Posted in Painting

Branding and Finding My Style?

As an artist, I hear a lot about the importance of having a “style.” Especially in the modern age of social media, having a recognizable brand is touted as critical, and finding your style is the necessary first step. There are countless internet tutorials on how to do this, and the advice falls into two main camps:

  • Notice what you are drawn to in others’ work, and what you are inspired by in your life experiences. This can include copying from other artists as an experiment.
  • Churn out a LOT of work, exploring the range of your style and seeing where you settle. Notice patterns, including repeated subject matter, colors, techniques, and textures.

Now, this advice is not terrible. These can both be great exercises. The thing is, I’ve always found that they expand my style rather than narrow it.

When I see other artists’ work on social media, I’m inspired by wildly different styles and want to try adopting certain elements from all across the board. I’ve done a few studies where I repeat and focus on certain techniques or subject matter, and I enjoy them for a while, but I’ve never wanted to focus on something long term. A lot of my art generally tends toward realism, but not all of it, and not very strongly, and this largely stems from perfectionism rather than style choices. I spend a lot of my time on creative projects, but I’ve never settled on a medium. I love charcoals, acrylics, oils, watercolor, fabric paint, mixed media, collages, bookbinding, sewing, crocheting, upcycling, interior design … the more I try, the more I find to enjoy. I’ve taken a few of those style quizzes, and always get something like “eclectic: you like all styles!” Accurate, but not very helpful if I’m looking for definitions.

Then again, do I really need to be looking for definitions? I can see the practical benefits of recognizability and consistency, if I was looking to optimize social media or build a customer base. At this stage of my life, those aren’t my priority. My priority isn’t super defined, but I would say I’m most interested in creating for creation’s sake. I like having an outlet and hobby and feeling the satisfaction of making something that never existed before. I like the headspace I go into while I’m creating. It’s open and relaxed, and can think through anything without feeling the need to commit or conclude. I like being surrounded by what I’ve made, from hanging up art to making my own clothes and bedspread; it’s part of creating my life and larger purpose.

It’s strange, but in the cultural movement of individuality, we sometimes make it more about separation than inclusion when labels become too important. It’s much more complex with personal identities, but as it applies to the art world, defining a style feels more limiting than liberating. In an increasingly saturated market, it helps to be niche, so I can see the practical benefits. I’m sure many artists find empowerment in having a clearly defined style and connecting with similar creators. For me, I don’t think picking style would add anything, largely because it’d be arbitrary.

Maybe someday I’ll settle into a style, but for now, I’m enjoying doing whatever.

Posted in education

Discussion Boards and Social Commentary

I’m in an asynchronous online class right now, and thus I get to participate in that odd social experiment we call discussion boards. Anyone who’s been to school in the last 15 or so years will know what I mean by that; despite the best laid plans and intentions on the teacher’s part, discussion boards have a unique ability to awkwardly stink. Conversation is stilted and forced, no one’s invested, and most of us walk away with the same energy as leaving a work meeting that should have been an email. Making students interact sounds nice, but most discussion boards just don’t add much as far as learning the material; what they do add is social commentary.

In elementary and high school, I’ve found that discussion boards are usually just bad. The average student will write their post and bang out the required cut-and-paste replies in one sitting, then walk away and never think about it again. Some students will spend far too long reading what everyone else has done, panic that theirs will never be good enough, and get so embarrassed they opt out altogether. Some students will use the opportunity to copy another student’s work, tweaking it just enough to appear original if they’re crafty. I have yet to encounter a high schooler who truly likes discussion boards or gains anything from the experience.

College is a different beast, though many of the same problems arise. Replies are now required to be “substantive,” which sounds like a great idea but often falls apart in practice, leading to piles of redundancy, thesaurus usage, and plain bad writing. On the plus side, students do learn something. On the minus side, the main thing they learn is how to rephrase the same thing five different ways and pretend to be invested when all involved parties know that they aren’t. And the false diplomacy? Rampant. I couldn’t count the number of times I saw “I appreciate your explanation,” “well done on your post,” and “thank you so much for sharing,” littered across the forum. Did they really love my post? Of course not. They barely read it. We all know it, but we still go through the motions, putting on a strange performance for a professor who can honestly spot performance a mile away.

