How to Watercolor in Six Easy Steps…or so she said.


Last night I taught a watercolor class in a cute little shop in Fullerton for The Craft Cabinet. I’m not really an expert at the fine art of watercolor or anything but I wasn’t about to let an opportunity like that pass so I taught them everything I know—and then I brought along my friend, Deb, who is a real artist who works with watercolor washes everyday in case anybody wanted to ask the tough questions. Her art is amazing.

Before I share my photos from the Craft Cabinet event I thought I’d share with you guys what little I do know about watercolor. Who knows, maybe it will be interesting to someone or maybe you can laugh at me. There are a lot of different ways to paint with watercolors. Some people break it down to a science. I prefer to paint by the seat of my pants.

what you need

Here is what you will need to paint like I do:

• A set of watercolors.
You can spend anywhere from $80 to five bucks. These ones pictured were pretty cheap. They are a little chalky when they dry but they do the trick.

• Brushes
Basically you’ll need a small brush for small details and a bigger brush for bigger shapes or background washes. I like a round-tipped brush because it can really absorb water as well as maneuver into small places but I’ve used angled brushes and fat brushes…you kinda just have to experiment to find out what you really like.

• Two jars of water
One for washing your brush and one for new clean water

• A pencil
Number Two is just fine.

• A white soft eraser

• A pen
You know me. I love a .38 Unibal Signo from Tokoyo Pen Shop but any pen will work. I’ve even used my daughter’s pipsqueak markers.

• Watercolor paper

• Salt (optional)

draw it

Step One: Draw in Pencil

Draw your object in pencil softly onto your watercolor paper. I love to paint flowers personally. They are colorful and soft and there are a lot of variations of shade and shape that makes it really interesting.

This is not a post on how to draw but I always try to tell people to not over-think it. Don’t be a perfectionist. If you can’t draw like Norman Rockwell then don’t try to. Take a more abstract approach and draw what you feel instead of what you think you know. Our brains want to draw flowers according to the codes we’ve been taught since childhood. We want to make a big circle with five loops and call it a day. That’s not painting a still life, that’s just drawing a symbol.

If you want to draw what is in front of you, really look at the shapes you see. The ones in positive space and the ones in negative space. Don’t worry about the rules of what goes where, just draw the shapes. Sometimes it helps to squint your eyes a little or draw with your wrong hand. You’ll hate it when you are in the middle of it and it all looks like a mess but don’t give up. Usually, nine times out of ten, the weird right-brained drawing will actually turn out better than the straight forward I-can’t-break-the-rules left-brained version.

You can call me crazy. But it works for me. Give it a try. Maybe it will work for you too, maybe it won’t. Just consider it a fun exercise either way.

wet it

Step Two: Paint with Water

Pick an area and paint it with just water, no paint. This is what you will paint first. It’s a good idea to paint your light areas first because you can’t paint light areas on top of dark. You can always go darker but you can’t go lighter with watercolor. It’s too translucent.

flow it

Step Three: Flow in your paint

This is the fun part. Grab some paint from your palette and flow it into your wet area.


Side note: You might need to mix colors to get the color you want first or you might get lucky and have a palette that already has a bazillion colors at your disposal. Professional artists will have all kinds of fancy ways to mix paint but I’m kind of a messy artist and I mix paint everywhere. On the palette, on my paper, along the edges of my kit. If you find that things are getting too messy, just rinse your brush and start somewhere clean.

Once you touch your paint to the wet area on your paper it will spread like magic and then stop when it reaches the edge of your shape. The surface tension will hold your paint to the edge of your shape. You can manipulate the color around your shape with your brush or you can pick up your paper and gently let it run where you want it to go.

Watercolor is kind of like playing with a marble maze and your wet area edges are the walls. Roll the paint and water around and have fun with it but don’t tip your paper too much or your paint might jump the surface tension wall and drip right off your paper. If you have too much water or paint you can always blot it up with a tissue or paper towel.

salt doesn't always work

Step Four: Paint everything but don’t let your wet shapes touch!

Once you have one shape painted you can move onto the next but you can’t ever let the edges of your shapes touch if you want to keep a hard line between them. For example, if one petal touches another petal it will run together and there goes the definition between your two petals. Always paint areas that are away from each other. Then when those areas are completely dry, you can go back and paint the adjacent areas. If for some reason you don’t pull this off and your petals do run together into a blob don’t give up. Blobs can be pretty too. You can always fix them later with some pen and ink. Or even scrub them up a bit with a clean brush and just water.


