Copyright Notice

© Copyright 2020 Brenda Swenson retains copyrights to all images (artwork and reference photographs). All images on this site are property of Brenda Swenson and may not be used in any way for commercial, financial or personal use without written consent. Brenda Swenson retains all rights to republication (printed and digital) and anything but personal viewing of artworks.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Not All Papers Are Created Equal

Pasadena City Hall. Handmade paper
I like to shake things up when it comes to paper. I use non-traditional papers a lot: slick to rough surfaces, white to toned. I sometimes tone paper with tea, ink or gesso. It creates an old world look. And I often use papers NOT intended for watercolor. Why? It stimulates creativity and develops problem solving skills.

One of my favorite toned papers is Canson, Mi-Teintes. Even though it’s normally used for pastel and charcoal, it handles watercolor beautifully. The paper has a 65% rag content, 98 lb. weight and is gelatin sized making it sturdy enough for watercolor. The paper has two surfaces: smooth or lightly toothed. I like the toothed side.  

My editors cat,"Stripes". Toned paper
A few things to keep in mind when working on a toned surface.
1. Use less water to avoid excessive warping.
2. Your colors will look different. Why? Transparent watercolors allow the tone of the paper to show through. I like how it creates color harmony.
3. Select papers that relate to the subject. Example: Warm tan for cat’s fur or cool gray for stormy scene.
4. Add white. White isn’t necessary but when I want to add a lighter value or highlight I have many options: White Gouache / White Pen or Marker / White Ink.

I imagine a few people have raised there brow when they read, WHITE PAINT. When it comes to my work I am always pushing the boundaries of what I know and the limits of watercolor. If white was good enough for Sargent, Homer, Turner…it’s good enough for me. I’ve heard people say “white is cheating”.  If you are entering a transparent watercolor show any opaques (colors or white) isn’t allowed. With that being said, only two transparent societies are in America today, Watercolor West and Transparent Watercolor Society of America. All other watercolor societies allow white (along with pastel, acrylic, collage, ink…). Purely transparent paintings are unique and deserve a show of their own.

I’ve included a video for you. I think it will answer a lot of questions about papers, supplies, techniques... If the video doesn't upload please use this link to view on my YouTube Channel.


If you don’t see a link you’ll need to do the research on your own.
Canson Mi-Teintes Pad with assorted colors.
White Pitt by Faber-Castell

White Gouache

Sharpie Marker: Water Based, Extra Fine

Please let me know your thoughts and experiences with different kinds of toned paper and white pens or paint. Have fun trying something new. 
Please stay safe healthy and creative, 

© Copyright 2020 Brenda Swenson retains copyrights to all images (artwork and reference photographs). All images on this site are property of Brenda Swenson and may not be used in

Friday, June 19, 2020


Who knew waiting would take soooooo long! For months we've been living in limbo complements of COVID-19. Waiting to see loved ones, waiting to work, waiting to get my hair cut. At first waiting sounded so easy.

The first month I had a few low down, miserable days. I lacked energy and focus. That unnerved me. Many artists' I've spoken to have expressed a very similar feeling. I was comforted in knowing I wasn't alone. I learned to be patient with myself and didn't force creativity. I still went to the studio every day and did something no matter how small. Little by little energy and focus returned. Being home for months has given me the opportunity to physically recharge and find new focus in my work. By not adding additional stress to my life I found a new rhythm and joy in the studio. And then the emails, messages and phone calls started coming. People asking, pleading and even telling me what I needed to do (to make confinement easier on them). I was overwhelmed with requests from individual and associations to teach on:, Zoom, Craftsy and Facebook Live. They'd say: It's easy. You can do it. We need you. You owe it to the art community. Gee whiz! That's a lot of pressure to put on somebody. Don't get me wrong. Teaching is one of the greatest joys in my life. But at this moment teaching online is not for me. I might feel differently down the road but right now, the answer is, no thank you.

Last year I taught 15 workshops in 10 months (nationwide and abroad). It was exciting, fast paced, rewarding and admittedly exhausting (at times). The last few months has given me time to recharge and focus. I've been painting more, walking a lot, writing, calling friends and family and cooking more (to my husbands delight). I've started painting outdoors again! I can't tell you how much this is done to lift my spirits. This week I painted the Lavender Fields of Highland Springs Ranch, Cherry Valley, CA.  It feels like a blessing and a privilege to be doing what I love. Masks are not required in the field but many people came close to watch me paint. I felt better wearing a mask.

