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Creative Process


Creative Play

It is always so inspiring when I get to step out of the studio and work in the field with sketchbook in hand. My most recent painting trip was in France.


My goal was to gather ideas for a book I am just starting that is set in France, but even more importantly, to take some time away from the intense studio work and create an atmosphere of creative play and exploration. I want to see and record as much as I can when I am working in a sketchbook. But I also want to stretch myself as an artist, try new methods, experiment with new surfaces, tackle paintings I would never do in the studio, basically just climb out on a limb and PAINT. On this trip I painted in gardens and on street corners, I painted rooftops and sculptures, I even painted self portraits of myself because I wanted to record how happy I was while exploring. I worked in ink and watercolor, fountain pen and pencil. I had fun collecting bags from Paris shops and experimented with watercolor on toned surfaces. The warm brown paper bags made a wonderful surface to bounce the blue skies and dazzling light of Paris. Sketch trips are always a wonderful time to really push yourself to see new things and play with ideas on how to capture them in paint. I always feel thankful after painting trips and even a little reluctant to give up the freedom I find in the field as apposed to the studio. But journeys with sketchbooks always recharge me and fuel my ideas for stories. They make the work I create in the studio all the more meaningful because the work was started during such joyful adventures.

Here are a few of the sketches from this last trip.

Amboise 2015

Amboise, France

Amboise, France

Amboise, France

Amboise, France

Amboise, France

Degas bather, Musee d'Orsay

Degas bather, Musee d'Orsay

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Creating is such a leap of faith for me. Today I'm channeling all the art totems and spirits I hold close as I forge deeper into a project that is scary, thrilling and exquisitely exciting. Not ready to post sketches of it.... but soon.




I spent Easter Sunday looking through old sketchbooks, dreaming about new ideas from old thoughts. I love sketchbooks – they have the ability to keep ideas and memories alive. I also find when creating them, I'm much braver while on an adventure than in my studio, to try different things. My journal is a place where I explore, and do a little re-inventing. Sometimes things just sit between the pages of a sketchbook forever, but occasionally they leap out a decade later and prompt a new story or direction in my work.

Here's an example of a painting I probably would never create in the studio, but it was just a moment of joy captured within the pages of my Paris journal. I passed this little dog each morning on my walk into the city. I thought he had both panache and whimsy so I played with a brightly colored sketch on the back of a little blue paper bag that held a scarf I had just purchased. It's fun to try new things.

Paris Puppy


In the Path of Those who Came Before

Painting and drawing intensify life for me. Last spring Dave and I traveled to Paris to sketch and savor art in the museums. I expected to be moved by the paintings of my favorites, Vulliard and Bonnard, and so many other great painters. But then we found ourselves in the path of treasures that moved us in ways we didn’t expect. In the Louvre, we found ourselves gawking at ancient ceramics turned from clay, and small glass vessels fired from sand. The craftsmanship of the ancient artisans combined with time had built a richness into the patinas that no modern craftsman can replicate. Iridescent blues, greens and golds reflected back at us as we moved slowly around each tiny sculpture and vessel.

Ancient glass vase from Iran

Painting in the Louvre with watercolors is not allowed, but I couldn’t resist. I had to pull out my paints and sketchbook. How could the guards say no when one is in the midst of such delight. I think my enthusiasm was contagious because soon a flock of kids gathered around as I tried to capture thousands of years of beauty onto the slender leaves of my sketchbook. Some of the kids were in giggles as I sat with as many as 4 paintings at a time precariously balanced on my lap, waiting for each puddle of watercolor to dry while diving into another. Soon kids from all over the world, who spoke different languages, surrounded me. We laughed together as they played lookout for guards, and held my paints, and even teased me for having too many paintings going at once. And then we shared my discovering of some small detail of a carving or glaze and got caught up in it all and urged me to start another sketch. The guards discovered us of course, but just shook their heads and smiled. How grateful I was they didn’t interrupt.

A close up of a ceramic plate

Inspired from Egyptian carving

The attempts to capture the iridescence of ancient glass or ceramic glaze on paper always falls short of course, but the act of trying has a way of solidifying it in one’s imagination and memory far deeper than a photo or passing glance would. And most of all, to take part in creating, that’s the best thing to come of it. These pieces sculpted by an artisan long gone, his or her name lost to time - we are separated by thousands of years, but their art and life fuels mine. How fortunate we are when we take the time to soak in beauty created by artists who came before.

