I Had Doubts about Drawing My Book Cover

The book cover and the original oil pastel on the desk I made.

My new book, Creative Renewal: An Invitation to Start Making Stuff and to Stop Clicking Stuff, is now available as a Kindle eBook ($.99 during its release this week) and paperback. To celebrate its release, I’m sharing part of a chapter about my high-stakes aim to design my own cover.


I wanted to walk the talk of this book by creating my cover, ideally using oil pastels. It felt like a high-risk, high reward way to introduce readers to this book and embody what creative renewal could be in practice.

I’ve invested a good bit of time into oil pastels, and they have fast become a favorite activity in the evening, on the weekend, or on vacation. I’ve never been able to find formal instruction in our town and would never consider myself professional. Oil pastels are just a much-loved hobby for me right now that brings a lot of joy into my life.

Putting one of my works on the front cover isn’t a declaration that I’ve arrived as a professional artist. It’s an affirmation that I take my creative practices seriously, and I hope you can do the same. Putting a piece of art on the cover that I created as a hobby highlights the work I’ve put into a part of my life that falls under the “leisure” category.

Of course, once I committed to such a project, I was overcome with doubts. My family usually sees most of my works, and the general public can check out a few dozen on social media. In my early days with oil pastels, I put some of my “better” drawings on social media and later regretted putting such terrible works up. Putting one of my projects on the cover felt like a big step and commitment.

Even more perplexing, I’ve been trying to shift toward more impressionistic oil pastel landscapes. It’s tricky to blend the colors just right to get some of those oil painting effects, textures, and color blends.

There’s always a temptation to bind myself to only the colors I can see on the reference photo instead of venturing into a broader range of shades. Veering into more splashy blends of colors that build up on the paper or expanding the color and value range feels like I could be venturing into a disaster of splattered colors.

As is typical for landscapes, I first laid down a rough outline of the basic features, including the clouds, trees, and river, including a few rocks in the foreground that I positioned a bit more in a prominent position. Then I filled in the sky and clouds to get them as close to finished as possible, alternating between a light gray and dark blue shade for the darker shadows. I’m not an expert at clouds, but they turned out well enough. The real challenge awaited along the line of trees.

Trees can perplex me because they often have vibrant colors popping out of them, but they’ll look like a mangled mass of dots or lumps if I don’t get the shadows around those colors just right. I’ve done plenty of oil pastel tutorials where the instructors filled in the different shades of their trees, and though I’d followed their every stroke carefully, their results couldn’t have been further from my own.

When it comes to oil pastels, some of the lighter colors have a hard time standing out when placed on top of the darker ones. That means it’s often ideal to start a tree with the lighter colors first. Even the brightest red or orange tree in a subject photo isn’t purely red or orange. There may be shades of yellow or even a hint of green as the leaves shift from summer to fall.

Drawing lines of trees with oil pastels is where precision goes to die, and more impressionistic representations of reality kick in. Danger lurks in such detailed tree lines, and I often imagined dropping my oil pastel into the trash can.

I gave myself one shot at the cover. Whatever happened would happen. I’m an amateur oil pastel artist who pursues a weekend hobby. I’m not issuing a rallying call for creating professional artwork for sale in galleries. I’m just a guy who loves creative projects and encourages others to give them a shot because I’ve found them beneficial and restorative.

Having an amateur bit of artwork on the cover is the point, but I didn’t want it to look like hot garbage. I poured over that glowing tree line, mixing in shades of yellow, orange, red, burgundy, green, and brown. Each bright tree stood out on its own before I dared to fill in anything darker around it or add shades to the branches and clumps of leaves.

Once I felt safe with the trees, I had to figure out the rocks and water. There’s a lot of dark purple mixed into the swirling bits of water and rocks as I tried to give the foreground a bit of depth and texture. The dark grey of the stones started to dominate, so I layered like crazy to soften those dark smudges. Of course, some shaded bits called for dark gray blobs, so I had to add lumps of dark gray without making them “look” like dark gray smudges.

When I was pretty close to being done, I sheepishly brought the drawing down to my wife for critique. I can trust her to be honest or at least praise the tiny little bits that are good—which is code for the rest of it looking like hot garbage.

“Oh!” she said as if shocked that I could have done this drawing.

“Look at those rocks! They really look like rocks in the water!”

She was very clearly surprised, and she couldn’t hide it in the moment. Apparently, it helped to take my time on this. The pure terror of putting this drawing on the book cover “no matter what” helped me do a better job on that oil pastel. It certainly eclipsed the absolute disasters I’d made in the previous weeks. 

