Sarah Simon started on a typical, expected, safe career path, but always knew she had an artist inside. When she had to think about a career change and an injury sidelined her, she seized the opportunity to spread her creative wings. She found her calling in botanical watercolors and now shares her passion and her methods through a new book and workshops.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Light bulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I have always been a creative. So I always have to be doing something with my hands – it’s when I feel the most like ME.
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Growing up I always wanted to be an artist. But when I went to college, I chose the sensible degree because I’m the oldest of five kids and I had a lots of bills to pay.
At that point in my life I didn’t yet understand the intrinsic value of creating art, that there was value in pursuing dreams, taking a leap of faith. I needed a career path that felt solid, and secure – with a promise of a job at the end of the studies. So I chose Economics (which I really enjoyed!) and graduated from the University of Washington. I worked for several years in different firms, and during that time I didn’t create much. It’s amazing how inside my heart there was always just this sadness. I would see other creatives living their joy and being in art shows. I was so happy for them on the outside, but I felt like I died a little bit inside because I wanted to do it myself so badly.
It took me falling: actually breaking my foot and spraining my ankle, to finally get back to creating. I was wearing flip-flops and missed half of a stair on vacation in the Florida Keys with my fiancé. So we flew back to Seattle, with me in a boot and crutches, in the dead of winter, and there was ice and snow. Then my best friend, an art major, dragged me to the art store and took the cart around as I crutched behind her. She kept saying, “You need this, you need this. Sarah, you’ve been broken and now you get to create.”
She got it right and really reignited the spark in my heart to begin creating again. There are so many obstacles in a creative’s path. It really took that fall to begin again and start my art career. And then, after a few years of painting on the side, I was laid off of my tech job. So it felt like the right time to really give Etsy and painting a chance. My plan was to start my art business, then whatever money I made I would use to pay for my supplies. I felt too guilty using money that should be paying bills for my art. Again, I didn’t understand then how important mental health and investing in your creativity for its own sake was. Now I know better, and I would encourage anyone and everyone to always invest in themselves, even if it won’t “pay the bills!”
What inspires you to create? How does your environment influence your creativity?
Nature. It surrounds me. We live in Seattle on a quarter acre with a garden, and gardening has been in my family for many, many generations.
My husband’s family gardens as well! Gardening has really become a place where my husband and I meet with our hobbies, but it’s also a place for the kids to grow and learn. We’ve got chickens, vegetables, flowers – we like to grow and tend anything that builds that amazing connection with the earth.
Being in the Pacific Northwest, we have a nice growing season, which we have been able to prolong with our backyard greenhouse. It creates a beautiful outdoor space that we can access all year round, even if we aren’t growing plants! In the times before Covid, we had an incredible party in the greenhouse with our friends and it was just magical. I’m really looking forward to doing that again.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
People tell me again and again that they love my style, but for me as an artist I feel like I have not arrived. I don’t know if any artist ever feels like they have arrived. I think that’s kind of like an internal struggle for every artist everywhere. But the style I’m known for, that I love and enjoy teaching, is botanicals in watercolor painting, often adding an ink line. I love the idea that the ink line defines the botanical shape, and then watercolor releases this wild beauty over the structured organic form.
Lately I’ve been just wanting more depth of emotion and feeling and so I’ve been kind dabbling. I love mixing mediums and breaking the rules. As an artist maybe there’s a little bit that I love in this free-style playing with mediums.
What is most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your book Modern Watercolor Botanicals?
I want watercolor to be approachable. That was one of the obstacles I just could not face when I had stopped creating and then was trying to get back into the creative world. It felt incredibly overwhelming because there are so many choices for supplies. And tools are expensive. When you’re investing money in a new skill set, you want to be successful right away. But really, like we all know, the best way to be successful is by allowing yourself to play. So, it takes time, and grace with yourself as you learn. And if budget is a factor, which it is for 99% of the world, the freedom to play is hard to achieve if you have to spend so much money on supplies.