A close up of glazes from an Iranian ceramic


Home and Studio: A Creative Space

I finally did it - I decided at long last to check out pinterest a few weeks ago and I have to say, I like it. It's a great way for artists to store reference and show creations. And even better, a place to discover the work of other artists. So I just thought I'd mention it here today. I just created a new board (here's my pinterest link) sharing some images of my home and studio and how I set about creating a space in which I find inspiration to work and live. I'm a novice at this new pinterest platform, but finding it fun.

Working from a studio connected to home presents both challenges and luxuries. The down side is that escaping work can be difficult, it's so easy to sneak into the studio at all hours of day and night and feel the pressing need to work on projects in progress. But it's also a luxury to go to work simply by trotting down the hall with your favorite birdie and puddy cat as companions. It means having a lot of discipline and focus to maintain sane hours, but I really love it and feel fortune to have worked from home most of my adult life. But I didn't always have such surroundings in which to paint. I spent years working on kitchen tables of cramped homes, painting in poorly lit spare bedrooms, or in the middle of living rooms. Our early house was cluttered with paintings, frames, easels, crates, panels, and the smell of wet oil paint stifled the air. The scent of baking bread never had a chance over turpentine. Now I'm spoiled, I have a spacious studio filled with light and beauty (and I dropped the toxic oil paints for the lovely soft scent of watercolors). I saved for years for this studio, feeling in my heart that creating a space to work in was an important part of the act of creating. And not just the space became meaningful, but all the totems and art objects that fill our home and studio. Today, as I start a board on pinterest that'll focus on the home and studio, I'll share a few photos of where I work and the art totems it holds.

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The beginning stage of creating a book is such a delightful time for me. Lots of unanswered questions of course, and yes, many doubts, but it's also the high octane exciting time of creating. Knowing which idea, from hundreds that occur to the one that becomes the main focus of a year's work, can be a bit of a mystery as well.

Some of my books have come from true life events that I wanted to record, or consider more deeply, or share with others. More and more my stories are completely fictional, growing out of my own imagination. But these still have true life experiences and emotions that rest close to the surface. I find for me the most important thing that allows me to "notice" or "grow" a story is just to be open to the beauty around me. To do this I carry a sketchbook just about everywhere, recording life through drawings and writing. I try never to judge the work when writing in a journal, just record. More often than not, I'm so completely overwhelmed by the beauty of the thing I'm recording, there's no time to judge. Later is the time for thoughtful contemplation and a "going over" of these ideas. That’s when the "one" rises to the top and becomes a full fledged story.

Notre Dame, Paris

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Done, but not quite

I was very excited this Thanksgiving when I finished ALL the final art for the book – GOOD MORNING TO ME - that I've been working on this past year. It features my beloved parrot, Beatrix, and kitty. I started it last Thanksgiving. I spent a quiet morning in my studio packing up each painting, wrapping them in paper and sealing them up safe and tight in layers of cardboard to be shipped off to my lovely editor and art director, all the while dreaming of the feast I would make for my husband later that day, and thinking how we would kick back and savor the feeling of finishing another story. So then why the weird feeling when I tried to kick back that night? And why the next morning the desire to open up the package?

Ah done… but not quite.

I poured everything into this story. I scrutinized every sketch and revised countless times over the past months. I did color study after color study and painted up a storm to finish this book. The first few hours I chalked it up to that age old feeling that it's really hard to let go of a project after a year of work. But by mid afternoon, I knew it wasn't just that feeling--there was more to do. I ripped open the package and spread the paintings out one last time. Then I had to break it to my husband that I needed to revise and keep painting through the weekend. He's always awesome about this kind of thing and knew the regret of not pursuing this idea outweighed the lost weekend.

Students of writing and illustration always ask me, "when do you know when something is finished?" I think with creative pursuits you can never really know. One always looks at a work and thinks I wish I had done that or this differently. And sometimes in the pursuit of perfection we go sailing past the point of DONE and venture into over-baked, over-thought and over-worked. It's heartbreaking at times to know you've gotten to that point. But I want to strive to the point where there are no regrets. That you don't get to the end and wished you had tried one more thing. And so I'm painting away on these last few spreads and my heart is already telling me they're an improvement.