I was a discussion board skeptic when I started grad school; imagine my joy when I learned that there would be at least two discussion boards a week with five required posts! We all hopped on as required, and the regular players emerged. There were the eager beavers, who had their posts up within an hour of the forum going live and always commented on each other, since no one else had joined in yet. There was the strangely formal man whose vocabulary is always three steps to the left and who feels the need to bring up problematic politics whenever necessary. There was the overly friendly girl who hasn’t realized that exclamation points should be the exception and not the rule. There were the few who haven’t figured out how to read instructions, whose posts gently brush the topic but never meet requirements and leave the rest of us giving each other virtual awkward side eyes, unsure if we should address the situation and tempted to pretend they never spoke.

The territory of classroom forums is largely ungoverned. Most of us adhere to the unspoken discussion board chivalry. Spread replies evenly, avoiding too many on one post and seeking to reply to those who have none. Reply to everyone by the end of the course, but never more than three on one board. If someone does something wrong, flank, and find a way to subtly correct the issue without defining fault. Don’t post something bad or uncomfortable and upset the balance of emotional distance. Yet despite these dearly held precepts, discussion boards have a lawlessness and abandon that grows as the class moves along. You quickly notice people’s quirks and styles, and you can learn their level of online social awareness. Do they realize how much they repeat themselves and try to mix it up? Do they cater to an audience, or does it read like an essay? Are they formulaic or conversational? How well do they adhere to the unspoken chivalry?

I’ve never seen these people, yet I in some ways l I know them better than many past peers in traditional classrooms. I don’t know their faces, but I know their writing, their tells and habits and default sentence structures. We’ve never made small talk, but we’ve engaged in strange text block small talk, targeted and preplanned, and I’ve seen into their psyche. What do they see about me? My online persona is entirely in my hands; they see my name and could guess I’m female, but they know nothing else outside of what I type. What have I been subliminally communicating about myself?

Posted in Life

Error 404: Artist Not Found

So I haven’t done any artwork in over a month.

For someone who calls herself an artist, that feels like a bad sign. I have a million excuses, of course: I caught a bad flu in the new year, my day job has gotten busy, my car broke down, my mental health took a small plunge, I’m a Leo, etc. It’s not like I’ve accomplished nothing. Art is technically still just a hobby, and people drop hobbies all the time. I’m under no real obligation to create.

But at the same time, just writing that last sentence felt like missing a stair. What’s gone wrong here? What happened to that drive that used to pull me to my worktable, that made me lose track of time for hours on end and clutter up every available surface? Didn’t I used to draw for fun? Didn’t I paint because I had something to say? Didn’t I learn to love what I made, and learn to make it mean something for someone else too? Wasn’t I discovering my style, exploring new genres, adding something new to the world? What happened to all that?

Part of me things I’m having the mid-twenties crisis a bit early. I suppose this is about the time for it–I graduated college last year, hopped jobs a bit, missed a grad school deadline, and recently I’ve fallen into the trap of pondering my life path. I’m not thrilled with where I’m at right now. Some problems I can talk about and some I still can’t. I’m not sure where I want to go next, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to pull it off. I guess dropping things along the way isn’t entirely unexpected. I’m not sure who I’ll be when I come out on the other side. Maybe art won’t be part of me anymore, and maybe that’s okay in the grand scheme of things.

Grand schemes aside, it’s probably not that deep. Chances are I’ll work through this weird life phase and get back to my art, and it’ll be fine. Nothing grand or universe-altering, but not completely stupid or horrible either. If it can be a net positive, that should be good enough.

I suppose I’m redefining myself. I think “artist” will still fit somewhere in this new definition. My brushes and charcoals will probably keep gathering dust while I try to figure things out, but they’ll be waiting for me when I’m ready to pick them up again.

