Let's Talk

Project Portfolios are not only for Professionals


My students often bring old projects to class

Because of the way my classes run, very few students actually finish a full image in class. Class time is essentially for learning a technique and for troubleshooting problems. The real work happens at home, so I'm always thrilled to see finished pieces.

I also love seeing what students have learned in other classes. It's great to hear about what other teachers are teaching, that helps to keep me on my toes!

But here's what I've noticed:

It's very rare for a student to show me a portfolio.

Nope. Most students bring one of two things:

Do you shove your projects into a sketchbook? Boy, do we need to talk! | VanillaArts.com
Do you store projects in file folders? Boy, do we need to talk! | VanillaArts.com

Either they drag out a sketchbook with loose drawings shoved in-between pages of other drawings.

Or they bring the File Folder of Death.

Can we please talk about this?


I'm about to make a suggestion...

And I know about 50% of you are going to object.

Or at least feel a little squidgy about the concept.

You need to start compiling a portfolio.


Yes, you.

Okay, let's hear the objections:

You're not an artist you're just someone who likes to color and this stuff is just class exercises and it's only mediocre work at best because someday you're doing to do these projects again and it'll all be perfect then and you'll think about putting THOSE perfect projects into a portfolio but why in the world would I tell you this stuff is worth putting into a portfolio???

I know. Portfolios are something artists do.

Real artists. The kind who wear berets and striped shirts and have officially been licensed as artists by the Worldwide Bureau of Artists Who Do Real Art (that's the WWBAWDRA for short). 



Portfolios are not an artist thing. They're an everyone thing.

But here's the twist-

I'm not telling you to start a portfolio to protect your artwork.

That's a given. It's common sense; proper storage of your pile o' projects helps keep them from getting torn or dog-eared.

And yes, it's especially important to protect Copic, colored pencil, or watercolor projects from sunlight. Sunlight does do nasty things to projects sitting out in the open. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

That is not the reason why I want you to start binding your projects together in portfolio format.

Here's my ulterior motive: 


You will learn more from your own history than from any other source

And that includes teachers like me.

Do you have a pile of projects just sitting there? Boy, do we need to talk! | VanillaArts.com

I can only teach you a technique.

You have to discover how to use that technique to your best advantage.

It's a self discovery process.

You need the ability to look back at projects you did last month, last year, two years ago, and even the stuff from wayyyyy back when you thought Donny Osmond was hot stuff.

Your cache of work is a record of what worked and what went horribly wrong. It's a valuable learning tool.

Flipping through the pages of a portfolio is the ideal way to make observations and comparisons. You forget most of what you learn in class, I'll bet 90% of what I tell students is completely wiped from their brain within 48 hours.

But you knew it long enough to use it in the project. Seeing that project helps you remember. Seeing a good project next to one that failed helps you diagnose and prevent carrying that bad technique on into future projects.

Portfolios aren't just a collection of past projects, they're the key to success on future projects.


So what kind of portfolio system should you look for?

Easy is the best.

You want your portfolio to be as simple as possible, something that takes only seconds to house your projects.

We're trying to eliminate the tendency that humans have to stack stuff. The last thing that we want is for you to stop shoving your projects into a sketchbook and start shoving them into a "to be filed someday" pile.

Portfolio sleeved-books are an easy solution to storing your past coloring projects | VanillaArts.com

Back when I freelanced, I used to mat all my good stuff and slide it into an acetate sleeve, then the whole thing was bound into a screw-post style hard-bound booklet. I also had a digital portfolio where everything was professionally photographed and then stored on a website. And yeah, both of those portfolios styles are pretty much a beret-wearing-mustachioed artiste kind of thing. 

But this is what I do with my class projects now and this is what I'm suggesting.

Plastic cover presentation books with clear PVC sleeves inside.

There are two styles, one with the sleeves permanently bound, the other is more of a ring binder system (usually 5+ rings). The ring style make it easier to re-order your projects but the perma-bound style is more compact and easier to store.

Pretty much all portfolio binders come with black sheets of paper in each sleeve, so it takes only a millisecond to pop your project into an empty slot.

