My writings about the Constancy of Change in Life and beyond. From my view spot above the city in southern Costa Rica, I write.

Friday, December 30, 2016

So You Want to Learn Watercolor in 2017

After receiving three separate emails asking for some advice on learning to paint with watercolor, I am doing what I always do when something happens as a part of three. I pay attention.

So here's how I suggest you begin to learn to paint with watercolor.  Beginners are my favorite people! You are full of good questions and are excited and terrified. We should all be – throughout our lives. With watercolor and with life.

Some suggestions

Get a few good supplies.   On my website ( is a material list for those coming to a workshop and also a color wheel that I use constantly. The color wheel can be downloaded and printed from a pdf format.  ( I recommend printing it onto glossy paper, 8 1/2 " x 11") It has names and important chemical numbers of paints I prefer – which helps with color/paint selection.


         Material List and Color Wheel

Keep the supplies to a minimum – especially the paints.

To start with:

·      Paper.  My preferred paper now is Arches, cold pressed 150# watercolor sheets – 22” x 30”.  I’d start by cutting or tearing them into 4 pieces and you can use both front and back.   Don’t skimp with bad paper, especially with watercolor.

·      1 -2 brushes.  I do all my painting with a ½” wash brush, preferably a mix of real hair and synthetic. I also like a small pointed brush for details (but I suggest keeping details to a minimum at the beginning. Try to get the hang of using the very edge of your wash brush for details. It’ll pay off eventually.)  And make sure you get watercolor brushes, not oil painting brushes.

·      Palette:  A small-medium plastic palette with a cover and a place to mix your paints. I prefer about 12 – 18 wells into which you will squeeze your new paint, individually.  Be generous with the amount and also be sure to label each so you’ll start getting to know the names of your paints. (There are all kinds, prices and sizes available online through Cheap Joe’s and Dick Blick. I avoid Hobby Lobby and Michaels because they don’t carry good brands)

·      Paints:  Start with 3. Paints each have a personality and need to be understood fully before you add more.  The trouble with buying a whole kit is that you get a lot of paints that often include those that are composed of several pigments. The manufacturers love to make these because they make more money by creating new paints to sell. The trouble is that if you mix paints made of 2 – 4 pigments with each other, you often get into ‘mud’. Just too many pigments mixed together and losing their individuality. This is likely the greatest disappointment to beginners – who don’t know how it happened. It is NOT your fault!

Wild Leaves at Papas, JH
Here are the paints I would start with.  These are Primaries (on the color wheel) and mixed together they will make a gray or black (if you don’t use much water). They are pure colors which means that they are not mixes of pigments (and on each tube in tiny tiny writing you can see what the pigment is.  If it is a single pigment, it is pure.

  • Quinacridone Magenta – PR 122 or PV 19  (scientific chemical number – means Pigment Red – 122 or Pigment Violet - 19)

  • Cobalt Blue  (PB 28)

  • Aureolin or Lemon Yellow  (PY 151 or PY 175)


And – if you look at where each is on the color wheel – these three are Primary colors meaning they cannot be mixed from other colors. That is lesson #1 on color theory.

There are several good watercolor brands – like Daniel Smith, Graham, Winsor & Newton, some Holbeins, Shminke, and others.  Important:  If the paint tube does not have a chemical pigment number on it, don’t buy it even if it is cheap and looks good.  It will disappoint and discourage.  Look carefully – the type is very very small.

A good online source for all information about watercolor pigments, paints and manufacturers is  The author, Bruce MacEvoy has created this huge website and provides much more information than most want to know.  A great resource.   I find that if I want to know about the best magenta watercolor paints  I'll just Google Handprint Magenta   and up pops the page I need in his website.

