Category Archives: Articles

How to Get Through Christmas When You’re Depressed

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This article first appeared on Doing Life Together.

Shortly after Carly, my first child, turned a year old, we discovered I was pregnant again. After the initial shock, Greg and I were delighted, looking forward to a new baby in January, and joking that we hoped he or she would come in December, so we’d have an extra tax deduction.

But after a few months, our delight turned into concern. I never felt the baby move. The doctor could never find the baby’s heartbeat.

At my 20-week checkup, the baby measured slightly smaller than the month before. My little one was dead, and my body had started reabsorbing him/her. Despite my request for a Caesarian delivery or an induction, I was advised it would be safer for me to just wait and let nature take its course.

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In the meantime, I still looked pregnant. That meant that when I went grocery shopping or took Carly to the park, people commented on my coming blessed event. Not wanting to explain what had really happened to casual acquaintances and perfect strangers, I accepted their good wishes with a smile and a nod, though I was crying inside. Two weeks later I went into labor, and delivered in a hospital room. I chose not to see my baby; he or she will always be an anonymous angel to me.

When the holidays approached, all I could think about was how I’d expected to almost have a babe in arms by that time. I’d envisioned myself as a radiant madonna, creating a beautiful Christmas for my family, baking cookies with Carly, and buying and making perfect presents. Instead, I barely had the energy to get out of bed, and I felt incredibly guilty not to be genuinely in the holiday spirit for my family.

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What are some tangible ways to acknowledge the Christmas season without draining your emotional resources? Here’s what I did that year:

  1. Read Christmas books. You don’t even have to buy them—most libraries have a large selection. Luckily, I already had started collecting Christmas books. I reread some myself, and I read Carly books about baby Jesus and about Santa Claus. (Here’s a list of some of my favorite Christmas books.)
  2. Bake the easiest possible Christmas cookies. Buy a roll of refrigerated sugar cookie dough. Slice it. Sprinkle it with red and green sprinkles or colored sugar. Bake as directed. Easy peasy. Your kids can help (or, if they’re old enough, completely take over). Even a one-year-old can help with the sprinkles if you don’t mind a little mess.
  3. Listen to Christmas music. If you subscribe to a streaming service, you can probably find a playlist you’ll like. If not, head over to Walmart. They have a bin of Christmas CDs for only $5 each. Mannheim Steamroller is the quintessential Christmas band, but this year I treated myself to Sarah McLachlan’s album. Back in the day, I’d already amassed a lot of classic albums on vinyl and cassette. (Here are some of my favorite Christmas CDs.)

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What holiday traditions can you let go when you’re struggling?

  1. Hosting a Christmas party or dinner. You don’t have to. There’s plenty going on; it’s unlikely you’d be depriving someone of their only fun activity. And you don’t have to go to any parties either, unless you want to.
  2. Giving perfect presents. Don’t obsess about it. A token to those you love most will suffice. It’s really okay to give a gift card instead of a hand-knit sweater. And don’t worry about getting a present for everyone.
  3. Sending Christmas cards. Forget about the annual holiday letter about everything your family has done. Just sign and mail cards to your nearest and dearest, or nobody at all. Lots of people never send Christmas cards, ever. You can skip a year.
  4. Decorating the house. You don’t have to have a Christmas tree, door wreath, or boughs of holly. Pine-scented candles go a long way to create a festive atmosphere; so does cider simmering on the stove. If you have one or two decorations handy, like a nativity set or a Santa or a sleigh, put it out. But you don’t have to do the Christmas lights or the blow-up snowman family.

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I pray these suggestions will help you get through this difficult time. My heart is with you. I give you permission to not do it all this year. And if anyone tries to pull a guilt trip on you, blame it on me—give them a link to this article. Take care of yourself, and have a peaceful holiday. Love you.

Christmas Recipe Challenge

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My parents were German immigrants, and my father was a professional baker, so my childhood memories of Christmas include Springerle, Pfeffernüße, and Stollen. I’ve never baked any of them myself, but Trader Joe’s always carries Pfeffernüße and Stollen starting in November, so I buy three packages of each. Christmas wouldn’t be the same without them.

However, there is one traditional goody which I do bake for Christmas breakfast every year, which my children ask for as they come through the door later in the day:

Marsha’s Easy Cinnamon Rolls

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Photo by stacy-spensley-on-wikimedia

1 stick of butter, melted
¾ C. brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ C. chopped nuts
1 bag frozen dinner rolls
¾ package butterscotch pudding (the kind you cook, not instant)

Mix together: melted butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon.