Posted in Uncategorized

Musings on Writing

They say writing works like a muscle, and if you don’t exercise it, it atrophies.  I guess that’s true, because this feels awkward.  I remember writing used to be a release for me, one that didn’t really require effort; I could just ooze onto the paper and half the time it would come out decent.  But I dropped the habit somewhere along the way, and I’ve forgotten how to ooze.

I still like the idea of writing.  Writing papers for school was always satisfying, but a completely different skill set.  Scientific papers are all facts and direction.  There’s no fluff, just pure clarity.  I feel weird approaching my other writing that way.  As much as I might like them to, my inner workings have not achieved clarity.  Writing my thoughts is sometimes like herding cats.

If writing is like a muscle, it should get stronger the more I use it.  That’s part of the reason I’d like to start blogging consistently again, and carrying a notebook with me.  

It’s hard, because life pulls me in so many directions.  I have work, I have paintings to finish and paintings to start, I have books to read, people to see, laundry to wash and a bathroom to clean … but I miss what writing used to be for me.  I miss the feeling of release, and how it helped me process.  I think it’s worth the time investment.

Posted in Uncategorized

My Experience Starting Sales

Last October, I started offering commissions and selling my artwork.  Here is that story.

I’d been toying with the idea for a while, but always as something my future and superior self would do.  I was still a full-time student with a part-time job, and of course a full-time overthinker with imposter syndrome.  But I finally just decided, what the heck–if it fails, all I have to lose is my pride.

I started simple, just posting on Facebook offering commissions as a Christmas gift idea, and got a few requests from family friends.  Over time word got out to a few more people, I connected with some other artists on social media, and made a Facebook business page listing a few items for sale.  It’s now been almost nine months, and with eight commissions and two other sales under my belt, I’m starting to get a better idea of how the process goes.

Plumeria commission, acrylic on canvas


  • Working with people.  People can be incredibly kind, and creating something personal and special for them makes my work much more meaningful.  
  • Expanding my artistic comfort zone.  I accidentally discovered a niche, as most of my commission work came from people asking for watercolor portraits of deceased loved ones.  This work was fairly new to me, but meaningful, and definitely improved my skills in watercolor and portraiture.
  • Making money.  This one is obvious.  After all the time and money I’ve spent, it’s rewarding to see it start to pay for itself.
Gift commission cropped for privacy, watercolor on paper


  • Working with people.  In full honesty, most people are nice, and I really didn’t encounter much negativity.  For me, working with people was difficult because I’m anxious and self-conscious; it just required a lot of social energy that I’m not sure I can sustain.  I didn’t like how this anxiety leaked into my art space, which is usually a peaceful escape.
  • Stress and creative constraint.  I’m sure all artists put pressure on themselves, but doing commissioned work adds another layer.  You have to create to someone else’s standard, following their preferences and priorities instead of your own.  
  • Sales and marketing.  I find these fields interesting, but they’re not my natural talent.  Selling your own art means essentially becoming a businessperson, marketing and managing sales and setting your own pay.  I underestimated how challenging that would be, and ended up selling myself short.
Tree Frog drawing (sold), charcoal on toned paper

Moving Forward

Overall, my experience selling my artwork has been positive.  In an ideal future, I’d like to spend more time on my own projects and have more variety in commissions; I’d also like to learn how to make and sell prints and not only originals.  

The main obstacle to my success has been managing my own time and stress, which arises from my introverted personality and mental health struggles.  Despite the stress, I’ve still enjoyed the experience; the satisfaction of doing a good job and the happiness I see in my customers makes it worth it.

