Make Inspiration Blocks with Danielle Donaldson

This adapted excerpt from Danielle Donaldson’s new book The Art of Creative Watercolor: Inspiration & Techniques for Imaginative Drawing and Painting shows how to make Inspiration Blocks, a collection of paper and fabric scraps sewn together that serves as a catalyst for mixed-media art. These blocks are easy to make, and can be added to single pieces of artwork, or art journal pages. ~ The Editors

Danielle Donaldson
This idea from Danielle Donaldson is sure to inspire you! (All photos by Christine Polomsky)

Choosing the bits and pieces

Use your stash of patterned paper, ephemera, lace and ribbon scraps to help you along in your journey to become a more skilled watercolorist and illustrator. Although I place the most emphasis on the colors included in the scraps you choose, I want to share some insight that might help you choose your inspiration with more confidence.

What the heck is an inspiration block? The artwork samples shown here include a block of scraps that have been sewn together. Yep, that’s an inspiration block! I began making them to serve as a starting point of my mixed-media illustrations and, over the course of the last few years, I have discovered their hidden teaching power. When you sew together a mishmash of scraps, you have created a reference tool. Just the inspiration you need to practice identifying and mixing watercolors.

Don’t overthink the choosing process. The more time and energy you spend on coordinating your stuff, the less you have for your creative practicing time. If it all matches perfectly, you have automatically limited the colors you can pull from to fi ll your mixing palette. So just grab a stack and go, my friends! The more pattern and color the better.

Let’s not forget the patterns! The patterns on these scraps can serve as an inspirational reference tool as well. Take note of the repetitive patterns, the simplicity, or the intricate detail, and infuse them into your drawing practice. Need inspiration to add imaginative pattern to your illustrations? Reference the inspiration pieces you have gathered. It’s another wonderful way to tie your elements together.

Inspiration blocks can be simplified and serve as mats for finished illustrations. You’ll use the same process to build them, keeping in mind that only the outer edge will show.

An inspiration block has a creative superpower. What is it, you ask? It takes care of the color choices while you work on your watercolor illustrations. Shazam!

Gather inspiration

If you don’t have a bin or a basket of scraps, now is the time to gather one. Cut up that patterned paper you have been saving for a rainy day. Take those old postcards you bought at the flea market and add them to the mix. Snip the ribbons in the basket on your shelf into little pieces that won’t get tangled. Old sheet music, vintage paper dolls, and lace doilies can be snipped into pieces and added to the fun as well. And you know those days when you feel like being creative but are too tired to do anything? That’s a perfect time to grab storybook pages and cut out words and phrases you might want to use.

Trust the process

Let’s gather some inspiration in a new way. Place three small rectangular containers on your desk or table. Add scraps of patterned paper to one container, scraps of ephemera to another, and bits of lace, fabric and ribbon to the last. Without looking, pull three pieces from each container. Be sure to rummage around a bit so you don’t know what you are choosing—and don’t swap anything for something else. Next, take your inspiration and a pair of scissors to your sewing machine and make a small Inspiration Block. Feel free to cut fun shapes out of the paper, like hearts, scallops and circles. Also, don’t think too hard about the placement. If you don’t have a sewing machine, glue the scraps together and pencil the stitches on, if you like.

Making ABC Inspiration Blocks

When creating my alphabet-themed pages, I created all my inspiration blocks for each sheet of watercolor paper ahead of time. Apart from the pages assigned to color practice, they are made up of a mishmash of patterned paper scraps, bits and pieces of my old work, practice work and ugly failures, plus some ribbon and ephemera to make it even more interesting.


  • Ephemera scraps (including patterned paper in various colors)
  • Tracing or newsprint paper
  • Scissors or paper cutter
  • Sewing machine and thread
  • Letter stickers or marker
  • Optional:
    • Lace, ribbon, and fabric scraps

1. Gather tons of scraps and determine the size of the Inspiration Blocks you’ll be adding to your watercolor paper.

2. Cut tracing paper or newsprint paper to a predetermined size.

3. Using various machine stitches, add bits and pieces of paper or ephemera to a sheet of the tracing paper. My sewing machine is preprogrammed with a ton of stitch varieties to make it easy to switch while I am sewing. If you don’t have an easy way to change stitches, use a straight stitch. Typically, I start on the right edge and work my way around. Then I fill in the middle with extra layers. Do not overthink this step, just grab and go! Use lots of patterns and colors. Don’t forget to add lace, ribbon, or fabric if you want some texture, too.

4. To create color-specific pages (blue, green, indigo, orange, teal, red, and yellow) gather a stash with various shades of each color and repeat Step 3 for each color.

5. Add alphabet stickers to, or hand write a letter on, each page.

This inspiration block incorporates lots of texture and color, enhancing the pear image.
“B is for Blue” shows a monochromatic approach to creating Inspiration Blocks.

Danielle Donaldson’s love of watercolor and illustration, paired with her skills as a graphic designer, has provided her with an uncommon pairing of intuition and practicality. Using a color palette and delicately drawn details, Danielle spins the ordinary into imaginative and balanced compositions. Check out Danielle’s videos from Artists Network TV: Watercolor Illustrations, Watercolor Storyblocks, and Watercolor Words. Visit her website at

Danielle is our featured Artist of the Month! Check out her recent guest blog post to learn how to combine stencils with watercolor to make an art-filled recipe card.

Danielle Donaldson
In The Art of Creative Watercolor, Danielle teaches you how to create illustrations with the wonderfully spontaneous medium of watercolor.
Get The Art of Creative Watercolor book, Danielle’s three newly released video downloads, and fun paint chip rubber stamps in this limited-edition collection!
This excerpt from The Art of Creative Watercolor also appears in our May/June 2018 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine. Grab a print or digital issue of the magazine for more mixed-media fun!

The Keys to Color for Watercolor Painting

As part of my never-ending, insatiable desire to learn all about art and creating, I was thrilled to view Danielle Donaldson’s new video, The Art of Creative Watercolor: Color Schemes. I enjoyed seeing her perspective and watercolor techniques, such as color selection, blending, shading, definition, and adding small details. No matter your experience level, Danielle has a relaxed approach to playing and learning about colors in a custom color wheel, how to use them in art, and better yet, how to feel successful when watercolor painting.

