More Than a White Sheet of Paper

On this morning’s walk, I saw a van whose back windows had been papered over. Maybe for privacy, maybe because on April 6, it’s already hot in Phoenix. One side was new and fresh–white paint (to match the van) painted over heavy paper.

The other side? Well, it had been around for a while. Been in the sun. The paint was peeling from the paper. But it was the far more interesting piece.

Sometimes wear and tear adds great interest. There is a Japanese esthetic called wabi sabi that places high value in the worn, the old, the damaged. I’m a fan of wabi sabi.

In people, wear and tear adds valuable experience. That texture is symbolic of having been folded and torn and changed and survived. Not a bad thing. Gives me courage to keep on going.

—Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who helps people see their lives in new ways. Ways that allow for change and growth and acceptance.

Wabi-Sabi and Your Journal

Wabi sabi is a Japanese esthetic most often associated with the history of the tea ceremony and a philosophy that not only accepts imperfection, but finds wonder in it.

Wabi sabi is exactly what your journal needs. Wabi sabi  honors the beauty of the impermanent or incomplete. Leave a page blank because you don’t know what comes next. Just like real life.

"When the Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something's suffered damage and has history it becomes more beautiful"- Billie Mobayed. Image and quote from

“When the Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has history it becomes more beautiful”- Billie Mobayed. Image and quote from

Wabi sabi is a profound appreciation for things modest and humble. Write exactly what you feel, be who you are in your journal. It will take your zero draft–those words not even worthy of being a first draft–without complaining.

As an aesthetic, wabi sabi honors things imperfect and impermanent. Get better in time and with practice. Give yourself time. Practice. Honor your journal by loving words.

Wabi sabi is also about connecting. With nature, with other people. We can write by ourselves in the dark, but we long to be heard. Journals listen, but they don’t tell. It may be time to consider telling others what you are writing about. That’s called publishing. Not ready to publish? OK. Just keep writing.

Wabi sabi is about treasuring your ability to connect what you experience and living to tell about it on a blank page.  If you are a writer. If you are a potter, you will tell about your experience through your hands and the clay. With fiber if you are a weaver.

Wabi sabi writing is the hardest work you’ll ever do and the most rewarding. If you’ve never kept a journal, it’s time.

Quinn McDonald keeps a commonplace journal. It just helped her realize that saving money by staying in an inexpensive hotel wastes time by contributing a bad night’s sleep and creating a lot more work functioning the next day.

Organization and Control

As a working mother in my 30s and 40s, I was sure control was the key to success. I ran my life with lists and schedules. This worked well at work, except for days when the schedule called for leaving work promptly. In those days, much of the political part of work took place in bars and restaurants after work and for moms with children, the glass ceiling often looked more like the carved wood door to the club bar door.

todolistI stayed ahead with strict schedules–often I’d sit with my to-do list for the day, the week, and each project. What I missed by socializing after work, I made up for by working once my son was asleep. My work was always on time or ahead of schedule. I was dependable and it had to stand in for social.

It worked most of the time. When something unexpected came up, I would make a list for it, ignore it, deny it, or rarely, work around it. I often went to work sick. I truly believed that the cure-all tool was organization.

The trouble with organization, of course, is that it doesn’t allow for life to happen. It does allow for good problem solving, a regularly planned process and a good idea of what was going to happen in the future.

As I got older, I realized that we are less in control than we think. We are not in control of the weather, of when or how our family members will die, when or if we will get the flu, or be broadsided by a driver who is on the phone and runs the red light.

There is a difference between control and organization. Organization works with what you have. Control tries to place (or nudge, or force) people, plans, processes into step with where you are at the moment. With varying results.

Control often runs off the tracks due to no ones fault. Instead of trying to force events by sheer will, see what happens if you look at the event in the light of “what works best here?” or “What can I do that works with what I have?”

-Quinn McDonald is beginning to enjoy the accidental and the flawed. It’s the gift of emotional wabi-sabi.



In Progress. . .

Note: Shirley Levine from Paper and Threads won the Inner Hero book from the Endings and Beginnings blog post (January 1, 2014). Congratulations, Shirley! I hope you make many Inner Hero pages!

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Still having fun with monoprinting with my Gelli Plate. I’m not going for fancy designs. I’m going for great color. Then I use one piece for a background and cut up another for collage.