Use a well-greased angel-food or Bundt cake pan. Place nuts in the bottom of the pan and distribute frozen rolls around the pan. Sprinkle the pudding mix over the rolls. Pour the butter/brown sugar/cinnamon mixture over the rolls and cover the pan with a clean dishtowel. Let the pan sit on the counter overnight. Bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees for 30 minutes and carefully turn over onto a large plate.

Disclaimer: my children will always remember 1999 as the Christmas Mommy almost burned the house down. I made these buns for the first time in an angel-food pan and didn’t think to put the pan on a cookie sheet. As it baked, the brown sugar coating leaked out of the bottom of the pan and dripped onto the oven floor. Reasoning that it would be bad to cook the Christmas turkey in a sugary oven, I started the self-cleaning feature of the oven. Within minutes, the sugar ignited, the house filled with smoke, and flames shot out of the oven! My husband saved the day by turning off the cleaning cycle, and scraping the burnt sugar out when the oven cooled. The moral of the story: Put the pan on a cookie sheet!

Christmas ballsThe other Christmas food tradition that my husband and I have is potato pancakes for dinner on December 23. They’re labor intensive, or I’d make them Christmas Eve. (Since we go to church Christmas Eve night, we eat take-out pizza for dinner.) Greg’s dad always made potato pancakes for Christmas Eve dinner, and Greg hated them. He described them as “gray,” and said they tasted horrible, which surprised me, because the only potato pancakes I ever had were delicious, made by Hanna, an au pair from Germany who worked for/lived with a family in our neighborhood. So I make them similar to the way Hanna did, from hand-grated potatoes with chopped onions and red and green peppers (to make them look Christmasy), fried crisp, served with applesauce. Greg loves them.

What about you? Is there a special family recipe that you always make for Christmas? Take the ARHtistic License Christmas Recipe Challenge—post the recipe on your blog, and share a link to your post in the comments below. Or if you don’t have a blog, just share a link to an online recipe or describe the food in the comments section. Then share on social media with the hashtag #ALCRC so others can find it. And, everybody who likes to try out new holiday recipes (or eat them), check back here frequently between now and New Year’s to see what others post. Happy eating! And happy holidays!

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Guest Post: My Favorite Christmas Books by Linda Carlblom

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Guest Post: My Favorite Christmas Books by Linda Carlblom

A big thank you to Linda Carlblom for these Christmas reading recommendations. Linda is the author of Meet Shelby Culpepper and other books for tweens.

Doing Life Together

At Christmas, I sometimes like to read something that gets me in the Christmas spirit. I’ll share a few of the books that have helped me do that.

marys-journal-bookMary’s Journal, A Mother’s Story by Evelyn Bence gives life to Jesus’s mother, before she conceived him, during her pregnancy, and in the early years of Jesus’ life. It is imaginatively written, but done in such a way that it seems very believable. I gained fresh insight into that time period, its customs, and what might have been some of Mary’s thoughts and feelings as the mother of God’s Son.

shepherds-abidingShepherd’s Abiding by Jan Karon is the heartwarming story of Father Tim trying to restore an old nativity for his wife, Cynthia. It’s filled with the usual quirky characters from Mitford and written with Karon’s typical warmth and humor. If you’re a Mitford fan, you need to add this to your collection.

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Ornamental

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If you want to experience the Christmas spirit, just browse through the Christmas ornaments on Etsy. It will remind you of holidays past, and of your loved ones near and far. Some of these would make excellent gifts, for yourself or the others on your list.

Just so you know, I like to share pretty things I find online. Long ago I made the decision not to monetize my blog. I do not have “affiliates.” Nobody pays me to advertise their stuff on my blog. I just like to acknowledge people who create beauty. I also make no guarantees. That said, click on the highlighted descriptions to link to purchasing information.

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Die-cut wooden snowflakes.
Finnish Star
Woven paper stars.
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Turned wood
Unicorn!
Of course, you knew I’d find unicorns.
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This crocheted-bead necklace came up in my search for ornaments. Much too precious to put on the tree, but I had to share it. (Santa, take note–this is on my list, and I’ve been very good.)
Butterfly
Jeweled butterfly.
Crocheted bulbs
Crocheted Christmas lights.
Beard ornaments
Okay, these are just silly, but if you need a gag gift for your bearded colleague…
City maps
A map showing any city special to you.
Gymnastics
For your gymnast.
Kangaroo
For your favorite Aussie, for someone who’s been to Australia, or who just likes kangaroos.
Reindeer
Nutcracker
For your favorite ballerina when she lands the quintessential Christmas role. Or for anyone who loves the Nutcracker.
Pet
To commemorate your favorite cat or dog; many breeds available.
Your house
Your home, custom-made.