Danielle’s belief that finding your colors in the color wheel allows you to paint with confidence is so true. Working with color schemes that you love creates a comfort zone. I began this project with one of my favorite colors, aqua blue. I learned that creating a warm variation and a cool variation of that color was necessary to add depth and dimension to artwork. Notice the warm green on the right, aqua in the center (the main color), and a cool blue on the left.

Art and photos by Debi Adams

It is important in the beginning of a watercolor painting to make a transparent wash with those colors so there is room to add shading and definition to the subject you’re painting. This can be achieved by adding additional water to the paint, until the white palette base can be seen.

For my piece, I decided to sketch eggs and a nest with a mechanical pencil and then, as Danielle suggests, lightly erase all the lines so they wouldn’t be seen after adding watercolor. Not good at sketching? I suggest using a stencil as a template, or stamp an image on watercolor paper using permanent ink.

I used aqua first, barely touching my loaded watercolor brush to the paper to add color. To create lightness to the egg in the front, I used the warm color. To add depth and make the egg in the back recede, I used the cooler blue. You can add all three shades (the main color, plus warm and cool variations) on each egg separately to distinguish placement:

Here, I placed all the colors on one egg to define its shape. I painted the main color, then added the warmer color to the top of the egg as a highlight, and the cooler color on the bottom for shading.

Danielle offered lots of great tips for watercolor painting, but my favorite was how to create the perfect shadow color. Blending all the watercolors together created a muddy wash that was added to the eggs and nest for final definition. I will remember this technique to use in the future. A pencil, black pen, and white pen all provided finishing details.

With the additional tips on shading and highlighting featured in the video, I was able to paint this nest and eggs.

Find the success you seek with watercolor painting by becoming familiar with some easy techniques for creating color schemes.

As Danielle explains in the video, discovering personal color preferences is one of the key components in feeling successful and confident in creating art. Learning new ways to work with watercolors based on those choices helps nurture and develop an artistic style that is all your own.

Danielle Donaldson is our featured Artist of the Month for April! In this blog post, she shows how to use a stencil to create a beautiful watercolor painting.

Debi Adams considers herself an eclectic artist, dabbling in mixed media, party décor, and everything in between. She has been featured in Where Women Create and in a variety of other art and craft magazines. See more of her work at

Get tons of fantastic ideas, techniques and projects for watercolor painting in the exclusive Danielle Donaldson Watercolor Collection, which includes her new book, three new videos, and a set of stamps designed by Danielle.

How to Turn an Art Journal Page into a Pillow

There are lots of ways to incorporate your artwork into your home decor, but here’s an idea you may not have thought of before: turn one of your art journal pages into a pillow! Kim Dellow shows you how in this project from our May/June 2017 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine. Go through your art journals, choose some favorite pages, and get started!

Turn an art journal page into a piece of home decor! (Photo by Sharon White Photography)

Artful Home Decor by Kim Dellow

I love the idea of making items for my home with my own artwork. It’s a great way to extend the life of your art as well as make something unique. Art journal pages are perfect for this because even your most experimental or personal pages can be recycled into surface design and printed onto items such as pillows, using a print-on-demand service, and then further embellished by hand.

Choose a finished page and have it printed as is, or make new artwork by viewing your journal pages as parts and elements instead of finished artwork. Keep it simple by using one page as the base in your photo-editing software, and pasting sections of other pages onto the base. You can then build it up as much or as little as you want. For this project I chose a sketched diamond from one of my journal pages as the focal point, and then used other parts of the same artwork to balance the focal point. The options are as varied as the art we all do.


  • Art journal page
  • Camera, DSLR or digital
    • NOTE: DSLR cameras give you the option to photograph in RAW, whereas other digital cameras do not.
  • Computer
  • Photo-editing software (I used Adobe® Photoshop Elements.)
  • Print-on-demand service (I used Snapfish)
  • Printed pillowcase
  • Cardboard
  • Plastic bag
  • DecoArt® Media™ Gesso
  • Palette knife
  • Stencils, or cardstock for making your own stencils
  • Modeling paste, white (I used DecoArt® Media™ Modeling Paste.)
  • Acrylic paint (I used DecoArt® Media Fluid Acrylics™ Dioxazine Purple, Carbon Black, and Titanium White.)
  • Paintbrush
  • Ruler
  • Jacquard® ExtravOrganza Inkjet Fabric Sheets
  • Printer
  • Pins
  • Embroidery thread (I used white.)
  • Scissors
  • Needle
  • Optional:
    • Glass seed beads (I used a selection of blues, whites, and silver.)
    • Glass beads (I used blue beads in several sizes.)

Prepare the photo

1. Go through your art journals, choose a favorite page or pages, and photograph them. I shoot all my work in RAW with a DSLR camera.

NOTE: RAW is a picture file format that contains the most unprocessed data that a camera can provide, giving you a lot more versatility for enhancing photos later. However, you can use a point-and-shoot camera or your cell phone camera for this project.

TIP: If you want to start making more digital art, a DSLR camera will give you more options and processing power.

2. Open the photos in your photo-editing software, and edit the images to enhance the photos as desired. Try lightening the photo, or increase or decrease the contrast. You are trying to get the photographic image to be as true a representation of the actual artwork as you can. You can also sharpen the photos, but go easy on this tool as it can change the way your art looks. It’s better to take the photo again in good light if it is blurry. If you have been shooting your photos in RAW, it’s very easy to make these changes and you have more range to do so.

TIP: If you have artwork that includes a fold line on the page, you can correct this with editing software, using blemish removal or spot healing brush tools.

NOTE: Photo-editing software offers a variety of options for making new digital art from photos of your artwork. One way is to use marquee tools and the feather option to copy and paste elements from one photo onto a base photo. In Adobe Photoshop Elements the marquee tool is found in the tool bar; other photo-editing software has similar options, but they may be found in different places and perhaps have different names. An online search for the terminology in the software you are using will help. (SEE PHOTO-EDITING TIPS AT END OF ARTICLE.)

