It’s Not Always About Happy

We think of “happy” as good and every other emotion as not as good. Here’s what I learned today: being real is good, whatever “real” is.

The world isn’t broken. It’s made up of pieces that fit together quite neatly.
Eggshells, watercolor paint on watercolor paper.

I went to lunch with a new friend who feels like an old soul and a good friend already. She shared sad news with me, and I felt tears start up over her suffering. We chatted a bit about the blog, and then I told her about something I felt bad about–petty behavior on my part. How hard it is to give up envy, pettiness, and feeling bad about it.

She was supportive and understanding. I felt heard. And I suddenly realized the truth of Brené Brown’s quote:

A 12-year-old’s wisdom on fitting-in vs. belonging: “If I get to be me, I belong. If I have to be like you, it’s fitting in.”

At that lunch table, with this kind woman, I belonged to the group of flawed human beings who are working on themselves. It made my day.

It’s good not having to be perfect, or pretending. It’s hard enough work just being me. Being appreciated for that felt like a blessing.

Put down the perfection mirror and just show up. It does a soul good.

–Quinn McDonald is an art journaler and writer. She’s working on a book on the Inner Critic.

Fading Out

Yesterday I mentioned re-writing your past in a way that lightens the darks and fades the shadows. Today I wanted to try to do the same thing visually.

Today was a day of too-saturated color, too much high dudgeon, too vivid emotions. Dramatic clients, fierce news, people shrilling for attention, credibility, everyone demanding to be heard and admired.

Poppies. Graphite, watercolor, pen on watercolor paper.

At the end of the day I was exhausted without having done any heavy lifting. So I decided to draw some cheerful flowers. Poppies are always cheerful, breezy. But the colors were too much, too bright, too assertive on my retina’s rods and cones. (Rods distinguish light; cones distinguish color. There are more rods, but they are not as sensitive as cones.)

In light of yesterday’s fading of memories, I did the equivalent with drawing. Using my new favorite Art Graf Stix, I drew the poppies, using shades of gray and black. I added very faint touches of red-orange and blue-red. Just a touch.

The final effect is light and airy without too much burden of color or detail. For right now, that suits me perfectly.

Quinn McDonald is an art journaler whose art makes meaning.

What You See Is What You Remember

When I was small, we ate dinner in my father’s study. This room was also part of the living room, the house library,  and next to the kitchen. There was a deep pocket door that held a huge table, and each night, we pulled the table out of the wall, attached the legs, set it up and then set it for dinner. After the meal, we packed it away again. It was my father’s time to study and work. We did our homework in the kitchen, at the table there.

I remember the table as being huge–at least eight feet long, and the legs must have been four feet tall. I adjusted the memory slightly when I realized that the legs would not have been that tall–we used regular chairs to sit at the table.

When I traveled back and saw the table, it was much smaller than I had remembered. Well, of course, I was a short child, so the table seemed huge. And I laughed and easily adjusted my memory.

There are other things that we don’t adjust easily. The brother who was a bully. The manipulative friend who got us to say something, then turned on us and broke our confidence. The histrionic mother who flirted with our boyfriends and refused to give up any of the stage, much less the center of it.

We hang on to memories that diminish us. Make us small. Slice us open for all to see and gawk at. The more we believe those stories, the more they become true. The more they become true, the bigger they grow. We give these hurtful memories importance they don’t deserve, inflate them to huge size and vivid colors, add a sound track and march down our life’s path with the sad circus band of our past hooting and jeering at us.

Statue of Alice passing through the Looking Glass from NorthStandChat.comband in the distance

No wonder we can’t sleep. Turn off the TV and you hear the sound of the circus in the distance.

You cannot change the bully brother, the manipulative friend, the histrionic mother. You can, however, give them far more importance and power than they ever had. You can use Life Photoshop and add shadows, sharpen contrast until your whole life is layered between these memories.

Or, you can try something else. Write down the story as you see it now in your journal. Use those filters of memory fully. Make the story as bad as your memory will let you. Immediately afterwards, pretend that you are walking into that situation now, as an adult, when the dinner table is normal-size and the chairs are normal height. Look at the hurtful situation again now, as an adult. Then re-write it with less color and more understanding. Because this time you are in control of what happens.

Allow the omnipotent power of others to drain away. Take back some of your own confidence. Your own tolerance. Your adult wisdom. See the bully brother as threatened. See the histrionic mother as unloved and fighting for attention. See the manipulative friend as weak. Then write a few concluding sentences about taking your own power back. About the perspective you have now, as an adult who can see life in real-size.