In many ways it's been a busy time for me. I judged an international exhibition, wrote an article for Watercolor Artists' Magazine (June issue), participated in two major exhibitions: Transparent Watercolor Society of America and California Art Club Gold Medal Exhibition, completed numerous larger paintings and even sold three pieces. I also have a really big project in the works! I can't give  details, but it involves instructional videos with Creative Catalyst Productions. Pre-release sign up and interview

What does my workshop and show schedule look like in the future? Good question! I update my WEBSITE regularly. Please know my Blog (this site) and Website are two completely different sources of information.

What am I waiting for? To be with those I care about: family, friends, fellow artists' and students. I long to share meals together, attend shows & receptions, teach workshops and travel. But until I feel it's safe for everyone to be gathering again, I'll be waiting.

Be well, Be safe, Be creative,

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Use Your Words

What is the purpose of art? Ponder that question for a minute…

I communicate with images but sometimes words are needed to express the full range of emotions or experience. Most people are familiar with my travel journals but only a few have seen my personal illustrated journals. Why is that?  Within these journals I am vulnerable and emotionally raw. When life gets terribly mournful, cruel, full of hate, sorrow, grief, fear…I go to the books to paint and write what I can’t expressed fully otherwise. I use images and words as a tool to take the turmoil within me to unravel my feelings. The pages are not intended to be seen by others. 

If you've been in one of my illustrated journal workshops you'll recall I don’t pass around original books…EVER. I’m careful to tuck them away when I leave my desk.   However, I make copies of books that contain content that is appropriate for a workshop setting (travel, garden, cooking…).  On the final day of the workshop I share how I’ve used the illustrated journal as a place of refuge and healing. I believe the purpose of art is more than decorating homes, museums or galleries. It must feed and restore the soul of the one who creates it. 

We’re a hurting nation and world!! So many emotions we don’t know how to process. COVID-19, isolation, loneliness, unemployment, police brutality, death, riots, social injustice… I’ve seen a lot in my life but I’ve never felt or experienced what I am seeing and feeling today.

I rarely share on this level…it makes me uneasy. So why do it? Sometimes we have to take a risk for the sake of others. We each have gifts/talents/skills and opportunities to use them. What we do with them is up to us. As for me…I use my ability to teach through example. Try to use your images and words as a tool to take the turmoil within you to unravel your feelings. Ask questions, get angry, seek empathy in a face…and healing. You may not find answers. But when you take emotions and put them on paper something will happen inside you… the emotions will no longer fester and poison you. You’ll be able to think clearer and find peace.

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Martin Luther King Jr.

Be well, be creative and seek peace,

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Negative Painting Demonstration, Matilija Poppies

The matilija poppy is frequently called the fried egg flower. One look and you can see why. The petals are bright white with intense yellow centers. They can grow to a height of 8 feet, with the flowers up to 6 inches across. The plant thrives where I live in California. In the wild, they are also known as "fire followers". Why? They often grow in areas that have been devastated by wildfires.

Negative painting requires focusing on the space between shapes. A photograph will not solve that problem. Photographs are a tool and inspiration but not to be relied on too heavily. The sooner I respond to what’s happening on the paper and quit looking at the photo the better off I am.

I start by drawing the Matilijia poppies with a 2B pencil on Arches 140lb cold press paper. I'm especially aware of the space and shapes between the flowers and leaves (negative space). I want shape and size variety. I draw enough to get the general shapes, but not too much. I intentionally leave areas understated so I'll have opportunities for negative shapes to develop in the painting process. 

I start with 3 colors in the underpainting. To determine which colors I make color swatches. The paints need to be the same consistency as whole milk, to encourage ample mixing on the paper. I'm looking for colors that relate to my subject (warm or cool dominances ) and have good mixing ability with each other. The 3 paint colors I selected are: Cobalt Teal Blue, Hansa Yellow Medium, Anthraquinoid Scarlet.
I can use semi-opaque colors in the underpainting but after the underpainting ALL paint colors need to be transparent. What is opaque and transparent? Learn here.

#3  UNDERPAINTING  (i.e., the first, thin transparent laying in of color(s) in a painting)
I tape my watercolor paper to a board. I wet the entire watercolor paper with clean water and introduce the 3 paint colors separately into the wet surface. I encourage the paint to mix by tilting or rocking the paper. I don’t overwork the surface with the brush. I leave a third of the paper untouched with paint. As it dries the paint will continue to move. I want light/whites to remain on the white petals. Let throughly dry.