Sometimes it’s more realistic. On this one, I sprayed the plate with background once I had the paint on it, and took the print that way, giving the snowing effect.


Sometimes it’s more abstract. Beach Storm. Love the background colors. Am so grateful I can see them accurately (well, with one eye.)

Either way, it’s a lot of fun.

Have a creative weekend!

Quinn McDonald is in the studio this weekend, practicing for her classes as the Minneapolis Center for Book Arts and Madeline Island School of Design.

Monoprinting Experiments

imagesA few weeks ago, I was given two Gelli Arts Plates. My creative life hasn’t been the same since. Gelli Plates are gelatin-like consistency printing surface  that you can use to make gelatin prints without the hassle of making gelatin. I have a big weakness for monoprints. But the monoprints I learned to make are very exacting and precise, and we all know by now, I admire those characteristics–in others. Wabi-sabi and rustic echoes out of my soul.

Gelli plates are used most often in creating backgrounds for multi-media uses. And they are fun to use for that purpose. You put acrylic paint on them then roll out the paint with a brayer. To put designs in the paint, use stencils, homemade tools, or just your fingers. Then put a piece of paper on the paint, smooth the surface with your hands, then pull the print off the plate.

©Quinn McDonald, 2013

©Quinn McDonald, 2013

Quinadricone Azo Gold and Quin. Burnt Orange are desert colors that blend well with Payne’s Gray and metallic gold. I used a small tile to make the imprint.

© Quinn McDonald, 2013

© Quinn McDonald, 2013

You can layer the prints, which is super popular in the layer-on-layer art journaling pages. This was fun. But I wanted a little more experimentation. So I made a custom rubber stamp out of foam sheets. That’s a separate tutorial, but it is well worth the time. No carving. You cut out foam and put it on a piece of foam as big as the plate.


© Quinn McDonald, 2013

Here’s a foam stamp, showing both positive and negative use. This is fun. There will be more of this experimenting. But I wanted to make real monoprints. Not for backgrounds, for a print. So I started with a simple one.

© Quinn McDonanld 2013

© Quinn McDonanld 2013

Three squares, layered, but translucent colors. The middle one is stamped with a gold antique clock. The piece represents past, present and future, each affecting the next. Interesting, but not quite what I wanted–something more graphic and still abstract.

After the Fire, © Quinn McDonald, 2013. Acrylic monoprint.

After the Fire, © Quinn McDonald, 2013. Acrylic monoprint.

Much more of what I was trying to get. Landscape feel, contrasting color, and some interesting detail on the lower right corner. (Above) And then I figured out how to draw on the plate and use the accidental arc of Azo Gold. (Below)

Night Pines © Quinn McDonald 2013, acrylic monoprint

Night Pines © Quinn McDonald 2013, acrylic monoprint

I worked the dried monoprint with Pitt Pens to add more detail and to make it look a little more like a woodblock. Then I added Derwent Inktense details to create the final piece. This is what I’d like to do more of. My original intent was to write over it. Now I’m rethinking that, at least for this piece.

And now, it’s the week of Patti Digh’s Design Your Life camp, and I’ll be prepping for that as well as teaching my new Persuasive Writing course. But it was a creatively satisfying weekend.

Quinn McDonald loves experimenting with monoprints.

Surrendering to a Wabi-Sabi Life

Wabi-Sabi—Appreciation of the Imperfect and Impermanent
You are looking watching the big harvest moon rise in the September sky. You remember seeing this special moon–as big as your head–when you were a child and asking if this moon was the bigger brother of the regular moon. You smile at the recognition of the wonder of this moment.

MoonThat fragile moment of recognition is part of the Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi– the beauty of things impermanent or incomplete. It contains a profound appreciation for things modest and humble. As an aesthetic, it honors things imperfect and impermanent.

A Different Approach to Success and Abundance
Wabi-sabi is the release of control. It avoids beating up the creative soul for not achieving perfection. Recognizing and embracing our imperfections allows room for growth. The only result of demanding perfection is certain failure. Perfection is impossible, and while we live in a culture that loves people who are “passionate” and “give 110%,” we seldom feel passion for our daily lives, and it is impossible to give more than all. Perfection is a cruel boss. It leads to giving up, depression and anger rather than eagerness for growth and improvement.

Standing up for yourself, from Annie's Ink.

Standing up for yourself, from Annie’s Ink.

