straight line block-in warmups

Still life warm-up sketching

My focus for quite awhile has been on painting landscapes, but recently I’ve become frustrated by my progress. And when I’m frustrated more than not, it’s a sign to take a step back and reassess. I think what’s going on is a combination of a few things:

  • feeling rushed when painting outdoors
  • not having enough outdoor painting experience to be able to enjoy working from photos
  • struggling with making the materials do what I want
  • trying to paint fast when indoors

Reflecting on this made it pretty obvious to me that a good next step in my painting practice would be to focus on still life so I can paint from life rather than photos, and to do some classical realism painting lessons to gain more control over the materials. Since I’ve been curious about other methods of painting besides alla prima, I decided to continue my study with Sadie Valeri through her online programs. (She also teaches alla prima, but starts students off with indirect painting techniques.) I took her drawing course a few years ago to get a more solid drawing foundation. Her teaching style is such a great fit for me because of her structured, methodical approach. After completing the drawing curriculum I strayed away from the straight line block-in that she teaches — but I can’t quite remember why! Maybe just because I like exploring different methods and wanted to try some others to compare.

straight line block-in warmups - paper bag and egg
Days 3–6 of the 10-day straight line block-in project

In any case, my intention at the time was to complete her drawing curriculum simply as a means to getting to her painting curriculum. But I got off on another track, as is my tendency. I’m super excited to be back on that track now though! To prepare for the painting lessons, I did a 10-day series of straight line block-ins from life with a variety of subjects. It was really satisfying to get back to basics with drawing, and each day I could feel getting a bit quicker and more confident about capturing what I saw.

The biggest psychological gain from the project was reconnecting with one of Sadie’s principles: be willing to do what it takes to fix the drawing before moving on. Keeping this in mind helped reset my baseline expectations for how long the drawing/painting process should take. Since my schedule tends to be segmented up into lots of smaller chunks of time and I aspire to a high level of skill, it’s important for my morale that I let go of time expectations and let the process take as long as it takes. With the painting techniques taught in Sadie’s course, I can still paint as often as I want, without the constraint of finishing in one sitting.

straight line block-in warmups - vessels and geometric shapes
Days 7–10 of the straight line block-in project

Over the course of this project I made several improvements to my studio setup. My easel is now positioned far away from the window that caused tons of lighting problems. For consistent light, I set up a light over the easel, and installed a large black shadow box for still life staging (with a ton of help from my husband). It’s fun to have a new environment to go along with the new course and subject.

The thing I’m most excited about is returning to an instructor who relishes taking her time with paintings, and desires no pressure to rush through the process. Sadie’s knowledge and perspective are inspiring because I can tell her training will provide the tools and experience for painting at whatever pace I want — whether that’s completing a painting in a day or doing it in bites and pieces over many days or weeks.

Sketching the Everyday craftsy course with Paul Heaston - hatched driving moc

Sketchbooks: Drawing the Everyday class

Once I realized I was most interested in the process of sketching and painting I signed up for a few Craftsy classes on the topic. Although I was itching to watch them all at once, picking just one to start seemed more prudent. So I started off with Sketchbooks: Drawing the Everyday with Paul Heaston.

Paul is a master at drawing with ink (his hatching is really special), and he’s an excellent teacher as well. This course was so good for learning basic things to consider when starting to draw. Many of the things covered were familiar to me from college art classes, but I’d forgotten them over the years.


There were seven assignments, and I committed myself to do each of them one at a time before moving on to the next lesson.

1: Blind contour drawing of my hand

Sketching the Everyday craftsy course with Paul Heaston - blind contour hand drawing
For a blind contour drawing, you follow the edges of the subject with your eyes and your drawing hand follows — without looking at your paper while you draw

2:Explore points of view, space, and texture with 3–4 arrangements of a still life

I used this opportunity to draw the same subjects from the three different points of view that Paul covers in this section.

Sketching the Everyday craftsy course with Paul Heaston - birds eye point of view
bird’s-eye view (where you see the tops of an item than the side)

Sketching the Everyday craftsy course with Paul Heaston - traditional point of view
traditional (below or at eye level, where see a bit of tops and sides of items)

Sketching the Everyday craftsy course with Paul Heaston - eye level point of view
eye level (straight-on, where round surfaces become very foreshortened and squished)

3: Hatching values

One of the things I was most excited about learning from Paul was hatching. I’d been dabbling in it and struggled with consistency and direction of my marks. His techniques help with achieving a precise yet natural look.

Sketching the Everyday craftsy course with Paul Heaston - hatched paint box
My watercolor box, with different hatching values — the shadow was a big mistake! Looked better without it

Sketching the Everyday craftsy course with Paul Heaston - hatched driving moc
I took my time with this driving moc drawing, and it paid off — I’m really happy with the values and shaping

Sketching the Everyday craftsy course with Paul Heaston - hatching soap dispenser
With this soap dispenser, I practiced going darker with my shadow values to allow the actual white parts to remain white

4: Paint two objects that are the same color but different values

I had a surprisingly difficult time finding two objects that fit this description! For me the best part of this lesson was just gaining more experience with my watercolors, primarily with doing a background wash.

Sketching the Everyday craftsy course with Paul Heaston - value study
There’s work to be done with my rendering of the foreshortened ellipses and cylinders

5: Sketch a person that’s moving through my scene

The challenge with this lesson is to learn to sketch people quickly, capturing what’s necessary and unique about the person and letting go of the rest. This one was really intimidating for me to begin because it sounded just impossible. Finally I asked my husband to stand there while I quickly sketched him.

I also experimented with my water brush — it has a much different feel from painting with regular watercolor brushes. I like how precise it is in some cases, but find it too precise for other things. It’s really good for painting in little shadows or small washes of color.

Sketching the Everyday craftsy course with Paul Heaston - figure sketching

Sketching the Everyday craftsy course with Paul Heaston - figure sketching 2

As additional practice for sketching people, I found a photo online and made a watercolor sketch version of it in my book:

watercolor sketch from vintage photograph

6: Use a viewfinder and draw several thumbnails of a scene, trying different approaches

The viewfinder was awesome for making it clear how the composition was going to look on paper. I took it outside to find something to draw, and it cut out all of the extra bits of what I saw in the environment. Paul suggests doing thumbnail sketches in a few proportions like landscape, portrait, panoramic, and square, to get a sense of what’s going to work well before diving into the larger sketch.

Sketching the Everyday craftsy course with Paul Heaston - final project thumbnail sketches

7: Create a detailed study out of a larger scene

Using my favorite thumbnail sketch from the previous lesson, I selected a part of my house and back yard in a portrait view.

Sketching the Everyday craftsy course with Paul Heaston - final watercolor sketch

I really like how the rosemary bushes look, and the general composition. But overall the house was a pretty boring subject! It was more about getting some practice in a convenient place than capturing something really interesting.

It looks a little too much like a cartoon for my taste — as opposed to a journal sketch — so that’s something I want to see if I can figure out.

This class is a great balance of learning a lot of techniques in a very accessible way. When I look back at all of the lessons I can see it was very informative and helps move my art skills toward my goals. My big goal is to record watercolor sketches in a travel journal. I sure wish I’d had this knowledge when we went to Paris a few years ago! I may still do some watercolor sketches of those photos just for fun.



Cute drawings of turtle and otters

Drawing cute animals

While in the book store looking for some serious illustration inspiration, I ran across a book by Sachiko Umoto called Illustration School: Let’s Draw Cute Animals. It was the opposite of serious, and it turned out to be exactly what I needed.

I sketched these in pencil first, then went back over with ink and erased the pencil lines.