The more I think about giving an oil pastel drawing to someone or displaying it on something like a book cover, the harder it is to decide when it’s “done.” If I’m making something to hang up in my office for a little while, it’s not a big deal to find a tiny dot of paper that I hadn’t fully covered with pastel. But my gosh, if the oil pastel is for someone else, I practically stick my nose on the paper to make sure every stroke is PERFECT.

Well, maybe not perfect. Impressionistic oil pastels make “perfect” hard to nail down. I just want things to look like they belong and don’t look out of place.

The higher the stakes, the harder it is to finish something. Sometimes I’ll just leave a lineup of supposedly done oil pastels on a shelf in my office so I can tinker with them a bit should something stand out.

Once I stick this oil pastel drawing on the cover of my book, there’s no tinkering. Dabbing oil pastels on a matte book cover isn’t going to work out great.

My one comfort as an independent author is that many people will likely purchase this book on Kindle, so they’ll only see a tiny black and white postage-stamp-sized version of this cover. That’s one medium where I’m sure my limited oil pastel hobby abilities can thrive.

The joy of creativity is for everyone.

Creative Renewal helps you move past the fears and doubts that block your creative hopes and dreams, inviting you to explore your creative interests and unleash your creative expressions.

It’s on sale for release week!

How Can We Get Better at Resting?

If you had asked me what I did for breaks about six or seven years ago, I likely would have mentioned using my smartphone or tablet to check social media or to read articles. I even used phrases like, “I’m taking a break on social media” for many years.

That is, I wasn’t taking a break from social media on those occasions. I was taking a break from working on my computer and switching to social media for all of my break.

I swapped one screen for another. Then, fear, anger, anxiety, or despair rushed through my mind as I scrolled down further and further or clicked through one article and then another.

What did I want during these social media “breaks”? I have no clue.

If I was looking for a bit of relaxation, peace, or rest, I wasn’t finding it through the apps on my phone. I suspect that it was so hard to stop swiping and scrolling because I hadn’t found whatever I was craving.

Words like restoration and renewal come pretty close to what I’m after when I take a break. I want to feel better and to have enough stamina to finish what I’m doing that day, whether that’s working on a writing project or caring for my kids.

Does scrolling through news stories or social media posts bring renewal?

I may leave some of that scrolling with more information, but there’s a good chance I’m going to feel worse. Even if I break even with a little more information and no additional sadness, I rarely feel “better.”

Using my phone isn’t a break. Reading the news isn’t a break. Those things are fine by themselves. We should seek to be informed about the world, educated about the challenges of our times, and connected with people who are important to us.

Connection on social media is not a bad thing at all. However, that digital form of connection is rarely restful or restorative.

There is a major difference between the quality of the rest I have while working on an art or woodworking project and the “rest” of scrolling through social media or news stories that often leave me emotional and distracted.

Benefitting from the Most Basic Creative Act

It’s not going too far to say that scribbling on some paper for fifteen minutes, balling it up, and throwing it in a trash can is more restful than spending fifteen minutes scrolling through social media.

Follow along with the absurdity of this for a moment.

If you’re going to scribble on a piece of paper, you need to figure out a few things that could make it somewhat interesting:

  • What kind of paper will you scribble on?
  • What will you scribble with? Pen? Pencil? Marker?
  • Will you scribble on only one piece of paper or several?
  • How will you dispose of your scribbled paper? Will you ball it up rapidly or fold it into a particular design?
  • Will you walk across the room to the trash can and drop it in, or will you take a basketball-style shot from far away?

That list of options is absurd, but it shows how many possibilities emerge when you commit yourself to even the most basic creative act with pencil and paper.

Imagine how much better your break could be if you tried a creative project that you really love?

We Need to Be Told to Rest

It’s telling that God had to command his people to rest as one of the Ten Commandments. Whatever you think of the Old Testament laws, the command for Sabbath rest is a win for humanity.

If God knows us best as the Creator of the world, then God’s command for rest at least one day per week strikes me as worth noting. God knew we’d be bad at resting, so we needed to be told exactly what to do with our time on one day-a-week.

I wouldn’t be so bold as telling you to rest right now. That’s not my place.

Yet, I can tell you that I know I’ve been quite bad as resting and taking breaks. I’ve needed to remember that the Sabbath is a command because I’d otherwise push myself to keep working or keeping my mind busy regardless of how bad it is for me.

