A dog's footprint embedded in a few inches of snow.

A Study of Stillness (Today's Daily Work of Art)

I recently shared a multitude of ways to practice mindfulness and a reader reminded me to also include photography as a method. As I’ve been gearing up for having to return to work, I’ve felt my creative connection diminishing, so I decided, after an unexpected snowfall, that observing stillness (and movement) through a series of photographs would be a good exercise. The simple act of walking outside for five minutes was transformed by this experience, so I need to repeat it!

A photograph of a branch on a bush with red leaves and berries holding large puffs of snow.
A branch on a bush with red leaves and berries holding large puffs of snow.
A photograph of a maze of tree branches extending from a tree off the side to the right. The branches are covered in snow.
A maze of tree branches in snow.
A photograph of a part of a metal bench with a single drop of icy water clinging to its lower ledge.
A bench with a single drop of icy water.
A photograph of a web of large tree branches coated in snow.
A web of tree branches in snow.
A photograph of the ends of tree branches holding snow.
The ends of tree branches holding snow.

I’m glad I spent a few minutes in nature today noticing where there was stillness and where there was movement. I was frustrated that I couldn’t fully capture the large clumps of snow that kept falling off the trees, perhaps I need to work on making short videos as well. Where can you notice stillness in nature today?

Appreciating the Winter Season (Today's Simple Pleasure)

It finally feels like the heart of winter where I live, with snow covering the grass and a cold wind blowing. I at first was displeased with having to spend time today snow shoveling, but then decided to take the opportunity to check in with each of my senses in an outdoor setting. My pup accompanied me on my journey.

I started by noticing the temperature. My face was uncovered so it was quite cold, but I soon observed how toasty my hands and upper body felt in my gloves and coat. The sensation of the wind blowing by intrigued me, as it felt as though it was sneaking past my defenses and trying to infiltrate every pore.

The smell was, for once, crisp and clean. Several of my neighbors burn wood for heat, which I hate as the smoke is highly irritating to my lungs and the odor lingers on my clothes after only a brief time outside. They’d given it a rest for once (or perhaps the wind had cleared it away) and I could detect only the scent of the snow.

I forgot to give much attention to what I was hearing, but it was in general quite quiet outside as well. There was a neighbor shoveling in the distance and a dog barked occasionally, seemingly agitated after I’d chopped up the ice on my driveway with my shovel. There were few traffic sounds.

In terms of vision, I felt bored looking at the dead, light-brown grass peeking through the thin layer of snow here and there. I then remembered my flash of insight this fall in regards to including the sky in my observations. I looked up and the most subtle, beautiful set of blues, whites and greys awaited me. The sun was hidden but the sky looked cotton-covered in a soft palette of clouds. I read in the last few months about the Cloud Appreciation Society. I am too lazy to join their ranks but I think they are on to something as I feel so rewarded whenever I remember to look up.

All in all, taking a few moments to connect to the experience of winter, rather than to simply shovel it out of the way, helped me reset my mental state. What is the weather like where you live (thoughts to those in NSW in Australia right now!)? With which sense do you most appreciate colder temperatures? If you practice mindfulness in nature, how does it affect you?

Time Enough (In the Cards)

Today’s card invited reflection of how the pace of my life is going. I decided to focus on how I hold my sense of presence and time in situations where others are present. I believe that my experiences here will guide me in finding places where I connect with a felt sense of safety.

I went out to a restaurant with a group of friends last night and noticed a moment pass where I would normally feel like time was “up,” where I’d become impatient and want to leave. After my reflection on having PTSD, I believe this surge of anxiety occurs when, as a result of either internal or external stimuli, I come to view the experience as containing threats from which I want to flee. At dinner, in the moment this would have happened, my internal system instead read “you are safe” and I was enveloped with a wonderful sensation of calm and a near-hallucination of a clock shutting off. What time it was and how much time there was left in the encounter weren’t my most pressing concerns.

