Posts from the Studio

I don’t run new posts on Saturdays, but many people spend time in the studio on the weekends and I thought it might be helpful to post links to several older posts on this blog that might be helpful for a day in the studio.

How to make your own deckle-edge paper.

Review of Derwent Inktense watercolor pencils.

Marbling with Sumi ink.

10 Ideas for what to put on your journal’s first page

How to handle problem students (Part 1)  (Part 2)

Enjoy the day!

Quinn McDonald writes “The Business of Art” column for Somerset Studio.

Normal Reactions

In the years when I lived and worked in a cold climate, there was some sort of

Snow tree from

drive to master the weather. No matter how much snow or ice piled up and coated your windshield, you got to work on time. (I was not a surgeon or a firefighter, I worked in marketing departments.) There were pre-dawns I shoveled snow, panicky that I could not overcome nature. That I might be late for work. It wasn’t that many years ago that I walked to work in three feet of snow, to prove I was not afraid of weather. That I was not a slacker.

When we arrived at work, it was in 3-inch leather heels and stockings, wool-blend suits and other materials that were easily ruined by salt and water.

A certain level of success and wealth was implied by striding into work without an umbrella, without a canvas tote of boots and gloves. There were executives who had heated garages and even heated driveways. Proof that you were above the weather.

Arizona wildfire. Credit: AP Photo/ The Arizona Republic, Carlos Chavez

I think of those days when I hear about the wildfires in Colorado. The fires have no concern for wealth or status. One person’s house stands, another burns. Reconstruction will take years, souls will knit their cracks only with time and love–neither on sale at Walmart.  Or Barneys.

One of the reasons I love my new home state of Arizona is that the citizens (wild, strange, loving, caring and occasionally gun-totin’) pay attention to the weather. I wear sandals to teaching jobs. I wear linen and cotton clothing. Neat, pressed, but lightweight in deference to our 113-degree heat.

Dust storm (haboob) rolling over Phoenix from

In the evening, I’m in the pool. Not swimming laps, not using exercise tools. I’m in the pool because the weather is hot and the water is cooling. It’s sensible and sane.

I like living in step with nature. I like being realistic. It gives me a sensible outlook on life. And in a way, when our wildfires sweep across our Ponderosa pines (as they did just a few weeks ago), I might feel sorrow, or empathy, or even fear, but I don’t feel outrage. I don’t feel entitled to perfect weather. It feels like a real life.

-Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who keeps her house at 83 degrees during the day. Because that’s still 20 degrees cooler than outside.

Journal, Journey

The words “journal” and “journey” have their roots in the same Latin word-–diurnus,  “of the day.” Each day we travel along our life, and yes, inevitably toward our death. I know that’s unpopular to say, but it’s what makes paying attention important.

Storm cloud, seen from airplane. © Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved. 2012

Each day is a series of moments, and then the sun sets, and the day is over. We can’t get it back. We can’t live it over. It is written in permanent ink. Each day molds us, changes us, makes us more experienced and older. Each day we become stronger in some ways, weaker in others. It’s never the same day.

So when someone asks me if I write in my journal every single day, with a slight hint of fear over the chore and obligation,  I reply, “Yes, if I’m lucky.”

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach. She is a journalist of her own journey.


Throw Your Life Away

“How could you let him throw his life away?” my neighbor asked all those years ago. She was speaking of my son, who had recently announced he wanted to major in music, to switch from math and Russian.

Dreams in ink. Marker, acrylic paint skin, paint on paper.

“He could be an engineer or a lawyer, something important, but you are letting him major in music? ” My mother asked. “You are letting him throw his life away. Just like you did!” The anger in her voice was hard and sharp.

Maybe you’ve heard that phrase, too–“Throwing your life away.” It sounds dangerous, stupid, harmful. In my son’s case, and earlier, my case, it was what saved our lives.

I knew from personal experience that unless you follow the path that beckons, the journey will be rocky, harsh, and may well lead you into a personal, barren wilderness.