#ALCGC2017 December Check-In

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The end of 2017 is approaching at the speed of light. So, how are you doing on your creative goals for this year? Have you accomplished what you expected to? Time for the final sprint.

I’m bogged down with my blog in that I am working only six days ahead as of this writing (though I have posts scheduled here and there through next Thanksgiving). I prefer to be completely scheduled at least four weeks in advance. Sigh.

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I’ve made progress on the two major writing projects I hoped to finish this year, The Unicornologist and The God of Paradox, though it’s safe to say they won’t be finished by December 31. Maybe by mid-2018. At least one of them.

I’m also getting ready to submit a bunch of my poems to a chapbook contest.

Speaking of poetry, I wrote five new poems in November. I put two of them on ARHtistic License, here and here.

And I made a bunch of small pieces of art. Some I posted on the blog; others will make it into a post closer to Christmas.

I’m still working on the last pages of The Sweet Pipes Recorder Book 1 and I’m up to page 60 in Essential Elements for Guitar. I’m practicing piano about four times a week. In December my tradition is to spend my piano practice time playing carols.

I danced once this month. I don’t think I’ll be dancing again soon. Arthritis in my hip is giving me a lot of grief. I start new medical insurance today, so I’m planning to make appointments with a new PCP and my orthopedist to see if I need a hip replacement.

Sadly, the other two women who usually lead our folk dances are also having hip and leg issues. Jo-Ann is having hip replacement surgery on the 13th. We’re hoping some of our accomplished dancers in the club will step out of their comfort zone to lead in the meantime.

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Now it’s your turn. How are you doing with your goals? Don’t be shy! If you’re keeping accountable on your blog, paste a link into the comments below. Or if you don’t have a blog, just tell us your successes and your challenges this past month. The final check-in of our challenge will be January 1, 2018.

I created the hashtag #ALCGC2017 for ARHtistic License Creative Goals Challenge for 2017. Feel free to use it to tweet about your goals and your progress.

 

Review of Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

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Review of Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

In New Jersey among people of my generation, Bruce Springsteen is sort of a patron saint. I grew up in Rumson, where Bruce bought a house after he achieved rock star status (although our family lived in a modest home, not one of the mansions in Springsteen’s neighborhood; Bruce recently sold the house). The cover of Born to Run makes me homesick.

His description of his activities on the afternoon of September 11, 2001 (after watching the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on television), resonates with familiarity for me.

In the late afternoon, I drove to the Rumson-Sea Bright Bridge. There, usually, on a clear day the Twin Towers struck two tiny vertical lines on the horizon at the bridge’s apex.  Today, torrents of smoke lifted from the end of Manhattan Island, a mere fifteen miles away by boat. I stopped in at my local beach and walked to the water’s edge, looking north; a thin gray line of smoke, dust and ash spread out due east over the water line. It appeared like the smudged edge of a hard blue sheet folding and resting upon the autumn Atlantic.

I sat for a while, alone, the September beach empty beneath the eerie quiet of silent skies. We live along a very busy air corridor. Planes are constantly flying just off the Eastern Seaboard on their way to Kennedy and Newark airports, and the low buzz of airplane engine is as much a part of the sound tapestry at the Shore as are the gently crashing waves. Not today. All air traffic grounded (pp. 439-440).

My brother, Bill, still lives in the house we grew up in, and from time to time sees Bruce in places like Jack’s Music Shoppe in Red Bank. Bill has a wonderful story about a very nice thing Bruce did for a friend of his—but it’s not my story to tell.

I’ve actually never seen Bruce perform in person. When I was in high school, my then-boyfriend promised to take me to see him at the Inkwell, but never delivered. (Needless to say, he’s not the one I married.)

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Photo by Bill Ebbesen

Springsteen’s autobiography tops 500 pages, and it took seven years, off and on, to write. I wouldn’t call it a literary masterpiece, but he’s a songwriter, not a professional author. Other than Chapter 7, “The Big Bang (Have You Heard the News…)”, about the impact that seeing Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show had on him, which has way too many CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation points!!, the book was engaging enough that when I sat down intending to read for 30 minutes, an hour passed before I looked up.

I folded over quite a few page corners as I read, so rather than tell you the story of Springsteen’s life, I’ll share some excerpts that especially touched me.

I had the opportunity to sing “The Times They Are A-Changin’” for Bob [Dylan] when he received the Kennedy Center Honors. We were alone together for a brief moment walking down a back stairwell when he thanked me for being there and said, “If there’s anything I can ever do for you…” I thought, “Are you kidding me?” and answered, “It’s already been done.” As a young musician, that’s where I wanted to go. I wanted to be a voice that reflected experience and the world I lived in (p. 167).