In almost every other social setting, I feel as though I am in a race where the goal is to survive until time runs out. Maybe I’m trapped on a level of the simulation or my programming is broken! In all seriousness, the intensity of needing to rush through and have whatever is happening end is overwhelming. I look forward to events much more than I enjoy attending or remembering them.

I do not believe I am able to engage in mindfulness or present-moment awareness in the presence of others for any length of time. As soon as at least one other person is in the same room as me, I lose my connection to my body and my sense of time becomes at least slightly distorted. Every day when I leave my job, I find myself waiting for myself as I leave the building, crawling back into my skin and inhabiting my breath and my rhythm for the first time in hours. Who I am around others is often only a shadow-shell of my true self.

My experience of time is less affected in outdoor spaces, where the elements help me reconnect with my body and remind me of shifts outside of my own reactions to stimuli. If waiting rooms were parks and grocery stores outdoor venues, I would perhaps respond with less rage. Small, confined rooms such as medical offices are especially taxing. I recall a few moments where I felt highly connected to friends; most of them occurred in green spaces with people far and few between.

This reflection has enabled me to note a direct connection between where I am and how intact my perception of time remains. People are not the only variable; fresh air and a luxurious amount of room in which to rest or walk about also play major roles. What factors affect how you perceive time? To what extent is your connection to your body impacted by the presence of other people? In which spaces do you feel safest, where a sense of more than enough time and place are pervasive?

Natural Inspiration

In learning about permaculture in a class I took, a principle that I found intriguing was that of designing systems based on patterns that exist in nature. I haven’t applied these concepts to any attempts to cultivate plants, but I am finding the concept coming back to mind as I create my In an Open Hand deck card illustrations. In essence, I am experimenting with a more abstract form of art that is still rooted in nature.

I succeeded in drawing a pine branch that I found aesthetically-pleasing, but, as soon as I attempted to draw an entire tree, I found myself completely out of my depth and managed to pencil only a very abnormally-shaped and odd Christmas tree. I have plans to take a colored-pencil class next summer which will hopefully help me improve my skills, but, after my trip to the art museum, I started contemplating the idea of capturing nature on a more abstract level. What I’m currently trying out is outlining a natural shape, such as a pine tree, and then filling it in with more abstract forms such as wavy lines. What I’m making looks a bit like a cartoon but at least approaches something that isn’t repulsive to me.

PHysical Patterns

What I love about turning to nature for ideas is that there are many from which to choose. Below are a list of websites that list possibilities for designs based on nature:

A few commonalities among the website suggestions include waves, spirals and web formations. As far as I understand it, permaculture focuses on physical design to benefit both humans and the ecosystem and is not concerned with aesthetics as a core value. However, I like the idea of tapping into the components of the natural system as a source of creativity, rather than limiting myself to a literal (and highly imperfect) representation of what I take in through my senses. To the extent that you spend time outdoors and/or in nature, how do you translate what you see into your creative passions? In terms of artistic creations, where on the spectrum of literal to abstract do you find yourself falling? Why?

A colored pencil drawing of a pine branch with green needles. The branch is drawn from the upper left to the bottom right of the paper.

Needle by Needle

I finally drew something I don’t hate! I created this pine branch using my Faber-Castell colored pencils on Strathmore 400 Series Colored Pencil paper. In addition to two types of green pencils, I used yellow to highlight and blue to shade. All the pencils I used are in the 12 pack starter version of the Faber-Castell (I cannot emphasize enough how helpful it was to limit how many pencils I’m trying to incorporate).

In terms of technique, I first started by looking at a pine tree and realized the needles covered the branch as well. I sketched in the brown wooden part of the branch lightly first. I used green at first to line each branch at an angle with both shades of green. Next, I drew with yellow on the ends I wanted to highlight, and blue closer to the branches on the underside and where they met. Finally, I covered the wooden part in a cross-hatch motion nearly parallel to it with both shades again.