Living a wabi-sabi life means letting go of the stress of competition, relentless achievement, and replacing them with a willingness to let life find its own pace. It allows for space to trust that opportunities will appear, and a willingness to let the world unfurl without having full control over every activity. It is a life stripped down to what is valuable, rather than randomly acquired. It is not living without, but rather within.

In a wabi-sabi life, you recognize all things are impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete. Once you open the door to imperfection, a creative force rushes into your life, making it possible to risk, to try different solutions, to explore your creativity fully. Which leads to living a creative life–work and business combine to create a full, rich and abundant life.

How to Live a Wabi-Sabi Life
One of the hardest things to do is live in the moment. We are always planning—what to have for dinner, what time to pick up the kids, what to do if that promotion doesn’t come through.

We live our lives in the past, reviewing our mistakes, and in the future, planning

From Lady Employed, in a post about standing up for yourself.

From Lady Employed, in a post about standing up for yourself.

on contingencies and how to handle what will happen next. The current moment is empty as we rush to control—ourselves, our lives, the lives of our children. We try to control our creativity, what we make, even our intuition.

Certainly planning helps organize our time and leads to action. But when we begin to plan for every possibility, guess at every motive, fill every second of the day with planned activities, meetings and obligations, we exhaust ourselves and our families.

We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Often we can’t influence the future. What we think of as failure is simply a lack of knowing. You don’t always have to know. And you don’t always have to be in control. Take off that heavy obligation of knowing and controlling and take three deep, slow breaths. Then decide right now. In this moment. To live and grow. And leave perfection behind. And let creativity take root in your life.

—Quinn McDonald is renewing her determination to live a wabi-sabi life.

Reading List (Suggestions)

You could, of course, go to Goodreads, and ready reviews, but if you are ready for an interesting book to pick up, here are some suggestions:

WabiSabi1. Serena Barton’s Wabi Sabi Art Workshop: Mixed Media Techniques for Embracing Inperfections and Celebrating Happy Accidents. North Light Books, 2013. With a title like that, you can’t go wrong. You know how I love the concept of Wabi Sabi (I’ve written 44 blog posts on wabi sabi) so Barton’s book was a great treat. Barton finds design and beauty in the ordinary. She works with wax (encaustic), tissue paper, specialty papers, creates layers of texture and helps you create freely and deeply. Seth Apter, a contributor to my Inner Hero book, wrote a review of Barton’s book here. And Pam Carriker worked one of the projects on her blog on Tuesday.

Tribes2. Seth Godin, Tribes. Portfolio, 2010 Godin is the master of the compact, to-the-point blog post. Here’s a quote from a post about his disastrous first speaking engagement:

Just about anything worth doing is worth doing better, which means, of course, that (at least at first) there will be failure. That’s not a problem (in the long run), it’s merely a step along the way.

If you’re not willing to get your ‘worst one ever’ out of the way, how will you possibly do better than that?

He writes unselfconsciously about customer service, creativity, and, in this book, the groups we create and lead. He doesn’t tell you how to be a leader, just how some really good leaders (in today’s business world) found their way to leadership. Their secret? Passion. Leaders don’t get elected, they lead because they care deeply and get a few people, then more, to listen. He’s caught some flak because it’s not a how-to book, but how could you write a step-and-step on all leadership? It’s a dense, powerful book that is fascinating to read. Don’t have time? Listen to the audiobook.

Collage-Journeys3. Jane Davies, Collage Journeys: A Practical Guide to Creating Personal Artwork. Watson-Guptill Publications, 2008 Collage is so much more than tearing images out of magazines, and Davies makes you happy to explore the possibilities. The book covers different styles, including painting with paper, making color collage samples. layering with transparent materials, and how to develop a working visual vocabulary.

What are you reading and loving right now?

—Quinn McDonald is reading several books at a time. Again.

Evolution of Koi

When artists are juried into a show, one of the standard requirements is that the piece contain “the hand of the aritst,” or sometimes, more directly, “the fingerprints of the artist.” What juries are looking for is evidence that an artist has a personal viewpoint, an original take, a fresh viewpoint. That concept was one of the great lessons I learned in the collage class I took this weekend.

