Layering Colors

It was my first night in colored pencil class. This sounds a bit like coloring class for grown-ups. The lesson was drawing an apple. As I looked at the apple in front of me, I noticed it was irregular and had an interesting stem–and that made for a great outline drawing.

The lesson was to apply color from light to dark, so the first step was to cover the inside of the drawing with a nicely applied layer of cream. You dont’ want a lot of white spots on the paper. A layer of a light color modifies the image nicely.

red appleAs I applied layer after layer, it occurred to me how complicated the outside of an apple is. And how easy it is to make the apple look three -dimensional with the addition of a darker color. And how the highlight, where the ceiling light shines off the peel, is not really white, but reflective.

While I sat an applied color, I learned that a wash of yellow over the curve in the front brightens the entire image. That using the opposite of the red color of the apple–green–makes the shadows look deeper. That another layer of color can change the color entirely.

And I smiled because this sounded more like a life lesson than an art lesson. That steadily applying a cheerful face to life makes you more cheerful. That knowing the opposites in life–happiness and sorrow, failure and success, patience and impetuousness–adds richness to the texture of life. And that adding another perspective can change your outlook. Not only that, but that a lot of work and a willingness to keep layering color makes for a better depth of experience.

When I was done, I had used 15 colors on the apple. It had taken two hours. And I know that if I show it to someone, they’ll shrug and say, “Well, what will you DO with that? Can you sell it?” And I’ll smile and say, “It’s art,” and think, “Just like life.”

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at  Apple drawing by Quinn McDonald. (c) 2008 All rights reservd.

Why Keep a Visual Journal?

I’ve kept a written journal for years. I’ve done morning pages, evening pages, no pages. So why start a visual journal? Because a visual journal helps you keep memories more clearly than just a written journal. And you don’t need to be a visual artist, either.

My journal entries often take up a lot of space describing something well enough so I can remember it. In other words, I write a lot to create a picture in my head. So I thought I’d try going directly to the source, and draw the thing I want to remember. This helps me be more observant. About color. About shadows. About shape. About what was really important–was it a linked memory, an emotion, a new idea?

radish bunchSince it’s my journal, and I don’t intend on exhibiting it or turning it into a movie, how well my drawing resemble the object I’m trying to draw it not as important as capturing a memory.

Sometimes I give myself a time limit. It helps to see what I need to see and not spend a lot of time on too many details. I’m trying to catch an idea, not a plot line.

A visual journal helps you be more aware.
A visual journal allows you to see colors more vividly.
Texture comes alive in a journal, and you can use words to compare what you see now to something else. The radish leaves are slightly fuzzy and gritty with sand. I’d never given it much thought.

Your images help you accept your level of art ability, particularly if you give yourself deadlines to prevent overworking an image. In this case, I also tested some of the reds on the same page, so I could layer some colors and get the radish right. Next time, I’ll write the color underneath, so I can use the journal to test color swatches. Another use–getting colors right.

I was flipping through my journal the other day, and as this page passed, I immediately could taste the radish sandwich I love in spring–crisp red radishes sliced thin and placed on smooth unsalted butter on nine-grain bread. I could taste it again.
Pictures are a shorthand to an experience, and you can make the most of it with a visual journal.

Next: It doesn’t have to be pictures, words can be visual, too.
–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. She keeps journals for many reasons.
Image by Quinn. (c) 2008 All right reserved.

Flashlight Walk

Full moon was a few nights ago, so the moon comes up, orange as a copper penny, around 7:4 p.m. Spring is here, complete with nature flying her freak flag–with the ripe bitter oranges that look full and juicy but are filled with mouth-puckering, sour juice and pulp. Or with trees that have sprouted out both above and below the graft, two different kinds of the same tree blooming on one stem.

On Spring days there are endless activities to try in Phoenix. Like the frantic activity in Fall on the East Coast, before winter slush and depression set in, our Spring is packed with the activities that in July and August, we will not pursue. It will be too hot to cross a parking lot, much less hike, walk through gardens, or climb the local mountains.