You can add layers, blend in different colors. A neat trick is painting one color and then adding another color on top that will push the first color to the edges. If you get too much liquid or something isn’t looking the way you like, just blot up a bit with your paper towel.

salt whispering

Some people, like my friend Deb, even lightly sprinkle regular old table salt onto their paint at this stage to create a cool snowflake effect. There’s a trick to it though that I personally haven’t quite mastered. It only works when the water is thin and the salt is light. It takes practice to get it just right, kind of like skipping stones along the surface of a lake.

complimentary background color

Step Five: Paint your background

Once your subject matter is dry now you can paint your background. I like to paint motley washes to simulate an out-of-focus depth-of-field look, bringing the focal point to your subject matter…but you can paint stripes or a solid color, it’s your call. Just like you painted your shapes you will wet the background with water and then apply your paint the same way. I like to wet the entire area and then add little drips of color and watch them explode across the page. If you want a more even look, work fast with your paint strokes so that it pushes the paint over your entire area, not stopping too long in one area. Where there is a lot of paint settling is where you will have darker color.

details in pen

Step Six: Add pen and ink!

You really need your paint to be dry before you attempt this last step. You don’t want to mess around with ink and water. It’s a little more inky and permanent and less forgiving than watercolor. But when your painting is dry just outline your pencil lines in ink. You should still be able to see them. Add in any detail you were missing. Redefine the edges that seem a little muddy. You can even hatch in some shading if you are into that. Actually, you might want to skip this whole step altogether but I personally like to do it. It’s my cheater way to make my painting look better. If you have a blob, now’s your chance to draw a flower on top of it (even a circle and and five loops) and it will look beautiful! Trust me. Just wing it!

And now I’ve taught you everything I know. Now go forth and paint!

p.s. Does anybody want to win my practice painting? Comment and I’ll pick someone randomly next week and mail it to you as a postcard. What? You don’t even want it for a bookmark or something to fold up and stick under that wobbly table leg? Fine be that way.

Spring Break in Zion

camp girl

Bug and I just got back from a week’s vacation in Zion National Park, in Southern Utah. It was amazing. I don’t think I’ll be able to write a proper post with little stories about each picture I took because that would just take me too long. But I do need to write a little something about it because this trip was monumental in so many ways.

oh Zion

Mostly because I took this trip with Toby. When he first asked me to come along I flat-out refused. There were so many reasons I couldn’t/shouldn’t/wouldn’t go. It was crazy that he would even ask.

Firstly, I had been out of work for a complete month because my laptop died. I couldn’t afford to take a vacation now, of all times. Secondly, he’s my ex! Do I really want to spend that much time with him? Thirdly, well, there really wasn’t a thirdly but number one and number two counted enough. It was just a crazy idea.

But he talked me into it. Of course he did. I think what really got me was knowing that Bug would have a better time if I went along. I know it’s all in my imagination. I worry like crazy when she isn’t with me and it’s silly. She always has a good time with her dad and he takes great care of her. But I always picture her missing me or maybe he would forget to feed her on time or keep her up later than she should be up and she’d be tired and grumpy, etc…. (Not that that doesn’t happen with me too—heh.) I just felt like I could make things so much better if I were there.

Then there was the fact that I really love camping. Toby and I used to camp all the time. That’s what we did back in the old days. I want to say “the good old days” but those days were troubled too so I shouldn’t really cast a golden glow on them. But I am sentimental about them nonetheless.

It’s a strange thing about divorce. I don’t want to stay married to Toby and I know we are going our separate ways. (He’s moved on. He has a girlfriend. Someday I will probably move on too.) But it is still hard to let go. We had so many dreams together. I think in a way this trip was a goodbye to those dreams.

Not that the future is grim. It’s not. We both have bright, shiny new dreams and they are still overlapping because we share a child. But they are not the dreams we once had and I have to admit there is some grieving that goes along with saying goodbye to those dreams. We’ll never have that house in the country together with the greenhouse with birds and orchids. We’ll never listen to that King Crimson album again playing from a stereo in a living room with a wood floor that we daydreamed about for so long. We won’t make crepes in the morning or buy a fancy espresso maker together. He won’t take me to coffee shops along the Eastern Sierra because he knows I’m jonesing for some civilization in the middle of nowhere.

There will be a new woman doing those things with him and even though I’m happy for her and someday I want to meet her and be friends with her, there is a tiny piece of me that is sad that I am not her. She will fill the cracks that I couldn’t. I tried so hard. I really did. But I couldn’t do it.

I am moving on. This is my new life and I choose it. But I don’t choose it lightly.