I started with a traditional Japanese koi painting, done by many artists:

Koi_black_orangeFrom there I did the underpainting, trying to keep to the original shape. But already the chop, the red-square signature block was gone,  the image was rotated to make it horizontal, and the traditional poem was gone. The painting also gave the fish a lot more background.

koiorangeblackIn class, there were problems to solve. To keep the original background smooth and even, I’d have to apply a single sheet of paper over the board, re-apply the fish, then collage them on. While that’s a choice, it didn’t feel like collage to me. I wanted to show movement, ripples, even waves of active fish swimming.

While in Sedona, I visited a gallery that was having a showing of the instructor’s work, and noticed that in a collage she did of koi, there was a distinct splash of ripples.

After some thought I decided to move away from a monochromatic background, and create the entire setting as a field of ripples, in blues and whites and ivories.

Not only that, but when I was working, the instructor told me that the koi did not have to be orange and black, that a more impressionistic view was fine, even desirable. She suggested several different pieces of paper that worked well, but weren’t orange or black.

In the end, I decided that the original placement of fish–orange on top and the shadowy gray on the bottom, was what worked best. The image isn’t complete, but this is where I am now:


It’s not the traditional koi, it’s the constant movement of koi, creating a push and pull of color and action. As artists, we interpret the world in our own way, and when we talk about it to others, we show them what we see through our eyes via artwork–collage, writing, idea presentation.

This evolution of koi is personal, my vision. Several members of the class didn’t like it,(which is fine with me). That’s the point of art–it’s not really meant to please, or to match the sofa or drapes. It’s meant to show a view of the world through the artist’s eyes, and satisfy the artist in some way. If it pleases others, well, then, that’s a great bonus. Had I decided to create a piece that pleased the majority of the class, I would have pleased no one fully. Least of all myself. In creating a piece that delighted me, I can explain a viewpoint clearly. For me, that’s art.

-Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach working on creative projects.

Prompts for a Wabi-Sabi Journal

Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic that values the time-worn, the aged, the imperfect. It is a philosophy and a way of accepting and giving up control. Bringing wabi-sabi into your life allows you to make room for daydreams, for accepting a simpler life and for valuing the riches already in your life.

Pollen dust form a leaf shape as it gathers in sprinkler run-off.

A wabi sabi journal is one filled with authentic you, the one that hungers for simplicity, nature, the organic flow of life. Here are a few quotes to help you open your mind to Wabi-Sabi. They make great journal prompts.

You are the person you are when no one is looking.

Anger is only one letter short of danger.

No one can give you abilities. For example, an Olympic athlete works with a trainer to develop her abilities, but the trainer only helps manifest what was inherent all along. Likewise, no one can give you happiness. At most, others simply help manifest the joy that was always within you.

Happiness does not mean ‘absence of problems.’ There has never been a life free from problems. It is not the presence of problems, but how we tackle them that determines the quality of our lives.

A yellow dividing line wears away on a bike trail.

Blind faith is no faith

One does not win by making others lose.

–All quotes from “Open Your Mind, Open Your Life.” edited by Taro Gold

–Image from Still in the Stream, a site reflecting on Wabi-Sabi in nature.

-Quinn McDonald teaches “Wabi-Sabi Art Journaling” and is presently updating the course. She’s thinking about making ink from ashes of burned hope.

Creative Prompt

Let’s try another creative prompt. Remember the doodle road pattern I posted a few weeks ago?

Raw art journaling in tar and road.

It was a photograph of how we repair roads in the summer–you can’t re-surface them, because the tar won’t harden. So we just drizzle tar on the cracks and wait till autumn, when it gets cooler at night.

This (2012) summer, in Washington, D.C. a plane couldn’t take off because the runway surface had softened in the heat, and the plane sunk into a pit caused by its own weight.

The cover up.

On my walk this morning, I saw the blinking light of a paving truck, out at 5:30a.m., re-surfacing the road. I watched the funny doodle-patterns get covered up. Seems that the doodle tar acts like glue to hold the surface in place.

Sunrise on a re-surfaced road

The question is–what are you hiding underneath your fresh, new surface? Specifically, what clever, interesting things are you hiding that were beautiful, but not practical. Or maybe there was something that just needed hiding.

This is a creativity prompt–not just for journalers, but for any way you would like to address it. Dance on your new creative feet. Sing your new joyous song. Sway to your new creative prayer. You (obviously) don’t have to talk about thoughts that are private, but if you feel moved to talk about what’s underneath that practical surface, let us know!

-Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach and a writer who keeps an art journal.