Sunday Morning Inspiration: Lisa Congdon & Jennifer Orkin Lewis

September 7, 2014 @ 8:59 am | Filed under:
Art by Lisa Congdon

Art by Lisa Congdon. Image source:

The Basic Line Drawing class at Creativebug led me to the blog of its instructor, illustrator Lisa Congdon. Lisa and her work have galvanized our artistic pursuits around here, especially Rilla’s and mine. Something she said in one of her videos really grabbed me: a while back, she decided she needed to improve her hand-lettering skills and decided to practice lettering every day for a year. Now her illustrated quote prints seem to be among her most popular creations. Her work is quite wonderful, and I love the idea that an already accomplished artist challenged herself to develop new talents by committing to practice every day for a year. This ties in perfectly to the habits posts I’ve been working on. Daily practice, even if some days what you produce falls flat.

Just like the actor who yearns to be in a band, I’m a writer who wishes I could draw. Draw really well, I mean. I have so many artist friends whose work knocks my socks off. Watching them at work—oh, that’s the best, witnessing their command of line, the rapid unfolding of story on the page. My own work is so internal. All the color and life it possesses comes from within, from a store of words, ideas, memories, experiences—like Frederick the Mouse in winter, calling up the colors and stories and sun-warmth he stored away during the rich seasons. I love this process, I wouldn’t be me without it; but there are times I yearn to grab those colors and pour them directly onto the page without having to first simmer them in the crucible of my own mind for so long.


Not that I don’t think visual artists transfigure experience in crucibles of their own—I don’t mean that at all, and perhaps my metaphor is running away from me. What I mean is, there can be an immediacy in drawing and painting—you see it, you sketch it, you have it—that is wholly unlike the way writing happens for me. I suppose the place I find immediacy in writing is right here, on the blog, where, as I’ve said, I try to write more rapidly, in what I’ve come to think of as a kind of mental freehand. And the thing I love about drawing, clumsy as my skills are, is that the words part of my mind is actually silenced for a time. I think drawing may be the only thing I do where that is the case. I think in words, I see them scrolling across the screen of my mind always, always—when you speak to me, I see the transcript of our conversation. While things are happening, I’m searching for the words to recount the experience—it happens automatically, I can’t not do it. I first became aware of it on a plane headed for Germany when I was fourteen years old. I was frustrated that I couldn’t just be IN that moment, living it—I was already writing it up in my head.

I remember once telling another writer friend, as she described a similar experience: Oh, you’re like me, you think in narrative. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a mind that doesn’t work this way—except for those brief flashes of silence that come while I’m sketching. And yet I’ll go years without drawing. My skills are elementary (I can go a bit beyond the stick figures I was joking about the other day, but not far) but I know that, like all skills, regular practice would improve them. And so (to come back to my point at last) I was charmed by Lisa Congdon’s determination to hone an aspect of her work by doggedly doing it every day for a year. It’s a simple and even obvious notion, but how rarely such persistence occurs to us! Or occurs in practice, even after we’ve made the resolution.

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And then a few days ago Lisa interviewed another visual artist on her blog (delightfully named Today Is Going to Be Awesome). Jennifer Orkin Lewis is a freelance illustrator living in New York City, and her work is lovely, lovely. I was instantly smitten. I learned in Lisa’s interview that in April 2013, Jennifer decided to paint in her sketchbook every day for a month—which turned into painting in her sketchbook every day, period.

…I decided to do a painting a day for the month. I didn’t put any restrictions on myself and I ended up spending hours each day on them. I finished out the month, but it was stressful. In May I did it again but my rules were that I would limit it to 1 hour and I would only paint food. I finished that challenge as well but I felt too tied down to that theme and I didn’t experiment enough. I picked up the sketchbook I’m using now last October and I started painting in it. Something clicked and I really liked how the paint went onto the paper, its size, the fact that it wasn’t a gorgeous sketchbook. I kept painting in it so when January came it just flowed that this would be my daily project. I decided to post them all on Instagram to hold myself accountable to painting everyday.

When I went to Jennifer’s Instagram account (@augustwren), I was blown away. I think what I like best is that she posts a snapshot of the day’s painting alongside the paints and brushes she used to make it.


Kotor Montenegro by Jennifer Orkin Lewis. Image source: Instagram.


“I’m in Venice, these are some things I saw in shop windows.” Image source: Instagram.


Scottish Sheep by Jennifer Orkin Lewis. Image source: Instagram.

“I’ve never really thought of myself as particularly disciplined, so I have surprised myself. I have loads of 1/2 finished sketchbooks on my shelves.  A great result from the practice is I now have hundreds of pages of personal reference material. I’ve gone into it to look for color combinations for projects, for the shape of a flower,  a technique.”

Please do click through to read the whole interview—it’s fascinating. Jennifer now works on these paintings for 30 minutes each. 30 minutes a day for over a year. She posts the finished pieces on her website, and the range is quite breathtaking.

One of the many sketchbook pictures Jennifer has shared on her blog. Click the image to visit her whole sketchbook.

