Insomnia: It Can Be Productive

October 30, 2008


Sometimes you just can't sleep. Maybe you did something you regret, maybe you were a bully as a child, or an avenging angel—you still get bad karma, that's what makes this a wonderful and complex world. Or maybe it's as simple as eating 4 freshly baked chocolate chip cookies right at bedtime. There are a million reasons you might not be sleeping, but that doesn't mean you can't do something fun and exhilarating, hey, you aren't sleeping anyway.

A couple nights ago, unable to sleep, regretting that I had missed Life Drawing Co-op so that I could work (though it wasn't essential that I get my work done that very minute; yep I was dragging my heals, two days of no bicycle will do that) I grabbed my journal and decided to sketch (fueled of course by the aforementioned cookies). A plate palette (in the studio I use white ceramic dishes for palettes: very inexpensive square and rectangular plates of all sizes can be purchased at places like Target and "global market" type stores—where sushi dishes with deep "wells" can be found) covered with left over Holbein gouache was sitting on the table. I pulled it over to the computer, along with a size 12 Kolinsky sable brush. I didn't even bother to go and get any water. Since I rewet my paints with a spray bottle it was standing by. This is junk painting, where you don't care what mixes with what, you just want to burn through stuff. I just spritzed the palette with water to wet the paints.

Next I threw up some scans of old photographs onto the computer screen. (I'm always picking up more old 19th century photos. My friend Linda likes to stop at antique stores when we travel and I can always find boxes of these to rifle through. Each photo seems to tell me a story and I can't resist them. Also, earlier that evening a friend had ended our phone conversation with: "I've been collecting some photos of people to sketch from, I'm not sure…how do you do it?" Which of course left me wondering about process.) Then I sat back and just started to paint with the brush. Squinting of course, so I just saw blocks of value.


The fun thing about this is that wherever the brush goes, that's final. (Use a large brush that holds a point and lots of paint, but won't let you get fussy.) In the sketch above right I waited just a tad too long and my full brush dropped a blop of paint. That will teach me to delay starting. (You can go back to darken passages, but you also have to resist the urge to go back in. It is an exercise in leaving things alone when painting with watercolor or gouache. It's a lesson I'll be working on for many more sleepless nights, and I look forward to it.) 

There are other fun things, the quickness of course, since you aren't trying for detail but shapes of the various values in the face. (You are literally feeling your way around their face. The best time to have epiphanies by the way.) And with quickness comes a sense of freedom too. Accuracy might fly out the window, but I know with practice and concentration I'll get better. Why not use this limbo time for practice? It's either that or infomercials and how many abdominal crunch machines does any one person really need?

Another fun thing about this particular game is that when you use a textured paper the paint settles in interesting ways, ways more interesting perhaps than the likeness you do or don't achieve. I was working on an 8-inch square journal page. The paper is the old Fabriano Uno Soft Press which has a surface which lies between Hot Press and Cold Press, so it has a slight texture, just enough to capture little valleys of sediment. You can see some of those in the close up on the right when you click on it to enlarge it.

As I worked I ran out of the French Ultramarine blue that was on my palette. Since the goal was to use the paint already out I simply started mixing in the cerulean blue. By the time I reached the fourth sketch I was out of paint. I wasn't sleepy, but I had burned off enough of the pent up energy of the day (and the frustration at missing Life Drawing, and the sugar in those cookies), that I was able to get right to bed, and have some very interesting dreams about the lives of these people.

The next time you find yourself up late, contemplating the error of your ways, grab that palette of unused paint and start sketching with your brush. Embrace insomnia as a productive space. You'll be surprised how easy it is to sleep after that.

    • karen
    • October 30, 2008

    hey roz, I think you’re channeling Doug Lew here only without the rainbow colors. These are very fun. I see a book…

    • Roz
    • October 30, 2008

    Karen, would that I could channel Doug!

    For people who don’t know Doug Lew, he’s a Minnesota painter and I’ve been privileged to sit behind him at life drawing and watch him work wonders with the brush.

    People can find out more about Doug at his website and about his books at


    • Lisa
    • October 31, 2008

    Hi Roz, your blog is incredibly interesting, inspiring, and useful. I tried this exercise in gouache painting last night after reading the post. Looking forward to the bookbinding workshop tomorrow.

    • Roz
    • October 31, 2008

    Lisa, I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog and I’m also glad you tried the gouache painting, but I hope you didn’t do it because of insomnia! Roz

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