In the midst of an especially frustrating period of Mercury Retrograde, we were finally graced with a moment of positive serendipity. We’d recently been reading more and more about the benefits of daily sketching when an artist named Kate Lewis began tagging us in posts about her morning sketches using our Hand-Dipped Marble Sketchbook. Kate is a Chicago-based artist who produces beautiful paintings and prints of her signature floral designs and has implemented daily sketching as a way to take some well-deserved breaks from her other responsibilities as an artist and mother.
Some of the benefits that are said to come from this practice are improved creativity, focus, confidence and relaxation. It also improves communication, as drawing is a visual language—developing the ability to translate what you see into an accurate two-dimensional depiction. Sketching is even said to improve holistic health. Through mimicking meditation, it can assist with mental and physical health by calming the mind and focusing on the here and now.
To learn more about daily sketching and its positive effects, we spoke with Kate about how she began her practice and the changes she has seen since implementing it.
Your daily sketching began from your project to document your finds during your morning walks—can you tell us a little bit about that and the initial perspective change?
In the fall of 2018, I started taking morning walks as a break from studio work. At that time, I had just landed a dream project to illustrate my first book. Simultaneously, I desperately needed an outlet—something to do and create that would take my mind off of the book even for a little bit. It had to be a small task because I simply didn’t have extra time to spare. I longed for something to distract me while raising a young family (my children are ages 12, 10, 6 and 4) and being immersed in this exciting book project—an activity that would help me tap into another part of myself.
And so, during this very full time in my life, something told me to walk. Enter my Morning Walk Find project. I found myself being called to go on long walks through my neighborhood. I am grateful to live in the East Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago which is full of interesting buildings, expansive parks and, most importantly to me, Lake Michigan. Having this ocean-like body of water to visit gives me energy. As I began walking, I started to post pictures on my Instagram stories of little things that caught my eye while outside—a flower, the lake’s waves, the lines of a building, etc. After a few weeks of this, I decided to give a go at not only taking photos and videos of these things but also painting and drawing them in a sketchbook.
Had you heard about the benefits of daily sketching and decided to implement it for the benefits, or did it just naturally fall into your morning routine?
I am a life-long journaler. I have kept a writing journal since 3rd grade; therefore, I intuitively knew the benefits of keeping a regular practice of documenting, purging, and brainstorming my thoughts. Ironically, I never kept a regular sketchbook and had an ongoing conversation with myself that went something like, “I am an artist, right? Why do I keep a journal and not a sketchbook?” To which I would respond, “What’s the point? A sketchbook is a waste of time.”
Then, I started my regular morning walks. After a few weeks of posting the photos and videos on Instagram, I thought to myself, I’m an artist. I should be painting or drawing these things, too! Unexpectedly, under these circumstances, sketching made sense to me, and the daily practice of sketching happened naturally.
What were some of the initial and most direct benefits you saw, both personally and professionally, upon starting?
The initial perk and the one I was seeking was to have an easy, playful outlet that didn’t have anything to do with the book I was illustrating. I was able to draw and paint whatever I wanted with little expectations. The Morning Walk Find project granted me permission to explore my neighborhood for my next subject then create a carefree sketch; a concept very different from the interiors I had been methodically painting for years.
An unexpected and welcoming benefit was seeing nature all around me. As fall turned into winter in Chicago, I was struck by how much life exists among the concrete. I honestly was not able to see my surroundings in frigid weather before I went outside with the intention of finding something to draw. Taking the time to depict what I see has deepened my appreciation of life all around me. And, I realized that I don’t have to live on a farm in Tennessee (how I grew up) to reap the benefits of nature and her beauty.
The benefits for me professionally are continuing to unveil themselves. First, my ability to capture the essence of a flower, leaf or bird in a sketch is so natural after regularly doing so for over a year. My process for making artwork before this sketching project was to work from photographs which are naturally flat representations of what I was sketching. Working from real life has pushed my ability to see and my confidence in drawing.
What does the time it takes to do these sketches on your walks mean to you, is it a meditative experience for you as it is for many?