So when I read about the flashlight walk through the San Tan Mountains south of Queen Creek, I had to try it. I thought I might be the only person to show up. After all, hiking in the dark, with a flashlight if the moon isn’t bright enough, didn’t seem like it would have a lot of appeal to TV nation. I was wrong. About 50 people showed up, some with lights clipped to the visors of their caps.

graft treeThe sun set, leaving a nice turquoise light in the West and a spreading indigo sky in the East. The group struck out, a bit vigorously for my abilities.  We were a mixed group, families, a few dogs, and couples. Many people had walking sicks or trekking poles. The first half mile we hiked in granite ground down to a sand-like consistency. It was like walking on the beach. Then the trail headed up, directly up into the stars. The mountains were silhouetted around us, and one by one the constellations appearing in the sky. Orion, the two dippers, the seven sisters. No Milky Way, though. Phoenix has too much light pollution.

I began to drop back, not being able to keep up the pace. My flashlight came out, because the trail turned into sheets of stone, and it was hard to find footing. You don’t want to stumble off the trail into a cholla cactus. It will break off a piece and go with you, carried along in your jeans or skin on 3-inch spikes.

As people passed me, the trail ahead was dotted with moving lights as people used them to check out the terrain, then turned them off to have the moon light the way. Halfway through, we stopped to let people who were tired or didn’t want to take the steeper part of the trail turn back. I decided to stay, but next time, I’m taking a stick.

The 3-plus mile walk was worthwhile and interesting. I worried too much about my footing on the top half of the walk to call it fun, but it is an experience I’ve never had before, and one worth doing before it gets too hot.

–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach and a beginning hiker. Tomorrow she goes shopping for some decent hiking boots, sneakers aren’t sturdy enough for hiking up mountains. (c) 2008 All rights reserved.

Tea Joy

In these wonderful spring days in the Sonoran desert, the days are warm and the nights cool. And on cool nights, I like to drink tea. Jasmine-touched green tea is wonderful, as is white tea (Snow Leopard) which is even richer in anti-oxidants. And, of course, my favorite–masala chai. The syrup-sweet concoction you get at most premium coffee places isn’t really chai. I don’t like the amount of sugar (or sugar-substitute) they put into it–it’s far too cloying.

Masala chai has the spices of India in it–cardamom, cinnmon, ginger, and a sprinkling of black pepper. The pepper gives it a deep aroma, and there is nothing better when the evening has a nip than to prepare a cup of chai and dunk a biscotti into it. (And yes, I do have a recipe for chocolate and black pepper biscotti. What can I say, I love the mix of pepper and sweet).

borosolicate tea glassBut making tea can be a bit difficult, if you are only drinking one cup at a time and don’t usually use tea bags. And then the place I buy my coffee had the answer–and one of those answers I like–not too expensive and pure luxe!

Peets coffee and tea emporium has a lovely, rounded borosilicate tea glass. It comes with an infuser. The clever device has a broad top that closes off the class, so you are not losing heat while the tea is steeping. Remove the lid and you have a place to put the infuser. Ah, but the best is yet to come.

The glass is double-walled, providing not only a thing of beauty but cool hands. Borosilicatedouble-walled glass glass is light and dense, so the double-walled glass is lighter than a regular glass, and remains cool to the touch even when your tea is hot. There is another benefit–it’s tough, so it doesn’t scratch easily or etch in the dishwasher.

Now those cool-enough-for-tea evenings have a satisfying ritual of tea making. And when the weather gets too hot for tea, well, that double-walled glass will hold ice chai just as well.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and a certified creativity coach and tea drinker. She was a coffee drinker first, and still loves coffee for breakfast. See her creative work at  Images from Peets website. (c) 2008 All rights reserved.

Pretend Allergies: Controlling the Environment

My friend Anna (not her real name, of course) was eating lunch with me in a restaurant. I ordered a salad, and she asked the waiter if the salad dressing contained nuts. He said it did, peanuts. Anna wrinkled her nose, still an incredibly cute look for her, and said she had a peanut allergy, and could he make sure that her salad had walnuts.

The waiter looked uncomfortable and said that he couldn’t guarantee the salad had never come in contact with nuts. Anna said that a restaurant needed to pay more attention to the medical needs of the customers, and ordered soup.

peanut in salon“I didn’t know you were allergic to peanuts,” I said.
“I don’t like them,” she said, “But the waiter won’t care about that, so I say I’m allergic.”
“Why would you say you are allergic to something you aren’t allergic to?”
Anna shrugged. “So he gets it. Otherwise I have to argue.”
While I ate my salad, I wondered about the client who claims to be allergic to perfume, and asks me not to wear any when I come to visit. Last week I forgot, but she didn’t say anything. In fact, she was wearing perfume. Angel. I am not a fan, but believe in letting people wear whatever perfume they want. Allergy or control freak?

