2017: The Year in Sketches

Five years back I was doing a “year in photos” post (2012 // 2013) in addition to my year in books. Since 2017 was my first full year of sketching, I thought I’d bring them all together and look back on the year through the lens of my sketchbook rather than my camera.


Above is my first sketch with Moment Sketchers, watching “Parenthood” on Netflix while sick in bed.

While waiting for my flight to Madrid in O’hare, backpack and personal compass in hand, I decided to do my first “out in public” sketch of the trip right there at the gate. I went to a nearby coffee shop and asked for a paper cup, then filled it up at a drinking fountain. I ended up using this very cup for water while painting throughout the following three months!

One day during my week-long Madrid visit I had a lunch and “blue wine” by myself at this restaurant, sketching the whole time I was there and finishing the painting later at the apartment.

This is a card I painted for a friend at Puerta de Alcalá—one of my favorite landmarks in Madrid. It’ll be fun to go back in the future and sketch it again, now that I have a full year under my belt.


At the start of the month I flew from Madrid to Naples, beginning my exploration of Italy.

I want to point out that above (and below too, actually—hah!) is an example of one of the sketches in my journal that I strongly dislike—it’s just displeasing for me to look at. That said, I enjoyed the afternoon I sat out on the balcony sketching this scene, which is why I’m sketching in the first place. To slow down and appreciate my surroundings and their corresponding moments, while slowly developing a new skill. Later on I’ll point out a few that I’m particularly pleased/proud of how they turned out, though the intention is always to enjoy the time spent playing with my watercolors.

Near the end of my stay in Naples I spent a day visiting Pompeii. When the week was over I headed to Rome.

After Rome I took the train to Florence, where I spent my next week tuning into smaller moments.

Above is another sketch I really don’t like to look at—but I can still remember that afternoon and the wander walking which brought me to this grassy side of the river. Plus, it’s the action of painting “messes” like these that moved me an inch further along towards “better looking” sketches. The only way out is through. To get better at something, you have to practice where you are now and keep going, even if your results aren’t pleasing to your eye. The act of sketching this scene still gave me experience looking at something and attempting to capture it in pen and watercolor. And it’s the accumulation of such experiences which helped me to paint some sketches I’m particularly proud of later on in the year.

Inspired by paintings in a watercolor journal I’d seen in a gift shop, I tried a new style in the sketch above, skipping the pencil and pen.

When the week was up I took a train to Bologna (where I puked for the first time—but not last—on these travels).

The above sketch is one I’m particularly fond of—both because I’m pleased with the result, and also because while sketching it I met a street poet who then introduced me to some of his friends at a nearby café: Urbana Cafe.


From Bologna I took a local train to tiny Dozza, where I worked on a small farm via HelpX for two weeks, in exchange for room and board.

When my farming days were up I took another train to Venice, where I’d spend my final week in Italy.

And then it was off to Munich to visit my friend Max.

Here’s the full story behind the above sketch, and below are two cute swings from Max’s kitchen.

And then I returned to Montpellier where I got to soak in the home comforts at Damien’s parents’ home.

One of my first days back—another Moment Sketchers weekend—allowed me to sketch at Parc du Peyrou, the very first place I’d sketched the day I bought my watercolors the previous fall. How fun to look back and compare!


This little sketch above is meaningful to me because it represents an inner shift that had taken place over the past few months, putting my creative pursuits first. That day Damien had to work on his motorcycle (or something), so I decided to take a walk in the nearby garrigue and paint. Later on I reflected that when we’d been together the previous year, I never went on a walk by myself to the beautiful nearby garrigue when we were at his parents’ home. Yet here we were with only a week together this visit, and I was happy spending my afternoon there painting and he was happy to bricoler. Often it’s going back to familiar places (home) and unconsciously breaking from old routines which shows me just how much things have changed underneath the surface.

