January, a clean palette

After working on last year’s exhibition, my head was exploding with ideas, visuals that I needed to get out and on paper. Things that had to be done. Pronto! But at the same time I realised that my current workflow needs revision and change.

I was a little high I think, on a successful event in December. Understandably so, as I spent a year painting my soul out on these panels, in solitude, with no guidelines or guarantees. Of all the weird jobs I’ve had in life so far, this one rocks my boat more than any other. And afterwards, I was Tired but also hyped on the idea that I Could Do This. My work wasn’t dismissed, my prices not too high and I didn’t run off!

It was perhaps, just the thing I needed to start taking myself a little bit more serious. Taking something serious – in my case – also means showing it more respect. For a while I’ve felt that a more structured, deliberate approach to my art was needed. But I found it very hard to look at my work and skill set and critique it fairly. To judge where I am and where I want to go. And how to get there.

Oil paint on panel
A panel I started this month

The list of reason why is long, but I’ve never managed to deal with things I wish to improve upon. Whenever I focus on parts of my life that I’d like to improve, I beat myself down. It’s like an auto-reply; I don’t even think about it. I’ve learned through years of treatment, to control the socially unacceptable actions that come with hurting yourself. No alcohol, no drugs, no excessive eating or exercise, no razor blades. But controlling your thoughts is a different party.

This theme – wanting to grow as an artist but not knowing how – keeps coming back. Last year I ran into an array of limitations while painting, and wrestled through them because I had no time or space to deal with that. But this year, I have time. And space. And some vague idea of a method that’s becoming clearer every week. In order to document that method, I’d like to write it down here, in a series of blogs. Writing here forces me to be clear and reasonable. Whereas writing in my personal dairy often opens the doors to talking myself down.

Sketching and sketchbooks

Sketching has started to feel like wading through a swamp. Like many of us, I’m also very sensitive (and weirdly attracted) to the sketchbook journal trend. Sketchbooks that are essentially a collection of completed artworks. I have attempted way too many of those, and (surprise!) cursed myself for not keeping them in theme. I was focussing on all the wrong things and I really need to stop. I mean come on, I’m FOURTY years old now. It needs to stop!

I started this year with a new pile of sketchbooks. They are cheap because cheap works for me and allows me to shamelessly destroy them if I want to, without worrying about the cost. I currently use these (hardcoversoftcover) ones, from my favourite sketchbook brand Seawhite. I made a few promises to myself that I try to repeat every day until I don’t have to anymore:

  1. This is a sketchbook, not an Instagram worthy journal
  2. Nothing needs to be in one theme, with one medium, in one style, yadiya
  3. DRAW EVERYTHING that comes to mind. Draw the idea, not the final painting. It doesn’t have to be correct, as long as the idea is clear.
  4. No one will every have to look at your sketchbook
  5. When I grow up and become famous, I can burn these sketchbook in a big bonfire to prevent them from ending up in a museum.

A final thing I would like to start doing, is take notes in my sketchbooks. Notes on ideas, on colours, on techniques, on things I learn. Give more context to the visuals, for future reference.

A page from my sketchbook
A page from one of my sketchbooks

Relating myself to other artists

I didn’t go to art school. I don’t know any full-time artists. The only one I talk shop with in real life is my artist friend Anna. Just like my mother and my grandmother, I tend to work alone and keep everything to myself.

Working like this has become a problem when I decided I wanted to make this a career. The rate of success in art while staying locked up in your studio is about zero. The amount of progress you make comparing your work to whatever you find on Instagram, is also that. 

