No Van Gogh? No problem. How painting can stretch a writer.

“When I haven’t any blue, I use red.” — Pablo Picasso 

Keep the paint moving, says watercolor artist Donna Lenard, as about 20 of us flex our creative muscles on a rainy Saturday afternoon at the Holistic Center for mind, body and spirit in Chassell, Michigan.

Watercolorist Donna Lenard is self-taught and now she teachers others.

Donna does her mellow watercolor classes for a variety of skill levels in classes large or small. Contact her for more details at or to find out where her work is currently on exhibit.

Donna leads us through the creation of three small watercolors. The first, a birch tree, begins with a blue wash for the background. We add earth-toned landscape then peel off the tape, attend to the trees with yellow, browns, leaving a judicious amount of white, looking for contrast through a red gel. Some of the women in class are creating such wondrous scenes, blue skies, perfectly stippled birch trunks, that I can’t stop looking around, exclaiming in delight. Donna holds them up. The good ones. The best ones. All of them. Even mine? I’ve got a murky thing going on in my sky, where the brown wash met the blue. Donna explains it. “It’s night.” Next to me, Sandy has swirls in her sky. “There’s some wind going on,” says Donna. And she’s not just being polite.

Two feet away I can see what I’ve done. It looks like a tree, by golly!


My first attempt at watercolor yields something that very much resembles a birch tree.

By the second picture, a dreamy moonscape, light colors in back, dark in front to give depth, my elementary art school angst has vanished and I am perhaps applying paint with more abandon than necessary. Donna has perfected the technique of these scenes in her own work. So she’s able to describe each step with precision, giving us examples on her iPad gallery, which is also providing jazzy instrumentals for our painting pleasure. She demonstrates, praises, urges us to spray on more water, keep the paint moving, dab away what’s too dark. Layer on what’s too light. Takes her own brush to our creations to smooth over a rough spot or demonstrate the proper stroke, dipping her brush into the water bowls (or beverages), embodying the messy glory of creation, always with the caveat “tell me if you don’t want my brush on your painting.” Luminescent moons emerge as we pull up the paint, dab with tissues. Next to me my friend Sandy’s red-streaked sky is so vivid, her trees haikus. Behind me, another painter’s evergreens are lush, opulent, majestic.


Pulling out the moon and darkening trees in the foreground for added dimension.

Explicit instructions aside, this is not paint-by-numbers. Bob Ross is not in the house, although we’re definitely experiencing the joy of painting. “Make as many or as few trees as you want,” Donna urges. We’re all creating the same scene. But each painting is different. And there is not one, NOT ONE, that is indistinguishable, or ugly, or sad. Donna is right. There’s nothing that cannot be washed away.

The process of no absolutes paired with constant adjustment translates to the writing and editing process. I think about being easier with cuts and re-arrangements, just accepting that phase, even enjoying it as much as Donna enjoys checking out the mix of colors appearing on her jeans as she wipes off her brushes on them. And just like writing, there is a time to stop.

Gauguin’s quote, one of several Donna shares with us:

“Do not finish your work too much.”

Then comes the pièce de résistance: aurora borealis. Donna’s known for her depictions of the northern lights, perfected after a decade living in a dry cabin in the Goldstream Valley north of Fairbanks, Alaska. There were advantages to life without indoor plumbing, as she told me in a KeweenawNOW profile. The northern lights that dazzled her during an outhouse trek on a frigid February night resulted in her popular “Warm Welcome” series.

This painting for me is the most fun. We shake the cutting boards our works in progress are taped to, oohing as the lights emerge from layers of yellow, green and blue-black on the wet paper.

Watercolor classes by Donna Lenard include lessons on capturing the northern lights.

Showing off our aurora borealis paintings.

Donna shares more tricks of her trade. “Let the paint do it. Let the brush do it,” she reassures. And I think what we writers can learn from someone who so freely gives of her own work. She’s not at all worried about someone “stealing” her ideas, a mistaken thought common to new writers.

By the time we get to star-making, I know what to say when Donna remarks that my stars are a wee bit symmetrical.

“Maybe they’re snow.” We smile.


My star-snowy northern lights. If you want to see how a pro does it, check out Donna Lenard Watercolors on Facebook. We used Azo yellow, Phalo green, Alizaron crimson, Phalo blue and Ivory black.

On the drive home down winding country roads, I am acutely aware of the shape of the trees, especially the tops of the pines. How irregular, each unique as a snowflake, branches protruding in no apparent order, yet forming a harmonious whole.

Considering the arrangements of stars, the cant of a tree trunk, the shadows on the moon – closely observing those tiny details and replicating them, or the illusion of them, can only improve my descriptions. To convey the essence, we must first truly see it.

Donna’s teaching more beginning and intermediate classes at the Holistic Center – and you can contact her at to throw your own watercolor party. She provides the materials; all participants need to do is show up.

Debbie welcomes inquiries from anyone who has a talent to share to encourage mind-body-spirit self care. That’s in addition to her holistic psychotherapy practice.

I’m going to keep branching out into arts besides my own. And reviving forgotten arts. (Think drum circle. Tap dancing.). What creative art have you always wanted to try?

Bonus inspiration: Here’s how you can use art to inspire writing students.


5 thoughts on “No Van Gogh? No problem. How painting can stretch a writer.

  1. Another adventure that I enjoyed your sharing. It is good to meet someone who helps us paint or color outside the lines. Finding our own lines. Love U

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