It is very much a meditative experience for me. At first, the walks were very long—up to an hour and a half. I would walk along the lakefront and through the parks, walking and looking then stopping to sketch outdoors. As the weather turned cooler and my book deadline got closer, I realized I couldn’t and didn’t want to spend that much time outdoors walking and sketching. It was a tough decision to greatly reduce the time I was taking with this project because it was a thoughtful adventure, different than any other part of my day and yet closer to what I wanted my artwork to be. I assumed that if I shortened the time it wasn’t going to mean as much to me. However, the opposite was true.
Now, my walks are short—from the gym, where I go after walking the kids to school, to my home which is about a 10 min walk. My routine is to walk and find something; take a photo and a video for my reference and for my Instagram followers to see. Next, I walk through my front door, go to the kitchen to fix myself a cup of tea then head up to the studio to sketch. It’s my way to transition from being a mom to being an artist. My morning sketch is the way I enter my studio practice.
How often do your daily sketches turn into something you elaborate on and turn into a finished piece?
When my daily sketching practice started, I didn't want it to turn into a finished piece. It was a reaction to my innate need to create finished work. However, as the months went on and the sketches grew, I felt the pull to create a series of paintings based on the spring sketches of tulips and gardens. More recently, I made a group of paintings inspired by the same dahlia from her glorious, vibrant days of fall to when she was wilted with her head bowed for winter.
I can feel the morning walks and daily drawings moving more into my main studio practice rather than staying on the periphery. I sense something bigger coming from them; however, I’m allowing the process to unfold without a clear path ahead, which is very new to me.
You have mentioned that you didn’t use to sketch and would jump straight into painting, how has your perspective of sketching changed? Have you seen this change to your creative process make a difference in your resulting pieces?
This project has ignited my love of using a sketchbook and the power of capturing images over time. More importantly, it has shown me the value of letting ideas evolve slowly and show themselves in small moments.
Typically, I have not been a sketcher. I’ve always been a let’s-get-it-on-canvas-and-done kind of artist. This method of painting and urgency came from having children and the very limited time I had to make work. Now that my children are older (my youngest is four), I’m able to give myself more space in the studio. I don’t feel as rushed to get a finished product out into the world and posted online. I am working on embracing the process of being an artist. And, I believe the resulting pieces are unveiling themselves in layers that have yet to be seen as a whole.
Can you talk about how this journey has given you a new perspective and appreciation of your surroundings?
What an eye-opening experience this has been! First, I realized that I didn’t have to take long walks to find something that piqued my interest. Also, I have been “seeing” my surroundings for the first time. For the over 19 years I’ve lived here, I have had an ongoing conversation about how Chicago is lacking nature. I grew up on a 70-acre farm in Tennessee where nature is at the forefront. I absolutely love my parent’s farm and cherish every moment I am there. And, I especially love seeing my children experience the openness of their land. Surprisingly, through my Morning Walk Find journey, I am shocked to report that I can now see Chicago in a similar way to how I view my hometown in rural Tennessee. Nature IS everywhere! I can discern nature here in the city among the concrete, buildings, cars, sirens and movement. My morning walk finds have made me decelerate to a pace found in Tennessee. As I walk, I am struck by the mighty beauty and wonder that has always been at my doorstep all these years. It’s right here.
Is this daily practice something that you think can benefit anyone, even those who aren't artists?
Of course! I believe establishing a daily or regular practice of anything positive can benefit your life and the lives of those around you in unpredictable ways. Your daily practice inevitably becomes a part of who you are and how people see you. I urge you to listen to your internal voice that’s tugging you to start something. You know what it is and it’s probably more than one thing—that project, book, drawing or course. Get started on something (one thing at a time, ideally), and most importantly, be gentle with yourself as it unfolds. It may not be what you intended; so, trust the process.
Kate’s first illustrated book, written by Melissa Wyse, will be released in the fall of 2020 by Chronicle Books. The title is Artists in Residence: Seventeen Artists and Their Living Spaces, from Giverny to Casa Azul.