A recent watercolor sketch done during an Intensive here in Costa Rica

photo at Villa Leonor
wc sketch: Not Seeing the Forest For the Leaves, JH

 If possible, join a group.  Many of my students began with watercolor sketching and there are many Urban Sketcher groups out and about.  I am personally a bit unfamiliar with Urban Sketching as an art group format but certainly have had several students here who belong to an urban sketching group.  If you have no group to join, you can do it alone – and watch some YouTubes.

The most important thing is to start PAINTING.

Croton Leaves in a Vase, JH 2016
Start using just these three paints, mixed together or alone or just two mixed together and see all the colors you can get from those. The biggest problem you will likely encounter is how much water to use – and believe me, that is a problem that will only work itself out through experience and time. There is no way to teach it.

How to start?   I’d try to get hold of a watercolor tablet of some sort – or you can use the cut up sheets of Arches watercolor paper.


Begin by choosing what you want to paint. Here I put some croton leaves in a blue vase in my studio and loved the back lighted bright colors. 

Then do a fairly quick pencil sketch on the paper of whatever you are looking at. If you are painting something directly from seeing it outside – you are painting en plein aire.  If it is from a photo – you are painting in studio. I painted using a 7" x 10" sketchbook.  I guess I'm doing both since my studio is outside.

After your sketch, add paint from the concocted puddle in your palette that is mix of a bit of pigment(s) with some water. And try as hard as you can to turn off your self critical left brain that will begin screaming things like ‘this is horrible’, ‘what a joke’, ‘this looks like….’,  Just know that the left brain hates being out of control – but it is your right brain that is being awakened and knows best. Sadly the right brain, your artist self is not verbal and can easily be overwhelmed with the most verbal left!  A good book on this is a classic Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain, Betty Edwards. 

After you have put some paint on all the parts of the paper except those you intentionally left white and blank, look at it and let it dry. Some at this point like to add ink line, which is just so much fun.  Urban sketchers love ink line (and so do I)….

So give it a try!  

If you are still reading this and you want to, you can send me a jpeg via email and I can take a quick look and then get back to you with a quick critique/suggestion…..   Something like “I think you may be using too much water. Try…..”   I offer this sincerely and promise that I will treat you and your work with deep respect.

After all – I can still clearly remember when my New Year’s resolution was to paint in watercolor….

Resources:   My book, The Watercolor Artist's Guide to Exceptional Color, 2007 is out of print and will not be re-printed. You can occasionally find copies on Amazon for as low as $45 though usually much higher. Keep watching. OR you can order an online version through my website for $29.95.

And consider coming to paint with me in Costa Rica as part of a 5-Day Intensive!

Claudia painting the crotons in the vase in my open air studio.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Busy Summer and Fall, 2016

I know I made a promise 'to blog' - and thought I was safe to say 'every two weeks'. Ha.  It has been months.  And now, tail between legs and head hanging low, I'm attempting to make up with a brief review of Summer and Fall (June - October, 2016) which is Costa Rica's winter or Green Season. Increasingly rainy, it's a great time to finish up all the projects that need to get done by the end of the year.  I had a few to finish up!

First up - my book, A Woman Awakens: Life, AfterLife was numero uno on the list.  

After sending out carefully worded and individually tailored query packages to thirty different agents, I waited. And waited. From January to June. I did get some good refusals, meaning that they weren’t ‘canned’ – but no offers. In June I talked it over with my editor, Marie and I decided to turn my efforts toward self publishing – sometimes called ‘vanity press’. For me it wasn’t vanity or ego; it was simply time. I really wanted the book to be out of my computer and onto paper before I turned 74 in December. 

My first look at the book.
I selected CreateSpace, which is the publishing arm of  - mostly because of their great personal service team that guided me step by step through the process.  My great editor/friend Marie Beswick-Arthur helped immensely as we prepared the Marketing Essentials, formatting and Interior proof for uploading.  After one long, last read – I gathered my courage to push the 'Publish' button and uploaded the 80,000 words and forty photos to my Team at CreateSpace. It wasn't until September that I was able to hold in my hands the first paperback proof of the book that arrived at the home of my good friends, Joan and Myles O'Byrne.