Posted in Uncategorized

#TBT: Obituary for a Tree

You once were a tree

What else could you have been

But a towering majestic tree reaching for the sky

And now you are nothing but

A dead




I wonder what you were like

Before someone chopped you down

I wonder how long you stood on this windy hillside

Marking the edge of the forest

Standing guard over this peaceful neighborhood

Before someone decided it was time for you to go

Time for you to be hacked in half

Leaving you as a lonely




Did you once give shade to a picnicking family

Or hold up a swing for a lighthearted child

Did your long leafy branches once support a treehouse

That children would play in

Did people hang from your limps or climb up your strong branches

To view the vibrant setting sun

Before you became

A gnarled




You might have provided fruit by the dozens

Sweet, succulent, and refreshing

To stock up some store or be squeezed into juice

You might have been the home to a family of squirrels

Or home to a flock of chattering birds

Your twigs the perfect ingredient for their nests

Your sap might have been harvested to make syrup or chewing gum

But no longer, for now you are

A deceased




I wonder where you are now, now that you are dead

Does your wood form the structure of some important building

Or make up the toothpicks in my drawer

Or make the drawer itself

Were you made into pencils or school desks or shelves

Or carved into a old grandmother’s cane

Do you now burn to warm a cold home

You have been put to good use

Even in death, you are important

People can sit upon

Your ancient




I remember all the good a tree can do

All the happiness it can cause and lives it can save

Every time I see

An expired


Passed on


Cammie Garner, age 14

Posted in Life

Ups and Downs of Quarantine

Needless to say, it’s been an interesting time.

COVID-19 has upended our equilibrium, and “normal life” took on a different face for nearly all of us.  Now that the area I live in is starting to ease out of quarantine, I’m taking a look back.

Of course there have been downsides to socially isolating. On a larger scale, economies are suffering and unemployment is rising. I’ve seen college life thrown upside down as professors scramble to move everything online, seminars are cancelled, jobs are lost, and students flounder in a sudden onslaught of decisions and uncertainty. Several of my friends were forced to delay graduation, and several favorite classes like dance and orchestra were simply cut short. I’ve seen friendships and family relationships strained as everyone takes a different interpretation of what the “stay at home” order means and how seriously this all needs to be taken. Some close friends who suffer from mental illness deeply struggled with social distancing, feeling trapped and more alone than ever.

One of these friends was my roommate. Trying to help her stay positive and see the bright side probably helped me at least as much as it helped her. I’d tell her about how I read on the news that fish can be seen in the canals in Venice for the first time in decades, and how the decrease in pollution from China is so dramatic it’s visible from space. We’d take advantage of virtual lectures by multitasking; she nearly finished crocheting a baby blanket while attending linguistics. Our apartment was cleaner than it had ever been. We were forced to spend time with ourselves, free from so many of the usual distractions of normal student life, and while it was sometimes uncomfortable and painful, it pushed us into self-improvement and we became more aware and intentional. We ended up acting as each others’ therapists, and in doing so, we were giving therapy to ourselves.

At the very least, I know quarantine has been good for something. It’s been good for wildlife and decreasing pollution, it’s been good at forcing me to introspect and evaluate the way my life used to be, and it’s been good because I’ve grown much closer with a friend. I think that if this experience can do those things for all of us, we’ll come out of this much better than we were before.

They don’t know me here.

We spend every day in each others’ company, and no one knows my name. I sit behind them in class, walk pass them on sidewalks, and no one turns to say hello. They don’t notice when I’m there, and they don’t notice when I’m gone. I’ve made sure of that.

I’ve been around. I’ve seen the way this all works, and I know my place. I fill in the background like the black curtain behind a stage. I hang on the outskirts of society, faceless and nameless in the anonymous crowd. I’m accepted, just as lampposts and park benches–standard, commonplace, part of the scenery.

I am not forgotten; I was never known in the first place.

Not Forgotten

Posted in education

Thoughts on the Public Education System

I grew up in America’s public education system, and I’ve heard all the complaints.  “We’re never going to use this in real life.” “All they do is teach to the test, this isn’t real education.” “There’s no point in learning this random stuff.”  “I hate history, it’s just memorizing a bunch of names and dates.”

“Why can’t I just focus on what I care about, and not waste time on all the rest?”

Well my fellow concerned student, let me tell you.

Imagine you’re a kindergarten teacher.  You have a crop of four-year-olds staring back at you.  Some will be doctors, some teachers, some construction workers, some accountants, maybe a few pilots or politicians or athletes, but you have no way of knowing which kid will end up where.  You have to teach them anyway, so what do you do? You start with general skills, stuff that pretty much everyone will end up needing. You teach them reading, writing, and basic recognition, introduce them to how school works, and start building skills like imagination, problem solving, and working with others.  