So when my son told me he was interested in music, I was pleased. It was good he could see so clearly the path he wanted to follow.

He threw away many possibilities–all the ones that were wrong for him. The ones that would have left him unsatisfied, a drone at his work, uninspired. The ones that would have weighed like stones in the pockets of his dreams.

Years earlier, I blundered down the path of success as my parents saw it for me. It was years till I could “throw my life away,” and create the life I wanted. It was hard, but ahead of me was the steady light of life’s purpose, a sure knowledge that writing was where meaning-making lived.

The compass was there, but I wasn’t as sure in my choices. I didn’t believe in myself as much as I believed that my parents knew best. When I figured out that their advice fit their lives and I would have to find my own path, I threw my old life away, too. And am happier for it.

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who helps people through change and re-invention. She is the author of Raw Art Journaling.

Control and the Fig Tree

It’s the same battle every June and early July. The birds begin to eat the figs in the tree, just slightly before they ripen. They don’t eat the whole fig, they just poke big holes in them, ruining them. They don’t eat the figs just at the top of the tree, the ones I can’t reach. They eat as many as they can.

Netting the tree isn’t possible. Hanging CDs or strips of foil in the tree makes no difference. The first two years, I’d get up at 4:30 a.m. and stand guard with a broom. The second day, the birds figured out the length of my reach and ate just out of it.

I don’t mind the woodpeckers and hummingbirds, but I hate the starlings and grackles.

This year, I realized it was futile to fight, and silly to prefer some birds over others. They are professional wildlife who are hungry, and there is available food in a time of scarce food and water in the desert. Now I rise at 5 a.m. and pluck whatever soft, sweet figs I can snatch from the birds early in the morning. At the end of the day, I pick up the detritus of figs, the fruit already dry and hard as walnut shells from the sun. Cleaning up controls the bug population. I don’t mind the ants, but there are three-inch crunchy bugs I don’t want to encourage.

Have I given up? No. I have adapted. I cannot change the nature of birds, nor do I want to deprive them of food at a hard time of year.

And this adaptation has seeped into other parts of my life. I no longer expect to change client behavior. I no longer become frustrated and wish that my aggressive and harsh clients would become interesting and appealing. I learn to accept them, or I don’t work with them, weighing the consequences carefully.

And I appreciate the small amount of fig jam that I can make each year. I am grateful that I have the tree, and that the magic of fruit calls the birds. You don’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you get what you need. The Rolling Stones must have known my fig tree.

Quinn McDonald is slowly giving up the need to control both the fig tree and the birds. She’s still working on herself, too.

Tips on Traveling with Art Supplies

If you teach, you probably travel. If you use your car, you can load it up, but if you fly, you are limited to sending the material ahead or taking it with you on the plane.

If you are traveling to class, you usually scan the supply list and balance your need to take the class with the ability to take the supplies.

It’s not easy either way. Over the past few years of taking classes and teaching them, I’ve found a few short cuts that may be useful to you:

The easiest rule is to take only what you need. It’s easy to take everything you like to work with, but thinking through your class and taking just what you need will lighted your burden considerably.

1. Make big items small. Once I learned the trick of cutting watercolor pencils in half, I transferred the idea to other art items.

  • Instead of taking six journals so I can show 12 pages in them, I do samples on loose-leaf pages and take just the pages I need. Strathmore Ready-Cut paper is already cut in sizes that fit in standard frames. And their watercolor paper is wonderful.
  • Instead of taking big tubes of watercolors, I buy small palettes and fill the pans with watercolor and let them dry. Covered with cling wrap, they can be reconstituted in class.
  • Instead of a many Micron or Pitt Pens, I take a Medium and a super fine. I can make broad strokes with the medium, and the super fine will do the rest.
  • I also take a brush pen, because with varying pressure I can get different widths of lines. Black is my go-to color, as I can use a water-soluble one and blur the paint with water for shadows.

