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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Widdowson

A Canvas of Words

Updated: May 22

ocean view with trees, mountains, peninsula & sky

I recently went with a friend to an art retreat on Samish Island in Skagit County, Washington. If you’ve never been there, it’s a really beautiful area off the northwest coast of Washington. It’s part of the Inner San Juan Islands and is in the middle of nowhere supporting about 500 homes. There is no downtown, no cute coffee houses or shops to visit, but it’s a fantastic place to get away from it all. In fact, it’s not really an island at all anymore, because in the 1860s it was connected to the mainland by U.S. Military Engineers and later, the connecting road was spruced up by Skagit County.

But its isolation makes it the perfect location for a retreat of any kind—a place to escape from your ordinary life. And it was a great way to get me back into painting. I have been so heads-down lately writing blogs, creating audio versions of my books, and marketing, that I have neglected many of my other hobbies. So, when my friend asked if I was interested in going to the retreat, I said yes! Of course, I took my laptop, hoping to write when I wasn’t creating art, but read on to see how that idea panned out!

The Art Retreat we went to is hosted yearly by the Seattle Chapter of the Colored Pencil Society of America. I’m not a member of this organization. But they had a couple of last-minute empty seats when some of their regular members had to back out, and I was lucky enough to get to take advantage of their absence. The event is held at the Samish Island Campground and Retreat Center on the easternmost portion of the island and houses rows of colorful cabins. There’s also a Dining Hall—a large building with a cafeteria, a spacious area with large tables, a dining space, and a cozy fireplace. This was where we hung out most of the day and made art. More buildings and treasures are on the site, so if you want to know more about all the facilities available, check out their website.

My days there were simple. I usually woke up around 6:30, took my shower, went to the main hall and then spent the rest of the day creating art! In between our creating time, we were fed a yummy breakfast, lunch, and dinner prepared by our wonderful chefs. We also had several beautiful days where we took a walk around the campground and out to the water where the beaches were covered in oyster shells!

It was such a luxury to be able to simply create and not worry about anything else—not even feeding myself. It’s also almost impossible to feel guilty for not getting anything else done, like laundry, paying bills, or cleaning the house, because you can’t. You’re not at home. Which is the whole point. It’s not as if my life is stressful—I am retired after all—but it’s easy to let everyday things distract me, or allow myself to feel guilty for taking time out just for my art. And as I mentioned, I was spending a lot of time on my writing.

Because we were so isolated, I had to bring everything with me. That was probably the most challenging part of packing for the retreat. I had to bring my own sheets, towels, pillow, toiletries, etc. etc. But the real problem was choosing which art supplies to bring! If you know me, you know that I have a ton of art supplies. Did you not know that simply collecting art supplies is a hobby all unto itself?

My go-to medium is usually acrylic paints. I used to paint with oils, but the cleanup was a pain. Then I discovered water-based oil paints. What? How can an oil paint be water-based? I don’t know how they do it, but it’s fantastic. Unfortunately however, here in the PNW, we get a lot of rainy days, and even though the clean-up was great, even water-based oil paints take a long time to dry. That’s when I switched to acrylics. They dry so fast that sometimes I have to add a slow-drying medium so they will stay wet longer!

But my decision about which art supplies to pack was difficult because not only do I paint with acrylics, but I also love oil pastels and gouache, and even enjoy creating pieces using soft pastels, watercolors, wax pastels, and colored pencils! I couldn’t bring everything, however—my car was simply not big enough! And besides, the retreat was really only five days long. I had to be realistic. So I pared my selection down to acrylics, oil pastels and oil-based colored pencils, and wax-crayons (permanent and water-soluble). And I was determined to play with every single one of those mediums while I was there—and I did!

While I was there, I made some pieces I loved and some other pieces I didn’t. That’s pretty much how my writing usually goes as well. But even when I create something I don’t love, whether it be in my art or my writing, I always learn something. When that happens, I just get out another blank canvas and try again.

What does any of this have to do with writing, you ask? To me, making art and writing are similar. They’re both artistic journeys—you’re creating something from nothing. And every new experience I have gives me fodder for both my art and my writing. I met some wonderful people. I made new friends, learned a lot from them, and I’m sure you will see bits and pieces of their personalities thrown into some of my future characters.

I heard the greatest phrase about aging the other day while I was watching a YouTube video by Rachel Maksy. She said “Wrinkles are the paint strokes of time.” What a great way to look at what the ravages of time do to your face. She’s young now, so it will be interesting to see if she feels the same way when she gets to be my age. My point is really that everything can be a canvas for art. A blank page is a canvas for words. A blank stretch of linen is a canvas for paint. The world around you is a canvas—the sky is a canvas for green trees, mountains and oceans. Even your face is a canvas for wrinkles!

As I mentioned before, I took my laptop with me on the art retreat, thinking I would write each day after painting and making art. But that did not happen. By the time I finally put my paintbrush or pastel down for the day, I was pooped! And anyway, the whole point of the retreat was supposed to be to get away from everything else, and just make art. So, I set the laptop aside, gave up on writing anything that week, and took a much needed break.

Taking my mind away from my writing for even that little while, invigorated me when I returned home—not just to write, but to continue making art. I shouldn’t have to abandon one creative outlet for another. So going forward, I’m going to strive to make room for both.

Now that I’m refreshed and renewed, I’m planning to forge ahead on book number three and still make time for my art. My progress has been slow lately. I’m getting a little stuck in the minutiae of the details of the neurological syndrome of one of my main characters. No surprise there. I always seem to get carried away with the research and forget that eventually, I have to write the dang story!

What is your blank canvas? Almost everyone is a creator, even if they don’t realize it. Do you like to bake or cook? Then the oven or stove is your canvas. Are you a gardener? Then the soil is your canvas. Even if all you like to do is read, my declaration to you is that your mind is your blank canvas—you’re bringing the story to life in your mind’s eye.

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