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!


Blog, Mixed-Media Techniques


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