Fun Freebie: Paper Bird Ornaments

Freebie time! If you’re looking for a fun project you can do with the kiddos and need a little extra Christmas cheer, I’ve got one that’s simple and fun. Make your own paper bird ornaments that can be colored with markers, colored pencils, or colored on a tablet. Hang them on your Christmas tree, or color a whole flock of birds and make a garland to decorate your mantle, a window, or a wall that needs a little extra color. 

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to do each Christmas was to make handmade ornaments. They were usually pretty simple: reindeer made out of clothespins, macaroni sheep, and paper gingerbread men (usually with minimal glitter, after that one incident…) They may have been simple, but they were a fun way to do something creative with my mom, and somehow even those paper ornaments survived for 35+ years and counting. My mom kept them all, even when Rudolph lost a googly eye, or when the snowman lost his sparkle. Our box of ornaments is like a time capsule now, and it’s pretty cool to unearth all of those handmade ornaments from what feels like eons ago. (If you want to get super fancy, you can laminate your bird ornaments to give them some extra life.) 

This printable PDF includes simple instructions and an idea for making garland. Download your PDF here, and feel free to make as many birds as you like. They’re free for your personal use. To make ornaments, just print these from your computer (cardstock works best, but any paper will do), color as desired. Cut them out, use a hole punch to make a hole in the top, and thread through some twine or yard to make a loop for hanging. 

No hole punch? No problem. You can use tape, glue, or a staple to secure the yarn loop to the back side of the ornament. 

Happy holidays, everyone! From my flock to yours. 🙂 

Try Again, Fail Better

group of hand painted bird ornaments

Last month, I had this itch to make some ornaments. I’d seen some that were made with wood slices and loved the way they looked. It looked like fun, a new challenge, and something that would ease me back into painting. (Full disclosure: I have two wood panels in my house that have been painted over at least four times. I had these ideas for paintings, and completely psyched myself out, and then shoved them under my work table, at the bottom of a pile, where they have languished for over a year. )

So when I saw painted ornaments floating around on the interwebs, I thought that something miniature might be a good way to warm myself up again. It’d be something low stakes, maybe a way to unwind and keep myself doing something creative. I thought it might work better if I gave myself some parameters, or made a game out of it. 

The rules were these:

1. Have fun.

2. Loosen up. No serious planning. Pick a color, sketch a bird, fill it in. 

3. Don’t be precious about them: no obsessing for hours on one tiny painting. 

I bought 25 wood slices on Etsy. The seller was kind enough to include a bonus one. One was split, but this little packrat didn’t throw it away—oh, no. I practiced on the split one, did a rough little painting. I didn’t like it much. I thought on it for a couple of days and very nearly psyched myself out of doing them at all. The inner critic emerged and said things like This is not a good painting. What will you do with all of these? Who would buy these? This is a waste of your time. 

This inner critic and I go way back. If she were a bird, she’d be a grackle—puffed up, noisy, annoyingly persistent.

Then I thought, “What on earth will I do with all of these wood slices?” And also: “I made a deal with myself. I said I was going to make something every day. Stop being a chicken and get out the damn brushes.”

So I sat down, and I painted another one. And I didn’t dislike that one as much. 

And the next day, I painted another one. And it wasn’t too bad, so I did one more. 

Then I laid down a background color on five at a time. I painted over a couple I didn’t like very much–but I left the broken one, the one I didn’t like at all. 

Nearly each night for a month, I painted little birds. I used my trusty Stokes guide, and I painted a few birds I see in the backyard most days—cardinal, titmouse, goldfinch. I painted a couple of elusive warblers that I catch a glimpse of every now and then. I started to loosen up more, and have more fun with color. I put a few in my Etsy shop, and they sold, so I made a few more. Friends said they liked them, and that made me want to keep going. I looked forward to painting a little each night after work. I got so much encouragement from my friends that I wanted to pay it forward in some way—this project had helped me through a difficult time, and it had given me something positive to focus on and something to bring joy—and it was that nudge from other folks, sometimes strangers, that helped keep me inspired. So I decided to donate half the proceeds from the sales of these ornaments to Feeding America. (And that made me want to finish faster, but I made myself slow down and enjoy the process. Hurrying wasn’t in the rules.)