I asked my son, Jonathan (Jay) to do my book cover, shown here. As a graphic designer and artist, he jumped in - using one of my early Raphael paintings to create the perfect cover. Thank you Jay! 

In July my other two sons,  Tim and Mike came to visit for two weeks, giving me a welcome break during which we went on the crocodile tour for Mike and the monkey tour for Tim and plenty of family and rest time for Mom. 


I had not returned to the states since just after Frank passed in 2014 – and it was time. After a quick but delightful stop in Seattle to see a few friends and experience the barely remembered joy of actually shopping for watercolor paints and a few brushes at Daniel Smith.

Echo Canyon, a favorite
Then – off for a long planned Fall workshop in Española, New Mexico with fourteen great students. We all worked hard practicing some new approaches with new insights into this medium called watercolor that I believe never gets mastgered on one lifetime. One evening we went in to Santa Fe to see the Georgia O’Keeffe Watercolor show at the O’Keeffe Museum. Some watercolor sketches that I've never before seen.  Dark, experimental and abstracted - she appeared to use the medium of watercolor to explore shapes and design. I loved them!

Roof with Snow Study, 1916
Sky with Houses, 1916

October rains in Costa Rica allowed a lot of indoor computer time to work with son, Jonathan (Jay) – this time for a website to accompany the book. Because of expense, the forty photos could only be published in black and white. Most of the photos were of my paintings that were integral to the 18 year story.  The Website Gallery contains all the photos in brilliant color.

We were finished. And then Jay had another idea!  “Mom – since you want to write more about your conversations with Frank – how about a small website that introduces and expands upon the conversations?” 

And so he did it!  Take a look.  This lovely website introduces and elaborates on the continuing conversations with Frank which were introduced in Part 3 of  A Woman Awakens: Life, AfterLife. I selected several subjects among the 80,000 words that I have from Frank and Jay did the rest . I will use these and others to write the next book titled either Notes in the Night or Frankly Speaking. And Frank is still speaking....

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Pura Vida!

Pura Vida

A Pura Vida sky on a walk with the dogs
Pura Vida is an often repeated phrase among the Ticos (what the Costa Rican people call themselves) in Costa Rica. The term has been part of the Costa Rican dialect for over fifty years and now an indelible and audible amenity of this gracious country.

It is deceptively simple. A direct translation means ‘Pure Life’, but there is so much more in the two words. As you pass a neighbor walking along the road you share the simple greeting. She smiles and says, Pura Vida!  You reply with the same, Si, Pura Vida!  You and your neighbor have just said to each other that life is good in spite of all the things that interfere or disrupt or change and that no matter what the current situation is in life, it is good. It also acknowledges that there are others less fortunate so it is good to consider that in comparison, one’s own life is just fine – no matter how much or how little one has.

Where did the term come from? According to one study of the expression, there was a film called Pura Vida that came to Costa Rica from Mexico in 1956, directed by Gilberto Martinez Solares. In that movie the term ‘pura vida’ was the expression of eternal optimism used by a comic character who unfortunately seemed not to be able to do anything right in life.
"Pura Vida!"

After the film’s viewing a small population used the term and by 1970 it was being used nationwide -as it is today.

One of the most satisfying parts of living here in Southern Costa Rica in my poor neighborhood, surrounded on all sides by my Tico neighbors is that I’m finally getting to understand the depth of Pura Vida. It has taken awhile – especially with regard to my closest neighbors.

I moved into my simple, leaky roofed Tico house in 2008 after losing most of everything I had in the US financial crisis and medical bankruptcy. And though I knew the precariousness of my financial situation, I appeared ‘rich’ as the only ‘gringo’ in my neighborhood. While I was immediately accepted by Anita and her family who had sold me the house, my adjacent neighbors were not so quick to welcome. Immediately below my small place were four houses occupied by three generations of the family clan with the grandparents, Virginia and Antonio occupying the closest house.