3. Set up the files to match any size and resolution requirements for the printing service you are using. Some print-on-demand services give you this information on their website. You may have to contact other companies to get this information.

NOTE: For this pillow I used two art journal pages. (FIGURE 1) I layered pieces of one page onto a square cropped from the other page, using the feathered marquee technique. (FIGURE 2) Once I had the layers how I wanted them, I further lightened them to help the image look like one contiguous piece.

FIGURE 1 (Step-out photos by Kim Dellow unless otherwise noted)

4. When you are happy with the digital art, upload it to the printing service, following their instructions. For this pillow I used the large photo pillow option (17″ x 17″) on Snapfish, and uploaded a JPEG saved at 2342 x 2342 pixels and 468 dpi. As a general rule, 300 dpi is a good resolution for most printing projects.

NOTE: If you want to embellish the printed pillow further by hand, make sure you order a pillow that has a zipper, so you can remove the pillow form.

TIP: Color matching for the printing can be complex. If the colors must match your artwork exactly, choose a printing service that will give you color profile information and match it to the color profile you are using for your screen, software, and operating system. Print-on-demand services don’t always give this information, so allow for slight discrepancies from what you see on your computer screen.

Embellish the pillow

1. Remove the pillow from the pillowcase. Cut a piece of cardboard to fit inside the pillowcase, place it in a plastic bag, and put it inside the pillowcase. Fold or roll the cardboard, if necessary to get it inside. (FIGURE 3)


2. Apply a layer of gesso with a palette knife or a paintbrush to knock back and lighten areas of the printed pillowcase where you want to add paint. Let the gesso dry.

TIP: If you are unsure about how the products you want to use will work on fabric, test them first on a spare piece of muslin or untreated canvas to get a rough idea.

NOTE: I did not use products for decorating fabric, such as fabric paints, but you can easily do so if you plan to launder your pillow.

3. Select 2 stencils to add to your design. I made a stencil with several good-size circles, and also used punchinella. Mix a small amount of paint with enough white modeling paste to fill the larger stencil, plus a little extra. I used Dioxazine Purple paint. Place the first stencil over the dried gesso area on the pillowcase and apply the tinted modeling paste with a palette knife. Hold the second, smaller stencil over the top of the first stencil and run the palette knife over the area again. (FIGURE 4)


4. Remove the stencils to reveal the layered texture. (FIGURE 5) Place the smaller stencil on another part of the pillowcase, and apply any leftover tinted modeling paste through it. Let the pillowcase dry.

FIGURE 5 (Photo by Jenn Guneratne)

5. Measure the size of your focal image. Use photo-editing software to change the size of the image in the photo to match the size of the image on the pillow. Print the image on organza, following the manufacturer’s instructions. Trim the organza to a manageable size, but do not trim it all the way to the focal image.

6. Remove the plastic bag and the cardboard from the pillowcase, and set them aside. Pin the printed organza to the pillowcase, matching the image perfectly. Use embroidery thread to add stitching to the focal image, attaching the organza to the pillowcase.

7. Optional: As you work around the image, add large beads to the thread and, before closing the organza shape, trap some beads between the organza and the pillowcase. (FIGURE 6)

FIGURE 6 (Photo by Jenn Guneratne)

TIP: Match the stitches to the style of the image you are sewing. To get the sketchy look of my drawing, I used a mix of stitches, including a long running stitch and a short running stitch. I also wrapped some of the stitches with thread.

8. Trim the organza to 1/4”–1/2” around the stitched image. Return the plastic bag and cardboard to the inside of the pillowcase and use a thin paintbrush to create multiple circles in black paint around the focal image. (FIGURE 7)


9. Using Titanium White, mix a mid-light and a very light tint of the your main color. I used Dioxazine Purple. Dry brush the mid-tint over the raised texture of the modeling paste and all of the stenciled areas. Let it dry, and repeat with the very light tint. Repeat again, using just Titanium White. (SEE OPENING IMAGE.) Let the painted areas dry completely. Remove the plastic bag and cardboard, and replace the pillow form.

Photo-editing tips

The marquee tool: This is a software tool used to select objects or a portion of an object for editing. Use the feather option to soften the edges of the marquee so that when you draw the marquee shape the edges of the selection look rounded. To do this, click on the area of the photo you want to select and drag the marquee to surround that area. When you copy and paste the selected area in the marquee, the edges blur out to nothing. This allows you to seamlessly merge different photos into a new piece of digital art. For a slightly blurred edge, I set the feather to 10 pixels; for more blur I use 30 pixels. Experiment to get the look you want.

Work in layers: Working in layers means that you can move elements on different layers. This makes it easier to manipulate the images as you work, and place them where they work best. Working in layers also means that you can change the colors, light, contrast, and opacity, or use a filter on just one layer without changing the whole picture.

Kim Dellow, artist, crafter, and blogger, has a passion for sharing her latest art obsessions. She is regularly published in magazines and provides online content for art and craft companies. Self-taught and naturally inquisitive, Kim is never happier than when she is throwing paint around. Visit her website at

Kim’s tutorial inspired our editorial director Jeannine Stein to turn one of her art journal pages into home decor. See what she made in this Studio Saturday blog post!

The May/June 2017 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors is all about using ordinary materials and techniques to make extraordinary art.
Want to explore more ways to incorporate mixed-media techniques in home decor? Don’t miss the March/April 2017 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors!
Create personalized home décor using digital graphics and images with this kit from Cathe Holden! The kit includes a video download and some of the materials you’ll need to make your embellished fabric panel pillow.

Make Oracle Card Journals with Cathy Nichols

I have always been drawn to water, specifically the ocean. So, when I started planning this post for this Art Lesson, which deals with archetypes and their meaning, I decided to see if there were creatures of the sea that had any ties to creativity. In this quest, I discovered that whales are associated with compassion, solitude, and knowledge of both life and death. But they are also associated with creativity. The whale was the perfect choice for me.

