The Long and Winding Road... to Doodling

Greetings from sunny-again-for-now California! Yes, I'm still in Oakland. I emailed my precious list of art enthusiasts (if you're not on it yet, click here fast!) last fall about our upcoming move to Portland, Oregon—which is indeed happening this spring—because I wanted to give my local peeps time to squeeze in a last project or class. Also, I don't like to sneak up with surprises. After all, I've lived in the Bay Area since 1983, so this is a big change.

The awkward part is that now when I run into folks around town they say, "You're still here?!?" I try to take this as a good sign that people actually read my emails! :)

Anyhoo, today I want to talk about doodling.

Yep, doodling.

Or rather, I want to entice you to doodle today, with some videos we recently made.

You might not need this instruction, if you're one of those people whose vivid imagination spills into the margins of your meeting notes already. If you illustrated your college lectures, or if you can't mail a letter without adding swirls and stars to the envelope (love you, Patti!) then you can probably skip these little lessons.

Also not needed if you were that kid furiously scribbling a wild tangle of images, under the sheets, by flashlight.

I wasn't one of those kids. I was a color-inside-the-lines-of-your-coloring-book kid. A use-tracing-paper-to-copy-your-favorite-drawings-by-other-people kid. I fretted whenever the teacher assigned "creative writing" because I couldn't think of a single story line of my own, or come up with an interesting character, let alone illustrate it.

I was the kid who worried that I didn't have an imagination at all.

This mattered to me, because I've wanted to be an artist since as early as I can remember—and (get this) a children's book author and illustrator.

Looking back, I see that everything I did, every feeble, unimaginative act, was part of a trajectory. Each, a necessary step.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was on a life-long path of excavating my creative voice.

A million baby steps helped move me forward. Here are a few of them, seen in hindsight:

Those hours I spent coloring inside the lines? I was honing my fine motor skills. And apparently meditating, as per today's adult coloring craze. :)

Tracing other people's work? I was developing an aesthetic, figuring out what I liked. Exploring styles.

As a teen, I tried to go abstract, which for me meant painting geometric patterns in primary colors. (I'd been exposed to Mondrian by then.) What I lacked in whimsy, I made up for in order, tidiness, and clean hues. I was using what I had.

Then I dabbled in chalk pastels, trying to capture the stunning geography and light of the San Juan Islands, where I worked in the summers. I was finding subjects that appealed to me.

Some steps were bigger than others. Like this one:

I did not major in art, but I took a few classes in Stanford's art department—drawing, painting, photography, and art history. I lapped it all up like a special treat.

I remember the  collection of bottles that was our still life subject in a painting class one day. They were painted solid yellow, rust, and matte black, probably to make them less reflective and easier for us to render. Studying these, I started to see the blues and yellows and greens in the "black" bottle. Then I noticed how adding all those colors made my painting of a black bottle so much more realistic-looking than if I'd just used black paint. This was a revelation! So exciting for a nerdy closeted wanna-be artist. I was figuring out how color worked.

Honestly, those bottles made for really boring subject matter so I didn't keep the painting. But as an homage to that moment, about 20 years later I challenged myself to render a pair of Elena's black boots without using any black. ;)

oil pastel painting of "black boots"
oil pastel painting of "black boots"

Seeing colors helped me try on impressionism later on in the class. I'd just returned from studying and traveling in Europe, and it was the '80s. I was hooked on the Impressionists like everyone else.

Re-entering the art stream in my mid-30's, I meticulously reproduced photo and magazine images, freehand, using oil pastels. I was learning about proportion, and honing an intuitive feel for color mixing.

Around this time I had the first delicious inkling of, "Hey, I might not totally suck at this art thing after all!"

I gradually moved from simply reproducing images or photos, to combining elements of different photos from my own life experience. I was toying with composition, and feeling the first glimmers of what you might call "poetic license."

Collage was an excellent medium to get me loose and really hamming it up for the first time, visually. Enter also, some confidence. I began co-teaching collage workshops with my good friend Claudia, and enjoying art-making in the presence of—and with input from—other people.

And I started an after-school art club at the school where I was teaching kindergarten.

Showing my work to fellow humans when no one was forcing me to, was a giant leap. To get a feel for the anxiety leading up to my first art show, read this. Yikes.

Then I really went public, sorta by accident.

Pretty soon I said Yes to Dawn, when she was looking for someone to lead a few public art projects around Bella Vista School's adjacent park. Together we installed more than 500 tiles painted by students and community members.

Then I led our first painted mural project in the park. Then I led my first mosaic mural project at my kids' middle school. Then I led or co-led about 50 more public and residential art installations between 2006 and 2015. (It'll be almost 70 by this June.)