My book, Modern Watercolor Botanicals, teaches you how to paint with a minimal amount of supplies. So you’re invited to begin by starting with a student grade paintbrush and a 30-piece pad of paper for $6. You can always invest more later, but start with the basics and PLAY. You don’t need to buy a $90 pallet – so you start with a dinner plate as your palette. And when your budget is stretched, you feel more freedom to play with the tools you have. So this is what I like to communicate in all of my classes as well. I love teaching and showing how we can break this down so watercolor is simple enough to understand. Approachable for all people from all walks of life, all generations and all stages of where they are with their skills – so everyone can come to the creative table together.
Each lesson in my book includes three different levels – beginner, intermediate, and advanced. I offer alterations to each lesson to make it easier or harder based on where you are in your journey. If for some reason you are brand new, you can pick up my book and start at the beginner level. So you can do it as a beginner, you can do it as intermediate, and you can do it as advanced. It’s kind of cool. I wanted that design for my book. So it’s approachable, accessible and FUN.
How does the format of your Watercolor Workbook help a painter develop and improve their watercolor technique?
I strive to make art accessible to as many creatives as possible. I love the idea of removing obstacles.Often, sourcing the best materials for a new art form can feel more daunting than the act of painting itself. Paper is the most important tool when it comes to watercolor, so it was a dream to build Watercolor Workbook with such incredibly high quality wood-free watercolor paper actually bound in the book.
Another obstacle I have heard over the many years of teaching this lovely art form: “I can’t draw! I just want to paint, but I am limited by my drawing skills.” And that is another reason Watercolor Workbook is so special. All of the projects are hand-drawn already, my designs pre-printed on each watercolor page. I love that I was able to create a book that invites the creative to sit down, with so many obstacles removed, and enjoy the freedom of watching paint dance on paper.
When it comes to creating are you more of a planner or an improviser?
That’s a good question! I usually start with an idea, kind of a feeling in mind or direction or even a mood board or color palette or kind of a general idea of where I want to head. Then I allow myself to improvise. I have to have that play as a part of the process.
What are indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I love mason jars for my water, and I love using my ceramic dinner plates for my paint palettes.
Watercolor is an incredible medium. You can reactivate it with water whenever you’re ready. You can create amazing color mixtures with different paints and then let it dry on your plate palette. Then come back a year, or an hour, later and by simply adding water you’re able to reactivate the paint. So you can just pick up where you left off, and that’s magic. Dinner plates and mason jars are my indispensable tools.
What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it?
I absolutely love love love love love Sakura koi coloring brush pens. It’s designed as a clear pen to blend your watercolor markers together, but I discovered that it is an incredible eraser, too. If you happen to splatter watercolor, you spot a mess of a red splatter on your new piece that you just finished, or something went outside the lines that you didn’t expect, it works as an eraser! It’s fantastic.
Do you have a dedicated space to create?
If you haven’t noticed already, one of my big themes is that I love making watercolor, and art in general, being accessible. And If people struggle with finding space for it, they won’t find the time to make art.
For my first decade of painting, I actually would paint in the corner of my living room on my great-grandmother’s writing desk. I just had to pull down the lid and close it, so it wasn’t super messy. I always had my paint brushes ready, I always had a stack of paper and I always had a mason jar of water and paints ready. If I had 20 minutes, I didn’t have to waste a second of those precious minutes pulling stuff out. I didn’t have to deal with that mental obstacle of excuses that bombard every creative: “Is it worth the time…I have to clean all this up afterwards.” I’ve learned that you can create a studio space in a 600 square-foot apartment, as long as you just have a little corner that’s all your own.
And – even if you don’t have an actual corner, for many years with little kids, I actually just used an Ikea rolling cart! I would have everything in the cart and would literally roll it wherever my kids were playing. I just made it work. That’s what you learn to do for your mental health, if you understand how much you value creating, even if you’re just painting leaves or doodling or sketching as your kids play. There’s the act of creating, your kids see it, you feel it and everyone gets recharged.
Creating that space that really just invites you in – no matter what it looks like in your life, even if it’s just an Ikea rolling cart. Because it’s always worth it.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal?