Since I’m not an all-knowing deity, it’s far more constructive to share an invitation to rest with others. If I’m invited to rest, then I have an opportunity to consider enjoying something that may be good for me.

If I reject on an opportunity to rest, then I should evaluate my reasons and consider whether they’re valid. I’m more likely to find an invitation appealing because I’m being invited to do something I may enjoy or find beneficial.

Invitations are usually good. We receive invitations to parties, for instance, and most of us like parties—provided we like the people at the party.

My latest book frames rest and renewal as an invitation. I share how creative projects like art and woodworking became sources of restoration that have delivered many more benefits than I could hope to gain from the same old, same old on social media.

I still read the news and connect with people in limited ways on social media, but I’ve tried to cut distractions out of my time dedicated to rest and renewal. I share about the ways I have made more space for creativity throughout my day in my latest book:

Creative Renewal: An Invitation to Make Stuff and to Stop Clicking Stuff is on sale for $.99 on Kindle right now leading up to its release on May 17th.

There’s a good chance you may need to read how I overcame my resistance to creativity and found real joy and love for artistic pursuits that I never would have tried before. You may even like trying some of the creative projects I’ve enjoyed.

You‘re invited to make more space for rest and renewal, and creativity may be one of the best ways to actively make inner restoration a reality.

Creativity has been good for my soul, and it can be for you as well.


Learn More about Creative Renewal

Creative Renewal releases on May 17, 2022.

It’s on sale for $.99 on Kindle during pre-orders. Learn more about it here.



This Is Going to Be Terrible: How I Embraced Offline Creativity

In 2017, my bouts with anxiety hit a major tipping point in my life. Something had to change, and so I looked at how I could improve my recreation time, among other areas of my life that included my adding to my spiritual practices and reducing my social media use.

As a writer and avid reader, my life had been wrapped up in words–reading them and writing them. I realized that while I have gardened in the past, I haven’t really “made” things very often.

Creating things offline especially appealed as a recreation alternative to the drag of social media that had a way of capturing my attention and then flooding my mind with thoughts that remained long after I’d put my phone down… although my phone was never very far away or left down for long back then.

My mind needed more free space and some kind of outlet that could engage it in a constructive way that didn’t require writing or even thinking deeply.

I could screw some boards together to make a raised bed, and I could strum chords on my guitar like any kid who grew up in the 1990’s, but there wasn’t anything I could make in my free time that was remotely close to being considered “art” or “creative.”

I had no idea where to begin, so I went cheap, picking up some charcoal pencils and a spiral bound drawing book. Sitting down at a local coffee shop, I stared at the blank page in a state of despair.

What do people draw?

The blank page had been a welcome space of opportunity for me as a writer. Now, it was more like a wall–a rather flat wall but a wall nonetheless.

I had brought Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander along in my newly relegated “art bag,” and turned to it for inspiration out of desperation.

Merton was a bit of an artist in whatever spare time he scraped together when he wasn’t writing books, writing letters, complaining that he only had time to write books and letters, and arranging scandalous outings with a nurse from Louisville. He had painted the image used on the cover , a school of fish swirling in a variety of directions.

I still have no idea what a bunch of wiggling fish has to do with a monk feeling guilty about all of the troubling stuff going on in a world that appeared to be on the brink of nuclear war and the dehumanizing shifts brought by technology, but I’ll give Merton a pass here. Regardless of the meaning of the fish, I doodled the fish with my charcoal pencils.

It wasn’t very good, but the fish were simple enough that a few appeared to be passable–maybe two or three out of sixteen or seventeen.

When I started sharpening the charcoal pencils, I promptly broke off the tips.

My Art Was Terrible at First

That was a pretty terrible start to my pursuit of art and creativity in general. I made some horrible drawings back then. Honestly, I’m still pretty below average when it comes to drawing or sketching or just moving a pencil in a straight line. I moved from the precision of pencils to the impressionistic palette of oil pastels.

My wife thought that I would enjoy trying out oil pastels, not realizing that I’d secretly been fascinated by them since my days working at an art center as the volunteer coordinator. The oil pastel landscapes of artist Penny Viscusi had always been my favorites during exhibitions.

It never occurred to me that I could try making them myself until my wife gave me a set of oil pastels for my birthday.

And gosh, those first few attempts at oil pastel landscapes were horrendous.  They weren’t even close to being acceptable for an elementary school art contest.