You've seen some of these beautification projects in earlier posts and emails, on my website, in your neighborhood, or at closer-than-arm's length if you're among the 4000+ people I've lured in to help me on a project. Or two or five projects. Or ten (hello Elena, Natalie, and Dawn!)

Turns out I still needed to develop those imaginative drawing skills.

So by then I'd quit my secure teaching job and started a business that graduatlly evolved into full-time art-making. I began getting hired by strangers to create murals. Oddly, they wanted to see renderings of what these murals would look like before said murals emerged on the wall and needed to be paid for.


I'd been winging it up until then, getting mural-making approval from school principals and neighborhood groups that knew me and gave me free reign. "Make whatever you want! We know we'll like it."

Now I was running with the big dogs, so to speak, doing projects for the City of Oakland, non-profits, homeowners, and other folks who assumed I knew what I was doing.

Creating sketches for this new set of clients was excruciating work. It took me hours to map out even the most basic designs, and get them convincingly professional-ish looking, not like they'd been done by a nine year-old—no offense to nine year-olds (especially the ones who could have sketched designs out better than me).

Decades and much artistic progress later, the drawings coming out of my imagination still looked suspiciously like stick figures.

I'd gotten pretty good at drawing things I was looking at, but transferring ideas from my head onto paper? Colored pencil enhancements couldn't mask my lack of skill.

I knew I'd be able to lead a group in creating a stunning mural, but now I had to prove it up front.

That's when I sought out drawing fluency, through doodling.

This 'rendering designs' stuff was going to be an increasingly important part of my work, so I got serious about it. Plus, I'd always admired those folks who could just leak crazy images from their brains onto the paper. How in the world did they do that? Where did those free-flowing ideas come from?

I had mental blocks around doodling, probably left-over from the I-have-no-imagination fretting of my childhood.

Here's the good news: It took about an hour of watching videos on Art Journaling to break through my mental block.


A lovely little website called helped me out. After a few short instructional videos, I was on my way. Hearing a professional artist say on camera, "Just choose a few shapes you like, and repeat them. I like hearts and circles," and then watching her develop a free-flowing doodle using hearts and circles, was all it took.

It's that simple? Yes, turns out it is. Doodling was demystified before my very eyes.

I was totally hooked. And liberated!

Full Disclosure

It's not like I can now magically transpose anything that enters my mind. No. What's changed is that I've lost my anxiety around trying. My pen has hit the paper every morning for the past two years, to make a variety of  free-form shapes and lines. Some of them are even kinda cool!

Spilling out my imagination—now that I know I've got one—comes more freely and joyfully. Freedom and joy are worth a lot. (Hey, isn't that what art is supposed to be about?)

Doodling was the lubricant that got things flowing onto the page for me. It's the daily art practice that fits my life.

It gets me feeling centered and playful each morning.

So you might still be wondering, "What's so great about making squiggles on a piece of paper? Any moron can do that."

And yes, you've hit on part of the beauty of doodling: It's an art form that any moron can successfully do. How fantastic is that??

But I would argue that there's so, so much more to it. And I do argue this. In the videos. That I hope you will watch.

I realize that most people start with doodling when they're eight years old and then struggle to figure out every other art medium. You just read about the 16 art forms over 40-some years that led me, finally, to doodling. Oh, well!

My extreme reverence for doodling (yes, I said that) likely stems from the very long and circuitous route I took to get to it. Now it feels like the basis for everything I do—the foundation of my days. I wonder how I went so long without it?

Take the Doodle Challenge: 1) Watch.  2) Doodle.  3) Let me know what happens.

It's your turn. I'd love for you to watch one or two or all three of my short videos on doodling, and tell me whether I've convinced you of the value of doodling. Or at least made you curious about it. Or more respectful of it as an art form. ;)

There's Ode to Doodling (3 min, 9 seconds), How to Doodle (4:10), and a Draw-Along Doodle Warm-Up (5:53).

In one of them (I won't say which), you'll catch a glimpse of what goes on behind the camera, with a "production crew" cameo. :)

Extra credit from me and the goddesses of creative growth if you post your doodle for others to see! Plenty of mine are on Facebook and Instagram already, but this month I'll use the hashtag #thedoodlechallenge. Will you, too? Or tag me, or tell me about your doodling adventures in the comments below. Or email me a photo.

I'm serious. I love seeing your doodles! It makes me so happy.

Nothing lights up my day like watching you excavate your creative voice.

Oh, and if you want to come doodle with me in person, I've got a make-shop (with adult beverages) coming up on Saturday evening, April 1st. April Fool's Day seems like a great choice for a Doodling Party, right? No joke!

I'm pretty sure this will be the last make-shop here in my Oakland studio, before I really do move to Portland. Hope you'll join me.

And happy doodling to all, for ever more!