Yes I do! I’ve actually found that sketchbooks and journals take away the preciousness of my work. Often times I can sketch ideas in a smaller scale in a journal, and it removes the pressure. Every artist makes some crap work, and having a journal to test things out helps flush out the ideas and really hone into the good ones that are worth bringing to a bigger canvas.
Recently I had a commission to do a mixed media piece and I wasn’t sure how a few tools would look over watercolor. So I worked out my ideas in my sketchbook, and it was so helpful. I almost feel like sometimes those little sketches and first thoughts captured without the extra pressure of a ‘perfect performance’ are even better than the final piece. Sketchbooks let you capture the moment! I don’t know, but I think they’re a bit magical and everyone should have a sketchbook, even if half the pages are junk. Learning what you don’t like sometimes helps narrow down to what you do like. Learning through the junk is key, and embracing all that imperfection is a part of the process.
What plays in the background while you work?
It really depends. With Covid-19, and having everyone at home these days, if I can find silence in my studio I will embrace that. But sometimes I’m in a mood to listen to some music in the background. Usually instrumental classical and I love instrumental Celtic music.
Is there an overarching thing that connects all your work?
Botanicals. I don’t know if I will ever, ever be over botanicals. There is something about the way the light hits a flower that takes my breath away. Like Monet and his lilies — he just painted them over and over and over. I think that my goal is just to paint botanicals again and again. No two leaves in the garden are the same. An angle of a petal, or the way a flower changes from minute to minute – there is something about capturing that moment that is so appealing to me.
Do you lecture or teach workshops?
Yes! I lecture and do motivational talks about the creative process, as well as teach people to watercolor!
I do monthly virtual workshops that are Live or Recorded, so people can attend at their leisure. The Live classes fill up fast, and I like to keep my class sizes smaller so I can connect with each painter and make sure I can answer all of their questions. I also have a flower painting club where people can vote for the flower they want me to draw, and receive a pdf of the art, along with a video and audio tutorial of how I did it. The idea of the flower painting club originated from teaching my virtual classes. I realized people really like to have that freedom to paint without the pressure of having to draw something. That removes the pressure so they feel free to paint and create!
If you could live during a different artistic movement other than now which would you choose and why?
Gosh, probably the 1920s. That makes me think of that Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris. As a woman, I am thankful that I was born in this era, in this time, in this place, in this first world country, in Seattle, where I live. I’m reminded of this blessing daily and I’m so thankful. However, if there was a way I could still have the freedom and the ability as a woman to move seamlessly through society and pursue an art form like my watercolor and teaching people to paint… I would want to time travel right into Midnight in Paris. That would be pretty magical! I love that idea…And I hope I dream about it. I love vivid dreams.
When was the first time that you remember realizing that you’re a creative person?
I think I’ve been creative my whole life. I remember making these little Fimo clay animals when I was little and remember rolling them in my hands. My parents talked about how artistic I was. I remember thinking I don’t know if there would be another way for me. I just have to be doing something with my hands. My brain is always thinking about different ways to create.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
It’s both, I think. I believe that we are created to be creators. I believe in Jesus and I believe God created us from Stardust. Each of us is called to create in whatever particular gift they have been given, whether its painting, singing, cooking, hospitality…there is no limit to what creativity can be! I believe that my creativity is coming out in watercolor and ink, and when I’m painting and sharing it with people, it is my form of being a whole person.
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?
I think it’s just like anything good for us. We fight it at first, and there’s that piece of resistance that always tries to stop us from reaching for our potential. Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art, has become a bit of a manual for me. It’s my favorite book to recommend to people who feel challenged and are hitting roadblocks.
We know to be our best selves we can eat well, exercise, get enough rest and sleep, and we know all those things are good. I think a big part of overall wellbeing is also actually pursuing your creativity. If you feel that desire to create, then you need to sit down and create. Just do it. Even if it’s absolute crap, the idea that you are doing something helps fight through the crap. And remember we learn from this process!
It’s challenging and awkward to begin, but take courage and know you’re not alone – everyone is a beginner at some point! Know that the more you do it, the more your style will emerge, and the more comfortable your body will feel doing it.
Interview published December 2020
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