I’d love to go out and join clubs, or lectures in schools, or art fairs or what not. Unfortunately that is not within my abilities, yet. So I got the one thing that has always worked for me; books. I’m especially interested in books that detail an artists process before they became successful. There are artists who documented their journey through journals, and others through letters. When you read the things they struggle with, you are able to relate on a practical level instead of thinking you must be doing something wrong! They wrestle with composition, colour and anatomy. They deal with insecurity, jealousy and critique. They get burned by galleries or buyers. Here are a few things that stuck with me from the few books I’ve read so far:

  1. Human anatomy is hard and I’ve yet to read about an artist who mastered it coming out of art school.
  2. Artists are inspired by other styles and try them out in the work they sell. 
  3. Artists change style during their career.
  4. Artists ask other artists for advice instead of reinventing the same wheel over and over again.
  5. Works are misplaced, traded, sold for pennies, stolen, lost in fires or floods. Shit happens.
  6. Production rate is also relevant to success, not just quality.
  7. Artists struggle with materials, well into their careers.
  8. All artists have their flaws and strengths. Some have trouble with things (for example, composition) all their lives.

It allows you to look at their work as a product of those efforts, instead of just something magical that appeared. I’m currently reading a gigantic book about Johfra, who kept a diary for decades. It’s gold! It goes all the way back to his study days. (available in Dutch only unfortunately, ISBN 9021589044)

Other artists that wrote a ton of stuff are of course Vincent Van Gogh and John Singer Sargent. I’m looking for a lot more books that have either diary entries or letters, so if you have any recommendations, please share in the comments!

My simple conclusion was that I needed more real and in-depth material, and perhaps less social media. The latter is polished, even when people are ‘real’ about things. I do it myself, and I probably wouldn’t be too happy either if my diary was published before my death lol!

Finally, I’m thinking about applying to my local art club here in Zeist. But I need some more courage for that at the moment, so I’ll keep you updated on that.

January in a nutshell

Just to remind myself what I do, I’d love to do an overview every now and then. So far this month, I’ve prepped (i.e. primed and sanded)  nine panels in different formats. I had six left from last year, so I have 15 working panels right now. I’m trying to plan this better because it takes quite a bit of time to prime these di-bond panels and dry them properly.

From those 15 panels, I’ve started up 5 works in progress. What last year has taught me most of all, is to get started. There is no way I can finish an oil painting, before starting a new one. It would result in me finishing four paintings a year haha! So this whole process of starting, putting it away to dry, picking it back up, had to grow on me. And it’s starting to, really, which is a good thing.

I’ve done a livestream for Let’s Face It 2024 this month, which was something I prepared for last year. I joined Dylan Sara’s sketching livestream, which is amazing practice for anyone who does portraits. Highly recommend! You can find his streams on several channels so here they are: Instagram, Youtube, Patreon, Linktree

Sketching with Dylan Sarah
Sketching with Dylan's livestream

Life lessons from Koosje

Before we part, here are some words from the Queen. Koosje would like you to know she appreciates your creative spirit. Whether it’s full or part time, occasionally or every evening. We keep the brushes she plays with, and the sketchbooks she scratches her chin on alive. Also, when things don’t work out, don’t beat yourself up. Just rest on the couch and put your feet up, like Koosje. <3

I hope to do another one of these monthly recaps at the end of February, thank you for joining me!


48 thoughts on “January, a clean palette”

  1. I enjoyed reading about your wabbly process, skipping and halting and often hiding along your journey, but mostly being badass brave in your solitude and creativity and evolving all along the way. Thank you for sharing. ❤️

  2. Can I tell you how much I love your honesty and humor? You are totally a breath of fresh air and several rays of sunshine in my art world. Thank you.

  3. I loved reading your blog. Thank you for telling it like it is. Keep on doing what you’re doing, it’s really nice to see Koosje too.
    Best wishes for 2024 and beyond.