You cannot change the past, but you can surely go back and take another look at it. As an adult, you are in control. Those memories live on the power you give them. Don’t waste your power. Claim it back.
Your journal will let you shrink those memories down to size.

-Quinn McDonald keeps several journals. She’s working on another book on confronting the Inner Critic.

Celebrating a New Year in Fall

The beginning of the school year always felt like New Year to me. My feet, having been in sandals all summer, were suddenly crammed into tight new shoes. There were new pencils (with that great cedar-closet smell) and new crayons ( love the smell of fresh crayons) and paste (which also smelled good, but I was never tempted to taste it.) New teachers, new books, and a relief from summer’s heat.

Leaves. Pitt Pen, graphite and watercolor on watercolor paper.

When I lived in New England, the beginning of September marked a time when the days got noticeably shorter, and picked up speed. There was a red maple that turned colors first every year, starting around Labor Day.  The summers in New England were short and mild, and I was filled with a pang of longing when the September days grew shorter than the nippy September nights.

The Jewish New Year falls in September most years. It’s the first day of the 10 Days of Awe, and the mystics believe that on Rosh Hashanah (New Year), the Creator of the Universe opens the Book of Life and writes the names of those who will live for another year. On Yom Kippur, the last day of the celebration, and the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar, the book is closed. In the days between, the mystics say, we have a few precious days to reflect and make necessary changes.

Fall seed pods, watercolor pencil on paper.

On the two days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I take the day off and slow down. On the changing of seasons and the changing of lives. Tonight, I lit the candles and said the familiar blessing thanking the Creator for seeing us safely through the cycle of another year. I thought about the fading light that I once dreaded and now welcomed as the beginning of the season of outdoor eating, and planting–just when the rest of America is closing up the tables and pulling down the planters.

Soon the first migrating birds will arrive and bring us song and color and chattering and noise that we don’t hear in the summer.  In about two weeks a trailing cloud will drift to the West of Phoenix and meet with another one on the East as thousands of hummingbirds migrate to the Sky Islands South of Tucson. My three feeders will be drained twice a week.

I’ve started to walk again in the early morning, as the searing heat of summer has lifted. Well, it’s still over 100 degrees (F) in the daytime, but in the early morning, it is already 15 degrees cooler than five weeks ago.

The cycle of life goes on. There are more memory candles on the table this year, burning through the Days of Awe for the souls of those who died since last Yom Kippur. I am acutely aware that one day I my life will be represented by a candle on a table. And that day is not as far away as the years I have been lighting candles. It’s not something to fear, but it is something to remember.

Life, change, death. Nature presents them every year for us to notice. It’s hard not to think of dying when the leaves shrivel on the trees and pool is as warm as tea you leave to cool.

These are special days, the days that allow us to gracefully move from one season to the next. They are meant for reflection and planning, and welcoming change.

May everyone who reads this be written in the pages of the Book of Life for a year of growth, acceptance, courage and strength.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach, working on a book about the Inner Critic and noticing the time slide past her window.

Art Journaling, No Words

Working away from the usual is always interesting for me. Stretches creative muscles and brightens up the studio. Today’s challenge (I made this up) was to create a journal (lots of discretion about what a journal is) using no traditional art supplies. And, just to make it harder, no words.

I’ve always had trouble understanding art journals without words. I’m a word person. A writer. So the challenge was . . . well, tough.

I started by gathering materials at a hardware store. One of these days, I’m going to teach an art class using only materials from a hardware store. Today I used:

  • six paint color samples
  • one feather
  • one piece of glittery wrapping paper
  • one button from a sweater
  • some twine
  • a piece of discarded, painted watercolor paper

I’d been spending time watching Pete’s Pond–a watering hole in Southeast Botswana, Africa.  The site isn’t perfect–the lights go out at night, sometimes the whole site goes down, which, when you remember it’s on a game preserve far from the nearest decent-size town, isn’t that unusual. I was chatting with the other viewers, and heard people discussing how autumn was coming, the weather was turning chillier, and how it made them sad. Birds were beginning migration.

Here, of course, summer’s passing is what we celebrate. Days get bearable, and we enter the season we came here for–from now until the beginning of May, the weather is wonderful. Clear skies, sun, breezes, and warm days followed by crisp nights. The birds that leave other areas come here.

