Mandala Design

The word mandala literally means “circle” in Sanskrit.  In Hinduism and Buddhism, it is a ritual symbol representing the universe.  It is often used as an aid in meditation.  Mandala has a more general meaning in art. It may be applied to any circular, repeating design.  A rose window, the type found in churches, could be described as a type of mandala.

I like to teach how to draw a type of mandala design that hides a word within the circle.  For those, who take the time to really see the design, the word will be revealed.  And, isn’t that how we find out what our strengths are?  It’s the process of life that reveals them.  You have to pay attention to learn what they are.

For these examples, I’m using 7 X 10″ mix media stock paper.   The finished designs are about greeting card size.

Process and Variations.

VARIATION #1 (non-mandala), (dash/splash)

Layout begins with 7 X10′, portrait layout.

Fold paper into a triptych card.

Divided design area for the number of letters in the chosen word.

Print letters inside each space.


Trace around the outside each letter to create a “bubble” around them.


Using tracing paper and pencil, trace the “bubble” letter lines.IMG_4786.png

Flip the tracing paper so the back side is up.  Use the tracing paper like carbon paper to transfer the letters, reversed, to the other flap.


Trace over pencil lines with black (or colored) marker.


Fill in the negative space around the letters.  For this example, I just filled in with black.  There are many options for making these areas more visually interesting.


Shade in the letters with colored pencils, markers or other media.


This is the card free standing.  It has plenty of blank, design area for further work, like collage.



Layout is 10 X 7″, landscape

Fold to make a triptych card.

Using a ruler and pencil divide the front of the card into 1/4. Then connect opposing corners. This creates 8 triangles rotating around a center point.


In one of the triangles and using pencil, write the chosen word.  IMG_4793

As with Variation #1, outline the letters to create a “bubble” around them.

Erase the original letter lines, and develop overlap illusion.  (Done in ink so the overlap can clearly be seen.)


Use the tracing paper transfer technique to repeat the design.




Because overall shape of the card is a rectangle, the pattern can’t be traced as is in the top and bottom triangles. the artist has to find a creative way to connect the left and right sides.  Here is one solution.



Once the pattern in complete, the artist can add color and other design elements.


VARlATION #3 -No “Bubble” Letters, Cursive Script, A True Circle Mandala




VARIATION #3 – Printed Letters











IMG_4821 Plenty of room for adding color.

Well, that’s it.  Hope this clarifies my suggestion.  As you know our “audience” best,  I open to any suggestion or even, “This isn’t right for our group.”



Hand – The Gift Of Brenda

The Hand of Brenda.pngMy coworker has a special gift.  She can see past the labels placed on special education students to see the spirit residing inside the individual.  Yes, she’s been a special education teacher for years and was trained to help students that struggle in school because of disabilities, but she looks deeper.  She seeks out that spark of the individual hidden behind the categories we sort students into.

One morning she found me to ask about my take on one student that was in my art class.  She already knew that he had something that others couldn’t see.  I think she was just asking me to verify what she had observed.  Maybe she was looking for a word to call what she was seeing.  Ok, I know that would be a label, but one outside of the special ed box. I told he was an explorer.  That in my class, from the first day, he would take in a little instruction and then take it where he wanted to go, applying new skills to where his brain was wandering to.  A smile broke out on her face, and she began to tell me about the amazing things she had observed him doing and creating. These were things that the day to day classroom activities and structure would keep hidden from his regular ed teachers.  Her ending comment to our discussion was that she hoped he got through school without school messing him up.

You might want to read that last sentence again because it does happen.

Brenda says the brain is an amazing thing.  I think Brenda inner sight is amazing too.

So,  to Brenda:sideviewHandBrenda.png

Tie the expectation box together
Containing a drowning Spirit
From radiating 
The gifts
It brings,


God bless the hand
That searches out the Spirit
Finding It where
Assured minds only see a troubled surface.

