Watercoloring Was the Surprising Self-Care Ritual That Got Me Through 2020


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I’m a natural-born busy body. Ever since I can remember, I loved to fill my calendar with events, day trips, and dinner dates with friends. I’m eager to take on new work and projects. And, for the past few years, my travel schedule could rival George Clooney’s from Up in The Air. Relaxing isn’t exactly my forte, but when I do get some chill time, it usually consists of me dozing off in front of my television.

But then, the pandemic hit and everything changed. The budding social calendar my boyfriend and I had in our new city, San Francisco, evaporated into thin air. Work suddenly shriveled up. And I could kiss any plans to see my friends and family on the East Coast goodbye. Suddenly, I had more free time than I had in years—and I didn’t know what to do with any of it. All that free time couldn’t be filled with compulsively disinfecting everything in my house, stress-reading the news, or a mid-Netflix nap. Trust me, I tried.

I’ve been fortunate to add a lot of self-care rituals to my 2020 routine: cooking, exercising, and going for walks with my boyfriend, which helped make this year feel more bearable. But, the one self-care routine that took me by surprise was watercolor painting.

Suddenly, I had more free time than I had in years—and I didn’t know what to do with any of it.

When we moved into our San Francisco apartment about a year ago, my boyfriend thought it’d be fun to create our own artwork. So, he bought brushes, a bunch of paint, and, of course, an easel. I never touched our art supplies before but, once quarantine rolled around, I was painting my emotions onto a large canvas: an abstract piece I called “Broken” and an ombré creation aptly named “Light at the End of Tunnel” were some highlights.

At my first virtual gallery showing—AKA, FaceTiming my parents—my mom recommended I give watercoloring a try. After buying all my supplies and freehanding a few lilac bunches, watercoloring not only became a fun weekend pastime, but something I needed to get me through a strange time.

Watercolor of flowers.

Courtesy of Kelsey Mulvey

Before 2020 became, well, 2020, I rarely carved out time for myself. My schedule would be filled with work, social plans, more work, travel, more social plans, work, more travel. And while I loved and genuinely miss my pre-pandemic life, I never took much time to give myself some TLC. Even when I was traveling, I’d spend my plane rides drafting up emails.

Watercoloring is different. There’s no agenda, deadline, or time limit. I could bust out my materials (brushes, paint, and my go-to notebook), listen to a great podcast, be it “1619” or anything true crime, and paint whatever I wanted.

For a few, glorious hours each weekend, I can temporarily drift away to an alternate universe, where I’m not hustling to find new work or fantasizing about a world where we could actually do things and see people, where masks, hand sanitizers, and stress-reading the news were not top of mind. A world where I could just be with my supplies and whatever I wanted to create. Unlike painting on a big canvas, I didn’t feel the pressure to create something perfect. Plus, my watercolor flowers and patterns are considerably happier than my moody abstract pieces.

When I am having a good watercoloring day, I’ll paint some doodles on blank notecards and send them to my family and friends. (I’m no Kahlo or O’Keefe, but I’ve received some compliments). But, no matter how my watercolor pieces turn out, I wrap up my sessions with something beautiful: the joy of taking time for myself and slowing down.

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