And here’s what I made, called “Migration.” I won’t explain it, because I’m hoping that each person who sees it will have a story about it. While the pages lift up, the have no words. They are ready for your story about the next season–what is that story for you?

Migration, feather, button, twine on paint samples and watercolor paper.

-Quinn McDonald builds art journals and is a creativity coach.

Saturday Link Stroll

Saturdays are a good time to stroll around the interwebs and find interesting projects, goofy time wasters and clever mind teasers. All for creative fun.

For altered book artists, go take a peek at GoMakeSomething, who has a list of elements to add to altered books, each with a how-to link, including one for 350 ideas for altered books, as well as how to do a layout for one.

Colored pencils from

Altair Designs provides you with different geometric patterns, a brush, a color selector and a few auto-fill in tools. You can color in designs, save them, email them, and see other people’s work in a gallery. Surprisingly enjoyable; a great way to explore color combinations you’ve been wanting to  work on.

Tired of explaining your project progress  to your peers? Here’s a jargon generator that creates empty, meaningless phrases for you. The advantage is that these phrases sound important. Who wouldn’t want to empower cross-market e-platforms?

Thanks to frequent commenter Pete Harbeson, who sent (some time ago) this map quiz with a twist. The maps are shown, complete with colors, demarcations and scales, but there is no explanation. Using only the information shown and your basic knowledge of, try to guess what information the map shows. It’s not about geography, it’s about information.

More on found poetry: Logolalia is a site dedicated to artists’ collaborations. The link points to an artist who is working through a page of a book a day, looking for found poetry. It’s visually and poetically interesting.

And finally, TinyBuddha gives you simple advice for a complex life. In this link, 7 keys to happiness.

Quinn McDonald is at the Apple store, praying that they can restore her Mac to good function. Keep your fingers crossed. She is glad her calendar is on her iPhone.

The Confusing Lines We Draw

A good, meditative exercise is to load a watercolor brush with a primary color and then draw the thinnest, straightest line possible vertically on the page. After a few of those lines, start to add another primary color–yellow to blue, yellow to red, blue to red to get another color.The lines drift across the page, some really nice, some not.

After some straight ones, start to vary the thickness of the line by pushing the brush down, releasing more paint.  You don’t need a high-quality brush, you are not aiming for perfect, you are creating a space to listen.

We talk a lot in our heads. Stopping the talk to listen is the heart of creativity.

Anyone can do the painting, but the silence is a bit trickier. Because the Inner Critic shows up with one of the standard lines she uses.

Today while talking to a client, she told me about an experience that made me nod in recognition and laugh with her. The Inner Critic isn’t logical or reasonable, just always loud and threatening.

My client said the first thing the inner critic said was “these lines are crap.” And she believed it. Well, of course it was crap. Lines on a page. What else could it be? The client had a bit of a struggle, because she had enjoyed the exercise, liked the grounding and liked the simple pattern and colors.

“Well,” she thought, “then I’ll turn it into a journal page background.”

“NOOOOO!” screamed the Inner Critic. “Don’t ruin it! It’s ART!”

From crap to art, just like that. And she suddenly saw the purpose of the Inner Critic–that no matter what you do, no matter what you choose, to the Inner Critic, it’s wrong. You are wrong. Your Inner Critic will chase you in a circle, just to watch you get dizzy and fall over.

The Inner critic says both “it’s crap” and “don’t write over it, it’s art.” There is no appeasing the inner critic. It’s wise to listen, and also wise to choose a path that moves away from the voice of the Inner Critic. Choose a direction you can believe in, and get busy working on that direction. The Inner Critic is not you and is not your compass. You own that. Follow your own wisdom.

Quinn McDonald is writing a book on conversations with the Inner Critic. She’s having a lot of them.

Adding a Pocket to an Art Journal

Building a journal is fun, but no journal is complete for me without a pocket in the back to hold ephemera I want to use, but haven’t developed a page for yet.

I’ve fallen in love with library pockets–original ones preferred–to add storage capacity to my journals. They can be glued in where needed. I also like to join them in a variety of ways, and use them as accordion books on their own.

Here’s a good short video I found on adding a gusseted pocket to the back of a handmade or purchased journal. I have just one warning–never glue on your cutting mat. The tiniest smear of glue on the mat will create a bump that will wreck your next project. Glue on a magazine, flipping the page with each new glue step.
Vodpod videos no longer available.

Video courtesy:  “ Maker’s Notebook“, posted with vodpod
—Quinn McDonal is an art journaler and creativity coach who is working on a book on confronting the inner critic.