My first encounter with grandfather, Toño and his son in law Sergio was about money. Though their rapidly spoken campesino dialect was impossible for me to translate using my infant spanish, I understood that they thought I owed them money. It was unclear how the debt had evolved – but somehow there was a reference to their part in my purchase of the property. Without any legal reason for them to be reimbursed, I basically ignored it – not knowing what else to do.  

And the years progressed – amicably, but from widely different viewpoints. They assumed that I was rich and had everything I needed and wanted – and quite separate from them. They could not know that my $673/month social security in 2008 barely provided. Much like them, I was also living in poverty though I was fortunate to have access to more income through teaching watercolor. Though our day to day commonalities were mostly invisible, I planted my roots deep into the Costa Rican red soil.  Through teaching and art I was able to rebuild the termite ridden house and replace the leaky roof, build an outdoor studio and two cabinas. All my Tico neighbors helped me with the labor.

Other neighbors, Billy & Jesus planting along the wall
Perceptions gradually changed over the years. It was as if the torrential tropical downpours gradually smoothed us out. The surface qualities and visible differences were slowly washed away to lay bare our human soul connections beneath. We were more alike than different.

I witnessed from afar the family’s pain with the grandson’s drug addiction and their constant struggle for ‘enough’. They witnessed the collapse of my roof in a mighty storm and the awful tragedy of Frank’s sudden death. Through the succession of seasons – with the sunrises and sunsets – my place in the neighborhood slowly became embraced.

Toño's house and driveway below my wall and house, upper left.
It mostly came through neighbor to neighbor interactions - beginning with the trees that grew along their entry driveway just under my expansive view. If the trees grew too tall they blocked the view. Early on I was able to pay $20 and Toño, the grandfather and patron of the family or a son in law would trim a tree. But then it began to look like all their new plantings along their driveway were deliberately focused on fast growing vegetation. A new cash crop? One year I managed to barter a pruning by taking Toño to the local nursery and buying him small fruit trees. But that could only work once.

On year seven I devised what turned out to be a winning plan. It was a few weeks before Christmas and I knew that the family would welcome money at this time. I put a 20,000 colone bill in my pocket ($40.00) and waited for the opportunity to encounter Toño on the road. (He was rarely home). One morning he was there and I told him I had money for him. He smiled and approached my car. As I extended my hand with the bill I said I hoped he could cut just a little from two trees and to my delight, he agreed and asked me to show him which trees. I pointed them out and later that afternoon I heard him chopping just below my wall. There he was – the same age as I at 73 – up in the tree with his machete cutting branches as I pointed and exclaimed from my higher vantage point. Finally I pleaded for him to get out of the tree and back to safety on the ground – and he laughed.  That Christmas Eve I took a big basket to them containing things I knew they would not buy themselves – peanut butter, olive oil, cinnamon rolls and fresh baked coconut macaroons. 

Everything changed.

Now we live more Pura Vida. If I have leftover materials from a building project, I offer whatever I have as a gift to my neighbors. I recently gave them leftover rocks from my retaining wall gavione project. They reciprocated by placing some of the rocks in the muddy center of the road in front of my house so I could more easily drive into my carport. And there was Toño - placing them with a huge smile on his face!

I knew we had reached a new level in our relationship when I arrived home after returning from a walk with my dogs. Virginia, the sweet grandmother of the clan was waiting for me in my carport. She extended fresh baked bread pastries to me with a big smile. “Para mi?” I questioned in surprise. “Si. Si. Come!” (Yes. Yes. Eat!) 

I returned the gesture a few weeks later with fresh cinnamon rolls I purchased at the market from the Mennonite community.  A win win – as it must always be in Pura Vida land.  And - it turned out to be Virginia’s 74th birthday!  We shared a big hug.

Pura Vida!

And that view I want to preserve? 
View out over the city - rain is on the way.
View out over the city - night fall