Bless the hand
That lifts the spirit
Out of the dark waters
To stare us down
With the true power
It holds.


circles.pngThis weekend I met up with my 7th-grade art teacher who I hadn’t seen in 48 years. It was the perfect completion of a circle in life, and as the day progressed, reinforced that one’s life’s circle is ever revolving and expanding.
In the 7th grade,  I watched in amazement as Mrs. Irish painted a perfect, realistic watercolor of a thistle in a matter of minutes. It wasn’t part of her planned lesson for the day.  She was just showing me the possibilities of the medium I was learning to control.  And, I thought, “I want to be able to do THAT!”
Why didn’t I separate the act of painting from teaching?  Probably because she was the only artist I had ever met, my only role model of what could be.  She also had an occupation I could later to sell to my parents who wanted me to go to college so I could have a steady paycheck.  They, like so many of our students’ parents, equated college with guaranteed employment.  Mine didn’t see it as a dream factory of possibilities. Luckily for me, it all came true.
So Saturday, standing in the PAC surrounded by nearly 300 pieces of art created by my own Digital and AP Art students I retold Mrs. Irish how those few moments she spent with me changed everything.  She had no idea.  I wasn’t a student that left a mark on her. She really didn’t put a face to my name until she looked me up in a very old yearbook.
Now as the circle is closing on my own teaching career of 36 years, I’m wondering how many of these moments I’ve created for students that I, too, don’t remember.  And, if I go to the dark side for a while, how many moments did I let slip by because I had to take attendance, turn in grades, answer emails, go to a meeting… follow the lesson plan.  It can so easily go either way. So many moments. So many chances.
I left Mrs. Irish with plans to go visit her in Washington.  But my day wasn’t over. I had some time to kill before I went to watch one of my AP students perform with Ballet Folklorico.  So off to Starbucks for some quiet time with my sketchbook. However, you just can’t get away from students if you spend any time in Union City. My down time was interrupted by yet another AP Art student.  We spent over an hour talking about her experiences at the art show and what she had learned about herself by going through the AP portfolio process.  She is standing where I was with Mrs. Irish.  Yes, longer than a mere moment, but that same changing experience where a dream is forming and her imagination is seeing the possibilities of where her life could go.
We might think that a well-designed lesson will guarantee our students’ success in higher education, but it’s their dreams that propel them forward. Slow down. Take a moment.  Help them dream.
And my AP, Ballet Folklorico dancer – just the pure energy of youth, spinning on stage in the spotlight of possibilities.
Another moment.
Another perfect circle.


End Of Summer



Use the above QR code to hear my thoughts about this painting. (Click on Download as MP3.)

Twilight, Sunday sitting waiting for my glazes to dry so I can add the finishing touches on the window reflection on my latest painting.  I’ve got Roseanne Cash’s Black Cadillac album playing. Life is quieting down like the end of summer.
In a few days, I’ll go back to teaching high school art.  These last days of summer are tough especially when my vacation has been so eventful.  So many little adventures have taken place, and my soul is so content, relaxed.
Even so, the anxiety of starting afresh with a new group of teens nags at me too.  They’re just a few gray clouds hanging out on the horizon.  They’ll drift in soon. The storm is coming.
Until then I’ll remember a quiet afternoon on the Mendocino coast.  That day dark clouds drifted in and out with breaks of sunshine. On the window sill, sunshine sat in three, vine-ripened tomatoes.  These orbs of summer glowed with the internal warmth of long, hot summer days.  They held the memories of working with my brother in our shared backyard garden and the days waiting to bite into the just picked, warm and juicy fruit of all our hard work.  Of zucchinis, cucumbers, peas, and beans, the tomatoes ripen last. Because of our micro-climate, they ripen in August. So that first bite is also a signal that summer is coming to a close.
In my painting, they stand like soldiers at easy, yet holding back what is to come and radiating the glory of the life they hold. Memories of sunny days without cares.

Icon of Mary Magdalene

MaryMagdaleneWEB.jpgTechnique or soul?
Such an odd pairing.
But, while I tried to go deeper into one, my ego made me take an old path instead of experiencing what could have been a holy different adventure.

To the right is my finished icon painting of Mary of Magdalene. I tried to follow the directions in the book Drawing Closer to Christ: A Self-Guided Icon Retreat by Joseph Malham. This artist/author has given me a  fuller understanding of what it means to venerate an icon and how this kind of painting can be thought of as a way to bring The Word into the world.

