Figurative Watercolor Sketching

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a watercolor painting in an open sketchbook of a girl in partial sunshine in a room with books behind her
Morning Musing – Watercolor sketching in a moleskine watercolor sketchbook

Figurative Watercolor Sketching – Redirect your Focus

I live 15 miles from the Hill and Woolsey Fires burning now in southern California.

After our experience with high wind a year ago during the Thomas Fire, I’m not comforted by the miles. I’m scanning Fire Department tweets, social media posts from friends forced to evacuate, and two more days of Red Flag Wind warnings. And I’m looking out the window over and over again.

Should the wind shift, we know what to do. We can be out of here in 10 minutes, disgruntled cat and all. And since there is nothing we can do to control the direction of the fires, this is a lesson in frustrating, fearful, out-of-our-hands WAITING.

Given the potential for depressing feelings and worry for friends who *are* in the line of fire and already evacuated, what we do have control over is ourselves, right?

Pace the room, watch the smoke, listen to the news – or do something more conducive to calming frazzled nerves? Pass the art supplies, and bring on some watercolor sketching. #determination

a night time horizon photo of ventura looking south at a mountain range on fire in the distance
The Woosley Fire marching towards the Pacific on Thursday night, fifteen miles away.
a sketchpad with watercolor palette and a rough pencil sketch of a girl on an open page
Pencil sketch in process Thursday night – despite the fires – on a moleskine watercolor sketchbook  on a lap desk.  A perfect distraction from stress.

Busy with Watercolor is Better than Fretful

A few months ago, I posted a mini course to help my friends paint more often.

The first tip in the series of six is to sketch and paint incrementally as a winding-down process at the end of each day.

Thursday night, with the fire cresting the mountains in the night sky (above), I started sketching on a lap desk in my moleskine watercolor paper sketchbook on the couch.

With art, ambient music and a glass of wine, I could see the fire through the windows, but we were ready if we got pinged with a text-alert to evacuate.

I thought it might be hard to focus, but to my surprise, my brain vaulted into drawing. Tension lifted from my neck as the graphite skipped across the paper of my sketchbook. It was glorious, and *such* a great lesson.

We are all in charge of our own wanderings – so would it be best to steer my focus towards the TV and news and social media regurgitating every fire-related possibility? I think Not. ?

Drawing and painting watercolor is like an overstuffed chair, with a cup of tea and a playground under your grandmother’s quilt. As soon as I picked up the pencil – I could breathe easier. And I stayed in that spot, watercolor sketching, for the next 45 minutes, till bedtime.

I did the same thing last night, and the night before. Guess where I’ll be tonight? ??‍?

the artist, seated and gesturing to the viewer to paint more often
Tip #1 in my Six Tips to paint More Often mini-course is exactly how the watercolor sketch above was painted. In bits and pieces.

a plume of gray smoke rising in a blue sky over the city of Thousand Oaks and Malibu
The same view as the night time shot above –  the Woolsey Fire, the next day.

Evacuation Preparedness

[Not art related–>]  If you live in a place where wildfire is a possibility, here are some tips we’ve learned after the Thomas Fire last year:

  • Make an Evacuation Plan Check List and print it (versus keeping it on your phone, in case you lose power and/or cell service). In the moment, when you’ve got twenty minutes to pack and get out of your house, it’s hard to wrangle pets, pack cars and recall that time you thought about this list a year ago.
  • List all the basics you’d need if you couldn’t get back to your house for a week or two: medications, passports, ID cards, phone numbers, hard drives, charging cables and a power strip, pet food, a change of clothes, cash, pillows and blankets or sleeping bags, a towel, a shower kit, etc.
  • If you’re in an area where cell service is sketchy, or your cell provider is in the line of fire (the Spectrum fiber lines here burned, so there was no internet service for many city residents today) change the greeting on your phone to a outgoing message saying you’re okay, and where you’re evacuating to. If you run out of battery, folks calling to check on you will at least know where you are.
  • Put a discreet note in a window near your front door to let firefighters know that you and your pets have evacuated, so they can save time and move on to check the next house.
Landsat 8 view of Coastal California Saturday morning at 10:45am: the Hill Fire and Woolsey Fire, with Santa Ana winds blowing the smoke over the Channel Islands. Not art-related, but part of the week here in southern California.

Go to Your Happy Place with Watercolor Sketching

Folks might scoff at the notion that you can alter a stressful day by directing your thoughts towards something calming. But here’s the deal – studies show that we humans can and should reach for easy remedies to quell anxiety.

Drawing and watercolor sketching incrementally each night can signal a message to the brain. Even if you’ve only got 20 minutes, use a small sketchpad and doodle, or work on figure sketches, or the basic shapes and structure of your next painting.