On this night, my problem is that during a performance I am in and out of myself for a while in a most unpleasant way. Inside, multiple personalities are fighting to take turns at the microphone while I’m struggling to reach the “f*ck it” point, that wonderful and necessary place where you set fire to your insecurities, put your head down and just go. Right now, I can feel myself caring too much, thinking too much about…what I’m thinking about. My good friend Peter Wolf, the great front man from the J. Geils Band, once said, “The strangest thing you can do onstage is think about what you’re doing.” He was right, and I’m doing the strangest thing you can do onstage RIGHT NOW! It’s like one moment, your life feels threatened: your little house of cards, the performance “self” you’ve built so carefully, so meticulously, your mask, your costume, your disguise, your dream self, is in danger of coming apart, of tumbling down. The next, you’re towering, soaring, deeply immersed in your “true” self, riding the music your band is making high above the assembled. These two selves are often only a hair’s width apart. That’s what makes it interesting. That’s why people pay the money and that’s why they call it LIVE (pp.228-229).

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Photo by luiginter.

I wanted the singular creative and decision-making power of a solo artist but I also wanted the live, rambunctious gang feeling only a real rock ‘n’ roll band can deliver. I felt there was no reason you couldn’t have the best of both worlds, so I signed as a solo artist and hired my longtime neighborhood running pack as my band. Not my backing band, not a band, my band (p. 235).

…that’s how I used my music and my talents from the very beginning. As a salve, a balm, a tool to tease out the clues to the unknowable in my life. It was the fundamental why and wherefore of my picking of the guitar. Yes, the girls. Yes, the success. But answers, or rather those clues, that’s what kept waking me in the middle of the night to roll over and disappear into the sound hole of my six-string cipher (kept at the foot of my bed) while the rest of the world slept (p. 281).

Born to RunIn the book, Springsteen also tells about battling depression, confesses bad behavior, and expresses his love for his wife, Patti.

Before I read this book, I only owned three Springsteen CDs. While reading about what was going through his mind and heart while he wrote his songs, I felt compelled to buy four more. Do singer autobiographies sell CDs? In my experience, yes.

As a fan, I enjoyed Born to Run, as I am sure other fans of Springsteen also will. But if I didn’t know who he was, or if I didn’t have the New Jersey connection, I don’t think I would have made it past the first chapter, just due to the epic scale of the book.

 

10 Ways to Give Your Blog a Boost

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10 Ways to Give Your Blog a Boost

If you’ve been blogging awhile, you’ve probably had days when you feel like giving up. It takes too much time, your readership is growing too slowly, you’re not sure if your blog really stands out. You feel like your work doesn’t matter.

But you’re not a quitter, so you decide to stick it out a little longer and try a fresh approach.

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Check out the following suggestions for making your blog even better than it is now, with ideas from some of the best blogs on the web.

  1. Repost some of your best stuff on Medium. Are you aware of Medium? It’s a gigantic blogging community, free to use (although some portions of it are for paying member only). Here’s how to use Medium to boost your own blog. And here am I on Medium. Some people do all their blogging on Medium.
  2. Use keywords strategically. You might need to do a little keyword research.
  3. Research efficiently. Know where to look for facts and figures to authenticate your posts.
  4. Mix it up to keep your blog fresh.
  5. Devise a strategy that will generate topics for you. Here’s one way to do that.
  6. Write killer headlines. Use words that will catch readers’ attention.
  7. Solve the most common blogging problems. Fine tune your concept, write exceptional content, and increase your engagement.
  8. Streamline your productivity. Try batching your posts.
  9. Create special emails for your loyal readers. Many bloggers have newsletters, but don’t let yours be like your Great Aunt Tilly’s annual Christmas letter. Instead, send them something they’ll actually be eager to read.
  10. Share your content on many social media platforms. Here’s how one blogger gets extra mileage from her efforts.

10 Ways to Give Your Blog a BoostI’m assuming that if you’ve read this far, you’re a blogger. Did you find this article helpful? If so, please click the “like” button and share this post on your favorite social media. Do you have something to add? Please share in the comments below. Feel free to illustrate with a link to your blog.

Serb Fest

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Serb Fest

A couple weeks ago, my daughter Katie accompanied me to the Serbian Festival in Phoenix to celebrate my birthday.

Serbia is located in southeastern Europe on the Balkan peninsula, east of Italy across the Adriatic Sea. In 1918, Serbia, along with Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, Vojvodina, and Slovenia, merged to become Yugoslavia. They disbanded into independent nations in 1991 (I am greatly over-simplifying their struggles).