In this Art Lesson, Cathy Nichols uses the symbolism of the fox to create a unique art journal, sharing an inspiring way to enjoy storytelling with mixed media.

storytelling in mixed media

To begin, I traced a 3″ x 5″ index card on the cover of a handmade journal as Cathy does in her lesson. After sectioning off the bottom portion for later use, I drew an ocean setting within the rectangle in pencil.

Using watercolor paint, I used various shades of blue for the water portion, darkening the blue with more and more black as I moved toward the horizon. I used blue for the sky and added some gray, white, and a bit of yellow as contrasting details. I let that section dry, then added white caps around the whale’s tale for effect, like he had just reentered the water.

It was interesting and fun mixing colors to help tell this story in mixed media.

Cathy suggested using a warm color at the bottom, so I added red and then accented it with a dab of white, which I blended slightly with my finger.

I painted the whale’s tail next, using black, then added details in gray and white.

I had a sheet of mixed-media paper that I had stamped with small inkpads in a variety of colors, and used that to cut some seagull shapes to add to the image. Cathy suggested using a brayer to add colors to watercolor paper for these accents, but I liked the mix of colors on the inked paper, so I used that. Using bits leftover from other projects adds to the storytelling in mixed-media art.

Once the paint was dry, I went back to the small space at the bottom. I wrote “Creativity” on a piece of the index card using a black PITT® artist pen. After I cut a rectangle from the inked paper I used earlier, I glued the word to the inked paper and then glued the rectangle to the painted space.

storytelling in mixed media
Layering adds dimension and interest.

Next came the self-portrait. Like Cathy, my self-portrait does not look like me, but I had fun creating her. I sketched the portrait using Cathy’s tips for drawing a face. I made some of her hair blue as a nod to the ocean on the front of the journal, and used the same blue on her shirt, creating waves. To further tie the two images together, I added white caps to the waves, seagulls on her shirt, and another seagull in her hair.

storytelling in mixed media

To finish, I added waves with blue paint throughout the journal. It will be fun to write around the waves and on them.

These pages are ready to go for making notes, practicing lettering, or doing some storytelling in mixed media.

This project was a lot of fun. As each piece was created, I thought about how it would relate to the next. Reading about the symbolism of animals was intriguing. Having a journal that has a story woven through it is a great way to inspire all kinds of artistic interludes.

Click here to discover another way you can incorporate storytelling in mixed media!

Drawing Composition Techniques You Need Today

My favorite part of the art process has to be the “ah-ha” moment, when ideas suddenly coalesce, techniques make sense, and you experience that breakthrough. I had that creative epiphany the other day while trying Barbara Roth’s drawing composition techniques from her article “Mixed-Media Drawing Buffet” in the March/April 2018 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine. I knew her methods were solid, but doing them myself was a game changer. I have seen the light.

Drawing composition is something I often struggle with, whether designing an art journal page or just creating a drawing in my sketchbook. I’m okay with drawing singular things, but arranging them in a cohesive configuration is something else. When Barbara told me about her methods, I knew instantly this was something I wanted to share with you.

She calls her technique a drawing buffet, which is brilliant. By creating a buffet of things you like to draw, you can choose several, audition them, and then draw and paint away. She recommends starting a collection of things in various categories, such as houses, dogs, flowers, trees, birds, and tables. Collect photos, or make your own drawings, and keep everything together for easy access. When you want to create something, simply pull everything out and begin.

With that idea in mind I started an idea sketchbook, adding drawings and photos of things like doors, topiary, windows, and chairs. Here are a couple of sketches of doors, plus some recent photos of great doors I found in Boston:

Sketches for a drawing composition
Having a collection of sketches at the ready is a key element of creating a successful drawing composition.

And here are some photos of beautiful topiary I found:

Photos for a drawing composition
Photos can be part of your drawing composition collection, too.

Barbara created her artwork on small pieces on watercolor paper, first copying the backs of vintage postcards onto the paper—an amazing effect. I decided to stamp some vintage text onto 4″ x 6″ pieces of watercolor paper, using a light gray permanent ink.

Stamping cards with vintage text
Layering a vintage postcard or stamping text creates interest.

Now, about that ah-ha moment. To create the drawing composition, Barbara sketches her subjects to scale on scraps or drawing or tracing paper, then moves them around on the watercolor paper until she’s happy with the arrangement. I created rough drawings on tracing paper, then set them on the watercolor paper. As soon as I started doing that, I realized all that struggling was wasted time. Here was the solution! I could instantly see that the door needed to be higher and the topiary lower, so I decided to create some steps in front of the door. I also had a big hole in the upper right area, so I thought a window would work there.

Auditioning traced images for a drawing composition
Tracing items and auditioning them is a great technique for creating a cohesive drawing composition.

With those ideas in mind, I created a pencil sketch, and saw immediately that everything worked. No more erasing until the paper was worn through—this was instant success. You’ll find some great principles of composition tips in the article, which offers even more help with arranging your items.

Penciled sketch for a drawing composition
After creating the drawing composition, penciling in the sketch was easy.

I went over the lines with a black Copic Multiliner 0.03, then erased the pencil lines. Next, I did a light watercolor wash over all the elements, and also decided where my light source would come from, so I could create shadows. I love that the stamped text is visible through the watercolor.

First watercolor wash for a drawing composition
The first watercolor wash establishes the color palette and feeling of the piece.

More watercolor was layered on, with each layer drying completely before the next was added. This was done in several stages to create depth and shadows. To create a mottled look for the wall, I dipped a paper towel into watercolor paint, then applied it to the background. I also realized that the composition was lacking in color, so I created some greenery above the door and window. Watercolor pencil was used for even more depth. Finally, I emphasized some of the drawn lines with the Copic pen. Barbara has tons more tips for adding elements and color to your composition.

Mixed-media watercolor created with drawing composition techniques
Problem solved! With great drawing composition techniques, I look forward to creating the next mixed-media piece.

Now when I go to create a drawing composition, I have all the tools I need, and a big boost of confidence. I hope you try this technique and add it to your toolbox. It’s definitely a keeper.

Discover top drawing techniques you can’t live without in this great post by Mandy Russell!

See all the great articles packed into the March/April 2018 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors in our exclusive lookbook.