In terms of improvements needed, my color balance is messed up because I added the smaller areas of needles after the first few branches and they got too much blue, and because I rotated the final drawing in my photograph. I have to work on where and how to photograph my drawings as the overall color is too dark as well but I was too lazy to go outside in 20 degree F weather to try there. Finally, I have to consider how to make the branch appear more 3-D–I think the needles are alright for this but the branch itself looks rather flat because of the angle I used on the parts that split off.

I started my colored pencil drawings attempting to draw an entire tree and it did not go well. I think I have to break stimuli into their components in order to be able to have any chance of creating a visual representation I find palatable. Observing what I am trying to draw in person proved very useful so that is something I will be continuing. If you like to draw, what do you find useful in drawing natural objects? To what extent do you focus on realism? What serves as your inspiration?

A lake in winter with the sun gleaming off of it and leafless trees lining it in the distance.

Visiting a Body of Water (Today's Simple Pleasure)

Today’s Simple Pleasure was very cold! The weather has taken a sharp turn into winter where I live, so my photo shoot was brief and I was left with numb fingers after only a few minutes. It was worth it, though, to visit a local lake that never fails to astonish me with its beauty.

I know people who love to sit in front of a fireplace or bonfire and feel that their cares melt away in the flames. Observing a body of water, especially a river or lake, has the same effect on me. I especially appreciate that, although the surface itself is so alive and ever-changing, even more is happening below, out of sight. The combination of unknowable depths, fluidity and quiet power that water holds makes it the element to which I most strongly connect. What is your element of choice? What effect, if any, does being near water have on you? What does it represent to you?

Night Sky Musings (Today's Daily Work of Art)

I’ve fallen in love with the sky. Late fall and winter have often been bleak seasons for me, given that all the vegetation is dying off. Now that I’ve started to notice the clouds, sunlight and array of colors present above, I no longer feel that this time of year is austere and lifeless. My only frustration has been my inability to convey in artwork the beauty I’m witnessing in nature.

The card I drew today focused on representing the dark, so I chose to attempt to illustrate the night sky using my set of colored pencils. This was even less successful than some of the day scenes on which I’ve been working. The black, magenta and blues I used seemed too bland and, strangely, lacking in light compared to what the night holds.

I need to spend a lot more time in contemplation of the sky as well as to take a lot of photographs of what I’m trying to capture in order to more fully capture its magnificence. The moon must have a place too! Have you tried to illustrate or create an artistic image of the night sky? What have you found helpful in doing so?

Seasonal Foliage (Today’s Daily Work of Art)

I didn’t intend to draw trees without leaves as my first colored pencil project, but my attempt to create fall colors quickly left me disheartened so I shifted my concentration to bark and limb. Below are few beginner (as in, I’m a beginner) tips I’ve gleaned so far. I’ve linked to the products I’m using but am not an affiliate with any of the companies.

  • Begin with the background. One positive about drawing a tree that will be in much darker colors than the sky is that you can first create the background layer and build on it. Once I move back to including leaves, I’ll have to leave dead space for where they will be placed. In order to layer sky colors, I paid extra attention to some brilliant autumn mornings as my inspiration.
  • Outline the tree in your mid-tone color. I’m using Faber-Castell pencils, so I outline the trunk and branches in walnut brown and add the highlights and shadows later. This choice makes it easy to adjust without creating weird lines between the branch and the trunk.
  • Consider limiting your color choices if you are just starting out. I purchased the full set of colored pencils from Faber-Castell but am only using about 15 or so to create my drawings currently. This has greatly reduced my stress and has prompted me to think about how colors blend together. I’ve most enjoyed making purples and peaches in my sky by blending two or three colors together.
  • End the branches in triangles not squares. I made a tree each way and the blunt-ended squares made it look like it was dead, whereas using a thinner, pointed end for the branches allowed it appear at rest. This is obvious if you think about trees, but didn’t register for me until I finished a layer.
  • Consider proportions before placing any strokes. I got too enthusiastic on one of my trees with the grasses underneath, and they turned into a seaweed shape. The trunk to branch proportion has also been difficult for me to get my head around. I think the width of all the main branches should probably very slightly thinner when added together as compared to the trunk, and there should only be a few main divisions (one of my trees had a super-wide trunk with many main branches off of it and it did not work for me).
  • Burnishing is where it’s at! I’ve been using Gamblin gamsol to burnish the sky colors together (lay down a layer of colors, burnish and repeat), and using my Prismacolor colorless blender pencils on the tree portion. The tree is draw over the background, so there is a great chance of smearing it if I tried to use the oil. Burnishing allows the colored pencils, especially if they are oil-based like the Faber-Castell, to appear more like paint.