Mount your projects to cardstock before placing them into a portfolio binder | VanillaArts.com

If you're feeling fancy (and I do recommend getting fancy) you can center mount your project on a piece of cardstock before sliding it home. Projects mounted to the correct size cardstock are less likely to fall out later.

I use double sided tape but if you want something less permanent, consider using adhesive photo corners to hold your project down.

Crop your art in a manner that best shows it off. I prefer keeping things square with a guillotine trimmer but occasionally it's nice to fussy cut an image (especially if the finished project is close to the binder page size).

For smaller projects, you can mount two projects to a page.

The point is to keep it all clean and crisp looking. Don't mount projects on colored or patterned paper, you want the art to shine, not the background! Stick with gray or black for best results, and keep the entire book uniform, this isn't the time to show off your extensive collection of cardstock.


What about the exceptions?

Maybe some of you work large (or teeny-tiny). Good news, portfolio/presentation books come in many different sizes.

And for all you card makers, those who generously give away their best projects? I definitely recommend photographing or scanning your art before you work it permanently into the card and send it off to Timbuktu or Kalamazoo. 

The same holds true for those who make 3D items or work on alternative surfaces like canvas or wood. Your camera, even a phone camera can be a life saver.

and psssttt... if you're photographing your own handi-work, please resist the urge to do the card-making blogger thing. Don't photograph the whole entire card from a pleasing angle in front of a nifty backdrop with four props alongside. That looks great on blogs but we're looking to record the art itself, not memorialize your still-life-shooting skills. Take that photo dead-on with no angle, in good light and with crisp detail.


Begin your portfolio today and keep using it

You'll thank me later.

It's a valuable learning resource and it looks great on your coffee table!


The Myth of the First Try: why your artistic path should be littered with dead bodies


If there aren't a few corpses on your desk, you didn't make art.

No, this isn't a Halloween post but I guess my macabre humor is timed pretty well.

I'm sitting here typing this message on table littered with abandoned attempts.

I tackled a project that sounded like fun a month ago... now I'm beating my head against the wall over it.

I've been working on this cursed project for over a week now and I'm still trying to draw it right. I counted this morning. I have 31 different sketches, scribbles, and studies sitting here and not one of these sketches is worthy of paint.

Yeah, that's pretty bad for me. That's about double the number of pre-sketches I usually do.

Hey. Please go back and read that last sentence.

"double the number..."

Yes, it really does mean that I lock in about 15 sketches, mocks, and drawing attempts before I take a project into production mode. For class curriculum using a manufactured stamp image, I might color it about five times before I'm satisfied... but if it's an original drawing, something out of my own head, 15 studies is about average.

Edison Lab at Greenfield Village | VanillaArts.com

Learning from The Wizard...

One of the benefits of living in south-eastern Michigan is way back when I was growing up, our elementary classes would make a yearly pilgrimage to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.

"The Henry Ford" as it's known in these parts is pretty much the Disneyland of historical museums. The original Henry Ford (yes, the car company guy) paid to have the Wright Brother's shop moved to Michigan from Ohio. He also purchased the entire Menlo Park labs of Thomas Edison, every single piece of equipment they could find, and brought them over from New Jersey.

I like to think Henry did it just for me.

I loved the Edison Lab. They called Mr. Edison the Wizard of Menlo Park and his lab (accurate down to the labels on the jars, placed on the correct shelves) is a place where serious magic happened. Steampunk heaven. It's a bummer that you have to stand behind ropes, looking at it all from a distance.

... I swear, if I ever win the lottery, I'm making a big, fat donation to the museum so that I can jump the rope to spend hours gawking at all the flammamabobbers and whooseywhatsits on the tables. I'm guessing they can't say boo to big donors for breaking the "stand back" rules!

Anyway, as a kid I remember being quite impressed with the tour guide's speech about how it took the laboratory team more than 1,000 tries to get a working light bulb.

1,000 tries to get it right?

I decided to look that fact up this morning. The number is based  upon a second-hand quote of Edison which might be apocryphal. A friend of Edison's related the conversation:

'Isn't it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven't been able to get any results?'  Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: 'Results!  Why, man, I have gotten lots of results!  I know several thousand things that won't work!'"

Apparently, they were talking about batteries at the time, not light bulbs.