No Excuses Watercolor by Gina Rossi Armfield
Get great techniques, ideas, and projects for watercolor, including backgrounds and color mixing, in No Excuses Watercolor by Gina Rossi Armfield.
March/April 2018 Cloth Paper Scissors magazine
Barbara Roth’s article “Mixed-Media Drawing Buffet” in the March/April 2018 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors takes you step by step to create a successful drawing composition.
From Art Journaling to Art video with Jane LaFazio
Discover simple, stress-free ways to keep an illustrated watercolor journal in the video From Art Journaling to Art, with Jane LaFazio.

Backstage Pass: The Art of Letterpress

The thick, cushy paper, deep tactile impression, and crisp design of a letterpress print demands to be touched, held, and stroked. No wonder letterpress printing, despite the higher cost, is in high demand for invitations and stationery. Even die-hard tech enthusiasts are embracing this tactile art form.

Cara Underwood, founder of Underwood Letterpress in San Francisco, California, understands the appeal. “Letterpress is so luxe. It’s snail mail with style.”

Cara Underwood makes an impression with her letterpress cards, invitations, and more. (All photos compliments of Cara Underwood/Underwood Letterpress)

Creating a letterpress print is so labor intensive, it must be a labor of love. It is for Underwood, who makes invitations, business cards, stationery, greeting cards, coasters, art prints, and more.

The letterpress process begins with a computer-generated design, which can take from one to eight weeks or more to create, depending on how complicated the job is. Once the customer approves the digital artwork, Underwood orders the photopolymer printing plate from another vendor.

When the plate is in her hands, she begins to mix the ink, creating her own colors using a rubber-based ink. Rubber-based inks have a matte finish, as opposed to oil-based inks, which have a glossy finish. Also, rubber-based inks are slow drying so they can be left on the press for several hours or overnight.

“I have about 30 cans of rubber-based printing inks, mostly primary Pantone colors,” Underwood says. “I figure out the exact recipe for the color I want, hand mix it, and put it on the press.”

It takes roughly an hour to set up the press for the first print, she explains, because the process involves perfecting the location of the paper in relation to the plate, adding the right amount of ink, and seeing how hard the plate hits the paper. There’s a lot of fine-tuning. Too much ink results in a blurry print; not enough ink makes the print too light. Too much pressure can crack the paper or the plate. “Getting the paper to hit the plate at exactly the right pressure, that’s the biggest challenge,” she explains. “Once that is determined, every sheet is put through the press by hand.”

“When I’m printing business cards, I block out at least a day, or even two. Wedding invitations take longer because there are more steps involved in creating, testing, and printing, which is why letterpress invitations have a higher price point. If more than one color is used, the process is even more complicated. They are little pieces of art.”

Underwood stumbled onto letterpress in 2005 during a bookbinding class at Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts, in which she wrote, designed, and letterpressed her own book. It was love at first inking. “Letterpress was my go-to hobby for six years,” she says. “But it’s an expensive hobby.” Days, she worked full time in a public policy job. “But nights and weekends I was having fun printing, renting press time at a studio, and experimenting.”

But paper, ink, and press time don’t come cheap, and she wondered if letterpress could be a full-time job. She and her husband agreed it could, and she didn’t look back.

Cara’s letterpress cards run the gamut from sweet to sassy, including one that celebrates her love for snail mail.

Underwood spent a year researching letterpress machines (which are heavy, expensive, and in limited supply because they are no longer made), figuring out maintenance and supply costs, and getting insights from other printers. She finally took the plunge, bought a vintage Chandler & Price press and a paper cutter, rented a studio and, in 2013, opened a shop in Los Angeles. When she and her husband relocated to Northern California in 2015, she sold her original press, bought a larger Vandercook press, and opened a studio in San Francisco.

Still, there were challenges, a steep learning curve, and lots of mistakes, such as creating designs that were too complicated to translate to letterpress, or using paper that couldn’t withstand the rigors of the press.

“My clients were happy in the end, but it cost me time, labor, and money,” she says. “When transferring art into a business setting, your product has to be perfect. You’re not making art that sits on a shelf; it has to function in the real world.”

Besides stationery and invitations, Underwood also creates greeting cards, which are sold in domestic and international retail shops. She translates her whimsical drawings to non-letterpress textiles, gift wrap, and phone cases.

“I love getting my hands dirty on the press,” she says. Printing with a letterpress, she adds, creates “an architectural, textural experience. It’s a moment to stop and appreciate paper and prints.” Letterpress is an excellent antidote to a techy, digital world.

Visit Underwood Letterpress online at

Roberta Wax is an award-winning journalist and imperfect crafter. Her work has appeared in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times and a variety of craft titles. Roberta has designed for several craft companies. Though she has no formal art background, she was a crafty Girl Scout leader. Visit her website at

This Backstage Pass article also appears in our May/June 2018 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine. Flip through our lookbook to preview more of the fun stuff inside this issue!

Get a print or digital copy of our May/June 2018 issue! You’ll learn to journal with abandon with Rae Missigman’s tips and techniques, make Ali Manning’s nature journal, and more!
Dog vs. Cat handmade toy debate

Dog vs. Cat – A Handmade Toy Debate

Dog vs. Cat handmade toy debate

A debate as old as time: fancy feline or darling doggy? It’s about as polarizing a debate as any. When it comes to our four-legged family members we sit firmly in our opinions, but what if we introduce something handmade to the equation. Does that change the scenario?

Enter the Zoo Crew toy animal debate.

Among the adorable creatures featured in this pin loom project eBook, there are two that I just cannot decide between. Will it be the cat or the dog? Floppy ears and a charming eyespot are points for the dog, but those whiskers and playful tail are all cat points.

Alas, there’s not a clear winner so what else might help us decide? Maybe their sweet personalities will help sway our vote.

Pin Loom Weaving Patterns - Cat Side View

Animal: Cat

Name: Ginger Felis

Nickname: Ginny

Occupation: Baker, specializing in cakes & cookies

Hobby: Soccer

Story: Ginger is a sweetheart with a massive sweet tooth! Though she likes all kinds of spicy foods, her favorites are spice cake and ginger snaps. She’s a little fiery, as most redheads tend to be, but she loves to bake for others. She is outgoing and playful and enjoys sports involving balls, especially soccer. She likes to play with her friends best of all.