See, none of these kids really know what they want yet.  Sure Mike might tell you he’s going to be an astronaut, but ask him again next month and he’ll tell you he’s going to be Mickey Mouse.  

Fast forward and now they’re in grade school complaining about times tables.  They still don’t really know what they want to be, but they’re starting to pick favorite subjects and least favorite subjects.  Mike knows he’s never going to be a math teacher, hates math, and wants to quit. What do you do, fourth grade teacher? Do you let him?  Of course not. Like it or not, Mike is going to encounter math of some sort in his life. He’s going to need it throughout the rest of school, he’s going to need it to settle a tab, and he’s going to need it to help his seven year old daughter through her hated times tables.  He’s going to need to learn that some parts of life are more or less mandatory, and they won’t always be pleasant. He’s still in fourth grade with plenty of time to change his mind, and if he quits now he may deeply regret it later.

At this age, kids are still learning things that everyone needs to know at least to some degree.  They’re still becoming themselves.

But now Mike and his classmates are in high school, and certain subjects have never seemed more useless to him.  He’s set on being a physical therapist, and classes like history and algebra are “ruining his life.” He’s balancing his precious time between applying to his dream college, practicing for state tennis, taking the ACT, trying to have a social life. Mike hates just memorizing names and dates and formulas, it’s so pointless to him and he can tell you exactly why.  

He’s never going to use this.

This is wasting his time when he could be chasing his actual career.

He has become a slave to the system!

But Mike, what happens when you get into your dream college, walk into your required general ed math class, and have to delay graduation because you couldn’t pass?  What happens when you enter your first anatomy lab and find that it includes mountains of rote memorization, just like your hated history class, and your physical therapy career is suddenly hanging by a thread?  What if you need a second job and suddenly find yourself with no marketable skills outside your niche, or your dream job also requires experience in networking and web design?

Mike is missing the big picture.  He doesn’t see that if he doesn’t remember when World War II happened, he won’t understand the significance of literature from the 1940’s or the development of the atom bomb.  He doesn’t see that if he can’t do simple arithmetic in his head, he has no hope of doing complex derivatives; he’ll get so bogged down pulling out his calculator for every step that he can’t see the problem as a whole. If he can’t memorize different muscle groups and their function, he’ll never be able to know what his future patients need.  To get to that higher level of thinking, he has to know the basics and he has to be fast at them.  There is no shortcut to knowledge.  In most cases, the only way to know something is to grind, memorize, rinse, and repeat.  In most cases, the only way to get to advanced skill sets and professions is to first work your way through the boring, tedious, awful basics.

As stated by an anonymous Quora writer, “One cannot apply what one knows in a practical manner if one does not know anything to apply.”

Our workforce is a complex and interconnected network with several roles that need to be filled or the whole society collapses.  In each graduating class, we need a new batch of food service workers, civil engineers, psychiatrists, surgeons, bankers, journalists, the list goes on.  Mike’s class needs to fill those roles. The education system faces the task of preparing them without knowing who goes to which role, so it does the best it can: it prepares everyone for everything.  At the end of their average high school experience, nearly everyone in Mike’s class is prepared enough that they could essentially go into any major or any career and have a chance.

When Mike gets to college and decides to change his major to Technical Writing, he isn’t already hopelessly behind because his high school teachers made him write essays.  When Mike presents himself to an employer, he isn’t an automaton with no skills beyond the task at hand; he is a well-rounded human being with a wide intellectual overview of the world.  When Mike continues on through university he does well because he knows how to work the education system, and he realizes that his historical knowledge is making his writing stronger, his time in anatomy is helping improve his tennis game, his math skills helped him save up for a new laptop, and his persuasive writing skills helped him write a great cover letter land a job.  

Because Mike, at the end of the day, education wasn’t for what you thought it was.  It was for helping build you into better person, giving you a vast array of knowledge, and teaching you how to think.  Intelligence cannot be found in a vacuum. Even though your high school subjects are divided and taught separately, they’re really all pieces of the larger puzzle that work together and build off of each other, and you cannot be well educated by ignoring half of them. School was an opportunity, and if it was a waste of your time, that’s partly your fault.