Edison himself claimed 3,000 tries for a light bulb.

Francis Upton, Edison's lab assistant puts the number much higher. The incandescent lamp took 10 years to develop. Less than halfway into the process, after just three years, Upton had counted 2,774 experiments.

So yeah. My 31 sketches are child's play compared to the Edisonian scale of idea development.


Want to hear something pretty dumb?

Many colorers color an image only once.


If it doesn't turn out pretty and perfect, you get upset. You scrap the project and move on to something easier.

And the ol' self-esteem meter takes a big hit each time you abandon a project for something less challenging.


Listen up: Art ain't easy

There's a reason why people think artists are nuts. Artists have a long history of tip-toeing off the deep end of sanity. Depressives, bi-polars, addicts, suicides, ear chopper-offers.

It's normal to close your eyes and see the art clearly and yet be stuck with 5 thumbs on each hand when you try to make it happen.

The artistic drive is really hard on a person's psyche.

No one makes the art they envision. No one really ever makes it into the end zone.

It takes guts to keep trying.

And trying.

And trying.

And trying.

So if a student comes to me and says "Hey, I colored this once and it's not very good..." I'm always a little puzzled.

Where are the other 12 attempts?

How can you judge after only one shot?

I'm not sure who started the rumor that artistic talent means you have magic flowing out from underneath your fingernails, that real art happens on the first try in a moment of sunbeams and inspiration...

Because that person needs to be shot.

About 2,774 times.


If it's not a challenge, if it doesn't tax every single one of your brain cells, you aren't growing.

It's that simple.

If Michelangelo wept over his own lack of talent, what right do I have to give up after only 31 sketches?

And perhaps you need to re-evaluate your own One & Done theory.

Because real growth happens on the third or fourth pass. Or on the fifteenth. When you've gone over something so many times that you're considering chopping off your own ear, that's about the time you start progressing.


I'm not trying to scare you off

I really do want you to keep coloring and to enjoy the process.

The pope isn't paying you to Copic his ceiling, so there's less pressure here in Crafty Stampland.

But still, I want my students to understand that what I bring to class is absolutely, positively, not, not, not the first time I've colored an image.

I've got a freekin' degree in art and I still color simple stamps a half dozen times before I make a class out of it.

So if you're expecting to duplicate my project on the first attempt, that's a completely unreasonable expectation.

It's going to take you two or three shots, and that's on a project where I've done all the thinking and experimentation for you. I've tried 14 wrong markers so that you can color from a functional color palette. I've stared at the image for hours charting the danger zones and trouble spots so that I can warn you about them in class.

And if you're coloring a brand new image at home, one where you're starting from scratch, do not expect the Mona Lisa on the first try.


If you're a colorer and you're just coloring for fun...

... stop reading now. This is not the blog post for you.

But if you're really into this hobby, if you really want to grow and stretch and get ever so much better than you are right now...

Well, that takes work.

I can't sugar coat the process.

You can absolutely do it. You CAN learn to do this. It is not impossible.

But it takes hours.

And practice.

Your desk should be littered with the carcasses of half finished, failed, and not up-to-snuff projects.

Thirty one dead bodies. And that's just a good start.


Now I don't mean to go all Debi Allen on you here.

The price of fame... and good coloring | VanillaArts.com

Fame does cost and I suppose you do pay for it... in sweat... I guess.

But even if you're not shooting for the spotlight on Broadway, even if you're just trying to color a digi image with a little skill, you do need to spend time practicing.

Any teacher, any instructor, any tutorial that promises you otherwise is lying.

There is no quick fix.

Skill comes from practice.

Art comes from development.

The divine light of inspiration doesn't waft through the room carried upon the burps of unicorns.

Malcom Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at something. On days like today where I'm looking at 31 miserable failures, I'm thinking Gladwell may have underestimated the price of progress.

It's an ugly process.


But it's also incredibly rewarding.

Stick with it.

No matter how many dead bodies fill the trash can.

Color it. Then color it again. Color until it looks a little bit like what you wanted it to.

Then put it away for a few weeks.

Then pull it out again to start the process over again.

That's how you'll improve.

Skill doesn't come from finding tutorials on Pinterest.