How about my friend who says she is allergic to wheat? How can she eat pasta? I assumed it was spelt, but that doesn’t explain the hotdog on a bun I saw her munching while strolling down the street with her kids. Is this wheat allergy seasonal?

It seems that lately a lot of people I know have medical alerts–allergies and sensitivities. For a while I gave up having dinner parties because there was no meal I could cook that would satisfy all the allergies my friends have–chocolate, strawberries, nuts (ground AND tree), soy, milk, wheat, cheese–aged and new, corn, rice, and eggs. At one point I canceled a dinner party because I could not find enough food that would be OK’d by the vegan, the celiac, and the lactose intolerant who was also allergic to soy. (This sounds like the beginning of a great joke, doesn’t it, “a vegan, a celiac and a lactose intolerant walked into a bar.) In fact, liquor (non-wheat based) might have been the only thing I COULD serve. When I sent around the email canceling because the three menus I had would not please the whole group, I got back one suggestion that I cook all three, and label the dishes with their ingredients (umm, no.) and one retraction of a former allergy. The dinner was back on.

I would be a lot more concerned if I knew these allergies were real. Some of them seem to be control issues or simply a way to get attention and have other people take care of you. And how will I know the difference? And when will I stop caring?

Yes, some people have serious allergies. I once worked for a man who could have died from a single pignole. This isn’t about that. It’s about people who manipulate through fictional allergies for their own enjoyment or their need for attention. Do you think a pet would help? Unconditional love? Oh, you can’t have a pet? Oh, sure, allergies.


–Quinn McDonald is a writer with hay fever who is allergic to one of her cats, but not the other two. She is thinking of becoming a vegetarian. (c) 2008 All rights reserved.

Steel Cut Oats: Worth the Time?

Oatmeal has always been a favorite breakfast food in my house. Not the instant, which always tastes as if it had been made in the Play-Doh factory, the old-fashioned. Yes, they took a little longer to cook, but it could be done in five minutes. I cook oatmeal in milk, it gives a much richer taste. But milk means you have to stir, so 5 minutes is about all I could handle.

steel-cut oatsMy niece introduced me to steel-cut oats. I was astonished to find that they were not flat or flaked. These oats are still grain-shaped.  (You can see both flakes and steel-cut in the photo.)

The taste was completely different–sort of nutty, like wheat berries, and an incredible taste treat. They also filled me up completely for three hours, making it easy to pass up the donuts, eclairs and other breakfast goodies in my clients’ kitchens.

Steel-cut oats take forever to cook. The package I have said “about 10 minutes.” Only if you need to break out a few annoying molars. It takes a full 20 minutes to cook steel-cut oats. If you are cooking more than one serving, you can count on 30. I just don’t have 30 extra minutes in the morning, so I began to experiment with shortcuts.

Here are two that work really well:

1. Stir and run method. Put the milk (or water) into a deep saucepan, add the oats (follow directions on the can) and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Once they have boiled for 30 seconds, you can turn the burner to warm (if you have an annoying electric stove) or the lowest gas setting. Then go take a shower or get dressed. Do not desert the oats. Check in once in a while to make sure there is enough liquid in the pot. You probably will have to add more. I add water, even when cooking with milk, give it a quick stir, and go put on my makeup. By the time I’m ready for breakfast, the oats are done perfectly.

2. Cook two servings at once, following the instructions above. Eat one serving, and put the other one in a covered container. If you are covering the container with plastic wrap, make sure the wrap touches the top of the oatmeal to prevent milk skin from forming. The next morning, you simply pour a little milk or water into a pan and warm up the oatmeal. You cannot tell the difference in taste or texture.

Update: There are more than 95 comments so far with excellent suggestions, please browse them to learn so much more!

From the comment sent in by Jan: Before you got to bed, put a half cup of steel cut oats and cover with water. The next morning, drain the water, add milk (or cook in water) and bring to a gentle boil. Takes about 5 minutes to cook. Best suggestion yet!

Don’t reheat in the microwave, you will be eating dense, chewy little rubber bullets. Mix in dried cherries, fresh raspberries, or cut up crystalized ginger. Add sugar, honey, or syrup. Or just eat it plain.

You might also enjoy: Bulgur Wheat: Side dish, Main dish, Salad

–Image: Quinn McDonald.

Quinn is a writer and certified creativity coach.
Follow Quinn on Twitter.

“She”, a Slow Art Monotype

A monotype is a form of slow art. Each monotype is unique–there are no multiples, no print runs. There is just one.