In many ways this system is broken, but in the most important way it succeeded.

Education must not simply teach work–it must teach life.

W. E. B. Dubois
Posted in Life

My 2019 Simple Bullet Journal Setup

Have any of you ever been here? You see a thousand gorgeous bullet journal spreads on Pinterest, get all inspired, and then completely fail?

This is me. I love the idea of bullet journals–the aesthetic, the organization, the doodling, all of it. But it’s hard to make it work in practice, especially as a student. I just don’t have time in the day to give every week a beautiful spread or keep up on twelve different habit trackers. What I really needed from a bullet journal was space to keep track of all my assignments that was easy and organized, but still looked nice and aesthetic of course 🙂

It’s taken me a good while to figure out a balance, but I finally have a regular set of spreads that work for my college life, letting me be organized and simple while still having some visual fun.

So without further ado, here is the beginning of my 2019 bullet journal! (DISCLAIMER: Some pages have areas that are blurred out or covered in white boxes; this was done to protect personal information such as my daily schedule, location, etc.)

This year I’m using this dotted notebook, which is a little bigger than the standard and super affordable. On the inside cover I drew out a spacing cheat sheet, showing how to divide the page evenly into thirds, fourths, etc (full credit for this idea goes to AmandaRachLee). This is a big time saver and saves you from constantly counting boxes and doing math. The facing page is a brain dump that I’ve started filling with ideas for future spreads.
This is my version of a future log. I like having both a traditional calendar and a drop down calendar because it lets me see how the days of the week line up and also have space to write out events (so far I’ve only added federal holidays and birthdays). I decorated each month with a printed picture that seemed to go with the overall vibe of that month. As far as themes go, mine is kind of vague, but throughout all my spreads I used a general theme of neutral gray, nature photos, and simple layouts. I didn’t want to feel tied to a theme that I might not like down the road, but I did want my spreads to be vaguely cohesive. I love the look of these pages and I love my vague theme 🙂
This is the last four months of my future log. On the right page I have a running list of quotes I like and want to use in future spreads. I’ve never done this before, but I think it would be fun to incorporate more quotes on my monthly spreads as little emotional boosts.
This is my resolutions/goals spread, and is probably my favorite. I drew out a big quote that I want to make my theme for the year and added a lovely forest scene. On the left page I have spaces for goals in my four major life categories I want to improve this year. These are my year-long goals, and each month I make smaller goals building up to them (HIGHLY recommend this system, you can read more about it here). On the right side I wrote out my vision for the year and how I want my goals to work for me, and left space to brainstorm smaller goals.
This is my class schedule for the semester, decorated with a sky picture and sky-like colors to give it a really open and not stressed feel (or at least that’s the goal). On the left I drew out my schedule color-coded in a grid because I like being able to visually see how much time I have each day. On the right is the key, and I also left space to write out professors’ emails and office hours. Last semester I found I often forgot these and wasted time trying to find them in various syllabuses and websites, so I think it’ll be nice to have them all in one place.
That’s it for the year spreads! This is my monthly spread for January. I reused the image from my future log and decorated the spread to go along with it using colored pencils and washi tape. On the left side is a simple habit tracker and a quote, and on the right I have spaces for a calendar, events, and goals in each of my four categories. I plan to do all my monthly spreads in a similar fashion, reusing those future log images.
Straight into the weekly spreads! This is one of my ideas for a typical simple weekly spread: a strip along the side to decorate, a space for each day divided into a schedule and a to do list, and space at the bottom for weekly goals, a running generic to do list, and anything else I want to add for a given week. This week I filled my “decoration strip” with leaf doodles.
This is my other idea for a weekly spread; it’s essentially the same thing but oriented vertically. I plan to use both of these spreads and see what I prefer. I filled the strip at the top with a really simple colored pencil ombre. You could also fill it with washi tape, more doodles, stripes, a banner photograph, or anything else you want.

And that’s it! I’m happy with how this turned out and had a ton of fun making it. Here’s to a more organized and productive 2019!

For more tips on bullet journalling as a student, click here.