  4. Good to hear from you. I care about you and your career. You are uniquely talented and an exceptional artist. Believe in yourself and all that you have to offer! 💕
    I have never opened the course I purchased over a year ago due to my own chronic illness and my husband going into hospice. At 86 now, I find my energy quite variable. The trade off is worth it, for I have a sharp mind, have gained some wisdom and am surrounded by love from family and friends. Not a bad way to live! I am able now to start the program I purchased. Please help me know the name of it and how to access it. Thank you, Sabra.
    Marcia KOFORD

    1. Sabra Awlad Issa

      Hi Marcia, good to hear from you! I’m sorry to hear about your health and your husband’s situation. But it’s good to know you are surrounded by support <3 I will look into what course you purchased and email you about that.

  5. Thank you for sharing. Love your work and all the lessons I’ve watched. Currently doing an old one – LFI 2019!

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this. I really needed to hear that I am not alone in my self doubt and that I just need to START, do something creative every day and don’t let anything be so precious that it paralyzes me. I love your work and your willingness to be raw and vulnerable. Thank you.

    1. Sabra Awlad Issa

      You’re welcome, and thank you for reading! Yes, that paralysis is very relatable and the only thing that helps is to just do something, even if it’s small <3

  7. I wanted you to know how inspiring I just found this blog post, Sabra. So much of your experience resonates with my own, although we are at different stages in our lives. I am sad that I had so little confidence for so much of my life and that I did not become an artist when I grew up – something I dreamed of aged 12. but things are much better now, so I am embracing what is artistically for me now. Reading this also helped me feel less alone. I have learned and continue to learn so much from what you share so authentically, I am of an age where I have no idea of how much time is left for me. I just know I want to learn as much as I can about creativity and to try to stay clear and focused as far as I can. You really help with that.

    1. Sabra Awlad Issa

      Hi Julie, my personal hero! <3 You remind me of my mum, who recently started drumming lessons because she's been wanting to do that since her childhood. She has a TON of talent and discipline to work, just like you. We have the time that we have, no matter our age. But I do understand where you're coming from. I too, am always too late haha 😉 Let's keep each other focussed on what's really important and create a boatload of art in the time we have left <3

  8. Linda W. Perkins

    This is wonderful, Sabra! I attended the LFI livestream you were on and I really loved what you shared there and in this blog. I know what you mean about needing courage to join an art club. I just joined a book club at a church my husband and I have been visiting online. It is in Greenville, South Carolin, where we are moving to next month. The book club is going to be reading Art+Faith: A Theology of Making by Japanese artist Makoto Fujimura. I already had the book, but hadn’t gotten very far in it. Anyway, I noticed the book club has some professional artists in it, and they are all great. I looked at their Instagram pages and cringed when I looked back at mine. Granted, I am a student who hasn’t put much time into art the past year or so, and even though I have sold some pieces, I definitely am still in the category of “emerging artist.” But I know I can do better work that I have had time for lately, and I won’t have more time until I have completed my move around the beginning of April. Meanwhile, I saw in the discussion guide that there will be creative exercises we will be doing weekly. Many of my art supplies are already packed up and I need to start packing up the rest! How I am going to do this, I don’t know, but I am going to have to give myself some grace. Like you, I am not very good at that.

    I really appreciate you sharing what you’ve learned from reading the journals of other artists. I needed to hear about their struggles! You have motivated me to keep going, even as I struggle to develop the skills I need and to find the time I don’t have much of these days. Thank you for being such an inspiration!

    1. Sabra Awlad Issa

      Hi Linda, great to see you again! I was recently confronted with being a beginner again when I joined an online sculpting class and people in the fb group were posting their life-size, bronze cast works! And here I am with pathetic pile on air dry clay haha! Learning things as an adult is so hard, you can’t help but compare yourself. The thing that gets me through is the vast amount of supportive people who carry us as we learn. Perhaps you can do the exercises with just one medium? Like pencil or charcoal? Something you can put in your carrying bag. Any practice you get is good! Let’s be kind to ourselves <3

  9. Beautiful wisdom that testifies to an enormous capacity for self-reflection and process-based insight.
    Even if you are not an artist, this story gives a lot of food for thought. Thank you so much Sabra for sharing this.