#4 START GLAZING  (i.e., a transparent wash of color(s) laid over a dry, previously painted area)
I pull French Ultramarine and Quinacridone Gold into the mixing area of my palette. I let the paint mingle in the center but keep pure color towards the edge. The idea is to get rid of everything except the important lightest lights (white petals and a few leaves). I start in the upper left hand corner and work clockwise. I paint hard edges against the petals and soften as I pull away. I vary my colors slightly with a greener dominance on the bottom. Let throughly dry.

I pull out fresh paint into the center of my palette. The paint puddles can touch in the palette but a lot of mixing is still happening on the paper. I use Quinacridone Burnt Orange, Phthalo Blue (GS), French Ultramarine and Green Gold. I carve out shapes with hard edges against the petals. As I move across the lower section I want my colors to move from blues into deep greens. My favorite mix for deep greens is Quinacridone Burnt Orange and Phthalo Blue (GS). With each brush load I shift the green, slightly by adding in French Ultramarine or Green Gold. Let throughly dry.

At this stage I like to work the background and the flowers at the same time. I make another pass underneath the flowers to suggest additional leaves with the same mixture as before. I also paint a few positive leaves and buds above the flowers. The Matilijia centers are Permanent Yellow deep with a touch of Quinacridone Burnt Orange on the shadowed side. The shadows on the flower petals are light Cobalt Blue with a touch of Permanent Yellow Deep near the flower centers and Green Gold toward the edge of the petals.

To say these are difficult times is an understatement. Everything we know as the "norm" must be re-evaluated. 
In recent years the California landscape has been blackened by wildfires but today the landscape is healing and new growth is taking place. More color than I’ve seen in years. We are in a firestorm of a different kind (COVID-19). The matilija poppy is a good reminder that we will heal, thrive and bloom, again!

One thing I know is true…I am a creative person. The best days are when I sketch and paint. I feel happier, more positive and alive. Creative people are the lucky ones. We don’t need much…a little inspiration, paper, paint and brush.

Paper: Arches 140lbs Cold Press
Paint: Daniel Smith Watercolor
Quinacridone Burnt Orange, Anthraquinoid Scarlet, Permanent Yellow Deep,Quinacridone Gold, Hansa Yellow Medium, Green Gold, Cobalt Teal Blue,Cobalt Blue, French Untramarine, Phthalo Blue (GS)

Be creative, positive, helpful…and well,

© Copyright 2020 Brenda Swenson retains copyrights to all artwork. All images on this site are property of Brenda Swenson and may not be used in any way for commercial, financial or personal use without written consent. Brenda Swenson retains all rights to republication (printed and digital) and anything but personal viewing of artworks.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Do Nothing...?

I miss everyone. My family, my friends and plein air buddies. Especially the creative banter we shared, the energy that bubbles up from being side by side painting, expressing views, joking, group critiques… Social media can fill a void but it’s emotionally short lasting.
I miss the art community, teaching and art friends. I was geared up and ready to roll. My workshop schedule was in full swing (years in planning). Eleven workshops across the US and overseas. Art projects in the works: videos, articles, exhibitions…now canceled. Shows I judged…canceled. The abrupt halt...knocked the wind out of me

My emotions fluctuate between feeling energetic and wanting to crawl back in bed. I’m not alone here. Don’t take me wrong…I’m grateful to be healthy, and have food in the fridge and (so far) my family is healthy, too. I live in California and we are told to “Shelter in Place”. Authorities say the best thing we can do to help is… DO NOTHING. I get the message STAY HOME and it will help to slow down the spread of COVID-19. 
I can be of more use than...DO NOTHING
Some people are sewing masks, calling people at home (shut-in, friends and family). What can I offer of my gifts? What can I do? And then it came to me! Letter writing. I'm not talking about emails. I'm talking about good old-fashioned snail mail. Everyone love something in the mailbox. Something to look forward to. Every morning while I sip my coffee I can write three people. Just simple notes to say hi and I'm thinking of them: Friends, family, elderly, shut-ins… Words are not my strength but art is. What is a better use of my gift than sharing it through a note of friendship and compassion? I’m using my home printer to print copies of my sketches. I’ll include a short letter along side my sketch to say hi and let them know I’m thinking of them. 
More than ever people feel isolated and lonely.  What can YOU do to make a difference? If you have an idea please share.
Stay well my friends,

Monday, March 16, 2020

Productive and Creative Amidst Chaos

We know these are uncertain times with COVID-19, but I’m optimistic and hopeful. I won’t let fear get the best of me. Most of the country is practicing social distancing, self isolation or self quarantine (the new catch phrases of 2020). Events like these bring out the best or worst in people. 

