The Journey : Lessons learned from color pencils

I mentioned on Instagram recently that colored pencils and botanical art are really stretching my brain in ways that are uncomfortable. Uncomfortable, I’m learning, is awkward and occasionally slightly painful and also, generally, hopefully, a sign of growth.


Here are some of the things I’m learning as I grow.

1. “Ugly middle” is part of the process; it’s not the end result .

The ugly middle is a thing that starts really early in a color pencils drawing. I very rarely sketch an entire piece because I am really bad at perspective.

Instead, I jump into toning {making shadows and such} from the beginning, hoping that eventually my lines will meet somewhere in the actual middle.

There’s rarely, if ever, a point where I think “oh. This is going to work out.” Does that make me a terribly negative artist? Most likely. But the piece always turns out okay regardless of that negativity, as long {and this is the most important part} as I keep working on them.

2. Keep working.

I have one initial sketch languishing in my sketchbook right now. It’s a section of a periwinkle wildflower that has been wowing me as I pass them on the road leading to our new home. And it’s... janky. The proportions are all wrong (see above regarding proportions) and the bloom doesn’t even attached to the stem.

But I’m learning that it doesn’t get any better by just sitting there. I need to A. Keep working on it. Or B. Stop. Erase it. And start over.

Which leads me to:

3. The magic of the eraser.

Here’s the thing: growing up poor gave me a scarcity mindset. The thought that resources are not just finite but actually scarce. And most likely expensive.

Working with watercolors as I did when I initially starting painting this was extremely limiting. my inner critic screamed, “what if I mess up?” and “if that brush has too much paint on it you will absolutely ruin an hour’s worth of work!” I was hesitant and constrained. Looking back at my work, I realize that the pieces I liked most are the ones where I stopped putting so much effort on myself and just let the paint do it’s thing.

How, you ask, does this call me into play with a much more detail oriented botanical drawing? The eraser. It allows me the freedom to mess up.

Shadow way too dark? Erase it.

Leaf looks unrealistic? Erase it.

The color unlike anything actually found in nature? Erase it.

The eraser is the breathing room I’ve been looking for in my art practice and I’m wonderfully excited about it.

4. I’m not making art as much as I’m learning to see.

If that sounds hippy dippy, I need you to move your reference back a few hundred years. From the 1960’s back to the Renaissance and Leonardo da Vinci.

It was actually reading his biography (and the description of his extremely lifelike botanical art) that gave me “permission” to work like this. The author explains that Leonardo honed his skill of seeing. He saw the whirls of water in an eddy and how they resemble the locks of curly hair on a child and the twirl of a vine. He saw a lack of hard lines around objects; realizing that we are more like ghosts and less like cartoon characters. He saw areas of shadow and how they are hardly ever black but instead colored with that same colors that surround the shadows.

In the same way, I’m learning to do similar things. And it’s hard. I find myself saying “don’t draw a flower petal. Draw the thing  you see in front of you.” Because even if the thing in front of me IS a flower petal it often doesn’t look like the traditional daisy flower petal I’ve drawn my entire life. It looks like an oblong pink rhombus with a crinkle on one side. Or it looks like a yellow square with a crease down the center. And the one next to it looks totally different than that.

I’m learning to see. And that’s much more intense and maybe more important than simply learning how to draw.