I was asked today to teach at a writers conference later this spring. Unfortunately it conflicts with my schedule and I can't, but it inspired me to want to share one little kernel of something I've learned working on these stories. Students often share paintings and dummies of picture books with me and ask if I think they're finished. No one can tell us this except our own hearts. Characters and stories grow up very slowly for me. Layer upon layer of understanding comes to me as I sketch and re-sketch and paint and repaint. I have friends who work much faster and I envy them that. But then again, I love the fact that I have so many happy hours with my characters as I create them. They are good company!


Traveling and Sketching On-Location

I'm always curious about the creative process of other artists. New ideas brought forth by others constantly fuel my own endeavors. And so it seems only fair that I share my own process through my blog and videos. This latest short video shares the artistic experiences I've gained through traveling and sketching on location.


Climbing back into creativity, and into yourself

I used to paint practically nonstop, partly because I love it so much, and partly because I’ve always felt that momentum is what keeps painter’s block or writer’s block away. If you just keep doing the creativity keeps flowing. But because of a health condition I now have, I face frequent time outs where I have to undergo medical treatments that leave me unable to work. The hardest thing about this is the loss of creative flow for me. The medication is difficult, but it’s having to get back into things on the other side that always seems daunting. I face so much lost time that I often put too much pressure on myself to get productive immediately after the side effects of the drugs wear off and I’m physically able to work. But I find creatively, I’m in a different place than I was before. So I’m trying to develop ways to help me connect to where I was when I left off, and basically just to get the wheels turning again.

One of the things I find really helpful is to begin without expectation of making a complete painting. Instead I just give myself the time to play around, do little miniatures. It’s a time to revisit old friends (characters I’ve already completed for a book that I’m comfortable with) and it’s a time to do something really out of my norm and play -- no expectations for the results. At first this was scary, and I wasn’t very good at it, but now I embrace this time, and admit I’m even eager to have my day of play, painting without pressure. I think it could be a process to help anyone who is in the midst of a busy life and may need to just sink back into a creative time but is facing the challenges of starting up again. Here are two little paintings (4x4”) I did after my last treatment to get things going. It really helped me sink back into the creative zone.




Creating BIRD TALK

Creating BIRD TALK was the culmination of a life-long passion for watching and drawing birds.


From an early age I was exposed to birds in an intense way. My grandparents were ornithologists (scientists who studied birds) and lived in an old farmhouse filled with a menagerie of owls, hawks, and eagles. We studied hawks on the marsh in the early mornings and raised a variety of orphaned or injured birds. Some grew strong and were released back to the wild. Others stayed for a lifetime. One bird in particular was a favorite of my grandmother's, who worked for years to breed endangered golden eagles in captivity. Each spring the eagle called sharply, and my grandmother responded by bringing sticks. Then together they built a nest. She observed her eagle so carefully; she could practically talk to it. I grew up watching this intimate relationship between ornithologist and bird, and developed a huge respect for how complex and diverse bird communication skills are.

As my grandparents worked on their research with birds of prey, I found my own area of interest. I recorded songbirds in the mornings before school so I could learn to identify them by their calls. At night, I lay in bed and listened to the screeching of rescued barn owlet, who liked to roost on the top of my grandmother’s refrigerator. One summer, when a storm took a tree snag down, I rescued several baby starlings that were nested in its trunk. I kept one of them and was tickled when it soon began to mimic the calls of my parakeet.

My parents were wildlife photographers and we watched many birds in the wild as well. In the spring before dawn, we hiked the high desert and listened to Sage Grouse boom. Their ritual performance made me laugh—I thought their puffed up chests and inflated air sacs looked like hard-boiled eggs.

But my favorite memory was canoeing alongside Western Grebes as they danced on water for their annual spring mating ritual.

As an adult I sketched the birds I watched and noted their calls and behaviors, piecing together what those calls meant. I read everything I could find about how and why birds communicate. And I wanted to create a book that explored this fascinating topic for young readers. With the illustrations for Bird Talk, I wanted to create a visual record of the exquisite forms of bird communication. What fascinates me most about bird communications isn’t just how they sing, but how they dance, strut, boom, and bob to make their meanings clear. The most rewarding part of creating Bird Talk was capturing these bird gestures with loose sketches and light color washes. What a joyful journey it’s been to grow that quiet kid who got up two hours early to watch and draw birds before school, to writing and illustrating a book about them.