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Watercolor Illustrator Stan Fellows Finds Meditative Beauty in the Ordinary

Daily journaling through art can enrich your life — even if you have no experience as an artist

A few years ago, artist and illustrator Stan Fellows was snarled in traffic on the way to a flight at Denver International Airport when it hit him that the painter’s mindset applies as much to clogged highways as it does to blank canvases.

“I took a breath and carefully observed what was around me,” Fellows says in a voice as calming as a Colorado snowfall. He lives in Longmont, outside Boulder. “I thought, ‘The light on the license plate ahead of me is pretty, and the metal frame has one hex nut and one Phillips screw, which is curiously beautiful.’” Fellows says his pulse slowed as his creativity awakened and he focused on how he would render such a scene.

At 63, after four decades illustrating for publications such as The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic and National Geographic, and companies including Harley-Davidson, Fellows is distilling some of the deeper lessons he’s learned by way of online art workshops that he’s hosting during the pandemic. His is also the brush behind the evocative watercolors accompanying a serialized mystery book, The Long Call, on AARP Members Only Access. Fellows painted more than 20 original pieces to match the suspense and slow unraveling of best-selling crime author Ann Cleeves’ tale of murder, loss and deadly secrets along the British coast.

We spoke to Fellows about the serial project, his classes and how thinking like an artist — even if you’ve never drawn a thing — helps keep you relaxed, sharp and endlessly inspired.

 

Have you ever done a serialization like The Long Call before?

This was completely unique for me. That’s what made it fun. The trick was telling the story without revealing too much. In a serial, you never want to spill the beans prematurely. It felt old school to me in the best way. It reminded me of old graphic novels or pulp detective stories from the 1950s. The reader stays on a journey that goes on for weeks or months.

You don’t think of watercolors as a way to illustrate a murder mystery. What’s the appeal of that medium for you?

I’ve been hooked on watercolor since high school. I remember walking past a big, big book of work by [realistic painter] Andrew Wyeth. It was open on display in the library to his painting of a pump house. I was instantly struck by how powerful an image it was. The saturation, the composition. The description at the bottom said it was a watercolor. That was a lightning bolt. Watercolor adds a little bit of radiance, kind of a halo. It’s perfectly imperfect, and that’s where the magic lies.

In your online workshop introduction, you say the practice of daily journaling with watercolors can enrich your life generally, even if you have no experience as an artist. How so?

The most important thing is to learn to settle. Even if it’s your first drawing, even if you’re not looking at the paper, even if the drawing is very amateurish, it throws the anchor out. It causes you to slow your life down. Say I’m looking at a house across the street. Maybe you’ve seen it a million times. When you’re painting, you start to notice things. Maybe there’s a little nook. Perhaps the wall has a fish scale pattern. Whereas if I’m standing there with my hands in my pocket, it’s just this house across the street. You might take out your phone and forget about it. But in the role of artist, you slow down enough to notice the window of the door is off-center, just by a hair, and that the gutter is sagging a little bit.

How exactly does that improve your life?

Well, you’re noticing everything. You hear sounds more acutely. An unfamiliar bird. You notice the temperature and specific smells. You notice that you’re hungry. Your mind is suddenly saturated with memory. When you paint something, you’ll remember forever where you were when you did it. It’s a tool that holds you to the moment longer than you normally would, and it keeps your mind from wandering. Once you become acquainted with the feeling of nothing, of being still, of being calm in your practice, it’s easier to access that quickly, the way I did when I felt myself getting stressed on the way to the Denver airport.

By the way, did you make it to your flight?

Ha! I made the flight. I always leave enough time for several things to go awry and still make the plane, and on that day hit the trifecta of snags but walked onto the plane at the last minute and — zoom! — we were off.

   


Paint splotches with words recommended materials in cursive

Illustration/Lettering Stan Fellows

 

Everything You Need to Start Journaling by Stan Fellows

 

Over many busy years as an illustrator, the cost of materials was never a consideration — you used top-quality equipment to do professional work without compromise.

Experimenting with countless brushes, papers, palettes, looking for the very best equipment, without regard to cost, I’ve come up with the following list. These are the items I’ve used every day for years, and, surprisingly, it’s all cheap. Online suppliers I use include BlickUtrechtDaniel SmithCheap Joe’s and Jerry’s Artarama.

Sketchbook/journal

You’ll want a book of watercolor paper, but the varieties and sizes vary widely and I’ll leave it to you to choose what you’re comfortable with. Here are three examples of books I’ve used and like, but feel free to use a different brand if you prefer. Just be sure it’s “cold press” watercolor paper.

  • Moleskine Watercolor Notebooks
  • Strathmore Watercolor Travel Pads and Journals
  • Canson Montval Field Watercolor ArtBook
Thin and thick paintbrushes on blue background

Illustration: Stan Fellows; Image: Kelli Tungay/Unsplash

Brush

The best, most versatile watercolor brush I’ve ever used is not a $70 watercolor brush — it’s a brush made for painting in acrylics and cost about six bucks. I use a 3/4-inch, but for starting out you might find a 1/2-inch easier to use. This Princeton Snap! Golden Taklon Brush is about $4, but if you can’t find this exact brand just look for any square-tipped acrylic brush with a fairly short handle.

Pens

Micron makes excellent waterproof pens, and I recommend a very fine-tipped one, size .005. Black is best for drawing, but I like some of the other colors for writing. You might consider some of the Micron sets of pens, which are attractively priced. Two cautions: If a Micron pen touches wet paper, it dies. And don’t press down hard with them — they’re a little delicate. You might also want a few highlighter pens and/or brush pens, if you want to play around with lettering.

Small tubs of blue and yellow paint on green background

Illustration: Stan Fellows; Image: Kelli Tungay/Unsplash

Paint

Using tube paints, not a set of watercolors in pans, is crucial. I’ve used student-grade tubes and they’re just fine. The biggest difference between them and professional grade is that they do not revive as well if the paint wells dry out. Here is an example set.

If you’re buying individual tubes, choose whatever colors strike your fancy — my tutorial is not fussy about matching color.

And someone always asks which color and brand I use. I like Holbein, but at over $10 a tube, they’re ghastly expensive. Winsor & Newton and Daniel Smith are more affordable.

As mentioned, the specific colors are not important, but, to answer the question of my own seven colors, they are:

  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Pyrrole Red (similar to cadmium red light in other brands)
  • Pyrrole Rubin (similar to cadmium red deep)
  • Lavender (similar to cerulean blue)
  • Sap Green
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Ultramarine Deep (French Ultramarine is the more common name)

Palette

The best is corrugated plastic! Whoulda thunk!

Super-light, easy to clean, and can be custom-cut to fit in your bag, this is a wonderful mixing surface. And though the sheet is large, it’s inexpensive, and the leftovers can be used for other projects or to replace the one you left in a hotel.

Comes in white or translucent. I like translucent just ’cause it’s kinda cool looking.

Paint wells

Hands down the best way to keep paint moist and prevent leaking into your bag is storing in a weekly pill minder. Yep, your common Sunday-to-Saturday pill organizer found in every pharmacy on earth. You want the really simple one, with lids that snap shut with a push. About 4.5 inches long is ideal, but slightly larger is fine.

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