When was the last time you were given the unexpected gift of time? Yes, that’s how I look at it. If you’re healthy be GRATEFUL. How are you going to use this time? When was the last time you: read a book, chat with friends on the phone, wrote a letter to a dear friend or spend time enjoying lunch in your backyard? When I get tired of all this rest and relaxation I can always get to work around the house: clean out closets, go through old files, organize photo files on the computer, clean kitchen drawers…the list is endless.

Let’s be honest…I’d rather paint and be creative! I have stacks of sketchbooks I need to photograph and document. In fact the sketches you see in this post are from my trip to Maui one week ago. I planned on writing a different kind of post but the world has changed in a very short time. The sketchbook you see  is the Stillman & Birn, Beta, soft cover, stitch bound. When closed its 8.5 x 5.5 inch and opens to 8.5x11 inch. 

As I started to photograph these sketches I realized it was a good opportunity to share how I photograph my artwork. Years ago I made a set-up to photograph my sketchbook. It’s easy to make.

Natural softer light in the morning is the best for photographing watercolors. I usually set up in the back yard or on my front porch at 9am. I use push pins to hold the sketchbook open. Avoid having shadows in the valley of a sketchbook or shadows from curled edges. Turn sketchbook towards the sun (not angled towards the sun). The most important thing is to be straight on to the sketchbook and not keystoned (keystoned is when parallel objects shot from above or below will appear to converge). Make sure the edges of the sketchbook look perfectly straight when viewed on the camera screen. 

Example: A  Keystoned                                                     Example:  B Correct

There's a lot of expensive lighting equipment and bulbs but I prefer natural light. I have a flat bed scanner but I’ve never liked how my images looked when scanned. The colors are flat and miss the gentle shifts in color. I’m sharing what has worked for me. Some people may differ in opinion…that’s okay. I’ve used this process to photograph art for two of my books, countless other books, magazine articles and major art exhibitions. It works for me.

This may surprise you but I use my cell phone camera... iPhone XS Max. I love the big screen, easy ability to make adjustments before and after I've taken the picture. Sometimes I use a cellphone tripod  but not always. Inexpensive cellphone tripod adaptors are easy to find on the internet (if you want one). 

How will you look back at these days of self isolation and self quarantine what will it look like? Wringing your hands in fear or will you use your time wisely as a healthy, productive, creative person. The choice is yours...Who will you be? 

Stay well my friends,

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Extra Time Doesn't Exist

Every day has 24 hours. Time always runs out at the end of the day. We’re never going to have EXTRA time. It doesn't exist!  Laundry will need folding, dishes washed, yard work, grocery shopping… Trust me these things will be there tomorrow.

Some days family comes first...I know this all too well. Sorrow and loss has visited our family many times. What I’m talking about is moments in the day we waste. What do you mindlessly give your time to? Is it scrolling through social media, sleeping in, shopping… ?

I’m as guilty as the next person.I was better at finding reasons why I wasn't living my dream 
then putting energy into making it happen. So what was the problem? Simply put…ME! It’s easier to make excuses than taking responsibility and making it happen. The honest-to-goodness truth is I had to change my thinking. I didn’t value my time. I’m not alone here…its common thinking among women to see what we do for others as more valuable than ourselves. What we fail to see is creativity is the core of who we are.

It all sound so easy but where do you begin? 5 minutes is a start! Start small and enjoy the little jewels you create. Keep your expectations realistic. Don't expect to do a masterpiece if you only have 20 minutes. Sketchbooks are a great place to build confidence. 

I made a short video to help show what I mean. See 3 separate examples of what can be achieved with limited time and supplies. With a bird as my inspiration I show design, shadow and color. Each sketch is on a different surface. 

Click on image to see the video or visit this link 

We make the choices of how we spend our time…PERIOD. What are you waiting for? Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. Proverb 13:12

If you'd like to learn from me in person please visit my Workshop Schedule for 2020. I know this isn't possible for many people to attend workshops. My blog and YouTube channel is especially for you. 

Happy Sketching!