By the end of the week, you’ve made art for a couple of hours in 30 minute sessions, and your mind is beginning to know that sketching is part of the calming, end-of-day pattern you’ve installed in your routine.

Reducing stress, and increasing art-making time in one fell swoop sounds like an amazing elixir to me. How about you?

Stay Safe out there if you’re near the fires. Thanks for stopping by today, and I’ll see you in the next post –


P.S. You can subscribe if you’re new here, and each post will go straight to your inbox. Sign up (free) here.

Click the kitty to visit this free online mini course – Six Tips to Paint More

Art Quote

The drawing is what the pattern is to the tailor:  if the pattern is no good, all the work done later will come to nothing.

~Vlaho Bukovac

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34 thoughts on “Figurative Watercolor Sketching”

  1. I hadn’t keyed into the fact that you are in that area. Some of my extended family may be fighting those fires. We are keeping everyone, their homes, and their animals in my thoughts and hoping this ends soon. What a scary and chaotic time. Stay safe (and keep making art)!

    1. Hi Cindi, Yes, we are in the melee, but not nearly as bad as the folks up in the Camp Fire. That one is all heartbreak and sadness. I guess it’s all measured by perspective on statistics, but even a single home burned down is a sad event. The state has suffered intense losses via fire these past two years, so we are all holding hands and shoring each other up. XO

  2. Harmke Lawrence

    Along with everyone else, thinking about your safety. Fire is more frightening than anything else I know.
    Thank God for art! Stay safe, love your blogs, you are so inspiring!

    1. What a great name you have, Harmke Lawrence! Thank you for your kind understanding and your encouragement of art as a refuge. I’ll be diving into it all weekend. 🙂

  3. Minvielle Francine

    Dear Belinda,
    We lived 10 years in Californie in the seventies. But we returned often and kept many friends. I am horrified about what we watch on TV and check on the progression of the flames.
    But i understand the power of Practicing ART and thank you for your generous advice ! Keep safe !
    Francine Minvielle (France)

    1. Bonjour Francine, Thank you for your kind words and good wishes. The fires in our city are 50% contained, and there is more humidity in the air this weekend, so your good thoughts for your former state are working! And yes, Art is a wonderful cocoon. Thank goodness for that. Have a great week – Belinda

  4. Greetings from the UK, and hoping that you are safe and the fires are soon under control. Makes me thankful for our dull, damp, cloud covered little island – sometimes!

    1. Hi Isobel, I know what you mean… it’s easy to slump and sigh over damp and wet days, but I sure would love a little of that this week out here. Send it on over, and I’ll send you some bright, squinty sunshine in a trade. 🙂 Thanks for your note!

  5. Saw Wayne Thiebaud exhibition at the SF Mom and loved it. Keep bringing positive vibes. I need them

  6. I’m so sorry for all of those whose lives have been devastated by these fires and hope they get under control and don’t move any closer to you. Best wishes.

    1. Thanks, Calare. We are safe now, and the winds are supposed to die down tomorrow night, which we hope and pray will help the firefighters get this fire out. 15% contained so far.

  7. Jeffyn Peterson

    I’ve been wondering about your situation and hoping the best for you; thanks for posting! Stay safe!

    1. Thanks, BJK, In a few weeks, we’ll all be worried about the same rain we’re hoping for, due to the risk of mudslides. In my best Rosanna voice: It’s Always Somethin’!

  8. Donna Thibodeau

    Turning toward art in a time of crisis is the opposite of my reaction. You make a lot of sense. Best wishes to you and your family.

  9. I was born in Santa Monica and have lived in Northern and Southern California for most of my life. Although I am very far in distance, my heart aches to see the loss of life and nature. I’m sending you safe prayers and a thank you for your wonderful advice when we are in times of stress. Bless you, Belinda.

    1. Thank you, Laurelle… it is indeed very sad. So much loss – of property, wildlife, human life, flora and fauna… Let’s hope the wind stops, and the humidity increases like a caped superhero.

    1. Sally, Hahah! I think you have the right to complain about Michigan weather any time you want. Living in a place with extreme shifts in temperature makes you a card-carrying, complaining-is-okay resident. You get to.
      As a Connecticut emigre – I complained every single time I scraped ice from a windshield. Go ahead, yell about it. 🙂

  10. Dear Belinda,
    We in the hurricane ravaged areas of Florida truly feel for you and your neighbors there in the fire prone area of Southern CA. You are so right that making art is soothing for the soul. I hope the fires get under control soon, and that you can escape their fury. Thank you for the encouragements and we hope all the best for you.
    Mary Liz

    1. Hi Mary Liz, Thanks for your good wishes. I know those hurricane woes in Florida, and I have a healthy respect for the hurricane evac signs along the roads and highways. It seems everywhere you live, each region has their own set of potential catastrophes. Here’s to being smart and prepared for whatever mother nature tosses onto our respective maps!

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