Pin Loom Weaving Patterns - view of dog pattern

Animal: Dog

Name: Howlard Barker

Nickname: Old Blue or Shiner

Occupation: Private eye/tracker

Hobby: Stargazing

Story: Even though Old Blue is just a puppy, he has an old soul. He enjoys spending time with others, young and old. He has a good sniffer and excels at tracking things down. No case is too big or too small for Howlard. He enjoys gazing at the stars and can name quite a few constellations. He especially enjoys nights with a full moon. Spending the night howling is his favorite pastime.

Are you convinced which one is the best yet?

If not, perhaps these in-progress pictures from the eBook will help level the playing field one final time:

In progress cat pin loom weaving pattern.
In progress dog pin loom weaving pattern

Zoo Crew - Pin Loom Weaving Patterns eBookGood thing they’re so cute when they’re finished!

Fun and games aside, we’d love to hear which animal gets your vote! Be sure to share your pick in the comments.

If you want to join me in these fun pin loom weaving patterns, be sure to grab a copy of the Zoo Crew eBook in our shop. Or, if you need to get the loom as well check out this pin loom collection for a great deal.

And, on second thought, maybe I’ll just make the penguin.

Stitch on,

Tutorial: Stitch a Tiny Textured Landscape

Want to create a mixed-media landscape? In this tutorial from our March/April 2014 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors, artist Colleen Ansbaugh shows you how to combine stitching, fibers, and embellishments to create colorful textured landscapes! These tiny landscapes are only about 3″ x 4″ each, so they’re perfect for experimenting and trying out new techniques.

Use fabric and felt to create a textured landscape. (Art by Colleen Ansbaugh, photos by Hornick/Rivlin Studio)

Felted & Stitched Landscapes by Colleen Ansbaugh

The beautiful colors and shapes on the horizon are a constant source of inspiration for me. Capturing that image by merging fibers, stitching, and embellishments is an exciting art form. I start with an earthy palette that helps me build the landscape contours. I then loosely place the basic shapes of the landscape to define the composition. Embroidery stitches are used to create foliage and to enhance the details. Beads and embellishments add a bit of sparkle. Try stretching yourself by inventing your own design stitches!


  • Pencil
  • Paper
  • Scissors, fabric
  • Craft felt (I used a 3″ x 4″ piece.)
  • Fabric, wool (I used a 3″ x 4″ piece for the background.)
  • Felting brush bed or Styrofoam® block
  • Wool scraps
  • Wool roving, various complementary colors
  • Felting needles
  • Small scraps: fabric, ribbon, or yarn
  • Thread, #5 crewel or embroidery floss
  • Needle with large eye for hand stitching
  • Embellishments: beads and/or charms
  • Optional:
    • Thimble

1. Sketch a simple landscape on paper as a reference for general shapes and placement. No need for excessive detail at this stage. (FIGURE 1) Determine your basic color palette, and select coordinating materials.


NOTE: When creating small-scale works, you want to draw the viewer in for a closer look. Create strong contrast, light to dark, for a more visually alluring piece.

2. Cut 1 piece of craft felt and 1 piece of wool fabric to size. The craft felt will act as a stabilizer and will not be visible in the finished piece. Place the wool on top of the craft felt, and then put the fabric/wool sandwich wool-side up on the felting brush bed (or foam block).

3. Cut the wool scraps into shapes to form the basic landscape contours. Place a small amount of wool roving over the surface of the scraps, and felt the roving in place with the felting needles. (FIGURE 2) Employ an up-and-down motion perpendicular to the felting bed.


NOTE: Begin felting with small amounts of wool roving. The roving acts to secure the scraps to the background fabric. If the roving is applied too thick, it will hide all of the fabric. Alternatively, if not enough roving is used the scraps will not adhere to the background.

4. For further definition of the landscape, apply bits of ribbon, scraps of silk or other cloth, or bits of yarn, securing them with hand stitches or by applying a small amount of roving over the top and then felting it in place. Have fun auditioning fibers with different colors and textures. Combining smooth surfaces with rough can add visual interest. Avoid tightly woven fabrics, as they can be difficult to felt.

NOTE: As you needle felt, keep in mind that the job of the barbed felting needles is to push the fibers from the front to the back. Consider flipping the piece over and felting from the back to the front for a different look. Sometimes the back becomes just as interesting as the front.

5.  As the composition develops, review the shapes. Step back from your work and squint your eyes. Deepen shadows or lighten highlights as necessary. If you want to alter the color, simply place a different color roving or a felt or fabric scrap on top of what is already in place and felt it in place. Dimension can add visual interest.

NOTE: Trying to remove fibers that are already felted in place could pull out adjoining areas. If you decide you don’t like something, it is easier to add something on top of it than to take something away.

6.  When you are satisfied with the basic composition, stitch some details with crewel or embroidery thread. (FIGURE 3) Be sure to secure the thread with a knot. Use a thimble to assist in pushing the needle through the piece, if needed.


NOTE: The use of thin threads, typically used for sewing garments and tiny embellishments, should be avoided for this project. Over time, thin diameter threads and small embellishments, which may be visible when first applied, can sink into the thickness of the wool, disappearing from sight. Hence, to avoid disappointment, use thicker threads, and larger beads and charms.

7. Add beads or other embellishments for further interest. (FIGURE 4) Consider using a variety of sizes, for example: long, skinny beads combined with fat, round ones. Beads can take a piece from good to glorious.

8. Stitch around the outside perimeter by hand or machine. A zigzag or buttonhole stitch can easily capture all of the layers. Another option is to capture lengths of yarn while stitching around the edge. The yarn can further “frame” the pictured landscape. (FIGURE 5)


TIP: Audition a variety of accent thread colors before deciding on the final color for the perimeter. I find it amazing how the perimeter thread color can affect the overall look of the piece.