 

And then I got to the bottom of my stack of wood slices. I told my fella that I liked them now, and sort of wanted to keep a couple just for me. “You can do that you know,” he said, in his calm midwestern way. “You can keep one for yourself.”

When the last stack was gone, I listed all but two in the shop. I decided I would keep a couple for me, mainly as a reminder that I should keep trying, and keep failing, and keep failing better. Not everything works out the way we like the first time around, but that doesn’t mean we should stop. We should keep going, and learn from the process, and grow from the experience. You see, I first thought of these as Christmas ornaments, but then realized I’d want to display mine all the time (I’m a serious bird nerd after all)—and especially now that it will serve as a reminder when the inner critic emerges again.

A few days after I thought I was finished, I found that first practice piece on the work table–the one that nearly made me stop. I studied it for a minute, and then I filled the crack, and then I painted over it. And this time I painted it with a particular person in mind. My uncle is a painter, who delights in the layers of memory and experiment and folly that go into making a piece of art. He, too, seeks the wonder. He, too, finds beauty in the imperfect, the misshapen, the unusual. He also delights in the process: the trying, the failing, the discovery. He’s always encouraged me to keep making art, even when I thought I didn’t want to, and even in this year, when it felt so impractical. There have always been times when the harpie inner critic emerged and said “What’s the point? Why bother?”—and this year it happened a lot in the beginning. It’s hard to spend time on art when your heart feels too heavy for joy, and the world seems so broken. But it seems that’s when we need joy the most, and we need those people who encourage us to keep going, and keep seeking the joy.

And so the last bird, with all of the memory of the first and the twenty-four after, had only one place that it could go. 

🐦 🐦 🐦

As of this posting, there are still some birdies available in my Etsy shop. If one strikes your fancy, maybe it can serve as a special reminder for you, too. I’ll be sending 50% of proceeds from the sales to Feeding America each week until this edition is sold out. 

Why I Draw Every Day

 

Lately I’ve been carving out more time to work in my home studio (it’s tiny, but it works—for the most part). Back when I was in art school, I was always making books, and I was always carving wood blocks and lino blocks. It was a daily practice, and one that I enjoyed. Fast forward a few years, when I realized that I wasn’t making enough time for printmaking. I missed it. It’s been hard in the last few years to make enough time for art (is there ever enough time for the things that we love?), but I’ve been working to find the balance.

I have a small tabletop printing press, which I bought from a friend about 7 years ago. Sometime last year, I realized that I had not carved a block or pulled a print in over a year. I couldn’t remember the last print that I’d made, and it made me sad to think that this thing that had once been a daily practice, a thing that had brought so much joy, was not in my life anymore.

So I made myself a deal: I’d make a little time each week to carve a block. Weekends only, maybe. I’d make time when I could. After all, I was working full time and trying to build a small business, and I was already feeling like a workaholic.

That was all the more reason to make more time for making art.

Below is one woodblock that I used to make the print at the top of this post—it’s a tufted titmouse made from 3 different blocks carved by hand. It had been years since I’d made a print with multiple colors, and I was excited to do one again and get back in the groove.

 

 

This year I decided to use my Etsy shop as a way to keep myself motivated: I wanted to add new items each week, and that meant I’d have to hold myself accountable—I’d have to make something new every week. Even if I was only making one finished piece a week, it would mean that I was making art a daily practice again.

That might have been the best decision I made for myself all year. Yes, this year has been crazy. It’s been heart-wrenching, and trying, and I’m grateful I get to spend each day with a loving, supporting partner. Getting through this year has been about focusing on what’s most important and finding joy in the everyday—and seeking happiness and gratitude in the things that I can control.

I’ve made a lot of adjustments this year, and one of the most rewarding has been getting back into the daily practice of drawing. Sometimes those drawings turn into blocks prints, or greeting cards, or small paintings. Sometimes those drawings don’t become anything else at all, and that’s fine, too. Some days they’re just doodles, just an exercise that’s almost a kind of meditation. They’re a way for me to unwind, and explore, and find a little everyday joy. I hope that during this year, you’ve been able to find the things that help you do this, too.