While Malham gives very clear directions on how to technically paint an icon, it is the passages in between that are rich with historical background and guidance into using the time to prep for a days work with prayers and working with a more contemplative mindset throughout each work session that I found the most insightful.

I wish I had the patience to follow the directions of the author, to use the painting process outlined as the retreat it was meant to be.  But alas, my focus became to just finishing before Spring Break was over and in time to show my piece at my church’s art show. I dropped Malham’s technical directions and relied on my usual process for painting an image to appear three dimensional. Yes, my ego won over my search for a spiritual experience.

I did, however, take time to learn more about Mary of Magdalene, read her gospel and finally opened the Book of Common Prayers looking for ones to begin and end each painting session.  I’d like to spend more time with Mary’s gospel, especially it sections about the soul and sin. I did find some beautiful prayers, that so fit with my redirection for painting, that I know I’ll return to them as I try to build a more soulful art practice.  Malham’s book also lead me to Saint John of the Cross’ poem Dark Night of the Soul.  The “dark night of the soul” keeps coming up on the podcasts I listen to and the books on my nightstand.  Saint John’s poem paints an experience so different from how other sources use that phrase.  John’s is more beautiful and enlightening about one’s meeting with God.  Malham’s book is making me rethink what compels me to make art and question what “words” I’m bringing into the world.

So, while I didn’t stay on the path, I guess my meandering lead me to places I needed to go.  So goes the spiritual path. It is definitely not a straight one.



Art & Soul


Every Blade Of Grass Has An Angel
That Bends Over It And Whispers…
“Grow, Grow”
The Talmud

The above lines from the Talmud have stayed with me since I read it many years ago. It flies up in my mind whenever I see someone taking extra special care to assist another person to succeed.  I so relate it to my experience of being a teacher. I like to think I do this with all the students that walk into my classroom, say “Grow, Grow!”  Even though the passage means a lot to me, I’ve never tried to illustrate it before now.  I guess the time comes when something is ready to come into the world.

My new church holds a yearly art show called Art & Soul.  Parishioners bring in their works of art, crafts, poetry, and songs for a two-day celebration of creativity. When the call went out for artists to get their work together, it was suggested to think about Earth Day as the show is held this year on the day of this yearly event.  This image called out to be made. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I think it has blossomed well.

It was fun to try my hand at gilding even though I held back from buying the real gold leaf. I’m planning on following the instructions of the book Drawing Closer to Christ: A Self-Guided Icon Retreat by Joseph Malham. It will cover in more detail how to use gold leaf on a wood base to paint religious icons.  I think I’ll do an image of Mary Magdalene who helped grow the early church, definitely an “angel” that said, “Grow, Grow!”

Prayer Mandala – “Listens”

How fun it is to collaborate with someone when making art. The mandala shown here was done with my friend CoYourOriginalDrawing.jpgletta.

PrayerMandala.jpgShe started it at a retreat where I presented how to make a prayer mandala.  For some reason, she was unable to finish her design.  But her sketch, shown here, really caught my eye. So I asked if I could complete it for her.

Over the course of several emails, she shared some ideas that I tried to incorporate while also letting the design speak its spirit into being, too.  The colors were selected to express the Dress Rose Scotish tartan pattern she wore when she danced.  Learning this I incorporated Celtic knot patterns within the letters. Her chosen word for her mandala was “listens.”  She wrote to me that it was to remind her that God listens and she needs to work on listening. (Don’t we all!) He must have heard her because as the word was repeated in a circular pattern hearts and angels appeared.  I embellished it was even more of them.  I hope as she meditates on the design, she feels God’s support and love are always surrounding her.

Holy Spirit

holy4This weekend I’m going to a women’s retreat where we’ll be making mandalas and origami cranes.  To prepare to lead these wonderful women I’ve taken some time to research contemplative art practices.   It’s been an enriching experience and a validation of my own art practice.  I’ve always felt that the Spirit guided me in my endeavors to create.  Through my research I’ve learn that this process is similar to Lectio Divina.  So maybe this art process could be called artem divina and help my sisters to have a deeper spiritual practice.