2. Take multi-use items.

  • Matte Gel medium can be used is glue, sealant on collage papers, and can waterproof colored pencils.
  • Newspaper is a smooth surface to work on, protects the table, and is packing material.
  • Inks can be watercolors, worked with pens or brushes.
  • Beeswax can smooth thread for sewing, serve as a resist for painting, and rub over a surface for a shiny finish. Be careful of using beeswax in summer or on paper that you’ll leave in a car. Or anytime in Phoenix and other desert towns.
  • A pencil can be used to write, draw, shade, create an area of graphite to use as tracing paper, check to see if a surface is level (it will roll in the direction that is lower), or a line is straight. Pencils can make temporary lines that don’t smear or have to dry.
  • A travel iron can keep your clothes tidy, dry a watercolor page, melt beeswax, get glue to set. A hair dryer can do the same, but it won’t iron your clothes.
  • A cheap shower curtain will protect a table and can be used to line your shipping box to protect from potential leaks. You can also cut up the shower curtain to work wet at your table or to place between wet pages in a journal.

3. Use what you have at hand. Instead of a long, cumbersome ruler, take a soft measuring tape used in sewing. If you can be approximate, the length of your fingertip to nose is about a yard, the distance between the middle knuckle and the one toward the fingernail is an inch (any finger). I know that if I spread my fingers, the distance between my thumb and little finger is 8.5 inches (I have big hands)–so you can approximate sizes and distances.

Instead of a variety of cases, roll pencils, pens, inks or scissors in wash cloths and pack in ziplock bags. You’ll have wipe-up cloths ready to use. (Iron them dry them before you pack up again, wash between trips.)

You can take a pencil sharpener, but a piece of sandpaper will have more uses–everything from smoothing the surface of your paper or book corners to sharpening your pencils, watercolor pencils, and sewing needles.

Pack tiny items in bags or small boxes so they don’t disappear in a big packing box.

Separate items that won’t go through security at the airport and keep them out of your carry-on or roll-aboard. X-acto knives or craft cutters and their extra blades, sharp needles, spray cans, scissors with sharp or long blades–all can create long delays in airports if you accidentally take them along. The TSA will confiscate them and search you for other infractions.

Worse, the rules are enforced differently at different airports, or even the same airport by different personnel, and it’s not smart to argue with the inspectors. I pack them in ziplock bags that have the contents written on them in red marker. That way I pack what it says on the bag and put them in bags or boxes that get shipped.

Traveling light takes a bit of planning, but your arms and back will thank you.

-Quinn McDonald is spending two weeks teaching five courses in six days and two time zones.

Belonging to Professional Organizations

An association headquartered in Alexandria, VA. Many associations need corrections, although that’s not what this one does. Used under a Creative Commons agreement. Photo by afagan.

You have a list of them on your resume. Professional organizations. If you are an artist, you belong to art organizations, if you develop and teach training programs, you probably belong to a training association. (All associations seem to have an office in Alexandria, VA. I’m not sure if it’s for lobbying ease, or just because some of the best food is in Old Town.)

At their best, organizations help you learn more about your craft or profession, help you associate with people with your interests, help you discover a mentor, and keep you informed about changes in your field.

At worst, associations push you to “certify” in the field for a large amount of money, generally paid by your corporation. Certification generally requires some steps that also cost money, and (again, at worst) don’t increase your skills much.

I’m noticing a trend among professional associations to assume there is a large business writing the membership and certification class checks. Entrepreneurs, small businesses, and individuals are being shunted aside for the bigger fish. This diminishes the association’s reach.

Ying Lowrey, in an article for the IRS entitled “U.S. Sole Proprietorships, A Gender Comparison, 1985-2000“, says, “While the total number of sole proprietorship businesses increased by 49.4 percent between 1985 and 2000, the growth for female sole proprietorships (81.5 percent) was more than twice that of male sole proprietorships (38.9 percent).”