Pooh Watercolor

I’m also proud of the above Pooh watercolor painting, made at the request of Damien’s mother for the nursery she runs out of her home. It was a moment where I could feel I was stretching myself by saying “yes”—stepping into uncharted territories: huge canvas, characters I hadn’t drawn before, knowing it would be on display—but saying “yes” was notably easier this time. (By this point I’d said “yes” to Giovanni in Florence when she’d asked me to paint her, sketched in public every place I’d visited, and continued to nurture a growth mindset when it came to painting. All of this came into play when I stepped up to the challenge and viewed Damien’s mother’s request as an invitation to try something on the border of my comfort zone.)

The very day she asked me about it, Damien and I took the tram into Montpellier to buy a big sheet of watercolor paper at an art shop and I ended up finishing the whole thing by nightfall. To go from “I’m not sure if I can do this” to “I did this!” in such a short timeframe—thanks to taking action—was quite powerful.


Once back in Wisconsin at the end of April, much of my time was spent working on the Trains on Main public art project, but May’s Moment Sketchers weekend got me out painting at a nearby park.


As you can see, it took the June Moment Sketchers weekend to break my month-long non-sketching streak. Thank you, Moment Sketchers community! Above you can see part of my garden, which was a defining element of my summer.

On a trip to Wausau to visit my great aunt Lois, she pulled out her chalks one night and gave my sister and I an art lesson. (Lois is an amazing oil painter and all-around artist.) Above is the fox I drew—another creation I’m proud of!


Painting my friend Chad’s niece (above) is when I created my 100 Portraits project—though again, it was a collection of moments (painting myself way back in January, saying “yes” to Giovanni’s portrait, etc.) which got the idea into my mind and propelled me to begin.


I made the above painting while putting together this site, specifically my Values page. It was quite impromptu—I just had the itch and put brush to paper—so I’m glad that I simply began creating before I had time to overthink anything, and I’m also pleased with the creation.


A new sketchbook came with me to Flagstaff, but with square pages to mix things up.

Here we go, above is another sketch I’m particularly not fond of, but once again, it brings to mind memories of sitting in the sun that day, soaking up live music, and browsing the art stands.

I worked on this desert sketch at a bar while friends gathered there to watch a football game. I don’t like football but I wanted to socialize, so this was a no-brainer for me. Especially after bringing my tiny watercolor kit everywhere with me since January, I didn’t think twice about painting during the game.




The two portraits above, Orion and Charlie, are two I’m quite pleased with. They both turned out better than I expected (based on my past work and what each of these looked like at different points throughout the process), so that’s always a good feeling!


This Grand Canyon sketch fell on the “quick” side for me, since I started it in my tent one night (headlight on) with watercolors working from a picture, rather than sitting on site for 3-4 hours and beginning first with pencil and pen as I usually do. So I was surprised to receive comments on Instagram from the Moment Sketchers community with such high praise for this one. It’s interesting how your view of something as the creator can be quite different from how others view it; I’m open to it all.




I love this girl so much, but after I shared the portrait some family joked that she looked like an old woman. She’s 19 years old! (And cute!) I wondered aloud for a moment if I should take it off Instagram, not wanting to hurt her feelings or something with a less-than-stellar portrait.

But then my growth mindset regained control. (Phew.)

Painting this one was excellent practice. I learned to take more time getting the locations of facial features correct in pencil before jumping to pen (notably the eyes—they should be lower) and I enjoyed feeling gratitude towards Hanna Rose while painting her. And although I’m not over the moon with the final result, it’s loads better than I thought it would be (again, based on what it looked like during some earlier in-progress moments), so I’m proud of what I transformed it into. Finally, this is portrait #12/100! The twelfth watercolor portrait I’ve ever painted. Ever! So looking at it from that perspective, I have no reason to be anything but proud of this!


As if to prove that point (that the practice is helping), I was really satisfied with my next portrait of Colin.

At a dinner party in December, a friend asked if I would do a watercolor of his dog—my first commissioned piece, if you will. This was my first attempt, but I’m in the process of painting a second. My great aunt Lois helped me see that the right eye is in the wrong place, which is what throws it off. We spent the night before New Year’s Eve sketching this dog in pencil at her kitchen table, so that’ll be one of my first paintings of the new year.

Sketching has certainly been an integral part of this year, and I’m looking forward to painting even more in 2018!

What was integral to your year? Have you done any sketching/creating lately?