My tree, if I am able to make one that I feel is good enough to include on a card for my In an Open Hand deck, will be set in winter rather than fall. I almost gave up on the whole enterprise after my first set of leaves looked ridiculous, so I’m glad I found something I am able to create that has potential.

If you are starting out and you get overwhelmed, I encourage you to break down the elements of what you were trying to draw and to see if you can perfect one component at a time. After drawing all the trees to get to one I like, I think I’ll be better prepared for that elements once I start including leaves. Please leave any colored-pencil tree drawing tips, beginner or otherwise, below!

Healing Presence (Today’s Daily Remembrance)

Living in the present moment has enabled me to gain perspective in regards to my trauma history. If I’m grounded, I’m less likely to get lost in a sea of negative thoughts or to make irrational decisions based on negative emotions. My dog, my meditation practice and my time in nature are my most reliable conduits into present moment awareness.

Dogs live for the moment. My dog can occasionally show signs of holding a memory or anticipating the future (for example, if I mention a bath or going to the store), but he spends most of his time anchored in the here and now. When I find myself lost in panic, he will sit with me or demand a snuggle, and I can detach slightly from the pull of before and after.

I am not the most regular in my practice of mindfulness, but I do return to breath-work whenever it enters my mind. Finding my center, especially in noticing the gaps between each out and in-breath, reorients me into my body which allows me to come present. Giving my full awareness to simple actions like sitting or walking with intention serves as an additional current-moment touch-point.

Finally, immersing myself in nature helps me focus on the present. I especially appreciate the beauty of trees and love the texture their bark provides underneath my fingertips. The sounds of leaves crinkling in the wind and the warmth of the sunlight on my skin make every moment special. If my present is captured outside with my dog while I open my field of awareness to all of my senses, I am not only here for it, I’m joyful. What helps you ground and center? What best connects you to the present?

Exploring a New Art Medium (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

After much deliberation, I’ve finally arrived at the medium I am going to use to create my In an Open Hand intuitive deck: colored pencils! I’d spent time reflecting previously and had thought digital art was the way to go. I’d planned to purchase an expensive computer and use Adobe Illustrator to illustrate the cards.

As I sat with the decision, however, I felt more and more uncertain. Specifically, I kept imagining myself dropping a few thousand and then feeling totally overwhelmed by the process and too lazy, frankly, to move to another part of my house to spend time on my artwork. My dog and I have an evening routine of sitting on my couch and I came to see that whatever I do, at least for now, has to be easy to access as well as portable in case I want to work outdoors or in a cafe.

Because of these realizations, I settled on colored pencils. There is a class I can take next summer locally on working with the medium which excites me even more and which made the choice easier. My lack of self-control led me to purchase both the Prismacolor set (wax-based) as well as the Faber-Castell set (oil-based) and lots of accessories. (Side note: it is easy to justify spending a few hundred when you can tell yourself you are “saving” over a thousand dollars 🙂

The colored pencils are scheduled to arrive soon. I plan to start by creating gradients and practicing my technique before trying to actually draw any of the elements of my cards. Luckily, there are lots of Youtube tutorials that have given me a likely exaggerated sense of self-confidence that I can produce beautiful art with this medium. I will eventually have to at least photograph my artwork (if I make it that far) to have the deck printed, and can explore the digital art format if needed. I believe that years of exploring my spirituality and my creativity have led me to this new chapter, and I cannot wait to write it. Which art medium have you been exploring lately? What has it taught you?