One of the many spreads Jennifer has shared on her blog. Click the image to visit her whole sketchbook. Image source:

The obvious conclusion to this post is a resolution to work in my art journal every day for a year, but do you know, I’m terrified to make such an avowal? I always feel like announcing a plan on the blog is a surefire way to stall it. 🙂 So no public declarations. Just a tiny, quiet—resolve is too binding a word. A notion. A hope. Last night after the boys were in bed, while Scott and the girls were watching a movie, Rilla and I worked in our journals. We used the Lisa Congdon piece at the top of this page as our inspiration. I’ve got Lisa’s 20 Ways to Draw a Tulip book and right now I’m in the copying stage, just trying to improve my own command of line. Got a long way to go. I added a fern to my sketch, though, figured it out all by myself using photo reference, and I’m pleased as punch with it (while simultaneously nitpicking its flaws). My writerly affection for circular structure demands its inclusion at the end of this post, but you that terrifies me too! Well, I once posted a story I wrote when I was five years old. My mother saved it for me and now I look at the fledging handwriting and nonsensical dialogue (“We will have to take care of it. If we don’t it will die.” “OK. Let’s go to the store and buy a big Ice-Cream.”) with real affection. Maybe in a year or ten I can feel the same way about this.

Art journaling with Rilla, modeling a piece by Lisa Congdon.

A different kind of copywork. Rilla likes to work in miniature and I like to eat up the page.

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12 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Melanie Bettinelli says:

    Oh I like that resolution. I’m trying to sit down and draw more too. This morning after Mass Bella wanted to draw sunflowers to store them away for winter. She was folding paper in half and cutting out two at a time. I was inspired to make a flower chain with accordion fold paper. After the flowers I did sailboats for Anthony and butterflies for Sophie and trucks for Ben. But I really want to work on my nature journalling. Somehow it feels like it’s something that takes a lot of time, even though it doesn’t really have to.

    I love your flowers and Rilla’s. Thank you for posting them. I hope you continue to post your pictures. So inspiring.

  2. Louise says:

    Nodding my head as I read. I, too, think in narrative (with constant background music, no less), and yearn for the ability to once in a while have my brain simply be still. I also am a writer who wishes to draw – every time I read Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet, or Thimble Summer, I long for the ability to visually capture my characters and stories as she does.

    At the same time, drawing frustrates me immensely because of my inability to translate what I see to the page. Maybe I need a hope to work in an art journal every day this year, too …

  3. sarah says:

    I think your sketch is wonderful! I am a visual thinker, although I also turn everything that happens to me into story – so I guess that is a kind of narrative thinking. But I’m so visual in my thought processes that sometimes, when I’m tired, I find myself repeating my thoughts in ordinary words inside my head, because somewhere as a child I got the idea that was normal. It really exhausts me.

    Visual thinking is very handy when you’re a uni student heading into exams – I would write all my notes out in clear structures, with arrows etc, and get a visual memory of the page. When in the exam, I’d just call out that image and work from it as if I was looking at the page right there. It meant I only needed to study for a couple of days whereas others were at it for weeks! 🙂

    For me, part of visual thinking means having a sense of the correct shape of something. I use that in writing a lot. I guess its that “visual-spatial” thing, mixed in with synaesthesia too. But I find it hard to use words to create an image. Words are words, images are images. They don’t quite belong together. (Which makes being a narrative writer hard work!) And I’m not very good at art. Like you, I wish I was! I often say that my dream future would be to be an artist rather than a writer, and my imagined future houses always have a studio … but truthfully I just don’t have the talent.

    Lisa’s art is gorgeous. I’m going now to explore further … Sorry for the long comment!

  4. kortney says:

    a different sort of copywork…yes! i hadn’t made that connection myself. but that’s exactly what it is: close attention to finely made things.

    do you know Tammy from Daisy Yellow? her site is bursting with inspiration, prompts, tutorials, little ways to start making art be a part of your days.

    p.s. love the color + the fern ♥ ♥ ♥

  5. Melissa Wiley says:

    Kortney, how amazing—when I liked Jennifer Orkin Lewis’s FB page this morning, it popped up with “you might also like” recommendations and one of them was Daisy Yellow, which I clicked like on just because I liked the name and avatar, and wanted to remember to visit it later. And then promptly forgot. So your rec is timely and useful! I will take a look for sure.

  6. Amy says:

    I’m just loving all these artists websites! I’ll go ahead and let you all inspire me for awhile, I know I’m not brave enough to even start yet. I want to, I really do, and then when I get close (I even bought a watercolor sketch book and a fine tip black pen) all those…voices…the “you stink” voices…come back in my head. I think I use all my bravery up hitting publish on posts and comments, LOL. I loved your sketch, Lissa. Please keep showing us!

    On a wholly different note, I just noticed your 2014 reading list and book logs on your sidebar. Something I will be perusing in the very near future! 🙂

  7. Melissa Wiley says:

    Amy, I think one of the nice things about an art journal is that you don’t *have* to show them to anyone. There are very few pages in mine I would be brave enough to share. 🙂

  8. Jessica Snell says:

    Oh, someone else who sees words scrolling when people talk! I’m not the only one! 😀

    And thank you for all the pictures and links. My girls have been bugging me to work on drawing with them (and teaching them to draw), and this post gives me such a good push of inspiration (if that’s the right way to put it).

  9. Julia says:

    I love this post! I stumbled upon art journaling a few weeks ago and am enjoying the process. I am especially enjoying journaling with my kids and see how they perceive things through drawing/painting. I also like the idea of doing something for a long period of time. I would like to do this with writing as well as drawing but the ADD qualities in me prevent me from doing it on a long term basis. I am determined, though, to keep trying.

  10. Tabatha says:

    I love the drawing you shared! So much color, so lively! And Rilla’s delicate work as well. I drew every day for a year and a half, maybe two years, I don’t know, and then I stopped. ? I hope I get back to it.

  11. Lindsay says:

    I love your drawing! When I finally realized it was YOURS, and not an illustration from the book you were using I was impressed. You must not put down your abilities!

    As for committing to draw every day for a year, why not every day for a week, and then see where that leads you?