Cover Reveal: Rosemary and Gabriel

cover of book jacket for Rosemary and Gabriel

Finally, the Wait is Over!

Today I’m excited to share the cover for a new book that I’ve been illustrating for my friend Janice Fuller. Janice is a poet and playwright, and her most recent book may be a departure from both of those genres, but for me it has a little of both: there’s plenty of poetic language to enjoy (Gabriel the cat is quite the wordsmith, especially as he becomes smitten with Rosemary), and the dialogue between the main characters (two witty housecats) propels the story forward as it delves into character much the way a solid stage play does. These are two things that immediately drew me into the story—and when Janice asked me to illustrate, I was delighted.

A Little About Process

With many illustration and writing projects, I tend to work in an order that is not chronological. After some initial sketches of Rosemary and Gabriel, I jumped into the book and started drawing based on the scenes that came to me first. Rosemary and Gabriel is broken into 8 parts that essentially function as chapters—and we quickly agreed that each section should have its own illustration that pointed to the heart of that section. The question for me was to think of what sort of image might capture that heart—and sometimes that’s a tricky thing to see.

With my own writing, it sometimes (ok, almost always) takes a while for the real themes to emerge. If I let ideas percolate for too long, I find myself crippled by the possibilities, so I often have to just jump in and start writing a character down, and get them into trouble. Then their strengths, desires, and weaknesses begin to reveal themselves, and then the conflicts emerge, and the themes reveal themselves, and the pieces begin to fall into place and finally I get some momentum. A similar thing happens when I illustrate a story: sometimes if I think too hard about what the most important themes are (how do I illustrate grief??), then I stonewall myself. Sometimes I just have to start drawing some characters and see what happens. And as I draw them and discover their personalities, then it’s easier to illustrate what the story is really about.

That’s what happened with Rosemary and Gabriel. When Janice first sent me a draft, I drew a cat that I envisioned as Gabriel. (It turns out he looked nothing like the real Gabriel, who belongs to Janice), but doodling with some new charcoals and pencils helped me think about what kind of style these illustrations might have. In the beginning, I tried out several kinds of materials, including gouache and charcoal, but ultimately created the illustrations digitally. (You can read more about the illustrations in my previous post.)

When I started drawing for real, I read through the book again and made notes of scenes that came to mind as I was reading. Certain sections had a solid image that leapt out at me—like Gabriel dreaming he was a jaguar (below). Other sections had more abstract ideas that were a little harder to draw an image for. (I saved those for last, after I’d nailed down some key personality traits of the kitties.) And last was the cover—with my own novels, the title is often the last piece that I write after an entire draft. And then I design the covers after all the writing is done. Things were very much the same with Rosemary and Gabriel: I had no idea what the cover would look like when we started, but once we came around to the end, both Janice and I had a feeling about something circular (and I liked the idea of the cats circling each other, chasing each other)—and that’s how we landed on the cover design.

Gabriel the cat dreams of being a jaguar

More About the Book

I won’t give away any spoilers, but here’s the book’s synopsis:

What can two cats teach us about being human?

In this modern epistolary story, two cats, Rosemary and Gabriel, begin an unusual friendship that begins with letter-writing and blossoms into love.

Gabriel, jealous of the way his owner toils over her laptop instead of scratching his ears, thinks such devices are silly. He can’t understand why his owner Janice spends all of her time typing. Who could she be writing so many emails to? When his curiosity takes hold, he makes a discovery that changes his world—Rosemary.

When Rosemary agrees to correspond with Gabriel, he immediately begins to court her: he sends her poems and valentines, and pledges to come and see her in Toronto. As Rosemary and Gabriel open up to each other, they share a commentary about life that’s both witty and poignant and, of course, filled with unabashed professions of love.

Written by Janice Moore Fuller and Janet Lewis, Rosemary and Gabriel is a heartfelt story about how we navigate friendship, romance, grief, and love—and everything in our hearts that makes us human.

 

Rosemary and Gabriel: Laptop Love goes on sale everywhere Sept. 21, 2020 and is available as ebook and paperback, on Amazon and at your local indie bookstore.