An Artist’s Story: The Origin of My “Seeing Color in the Garden” Daily Practice

Anything that encourages us to slow down and pay attention is nourishing.

I am an artist as well as a writer who gardens and a gardener who writes, pursuits that require plenty of time and tending, but I have always longed for a personal daily practice. Participating in the 100-day project allowed me to try on the practice that would become Seeing Color in the Garden, daily color studies, and observations that track the highs and inevitable lows of everyday life.

In her book, Local Color, watercolor artist Mimi Robinson uses color to record time and place. An exhibit of her work at Berkeley Botanical Garden in 2017, specifically a colorful grid of pink, plum, and charcoal hues she identified in a sprig of blossoming plum, blew my mind wide open. Seeing an object from nature reduced to its essential colors moved me. This encounter in a rustic exhibit space buried deep within a garden would prove to be foundational.

Spring of 2018 was a particularly difficult time: My dad had just died after a long illness, and my family was facing health and recovery challenges as well as a shift in our economic security, to say nothing of a toxic political scene. Even though I was a human stew of anxiety, fear, and depression, I was determined to still participate in the online challenge. So, inspired by that plum blossom color palette by Mimi Robinson and in an attempt to create a project that would simply tell me what to do, I decided that for 100 days I would pick something from my garden and try to capture its colors in swatches of watercolor. I set simple parameters with what I hoped would be minimal barriers to success. I vowed to be gentle with myself and to forgive falling short, provided I continued to follow through.

Since that time, I’ve never stopped creating color studies. Whether I’m giving a talk, leading a workshop, or simply painting side-by-side with a friend in the garden, color is my constant companion. What began as an attempt to simply show up for an online challenge during a difficult time, has since become a part of me. My practice is a way to quiet my mind even on days when my clumsy attempts frustrate me and fall short (soooo short!) of depicting what nature does so elegantly. My color studies are not botanical illustrations but an exercise to improve my ability to see.

Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world.” My daily practice is about plants and color and paying attention. There’s a delightful feedback loop to identifying color. The more we look, the more we see. It’s as if the generosity of our attention enlarges our perception. It sounds dangerously close to admitting “I hear voices” but honestly, I see more than I used to.

Noticing reveals the invisible.

Some people are shy about committing to do something every single day. However, I’ve come to believe that the brilliance and the beauty of a daily practice is its constancy and its forgiveness. We always get another chance. Constantly foraging for color has also taught me to recognize and accept my own cycles of attention. Some days flow like the paint on my brush, and others produce nothing but tedious repetition that just about does me in. But most days, just the doing of it is enough. And there’s always tomorrow, and the day after, and the one after that.

When you develop a daily practice, it takes you somewhere. I never anticipated how posting my colors to Instagram would open doors and connect me with a supportive community of gardeners, artists, and others who, like me, delight in colors found in the natural world. Then, in mid-April, my Instagram account was hacked. Six years of paintings, observations, and connections vanished in one afternoon. I’m not going to kid you — it hurts. And yet, this practice has taught me that every day is a chance to begin again, in the garden, on the page, and by recording colors. It’s harder than it sounds. But I just keep painting and have no plans of stopping.


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