I’ve dropped out of several associations because I can’t regularly attend meetings, or because the focus of the association has shifted to corporate concerns.

While it’s smart to fish where the fish are big and biting, I think it’s a fundamental mistake to ignore the entrepreneur, the sole-proprietor business. Often these small, nimble businesses have the ideas that committees can’t birth, and can roll out services and products faster than a company that must get approval in six departments first.

So, associations–lower your fees for sole-proprietors and include them in your training, programs, and development plans. You will have a loyal group that breathes fresh air into meetings and committees.

Quinn McDonald is a sole-proprietor of QuinnCreative. She offers creativity coaching, business communications and writing classes and art journaling workshops.

Videos, The Stumbling Block

Everyone is doing videos. Studio videos, tutorials, teaching videos. That’s a good thing. Showing how something works in actual motion is a great help to creativity.

So why don’t I love videos? I’ve been trying to figure it out for years. I have learned the basics, although David Lynch doesn’t have much to fear. Using photographs, using movement, I’ve worked on a few videos. I even admit to liking this one.

So what’s not to like? Unlike a book, I can’t stick a bookmark on a page. I can’t use a sticky note and write “use this glue on photograph collage” and stick in in place on the video. Yes, of course I can open a spread sheet, and keep track of the times in instructional videos that I want to re-watch. That, however, is exhausting me just thinking about it.

I also can’t prop a video open on my desk and follow along, getting my hands messy and then stop it till I catch up.

Yes, of course, a book is not a video. They have different advantages and disadvantages. And yes, I have to make some videos or I’ll be relegated to the dustbin of creativity.

Sometimes when I watch videos or art demos, and the artist spends many minutes at the beginning speaking about her background, her life, her inspiration before she gets around to the doing, I get impatient. In a book, I could flip ahead. Trickier in a video, in which you can skip ahead but not really see what you missed. There is no skimming in a video.

I couldn’t wait to get a Kindle, and it didn’t stop my love of real books. I appreciated the different purposes. But I’m still waiting to warm up to videos, and I know I must.

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who wishes she could love videos more.

The Frail Logic of “Meant to Be”

One of my favorite ways to help me make a decision or re-think a problem is to post it on Facebook or Twitter and ask for an opinion. I value other people’s perspectives and ideas. It helps my brain run in new rivers of thought.

Aboriginal art from the Gippsland coast.

The other week I asked a “should-I-or-shouldn’t-I?” question and got clever, good, and thoughtful answers. The one answer that I don’t fall into the flow with is “if it was meant to be, it will happen.”

I’m not a person who believes in predestination–that everything is pre-planned, and people are meat puppets acting out their destiny. It takes away that free-will decision making process that has taught me so much in life. (That’s nicer than saying “I made huge mistakes, and often.”)

And how far can I ride the “meant to be” stream? If my teeth are meant to be flossed, someone will come do it for me? If the mortgage is meant to be paid, someone will send me money? I know, those are far fetched, but I don’t know where the horizon line is in the “meant to be” scheme.

The first peoples of Australia (and Albert Einstein) believe in the Everywhen–a universal time in eternity, where past, present and future are all present.  In that case, I understand that my problem, decision and consequence are all visible at the same time. I can understand that.

For the life of me, I don’t understand that items will fall into my lap if someone (fate? destiny? a god?) declares it “meant to be.” If that were true, then I could work for years toward a goal, which has secretly been declared “not to be” and I wouldn’t know it. Or reach my goal. Or (and this is the big one for me) not know why I’m not getting close to my goal. Some of my finest learning has been discovering why my efforts are (or are not) moving me toward a goal, why failure happened.

Shrugging off failure, ineptness, laziness, as “not meant to be” also means I can sit in the same ineptness and laziness and expect something to work if it is meant to be.

So I’ll continue to be confused until I work it out. You know, if it was meant to be.

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who is watching for an opportunity.