Artboard 1While this piece was done using Adobe Illustration, we’ll be using traditional media at the retreat.  The process will have the artists hide a word within their mandala.  One that they could use as their focus for later contemplation or meditation.  I’ve chosen to use the word holy and hope the Spirit reaches out from the design to touch those who gaze upon it.
As I developed this design I realized that the Holy Spirit  is the lattice that supports our growth as we become more fully engaged with the world and God. May it help you with your own journey.


Christmas Mandala


What a glorious day!

A good service at church about letting one’s light shine in a world that can look so gloomy and dark.  It was a call to step up and be, as Gandhi said,  “the change you want to see.”

From church to a friends house for a pot luck with my theater buddies.  Breaking bread and sharing wine as a group is an echo of the Eucharist.  When we meet with love, I know God is always there.

And now back home to put the final touches on this Christmas mandala that I hope sends a light out to everyone .

This was my year to learn the history of the poinsettia and it’s symbolism as it relates to Christianity.  I’ve always just thought of them as the Christmas flower. It’s great to know now that the five points leaves symbolize the Star of David and the blood of Christ.  It’s a symbol that pulls the old and new thoughts of God together into a flower that seems to burst upon the season with all the hope this holiday is about.


IMG_4746To work tight or lose?

This is always a tough decision for me.  I’m strongly attached to painting details.  They say God is in the details. They also say God loves diversity.  So for this work I loosened up and let go of trying to capture very detail before me. Even my rendering of the hydrangeas is a bit of a fantasy. While I’m close to finishing,  I’m facing a tough time of pulling it all together while keeping it loose.

Isn’t that, too, a face of a God that likes diversity?  He is somewhere in between and yet all encompassing; a continuous flow and in the moment, oh, so specific.


That is how it has been to work on this painting, moving between just letting go and focusing.

I’ve been listening to Billy Joel in the studio .  His rock and roll helps my brush dancing across the canvas, and his song, with the lines
You maybe right
I may be crazy
Oh, but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for

somehow fits with this working dichotomy.   It feels right and crazy all at the same time.

One of my favorite songs of Bill Joel’s is And So It Goes,  a soothing and at the same time sad tune.  It begins with the lines

In every heart there is a room
A sanctuary safe and strong
To heal the wounds from lovers past
Until a new one come along

I hope the person I’m creating the painting for feels the a bit the beat of Joel’s rock and roll and at the same time finds a refuge, a place to rest at the end of her day.

Life and rest.
God in between and all around.


Her Picture Is Complete


Thanks to everyone who participated with the the creation of this painting to honor Stephanie Wagner.  I hope it conveys something about her interests and personality.  Parts are a symbolic prayer for her that her next life is brighter  and feels her with unending joy.

Stephanie Wagner

This is an update on the progress being made on the painting to honor Stephanie.

Thank you Cherie and Kate for your remembrances. Cherie, some of yours have already been added. More will be added.  Kate, I’ll start on yours soon.

If you’re not sure what this about, read below for an explanation.  I hope to hear from more Stephanie’s friends.


A couple of days ago I learned that my friend and co-worker Stephanie Wagner had passed away.  She was a unique person who put all her effort into teaching her special education students.  To say that she had a hard, personal life is an understatement.  It was the type of life that causes one to think, “There, but by the grace of God, go I.”  With all her troubles, Stephanie kept the best part of herself for her students.  No matter how low life took her, her biggest joy was making her students know that they could do more with their lives than what the education system, fellow friends and students, and even parents, thought. Stephanie help her students excel.

If you are one of her co-workers, past student or friend and are are reading this, please help me memorialize her through a painting I’m just beginning.  Stephanie loved the quirky and macabre.  IMG_4323She loved to read and go to the movies.  Her favorite teaching activity was taking her students on a field trip to San Francisco to Comic Con.  Stephanie was a big fan of Kickstarter and donated a lot to support artists on that crowd sourcing site.  If you know of any imagery, movies, books, artists, comic and graphic novel characters or details of her life that would help me continue my painting, please email your thoughts to me.  I’ve started this Day of the Dead image yesterday.  I know she enjoyed this type of work.  Please help me fill it with details about Stephanie.  There is room on the clothing, clouds, sky, books, and border to add imagery about her likes and life.  Please share.