Fabrics to try

  • A wool suit jacket or sweater
  • Transparent craft ribbon
  • A chiffon scarf
  • Bridal veil netting
  • Craft felt

Colleen Ansbaugh, fiber artist and resident of Wisconsin, began sewing as a child. Nature is a continual source of inspiration for her color palette in creating hand-dyed fibers and cloth, and for her landscape designs. Colleen enhances her artwork with felting, beading, and lots of stitching. Visit her website at

Want more fabric art ideas? Click here for a great tutorial on making a fabric collage book!

As mixed-media artists, we find little treasures everywhere we go. This issue of Cloth Paper Scissors is all about recycling. Expand your collection of mixed-media supplies and uncover new ways to use cardboard, bubble wrap, aluminum cans, and more.
Check out Deborah Boschert’s Tiny Textured Treasures Art Lesson. Starting with a variety of colorful fabrics, Deborah adds tons of texture with layers and hand embroidery.
Art Cloth by Jane Dunnewold is a comprehensive guide to creating rich texture, color, and pattern with art cloth using surface design products and a wealth of technique combinations.
Let Julie Fei-Fan Balzer and Jenn Mason show you how to create stunning mixed-media stitch techniques and projects in The Mixed-Media Workshop Season 100: Best of Mixed-Media Stitch.


Watercolor Techniques from Danielle Donaldson: Your New Bliss

If watercolor isn’t part of your mixed-media playbook, now is the time to add it. Danielle Donaldson has a new kit that includes a book and videos all about watercolor techniques, and they are exactly what you need to shake up your routine and discover what you’ve been missing. Color, composition, storytelling—it’s all here, and it’s all designed to take you to your next level of happiness.

Danielle not only provides great instruction, but inspiration and confidence boosting as well. Not sure about trying a new medium and techniques? You’ll be fine, trust me. And if you’ve already fallen in love with watercolor, you’ll discover lots of fun ways to take it even further.

watercolor techniques
Discover the amazing world of watercolor in this collection, and start painting with confidence!

I opened Danielle’s book, The Art of Creative Watercolor, as soon as it arrived, and immediately wanted to try one of her watercolor techniques for composition and painting. The technique I chose involves nesting similar elements together for a beautiful composition, then layering color. I wasn’t sure what to draw (she shows butterflies), but she suggests keeping it simple and includes some prompts, and leaves seemed like a great choice. I started with a small piece of watercolor paper, then drew a light border for my composition. I taped the paper to a Masonite board to keep it flat, and gathered my favorite mechanical pencil, a kneaded eraser, and some inspiration, including real leaves and photos.

Gathering inspiration photos and items makes it easy to draw a collection.

Another great idea from Danielle is to practice drawing your items on a small scale. This also helps cut down on the amount of erasing on the main piece. She includes more tips for drawing a collection, which helped enormously when figuring out how to compose the elements. I found this part of the project to be very relaxing; as I focused on drawing and thinking about shapes and the overall composition, I got lost in the process and was able to tune out the rest of the world. Such a nice state to be in.

Can’t draw? The simplest shapes work for this project, like leaves, balloons, or pencils.

Next, I added my first wash of paint. Danielle recommends doing a controlled wash, which she describes as using a moderately wet brush on dry paper that results in a fairly even layer of color. A quick side note to mention that The Art of Creative Watercolor is a fantastic reference for an array of watercolor techniques, such as washes, creating color palettes, mixing colors, and more. You’ll find yourself opening this book often. I chose a palette of mostly greens, with pops of yellow, turquoise, and pink.

One of Danielle’s best watercolor techniques is adding layers and glazing, which gives artwork depth and interest.

As I painted the washes I also created color swatches. These are handy references when trying different color combinations, and they’re also a fun element to add to a piece. Lucky for you, this kit includes Danielle’s Swatch Kit Paint Chip stamps (one large, one small), so all you have to do is add the paint! I find myself using these stamps again and again, adding them to art journal and sketchbook pages, cards, and collages.

Two paint swatch stamps come with this kit, and they’re the perfect complement to the book and videos!

When the washes were dry, I added details with pencil, creating ribs and veins in the leaves and some fanciful designs. Danielle advises not making things look too realistic: “Tap into your imagination,” she says, “and play with scale.” This took the piece into a new realm, and it also started to look more like my style. Another favorite watercolor technique from Danielle that has made a huge difference in my artwork is adding what she calls “visual tension” to drawings. This involves re-outlining some shapes with pencil, and varying the weight of the line. The technique makes objects pop, is an easy way to add depth, and I highly recommend you try it.

Time for a final layer of color. This glaze layer was added in small sections of the leaves to create more depth of color and details. I turned the piece as I painted, thinking about what I wanted to draw attention to, and making sure that I didn’t overdo it and add too much paint. This was another exercise in slowing down that I really appreciated.

The devil may be in the details, but the angels will sing when you add extra color and features to your work.

Adding shadows is one of my favorite parts of the watercolor process because it brings painted items to life. Danielle has a no-fuss approach to creating the perfect shadow color: Simply mix whatever colors are left on your palette, and if it’s not dark enough, add a little Payne’s Gray or Van Dyke Brown. After trying every single shade of gray, grayish-purple, blue-gray, etc., I’ve found that this truly is the magic formula for making the perfect shadow color. I imagined where a light source would be coming from, and added shadows.

A white marker is one of Danielle’s signature touches, and I can see why she loves it. Adding tiny dots of white brightens the whole piece and makes it pop, and it’s a lovely touch. She recommends the Uni Posca Extra Fine Marker in white, and I’m so glad I tried it. The white stays white and doesn’t fade as it dries.

watercolor techniques
Among Danielle’s final watercolor techniques is adding touches of bright white to the piece.

I added a “nature study” label, and my piece was done! This is but a fraction of the watercolor techniques, projects, and ideas that Danielle has to offer, and I can’t wait to discover more. We have this kit exclusively, so don’t hesitate picking it up. And remember, those cool stamps are included. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Danielle’s watercolor techniques for creating lettering are not to be missed! Check them out in this blog post.

watercolor techniques
The Danielle Donaldson Watercolor Collection is an exclusive bundle that will ignite your passion for watercolor.