Tea-Dyed Projects (Loose-Leaf Journal Pages)

Tea-dying is ancient. And modern. And flexible and inventive. Here are three projects that you can do with four tea bags.

You’ll need:

  • 4 tea bags of any black or red tea
  • Filtered water, about 1/4 cup
  • Wide watercolor brush, about an inch wide
  • 3 Tablespoons rough Kosher salt
  • Pitt pen (optional)
  • Watercolor pencils

1.  Chose tea bags that you don’t want to make into a drink. If you experiment with tea flavors like I do, you will eventually wind up with a choice that took one step too far into the “experiment” stage, and you’ll wonder what to do with a box of coconut-lychee-pomegranate-chocolate or some other choice that seemed clever at the time.

2.  Remove the staple from the bag, if it has one. Leave on the string and tag.

3. Put four bags into a small bowl, add about two tablespoons water, and put in the microwave on high for 30 seconds.

4. Remove bowl from microwave with an oven mitt. Using a spoon, press the round back of the spoon against the tea bags to expel concentrated tea.

5. Remove tea bags from bowls and place on a piece of watercolor paper. Move the positions once. It’s fine if the tea runs onto the paper. Let sit for at least 10 minutes before moving bags. When the bags have been in two positions, remove them allow the paper to dry, then draw the outlines of the bags, strings and tags.

Project One:

Using a broad watercolor brush, dip it into the strong tea, and paint horizontal bands across the paper. After each stripe, re-dip brush and paint next stripe overlapping the first stripe, so you are painting a continuous tea coverage down the page. The page will curl a bit. This is fine. If you don’t want it to curl, spray back of watercolor paper with a mist of plain water.

Use a big pinch kosher salt and toss it on the page. On the pages, experiment with more and less salt. The salt will suck up the tea. If you have a puddle, use more salt for a darker effect.

Let the salt dry completely. All the way. Really dry. Don’t rush this step or the design will smear.

Brush off the salt. You may need help from a dry stiff sponge or a toothbrush.

Project Two:

Create a map by outlining the salt stains. You can add pieces of real map or a star chart. Label the land masses and seas according to your mood–Salt Flats, Horizon Line, Land Spill, Farther Than You Thought.

Project Three:
Using watercolor pencils, trace the edges of the salt marks and create fantasy patterns. For this one, I decided on flowers.

If you keep the flowers paler than I did here, you can use this as a background for a page. I’ll write on this, but I need to think of the words and how to make it look of a piece. Meanwhile, I like it the way it is.

—Quinn McDonald is working on her second book and playing with concepts.

Paying Attention to the Body

It wasn’t a hard day in class, but it felt long. On the second day of one course I teach, there is a certain push to keep on schedule. One eye on the clock, the other on the activities and questions, and the afternoon gets squeezed for all the teaching moments.

Lighting and a saguaro from

When I got home I was tired. Tired enough to fall asleep in the chair looking at the mail. After supper, the rain started. When you live in the desert, it’s not a sound you hear often, but the sound of rain drumming on the skylights and splashing in the pool is an instant sleep inducer for me.

I jerked awake at 10:30, horrified that I had slept away the evening. I had work to do! And while my body sat up, my mind wanted to rollover and go back to sleep.

Guilty, I hurried to check emails and catch up on an evening of work. And then I stopped. It’s really good to listen to your body when it asks for something. Whether it’s sleep or creative play, the body hardly ever asks for what it doesn’t need. (Well, mine asks for chocolate a bit too often. But otherwise. . .)

The ocotillo was all bare stems. One good rain and it leafs out in about 10 hours. The leaves stay on as long as it rains, then in another 12 hours, they are gone again.

Martha Beck says, “Having fun if not a diversion from a successful life; it is the pathway to it.” Listening to your body is an act of wisdom. Too often, I push ahead, ignore the need for sleep, or play, or just being aware.

So my plans tonight drained away with the rain. No one will do the work for me, it will be here tomorrow. We get eight inches of rain a year. Spending an evening listening to it fall and letting it drum me to sleep seems a deeply restorative choice. Like the ocotillo that sets leaves when it rains (seriously, in 10 hours it goes from a bunch of sticks, to covered in leaves) and drops them when the rain is done, it’s good to pay attention to what you need.

Today is 9/11. Patti Digh has written a heart-opening article on this memorial day. It’s worth reading and spending some time with.

Quinn McDonald loves Monsoon Season in Arizona.