There is no tutorial in the world that's going to develop your technical tool belt and instinct.

You can read and research and color one-offs for years but you're not going to get it until you put marker to paper, one time, two times, twenty times on the same image.

It builds a little with each pass.

And you will see growth with each attempt.

You will get a little closer to the goal post every time you sit down to practice. 

keep trying. keep practicing.

And yes, that was 2,774.

I'm humbled and laid-low at the drive and determination.


Improve your Coloring: Develop an Eye for Detail


what sets a great colorer apart from the mediocre ones?

An eye for detail.

I'd call it an artistic eye but then a whole bunch of marker fans would immediately tune me out.

Because hey, I'm not an artist-artist. I just like to color. So I don't need to know about this artsy eye stuff, right?.

Wrong. Dead wrong.

If you're here reading my studio journal, then you're doing more than coloring 2" free stamp images for card fronts using Crayola markers. Or you're at least thinking about moving beyond the basic level.

You are here because you want to improve your coloring skills.


I hereby decree that from now on: advice & info for artists is applicable to you!

An article on improving studio efficiency? Use it if you can! Marketing tips? Might be handy. Product reviews, philosophical discussions, and tips for desaturating colors with gray? Please at least skim some of this stuff because it can and does apply to you.

Improving your awareness of the things around you? HIGHLY APPLICABLE TO YOUR NEXT COLORING PROJECT.

You've heard me talk about using photo references before and this is more of the same theory.


The more you study and observe real objects (and photos of real objects), the more details you will notice in your daily life.

It's the small little somethings that will set your coloring apart from the average crowd.

Detail of Vermeer's The Procuress | VanillaArts.com

Artists (and really good colorers) pay attention. They look and study and stare at life's little details. They look at life with an artist's eye and they add those details to their artwork.

Here is a closeup of a Johannes Vermeer painting, called The Procuress. The full painting is a riot of loud color, bold personalities, and four people having a rockin' good time...

But check out this glass.

It's a tiny detail but it takes my breath away. Every time.

You can see the jug reflected in the goblet.

Vermeer didn't have to paint that. It has absolutely nothing to do with the story being told in the painting. In fact, it's a quiet moment in an otherwise boisterous painting. It's a teensy thing but it's a stunning bit of artistry.

But he's freekin' Vermeer. Of course he added a reflection! He was a genius and me? Well, all I do is play with markers on the weekend...

Sure, I get it. You're not a Dutch Master. I'm not a Dutch Master. But that doesn't mean we can't learn a thing or two from a pretty damned good artist.

I'll bet you either own this stamp or you own one that's very similar.

And I'll bet you colored the edges aqua or gray but honestly, you probably spent most of your time on the flowers or the firefly which you stamped inside the jar.

Chances are, when you colored this image last time, you did not pull up a photograph of a ball jar nor did you look at the jar sitting right there on your desk. You did not research how a ball jar really looks.

I can tell when someone colors from memory and uses their preconceived notions rather than looking at an image reference. So can astute viewers. 

It's that kind of mindless coloring, that I'll-do-it-how-they-did-it-on-Pinterest attitude that will keep you mired in average coloring.

By not shopping for photo references, look at the beautiful highlight you missed out on.

It's a little bit of Vermeer that you can add to your own images. Details like this will knock your viewer's socks off.

And here's the cool thing, by spending 10 minutes of your time Googling "ball canning jar" and looking for jars with cool highlights, you are going to start noticing and appreciating the highlights on all kinds of glassware in your daily life.

You'll notice how the stained glass light fixture over your table at Ruby Tuesday's is perfectly captured in your husband's glass of Summer Shandy.

You'll see yourself holding the cat, all reflected in the lenses of your daughter's glasses.

And you'll see a beautiful summer sky, tree tops and birds in flight, in the windshield of a rusted-out truck.

Your whole outlook on glass will change just from taking notice of what you can see in reflections. And it's that paying-attention-to-details habit that will draw people to your coloring work.

Here's another case where an artist really paid attention.

Rockwell's Girl with a Black Eye | VanillaArts.com

Norman Rockwell's Girl with a Black Eye.