  10. Christine Kunkel

    Great to hear from you again – and congratulations on your successful exhibition. When you asked for recommendations, I immediately thought of “The Diary of Frida Kahlo”. You might find that interesting. It documents the last 10 years of her life from 1944 – 1954, every page, in colour, in Spanish and full translation to English.
    Loved Koosje’s life lessons. Beautiful, smart kitty!

    1. Thank you for sharing your struggles about being an artist so honestly. Your work shows such beautiful sensitivity. I have taken some of your classes through Kara Bullock and really learned a lot from them. It’s all baby steps but if we reach out (which I have found hard to do) there are plenty of artists out there to catch us if we fall. I have found the online art community to be nothing but supportive.
      Good luck with your art and your art career. So happy for you that your exhibition was such a success.
      Keep on sharing. You are making a difference in many people’s lives I’m sure.
      Thank you.

      1. Our art community is so wonderful isn’t it? I’m glad you’re a part of that too. Let’s keep on creating!

  11. Sabra, I just love everything about this! Thank you for always sharing a glimpse into a true artist’s soul. Your lessons consistently balance a delivery of instruction and encouragement. The struggle is real but worth it in the end. And much more fulfilling when shared. Thanks for bringing us on your journey. Oh the places we’ll go!

      1. Sabra, Your openness and your artwork inspire me to keep going. Thank you for sharing your experiences, thoughts & feelings.

  12. I am sooooo proud of you!!! (Pretend that I am your mom 😉 ) The growth in you that I’ve seen is amazing!! One of the best things is when you grow we grow because you are so incredibly transparent and very wise! I keep getting drawn to sketchbooks but am never satisfied with how I use them…only for completed works. But I LOVE the idea of using them like you (and others) describe…so what is stopping me??? I, like Julie, have no idea of how much time I have here but I want to continue to be challenged, grow and actually accomplish whatever my heart’s desire is. I feel the fact that you know that you are loved by a multitude of adoring vulnerable artists…I can feel it in your words and that makes me incredibly happy for you. I can’t wait what this year has for you and all of us!! Love you, my friend xx

    1. You’re my second art mom haha! <3 I've never bonded with people like I have in the art community and I'll be forever grateful for that experience. Regarding sketchbooks; see what you prefer. I've actually not kept a sketchbook for years. I just messed around on cheap, single sheets, some bigger than the other etc. You end up with a pile of chaos and that's that lol. It worked really well and it still does sometimes. But yeah, the sketchbook that has only completed works doesn't jive with me either. Also, I LOVE YOU TOO! <3

  13. Thank you Sabra, for posting these thoughts. You are a wonderful artist–keep going. I, too, get discouraged but you remind me to keep going and do something! Best wishes to you, and I hope you find it possible and fulfilling to join your art club.

  14. You are my favourite artist to follow and learn from. Thank you for the time you have taken to do this newsletter. I appreciate the links and resources as well.

  15. Good morning from Vermont USA dear Sabra. Reading your words is just what I needed this morning! I had been falling under the spell of my own critical take down voice after showing up at a local live model session where I felt way out of my league. Thank you for making the time and energy to show up for yourself and for us with this update. I signed up for your newsletter after your live stream class for LFI24 because I really connected with your honesty, vulnerability and graceful approach to yourself and your art. What a gift to hang out with you in your studio from The Netherlands!! I also love your work, I find it so fresh and original, so filled with deep feeling and even more impressive knowing that you never attended art school! I am cheering you on wholeheartedly from afar! Thank you for inspiring me with your struggles as well as triumphs. Like you, I feel encouraged by the experiences of other artists largely because I see that my struggles are more about the creative process than complete unworthiness on my part. My passion is sculpting faces with clay, especially bas relief. However I can fall into sculpting and resculpting, because it’s never good enough and hence I can overwork the life out of things. 🙁 I’d have a studio filled with decent work if each iteration was a separate piece. That’s why I signed up for LFI, to stretch myself with different approaches. So far so good as I got to ‘meet’ you! Blessings on your process and progress. With love and gratitude, Ellen