And that is why this trip was such a big deal. It was a turning point. One that has been a long time coming. If my life were a book it would be a very very slow boring one with way too many chapters. I think I am finally in the middle of the story.

But it was a great trip.

on the road again!

We didn’t fight along the way. Toby played his music while the hours slowly crept by with the creosote bushes and Joshua trees. We made jokes and taught Bug about our favorite songs. I sat in the back with Bug like I always do. Strangers don’t understand but that’s okay.

road trippin'

Bug is probably the only one who will see us both as who we really are.

entering Zion

We finally got there and it was exactly how I remembered it. Zion National Park is so beautiful. The Grand Canyon is crazy big and awesome but Zion will always have my heart. The Mormons called it Zion because it was like a sanctuary from the outside world for them, a refuge from being persecuted. I understand that completely. When the walls rise up so high on both sides of you and the air is so still in the narrows of the canyon, it does feel kind of like the reverent quiet you experience when you are in a great church. The sheer size of it reminds you how small you are and how great God’s gift is to us.



I want to share all my pictures with you but they don’t really capture the magnitude of what it was like to be there. You’d probably nod off. So just make it a point to go there at some point in your life and sit on the canyon floor for a moment or two. You will understand what I mean.


But don’t go during Spring Break because it is crazy crowded there. The weather was perfect, there were no bugs, no mosquitoes, no humidity, not much cold…it’s perfect that time of year and everybody knows it. You can’t find a campsite for the life of you and you can’t go up or down a trail without having to stand aside for big giant groups to pass. But it was still awesome.


I love camping! And I love teaching my girl to love camping.

Woke up to wind.


hot chocolate!

cozy fire

The tent, sleeping outdoors, the campfire, the campfire food…it’s all a bundle of fun and wonderfulness.


Post hike.

Dinner! Everything tastes 10 times better when you are camping. We are hungry!!

Nothing tastes better than campfire food when you are starving. Nothing.

hopping along

The hiking…

rock grommet

rock climber

through the narrows

The exploring…

hanging on

The hanging-on-for-dear-life-ing…


The rocks…

not the only ones here

The canyons…


The goofballs…


The Virgin River

The rivers…

river girl

Bug is a true river rat. She was writing up her Spring Break report for school and it was all about the river for her. Maybe I’ll have her write a post about it here later.


I let her borrow my small waterproof camera as her camera for the trip and she got some great shots.

underwater photography

down by the river

snap snap snap

little photographer

Of course I got some great shots of her too. That’s the funny thing about taking pictures when you are on vacation in a beautiful spot. You want to take a picture of everything but you know when you get home, those pictures will be boring for people to look at. What makes them interesting are the people in the shot next to the amazing scene in nature. Because a picture of a river in a canyon looks the same in 1973 as it did in 1923. The only thing different would be the quality of the film or the clothes on the people in the picture. So when you’re so busy trying to crop out the tackily dressed tourists and their giant lame motor homes, maybe you should reconsider.

In fact, I thought maybe I should have made a point to take pictures of the tourists instead of trying to crop them out. That would be an interesting documentary. What do tourists have in common? How are they different? What makes someone who is obviously out of shape want to take a two hour hike up a rugged path to see a waterfall? How far will they push themselves? What epiphanies do they have when they get there? Are they working out stuff too? Sometimes you have to strip away your busy day-to-day life to figure out what is really going on and what is really important. That’s why we take vacations right? Something to think about. It’s not always escape.

walk this way

The Emerald Pools

these shoes are made for...

I wore my Crocs the entire time. Hiking, camping, kicking around in the river…they were great. And then when I got home I dusted them off and wore them to church.

heading down to the drips

red mud

Maybe you’ve noticed a theme here. Everything is red! The dirt is red. It’s something to do with the iron and oxidation. It’s pretty.

cave dweller

(She was tired. It was a long hike.)

read road

Even the roads are red in Zion.


I even got some painting done but it quickly put me to shame. How am I ever going to teach a class on watercolor this weekend? Eeek!

can't we keep her?

We made some new friends.

perched on top of the world

learning the ropes

And we survived our week! It was a great week, actually. One that I will treasure because it will probably never happen again. Toby and I talked a lot about it. He kicked around the idea of camping together again someday but I know deep down it probably won’t happen. Not unless his new girlfriend and I become fast friends. I like to daydream that we will but that’s probably silly. We are a new family now. A family of two parts.

manzanita flowers

Two parts that made one spectacular person. We are so lucky to have her. All of us.