Rockwell didn't just slap down some purple paint on her eye, because everyone knows that shiners are purple.

Instead, he took the time to really look at a black eye and ended up with a very distinct combination of indigo blue and magenta.

The pink bruise sits very precisely on the upper eye lid while the indigo rests primarily in the tear duct area. He didn't give her an all over raccoon mask kind of eye patch.

It's not your typical assumption of a black eye and that's what makes it so charming and wonderful and                                                                      real.


Research time is never wasted time

If you are coloring a little girl holding a cat, you need a photo of a cat or you need to be looking at your own cat- while you are coloring. You miss a great opportunity if you don't know where the whiskers sprout from, how the jaw is shaped, where the cat's fur is short.

Because in your mind that long haired cat has long hair all over it's body. But it doesn't. It has long hair on SOME parts of it's body. But on the chin and muzzle and forehead, that hair is short and it grows in a very specific direction.

The stamp artist didn't include that information in the stamp. You have to add it.

And 9 times out of 10, when something looks a little weird or it looks a little creepy, it's because you colored it differently than it occurs in real life. If your stamped cat looks like Cousin It, it's because you weren't thinking about real cat fur when you colored the cat.


Everyone has the potential to develop an artist's eye for detail. And your eye grows as you use it.

It's like muscle or cornfield baseball diamonds in Iowa- if you use it, it will grow. 

And unlike giant biceps, a strong artist's eye enhances your enjoyment of the world around you.

You'll find new things to appreciate about your daily life. You'll start seeing beauty in the regular stuff you used to ignore. Your boring life is really a giant party of color and light and shadow... and that's true even on the days when you don't leave the house.


Observation and awareness. It's a colorer's best friend.

Here's a great video from The School of Life on YouTube. Every time he says "draw" you should be hearing the word "color".


Improve your life, improve your coloring by looking closely at the world around you.


Let's Talk: change the way you think about thinking


“How do you come up with these cool ideas?”

I get this question a lot.

Well, that and “Is this credit or debit?”  I hear that one a lot too.

But back to the creativity question, a lot of people are curious where ideas come from.

And I used to respond, “I don’t know, things just kinda come to me.”

Which helps absolutely no one.

A better answer is needed. A lot of people want to be more creative, inventive, and interesting. It’s an earnest question, a noble goal, and it deserves an authentic answer.

So, I’ve had about 44 years to think about where creativity comes from. Here’s my conclusion:

There’s nothing really unique about me, you can be creative too.


Now we’ve all heard foofaraw like that before. Every single one of us grew up hearing that we could be an astronaut or the President of the United States. And even though we all believed it, very few of us are sporting a NASA jacket or have a cool Secret Service code name like “Big Tuna”.

But here’s what I’ve noticed about the self-described “uncreative” people in my life. They are pretty darned creative at things other than art.

That’s what sets humans apart from animals. Humans have this wild and boundless capacity to find clever solutions to problems. You were born to be creative the same way that a fish knows how to swim and that a spider knows how to freak the livin’ beejeebus out of me.

If you’re human and you’re breathing, you’re doing something creative. Right this very instant. The trick is to channel your natural creativity into something productive.


Creativity is in you, what are you using it for?

My husband is an engineer and a lab manager. He spends his day looking through an electron microscope. When he’s not doing that, he’s telling his employees to get back to looking through their electron microscopes.

It’s not a terribly creative job unless you look below the surface.


No, he doesn’t get to paint or make wonderful messes with paper and string. But he’s not totally uncreative. He designed a better lab setup. He teaches interns and new employees how to run very technical machines. And most of all, he manages to get 30 somewhat anti-social lab geeks working in the same room without anyone killing anyone else with readily available radioactive materials.

That takes creativity.

Each of us is creative in our daily lives. It may not be the Leonardo Da Vinci type creativity, but it is creative. Maybe you’re an accountant who is able to calm stressed-out clients. Maybe you’re a real estate agent with never fail presentation skills or you’re a kindergarten teacher who has gone 40 days without a Play-Doh up-the-nose emergency. Almost everything you do in your daily life involves some sort of creativity.

So stop beating yourself up about not being creative like the artists on your favorite blogs. You have it in you, the trick is to tap into it for more than just work.