Printing ink is applied to a plexiglass sheet and then marked or incised to create an image. The plate is place face up on the bed of a rolling press. A piece of heavy print paper (in this case, Arches) is put over the print and sheets of felt are laid over the paper. A rolling press applies pressure to complete the print. Since most of the ink is pressed onto the paper, each one is unique.

Below, “She” in purple, red, and gray. 5-inch x 7-inch image on 11 x 15 sheet.

There are two more prints in this series. See them at (c) Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved

Monotype, “She” by Quinn McDonald

Rambutan: Who knew?

Rambutans look like lychees (or litchees) with spiked hair. The spikes are soft and red, adding a whole new dimension to the fruit. I’ve eaten them fresh in Singapore, but here in the States, the canned ones are easier to find.

freeze dried rambutanUntil last week, when I found them freeze dried at Trader Joe’s. I had to buy a bag. It takes a while to break into the bag, because freeze dried items are crispy from lack of humidity.

Now, rambutans are juicy and lightly sweet and a bit tart. So I wasn’t sure how I’d like a crispy one. But the taste is amazingly rambutan-like, and the texture is extremely satisfying.

Don’t know if I’d put them in my cereal, but eating them out of the bag is a treat not to be missed!

===Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach married to a personal chef. As soon as the house sells in Virginia, they can continue their lives together.  See her work at

New Colors for Phoenix

When I moved out here, I brought a few art supplies with me. I chose simple supplies that did a lot but didn’t take up space–colored pencils, kneaded eraser, bone folder, a blade.

Prismacolor pencilsPrismacolor pencils are wonderful–rich and easy to use, waxy, thick color. The more you layer, the richer it gets. When I arrived in Phoenix, I had many greens, yellows, oranges, blues.

But here, I needed different colors. Richer grays, shades ofblue agave browns, purples. They are the colors of blue agaves, rock walls, and the big smooth stones that create the look of water, but in rock. I saw a fence that was designed to hold rocks vertically and still look like a river.

These big, smooth river rocks are different from the desert granite, warm and cool grays and thunderstorm colored ones, too. Desert granite is hard brown and pink, all new colors I needed.

The browns of shadows and rust and granite. It took 16 more pencils in all to catch all the new colors here. Just waiting to be seen and put on paper.

Stone fence–Quinn McDonald is a writer, trainer and artist who teaches writing and visual journaling classes. See her work at (c) 2008 All rights reserved.

Choosing a Wabi Sabi Life

The moon lay on her back in the sky, her thin ivory rim tipped up. Cupped gently in her hollow was the indigo sky, dotted with stars. Two straight lines stitched past the horns of the moon. They were contrails, side-lit by the bright, reflected light. Next to the contrails is the constellation Orion. I always look for it when I walk at night. Often I can just see the belt. Tonight I could see the entire constellation: the powerful Hunter standing next to the river Eridanus with his two hunting dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, fighting Taurus, the bull.

OrionI was walking at night. The sidewalks were deserted. In the distance, I could hear a train whistle calling as it crossed the street grade and raced into the blank and mountainous desert. Who is on the train? Where are they going at night, where will they wake up?

In the next block the intense smell of orange blossom washed over the block walls that provide privacy. I could just see the blossoms on an orange tree. I know the smell from perfumes, but no perfume has such a rich, deep green smell that carries the hope of next summer’s glowing ember oranges. I touched one of the polished, shiny dark leaves. I pulled one of the blossom branches to me, and, making careful that there were no bees in the bunch, touched the flowers to my tongue. The neroli oil washed over my tongue in a sweet and bitter wave. It is as if I had bitten into a perfumed orange. The branch sprang away from me.moon

The houses have their curtains drawn. I could hear faint sounds from the TVs. Someone was watching explosions and laughing. In the next house someone was not making it on American Idol. I kept walking through the shining night air. This was my gift alone.

I have chosen this life–right now it is lonely and hard. But walking through the night with all five senses is a feast I find indescribably life affirming. I feel alive and aware. I am in one moment at a time. It is an enormous gift to see all this, to taste it, touch it, to hear the sounds of the desert at night. I am grateful. The people who are in front of the TV will never know this, but they are satisfied, too. They don’t want to be walking outside in the dark. I’m glad for their comfort and glad for my own experience.

And in that second of peace, I know the heart of wabi-sabi.

Images: Orion:  Moon:

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at