But it still counted that I got started, even if I cringed over those splotchy, dreadful landscapes, just as I cringed over my charcoal fish a few years earlier.

Starting out terrible was really hard to accept. I couldn’t even relax at first. I thought that art was supposed to be this therapeutic activity, but I just cringed and gritted my teeth most days.

I know that a lot folks fear making horrible art or creative projects when they begin. That fear is real, but it’s something that you can bear, much like a first time author has to face an editor or agent’s rejection letter.

My terrible art work was even more terrible than I thought it would be.

Over time I watched instructional videos, learned to observe landscapes better, asked anyone I could for a critique, and kept practicing a little at a time.

I began to relax a little more, to observe the world around me a bit differently, and to establish oil pastels as one of my go-to recreation activities. It’s usually far more beneficial for my mental and spiritual well-being than anything I can do while doom scrolling social media or plopping in front of a show.

My Artwork Is Still Kind of Terrible

One of my latest oil pastel paintings has a lot of detail invested in some sand dunes. I really sweated over the tall grass in the dunes. When I reasoned that I could do nothing else to improve them, I was pretty sure they were garbage.

When my wife saw it, she thought the dunes looked pretty good. Then she pointed to the horizon line of the ocean.

In case this is news to you, the horizon is more or less a straight line. If there’s a curve to the horizon, you’re not going to see it while sitting on the beach. It’s going to be super duper straight in real life.

Whoops.

My horizon had a gentle but perceptible arch downward as it reached the edge of the page. You can see the painting at the top of this post.

I find mistakes like this all of the time in my paintings. These are not gallery worthy works even after a few years of practice with a bunch of YouTube tutorials under my belt.

Living with those mistakes is a lot easier these days because I can see that I’ve still made progress. Even with the terrible stuff at the beginning and the glaring mistakes I still make, it feels really good to make stuff.

I didn’t really know how good it would feel to create things with my hands. Taking a bit of paper and some color to replicate the look and feel of a scene in nature grounds me in the moment. It’s like I’m asking myself, “Are you REALLY paying attention right now?”

When I drive anywhere or sit in a new spot, I tend to look at trees, grass, or even a freshly plowed field and ponder how I’d paint it. How much brown and green would I use? Would I use a dark blue for the shadow? How would I blend in some shades of yellow to show highlights?

That sure feels a lot more constructive than other things I used to do in my free time. … Scroll … Scroll … Tap … Scroll … Scroll … Tap.

Everyone Pays the Same Price to Create

The price of growing in creativity seems to be making terrible stuff at first.

My early writing was terrible. My early art was terrible and has only gotten better in tiny increments.

In the moment, it is kind of humiliating. I remember wondering if it was even worth it, doubting myself and worrying that I was just making myself feel worse!

I’m glad I stuck with it. I kept experimenting and just settled on the kind of creative projects that drew me in and spoke to me.

Even if you won’t see my art in a gallery, I have a new creative practice where I feel somewhat at home. This is my space where I can safely make stuff, even if there surely are plenty of people in the world making better art.

Comparison is a creativity killer.

While painting on the beach with my family last week, a woman walked by with her family and noticed my work in progress. She suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, beautiful!”

I wasn’t super impressed with my work right at that moment, so her comment really jarred me. It mattered to her right then that I was capturing the scene in front of us, and that meant a lot to me.

Even more importantly, I heard her conversation as she walked away, “I’ve always wanted to learn how to paint.”

I thought about going over to her and saying, “You know, there are plenty of tutorials on YouTube. There’s no reason why you can’t start tomorrow.”

I didn’t want to be awkward and sound like some sage because I’m just a guy messing around with some oil pastels, so I stayed put.

Also? Introvert.

But I can imagine what she would say because I’ve heard it plenty.

“Oh, if I tried that, my art would be terrible.”

I can also imagine myself replying, “Well yeah. My stuff was really terrible at first, but I did get better. And it got a lot more fun when I got better.”

Making terrible stuff is not a lot of fun, but I’m so grateful that I stuck with it.

I’m sure there are some people who can pick up artistic stuff faster than others. Yet, almost all of us are held back by the fear of making something terrible.

I made terrible stuff. It felt pretty bad. But then I learned some more, practiced, and now I really, really enjoy my creative work. On the other side of that day in the cafe with my charcoal pencils, the terrible stuff was well worth it.

And if you ever ask to see my terrible stuff, I guarantee you that I’ll just laugh awkwardly and ask what in the world you could be talking about.