Everyone needs to do something they love, even if it’s just a hobby. If you’re not reading a few books or taking a few classes to explore things you enjoy, you are doing yourself an injustice. Tap into the creative spark that is waiting within you. It was there when they told you that you could be an astronaut and it’s still there today. Use it.


Creativity isn’t stagnant. It’s like water, it goes where you channel it.

If you look at my lifetime portfolio, there’s a big gap of absolutely no activity from about the year 2004 to 2007. I wasn’t in my studio very much, except maybe to mourn the fact that I wasn’t in my studio very much.

I was pregnant and spent 3 months on mandatory bedrest. Meanwhile, my five year old daughter discovered the power of “NO!” and used it on everything from Cheerios to debates about why we should always wear underwear. Then my son’s 2nd grade class deteriorated into chaos when a student began using the other kids as punching bags. And when I finally had the baby, he had a mild condition which required numerous visits to a clinic about 2 hours from our home.

So yeah, so I was pretty busy doing other stuff.

I quit all but one teaching job. And I didn’t do much arting.


But here’s the weird thing. I did other stuff creatively. I taught myself to knit and made about 18 sweaters. I started writing quirky newsletters for a few area businesses. And I became known as the cookie mom. Because hey, if I’m going to bake cookies, I’m damned well going to make some freakishly artistic cookies.

I also convinced my daughter that the only way the Fairy King will ever make you a Butterfly Princess is if you’re wearing underwear when he visits. 10 years later and she’s still wearing underwear.

Creativity will find a way out.

But not if you’ve set up a mental or physical dam to prevent the flow.

If you fill your life with marathon television programing, if you do housework every night of the week or spend your weekends doing menial errands, if you fill your life up to the rim with constant chatter and activity and mindless busy-ness, artistic creativity has no place in your life to make an appearance.

The Art Muse needs a bit of quiet to germinate in your brain. You have to give her the time and space to peek out and say hello. And you have to give her some tools to play with.


 And here’s something else to chew on:

Maybe now is not the time to be creative

Perhaps it’s not an appropriate time in your life to be channeling the Art Muse.

I’m a studio artist and I teach art classes, that’s me. It’s what I do best and it’s what I love to do. But when I had three very young and needy kids, plus a ton of absolute crap going on in my life, it would have been highly inappropriate for me to lock myself in my studio and devote my life to art.


Maybe today isn’t the day when you can tell your boss to shove it, move to the beach, and begin a new life assembling sea shells into frog sculptures. You might not be there now but what about a few years from now?

We all have creative and less creative points in our lives. Be smart and admit that this may not the right time to be totally immersed in a creative life.

Be patient but do not hesitate to seize the moment when it finally comes.


But just because you’re in a slow season doesn’t mean you should stagnate.


Do what you can, when you can.

This may require a bit of sacrifice. Maybe you forgo watching Project Runway this week. That’s an hour in which you could be card making or playing with clay or doing whatever it is that makes your Muse happy.

Maybe you say no to organizing the church picnic and use that time to attend open studio hours at the ceramics shop.

Or you buy a book on enameling techniques rather than a bodice ripper.

Or you actually use the new set of watercolor pencils that’s been collecting dust under your bed.

Your creative life will be reflected in the choices of how you spend your free time. Even just 5 minutes this week will improve your spirits. One step, no matter how small will get you a little bit closer to living a creative lifestyle.



Ultimately, please understand this:

Creativity doesn’t strike lucky people out of the blue like lightning bolts.

It’s pretty easy to sit back and say “Well, I could make stuff like that if I was creative.”

Nope. You are creative WHEN you make stuff like that.

Creativity is a practice.

I get my best ideas as I’m working on a previous idea. Thinking triggers more thoughts and making art gives birth to more art. It’s a groove that you get into.

Creativity is the product, not the source.

So if you’re sitting around waiting for the light bulb to appear over your head, you might just want to get comfy because you’re going to be stuck in the dark for a while.

In the coming weeks, we’ll talk more about creativity, talent, inspiration, and living more artistic lives.

In the meantime, let's talk. Are you in a slump right now or are you in a creative period? If you’re coming off a low point, what was it that pulled you out?