    1. Sabra Awlad Issa

      This is so kind of you Ellen, really lovely to read your comment! In fact, I just started a sculpting class today and I feel totally out of my zone, back to square one. It’s horrible haha! But even then, we have that need to stretch ourselves, to go beyond what we currently do. It makes artists a special breed, but not always easy. What you said about the struggle of the creative process not meaning you’re worthless: spot on! Oh it took me SO long to figure that one out! I hope you enjoy LFI as much as I enjoy getting my hands into some clay <3

  16. Oh my gosh, I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed reading this. For me, no matter what the subject, it always comes back to human beings, and how they approach life. Although you and I come from a completely different place, and have very different desires, what connexus is moments of shared experience, but even more so discovering something about who we are by looking at the other. What I love most about this is seeing you take your own path. Yes, you are influenced and inspired by others, but you are seeing what is best for you, and out of that I know will come even more incredible art. Thank you for sharing your journey, I love being along for the ride.

    1. Sabra Awlad Issa

      Hi Lynn, thanks so much for always being here with supportive words! Yes, we’re very different but like you said, we share that desire to learn more about ourselves, in whatever way we can. Thanks for joining me on that journey <3

  17. I look up to you in so many ways – your honesty, willingness to share your amazing talents, and the emotions I feel each time I view your work. On the home page of my phone I have a photo of my completed painting, from the first lesson I took from you. 😁 Thank you

  18. Thanks for the permission to NOT create post worthy sketch book! I do take notes in mine..artist names, how to.., color formulas..ect.
    Also alone
    Purchase investment
    “Alla PrimaII” Richard Schmid.Lovely.
    “Drawing Course” Charles Bargue. Essential.
    Want: anatomy. Recommendations?

    1. Thank you for the recommendations! For anatomy I currently have Elliot Goldfinger’s Human Anatomy for Artist’s. I also really need Sarah Simblet’s Anatomy for the Artist, awesome book!

  19. I always love reading about your experiences…all the ups and downs. You really do inspire me, and reading this especially so because things are changing or have been changing for me. I am always holding my goals lightly, listening for the universe to let me know when it’s time to make a move in one direction or another. It’s been months of doubt and confusion and wondering which way I should go next. And just when I think my plate is going to be empty someone gives me another opportunity, which I love and am so grateful for. But I figure at some point I will have an empty plate again and need to be ready with my next move or focus. It’s funny how the universe sends us things before we think we are ready as well. I have been wanting to move into figures for awhile, but still keeping the faces in there because my favorite is to paint faces. And I started to dabble and Bam! right away I get asked to do a class with figures. Oh my. But I don’t turn down an opportunity for growth or a challenge to grow, so of course I am pumped to do it. And having that kind of push behind me actually fires me up as long as I have to time to devote to planning and practicing to get it to a place I’m proud of. But talk about not feeling ready skill-wise or emotionally. So funny. But that’s what happened with my first teaching experience as well. I knew I wanted to try online teaching eventually, but Bam! someone asks me before I felt like I was ready. And it led to more opportunities and has just been awesome. I know I am not the best artist, far from, but I love creating art and sharing my personal process and showing others. I, too, want to join a local artist group if I can find one, but am not ready to jump on that quite yet. Thanks again Sabra, I look forward to more posts 🙂

    1. You you’re gonna get asked for that local art group now right, right before you’re ready for it? 😀 I can SO relate to not being ready, then an opportunity comes along and you just push yourself that extra mile and pull it off. I think that’s why it’s so important that we surround ourselves with people that lift us up and not hold us back. We need our fellow humans to get through life and we can’t carry everything on our own. I love your art and what you’re sharing with the community and I hope you keep doing it for a long time!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

I use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on my website.