The festival took place at the beautiful (and colorful) St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church, which was open to the public. We went on the second day of the two-day festival.

 

 

One of the missions of the church, besides worshipping God in the traditional manner of Serbian Christians, is to preserve and pass on the culture and heritage of Serbia. The church also sponsors folklore groups for children and teens to teach and keep alive the traditions, music, and dances of Serbia.

The foyer to their Cultural Center was open as well, featuring educational exhibits, including these authentic Serbian costumes.

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When we arrived, Srbija, a three-piece band (keyboard, accordion, and drum set) was playing Serbian music. I recognized some of the songs and joined the line of dancers doing the lesnoto step.

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No ethnic festival would be complete without food, and this one was no exception. Katie and I split a palacinke (Serbian crepe) filled with nutella and ground walnuts.

The band played some more Serbians songs, and a bunch of teenaged girls (and an older woman) got up to dance.

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But for me, the main event was the church’s Serbian folk dance groups. First up were the little kids:

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Next were the Juniors:

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And finally the Seniors:

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Don’t you love the shoes with the up-turned tips?

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Below, the girls dance in a circle while the boys grab onto the girls’ belts.

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And here, the boys and girls are arranged like spokes on a wheel…

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In the photos below, the dancers are linked together by holding on to each other’s belts:

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As the program went on, the dances grew more and more complex. The girls always smiled. They were so beautiful, and the boys, so handsome. Aren’t their costumes gorgeous? Many of them were made by hand by their mothers, including the embroidery.

 

Creativie Juice #68

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Creativie Juice #68

A dozen inspiring articles to spark your creativity:

  1. Beautiful Jersey City and Paterson, New Jersey.
  2. Two of my favorite things: quilts and limericks.
  3. Art dolls.
  4. Can creativity be taught?
  5. These new books sound great. Hollywood thought so, too.
  6. This article about Picasso summarizes: “Not only has massive chunks of our culture been created by specific men who abuse women but also that so-called ‘Western culture’ in its entirety has been marked and in many ways defined by systemic and institutionalized misogyny that has chewed up women for art and discarded them en masse.” Some things never change. Or can they?
  7. Do you like potato chips that look like faces, and clouds that look like other objects? Then this quick video will make you smile.
  8. How to draw a fox.
  9. Some beautiful tangles.
  10. What the blank spaces in a painting convey.
  11. Inexpensive copies of art masterpieces you’ll use every day.
  12. Bonsai!

Guest Post: Fall Swirls by Gail Bartel

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Guest Post: Fall Swirls by Gail Bartel

A great big thank you to artist and instructor Gail Bartel for this fabulous painting tutorial. Check out more of her artwork on her blog, that artist woman.

FALL SWIRLS

The trees are a swirl of brightly coloured leaves, or at least they were until we had some really strong winds and they all blew away.

Here is a great little fall project.

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MATERIALS REQUIRED:

– nice paper for painting on

– green masking tape (painter’s tape) optional
– acrylic or liquid tempera paints
– pencil or black pencil crayon
– oil pastels

 

 

 

PROCEDURE:

Tape paper onto art board using masking tape.  This will give us a nice white border.

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Using white and blue paint your background.  You want a white oval off centre and then light blue and darker blue.  Have the kids paint in a circular motion.

Set aside to dry.

This one was with acrylic.

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I did this one with disk tempera to compare.

 

 

 

Starting with brown, paint dashes around our oval.4

With brown we stay away from the white oval.

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We then add orange covering some of our brown dashes and work a little closer into the oval.

 

 

After orange we add yellow.
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As we get into the centre with the yellow add a little white paint to mix a really light yellow.

Set aside to dry.

 

 

 

 

 

When the paint is dry remove the tape.

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With a pencil or black pencil crayon draw your tree trunk.  You want to come from the corner closest to the centre of your swirl.

You want it to look like you are looking up into the tree.

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Using black oil pastel go over your tree trunk lines and fill in.

Now you could just leave it at this point but oil pastel looks better if you blend it a bit.

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In my studio I would just use a paper tortillion but at school we don’t have them around so the kids use a q-tip.

If my lines are quite fine I will take the q-tip and break and use the little broken end to blend my fine branches.

 

 

 

Here is a comparison of acrylic vs liquid tempera.

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The acrylic covers better (more opaque) so your lights are brighter.  For the liquid tempera I added some dashes in pencil crayon in orange, yellow, and light yellow to help with this after the paint was dry.

Gail