leads to the assertion that “people can do whatever the hell they want.”

¹**“Art is not as subjective as you think, as I’ll clearly explain via my subjective experience,” said Ruby, the Lewis Carol character.

¹***I’m much better at explaining why things are art then why they are not art.

²Apply this metaphorically to language- especially language used in your key relationships- and you’ll see symbols emerge here too. Have fun with that (she says with both sarcasm and sincerity).

Art is Hard, Part 1: Art Lesson from a Fictional Bear

When I was going through my foundational program at GVSU, I tried to get home to my family on the weekends. It was a long drive, but it was comforting to retreat back to my folks house. I have siblings from my father’s re-marriage- a brother and a sister- who are much younger than me.

Having significantly younger siblings, I had a pretty developed nurturing sense and the self-secondizing that goes along with it. Sure, I was struggling with those questions of self-identity and learning to make my way in the world, as well as trying to figure out cooking for myself* that comes along with being in one’s early twenties and living outside the house for the first time, but they were struggling with being daily affronted with new foods, learning to read or trying to remember the litany of rules for putting one’s clothes on correctly: rightside out, not backwards, why isn’t it okay to live both one’s public and private life in their underwear?… Those sorts of things. Whether it was altruistic of me to patiently let these concerns be the center of my parents attentional gravity, or it was just easier to stuff my own struggles and existential questions- rightside out, not backwards, why isn’t it okay to lives one’s public and private life in their underwear?- underneath them in the stack of things to do, I don’t know.

Robin (who still struggles with clothing conventions, but more philosophically these days) could always tell if I was having a hard time. Even more surprising, this child seemed to know how to soothe me. He was making a lot of “comic books” at the time and he made one for me on one of these visits home.

It featured a little bear who was trying to paint a picture. She worked very hard but it wasn’t turning out. At one point the bear cries tears of frustration over the struggle, but she bravely persists in her efforts. Eventually the bear triumphs and happily proclaims it to be beautiful. In the tale of this little bear, I saw reflected my long hours bent over a project, fighting through the tears of doubt, blindly groping towards the sublime.

It’s a common enough story- a hero’s journey in miniature- but in that way stories are more precious when they’re personal, my brother had listened to the spaces between my words and actions and drawn this story out. This small allegory had been distilled for me. My brother could see my struggles perched on my shoulders every time I tried to shake them and come home. I also knew he could also see my belief in the light at the end of the tunnel, the faith that satisfaction would be found upon accomplishing the beautiful. That feeling of being seen is a powerful feeling, even (or perhaps especially) coming from an eight year old, and it propped me up. My brother had learned from watching me that art is hard and art is worth it. I had learned this same lesson back from him in the tale of this bear who persists through her tears in search of the sublime.

*Insight for those of you hard on young people who don’t know how to cook- if their family taught them how to cook, they probably taught them how to cook *for that whole family* which is different from cooking for *just one’s self*. For years I could not manage to cook for less than six people at a time, which meant food was constantly going bad in my fridge, which led to eating the chips and dip for dinner people laugh at college students for.