Make a Deck of Art Cards

Spring is a great time for a studio recharge, and one of my favorite tasks is creating a deck of art cards. This is one of those projects that you can take in a million different directions, and I’ll give you some fun ideas for different types of decks. Today we’ll make a deck of art prompts, for times when you want to shake things up and not fall back on the same familiar habits. This deck is filled with favorite techniques that I often forget about until after the fact—remembering them is like a preemptive creative strike.

I’ll also show you how to make a box for the cards. But let’s get started with the cards. I used a deck of 2 ½” x 3 ½” playing cards for my substrates—you can use anything you like (cardstock, chipboard, stiffened fabric, thin lightweight wood) and make the cards any size you want; I chose playing cards so I could fast track the project a bit. Just FYI, these are also the size of an artist trading card. I covered some with white, black, and clear gesso, and others with decorative, found, and hand-painted papers.

Art cards first layer
You can use a variety of substates for art cards, and cover them with gesso or found and decorative papers.

I next made a list of what techniques I wanted to feature on the art cards: acrylic paint layers with a palette knife, sketches, dramatic painted backgrounds, complementary colors, different color palettes, hand-carved stamps, foiling, messy art with lots of marks, hand-painted papers for collage, and finding inspiration in what’s right in front of me. By keeping a list, I can easily add more cards.

When the gesso was dry I went to work on the cards, starting with creating layers with a palette knife (you can also used an expired gift card) and acrylic paint. I love how this looks, but I don’t incorporate it enough in my artwork. Since these cards are small, I was finished in a few minutes and didn’t overthink it. I created another one with complementary colors (neon orange and turquoise), for that prompt.

Art cards with palette knife backgrounds
These cards remind me to use a palette knife to create a painted background, and and to include complementary colors.

Using scraps from my last hand-painted paper fest, I created a quick collage card (left). I love a dramatic background using colors like Payne’s Gray and dark navy, so I combined those two, brushing them on a gessoed card and then swiping some paint with my fingers. When that was dry I dry brushed some white over it, then adhered a vintage photo from Tim Holtz’s Ideal-ology Paper Dolls (center). For the third card, I created a color palette in shades I don’t usually use together—but these colors make me so happy, and I wanted a reminder of how fun and summery they are (right).

Prompts for art cards
More art cards are prompts to use hand-painted papers, create dramatic backgrounds, and think about different color palettes.

I love to sketch, but my sketches don’t always make it into my artwork for some reason. So I copied a sketch of a rose, printed it on cardstock, and adhered it to a card. For another card, I recreated a favorite background I created for an art journal page.

The box is sized so that the art cards just peek out of the top; I contemplated adding ribbon to the tops of the cards, but thought that might be too messy. I created paper and fabric tabs instead, but feel free to come up with whatever system works for you.

Tabs for art cards
Tabs make it easier to handle these art cards.

To be sure I wouldn’t forget what the card prompts were about, I stamped some small labels and wrote on them, then glued them to the backs of the cards.

Labels for art cards
Labels on the backs of the cards remind me what the prompt is about.

Next up: the box. Whenever I’m making something for the first time, I always do mock-ups to make sure the sizing and proportions are right. I made a few box templates until I found one that worked well, and cut it out of lightweight chipboard. I tried heavier weight board, but it didn’t fold well, even after being scored, and I quickly scrapped that notion. Cereal boxes are also great for this. Using the template, I cut the box and scored and folded it.

Box for deck of art cards
This template is small enough to cut from a cereal box!

Options for decorating the box for your art cards include painting, collage, doodling, or any combination of those. I covered the box with hand-painted papers, then trimmed away the excess; use gel medium or glue stick for this and let it dry completely.

Collaged box for art cards
Decorate the box for the art cards with painting, drawing, or collage.

To put the box together, I brushed PVA glue on the small tabs, then adhered them to the box sides, one at a time. I held them in place for a few minutes until the glue was semi-set.

Gluing small box tabs
Glue the small tabs first, then adhere them to the side of the box.

The tabs were held in place with clips until fully dry. My clips weren’t large enough, so I folded the long tabs over, then clipped them.

Clipping small box tabs
Hold the tabs in place with clips until the glue dries.

Both long tabs were brushed with PVA, then held until almost set. You may have to massage these a little to make sure they’re even.

Gluing large box tabs
Glue both tabs at once, then make sure all sides are even.

I also pressed the tabs with a bone folder to make sure there was good adhesion. These tabs were also clipped until fully dry.

Clips hold the large tabs in place for the box
Clips hold the large tabs in place until dry.

I added a little more collage to the front of the box, then covered the outside with two coats of matte gel medium. One more trick: I used a Flexcut gouge to make a curved notch in the front of the box; this isn’t necessary, it’s more for aesthetics.

Adding a notch to the front of a box for art cards
A small notch was created with a U-shaped gouge in the front of the box.

This deck of art cards makes me feel so organized and on top of things. Not only that, it was really fun to make, and I know I’ll use it constantly. Here are more ideas for creating decks of art cards:

  • Paint single colors on the cards and use them to create new color palettes.
Color swatch art cards
Art cards with color swatches help you create new color palettes.
  • Hand letter favorite quotes to use in artwork.
  • Use the cards to practice portraits.
  • Keep a record of image transfer techniques.
  • Feature photos of things to sketch.

What will your deck of art cards include? Whatever you decide, you will definitely have fun making them!

Curious about artist trading cards? In this blog post, Nathalie Kalbach shows you how to create ATCs on wood, using a surprising technique!

Cloth Paper Scissors Art Lessons Vol. 15: Oracle Card Journal by Cathy Nichols
In Art Lessons Vol. 15: Oracle Card Journal, Cathy Nichols shows you how to create an oracle card to decorate the front of a journal.
Card Play video with Seth Apter
Learn how to turn a simple deck of cards into a year-long art journal in the video Card Play with Seth Apter.
Alternative Art Cards video with Margaret Peot
The video Alternative Art Cards with Margaret Peot shows how to create a portable card deck journal.
Art Journal Prompts: Ideas for Reusing & Reinventing video with Pam Carriker
Never lack for creative ideas with the video Art Journal Prompts: Ideas for Reusing & Reinventing, with Pam Carriker.