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  • Writer's pictureJanet Federico

Four Lessons From a Perpetual Novice

A silhouette of a woman with a crown of sunflowers
A Queen and Her Crown by Janet Federico

I wept after creating my first original composition. It was simple. A silhouette of a woman’s face in profile, a crown of sunflowers on her head. I painted it with ink and watercolor on my iPad. My Apple Pencil shook a little as I finished the last leaf. I set my pencil down and wept. Not ugly crying.  No boogers or snot, but tears flowed as I looked at what I had created. 

This may seem a dramatic reaction, but I’d been told throughout my life that I had no artistic talent. Eventually, when fighting against the tide overwhelmed me, I too began to believe that I had no talent. I stopped drawing. I began to say things like “I can’t draw a stick figure” or “I don’t have an artistic bone in my body,” when in reality I just couldn’t face the crushing disappointment that I’d experienced every time I drew something only to be told it was no good by the people closest to me. 

Other than doodles and small drawings for my daughter, I didn’t pick up a pen to do anything other than write again until 2016. I had just been diagnosed with Complex PTSD and I was suffering from debilitating symptoms. My therapist recommended meditation, but my hyper-vigilance was so pervasive I couldn’t even sit in the safety of my own home and close my eyes for more than a few seconds unless I was asleep. I felt at my wit’s end. 

A few weeks later, I found myself at Michaels. It was the holiday season and I was shopping for my youngest bonus daughter who had requested art supplies. As I walked down the aisle, I was filled with longing as I always was anytime I was near the rainbow of acrylic paints in their tubes, the brushes in their various shapes and sizes, the scent of ink and paper with just a hint of glue as you walk down the sketchbook aisle. It’s a distinct aroma second only to the smell of a bookstore in the list of scents I adore. I had all of my bonus child’s gifts in the basket when I was arrested by the sight of an end cap full of Zentangle supplies. 

The abstract patterns and colorful signage dazzled me. I picked up the book on the top shelf and thumbed through it. Created by Rick and Maria Thomas, the Zentangle method promised meditation-like benefits and a finished work of art with no talent needed. I bought everything: tiles, pens, blenders, and the book. It still took months before I was willing to even try. The thought of being disappointed by the result was more than I was ready to face. 

Six months later, with all those lovely supplies glaring at me from my desk day after day, I finally put pen to paper. It had been a very bad day. It was the anniversary of one of the worst days of my life and the flashbacks and intrusive thoughts had been overwhelming. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t focus and I felt very close to losing it. I was ricocheting around my house trying to stay ahead of the crushing depression I felt descending when I saw the Zentangle supplies as yet unused. Desperate, I decided I had nothing to lose and I, finally, set pen to paper.

Almost two hours later, I completed my first ever Zentangle and realized that I hadn’t thought about anything else the entire time. For 120 minutes my entire world had narrowed down to my pen as it made clean, clear dark lines across the textured ivory of the watercolor paper tile. The light scritch of the pen moving across the paper was the only sound my ears absorbed. I had lost myself in the art. It was profound. It was world-shifting. For those two hours, the crushing sense of hopelessness receded.  I had found peace.

Abstract Zentangle Art
The first Zentangle

I also became a novice at forty-four. I was an expert at many things by then. I have a diamond education and am considered an expert on diamond knowledge and diamond grading. I have over two decades of experience in web design and technology. I have written and published eight novels. But, when it came to art - in any form - I had abandoned all education when I was eight years old. I had no idea how to proceed. I also still believed I would never progress beyond the lines and circles that make up Zentangle practice. 

For the next three years, I did tutorials on Zentangle. I bought books and kits. I made many, many tiles. I wanted more but I doubted my ability to create anything that went beyond a line, a circle, or an S-shape. Then lockdown hit. 

Like so many, I had more time to fill than I knew what to do with. I was dissatisfied with my Zentangle practice. My fingers itched with the compulsion to draw something more complex. Then, during a Zoom therapy session, I made a connection that changed everything. My perfectionism was a trauma response. From childhood, I had felt the need to be “perfect” to avoid the consequences that came when I was anything less. My entire life had been spent in pursuit of an ideal that I couldn’t reach, and that had never kept me safe anyway. In the face of that, I made a decision. I was going to seek out teachers and I was going to allow my expression, however it came on the page, to be sufficient.

That is so much easier said than done. It’s another three years later and I still fall down the well of perfectionism and comparison from time to time, but along the way I’ve learned some very important lessons.

Become a perpetual novice

Seeking out teachers to learn art was a profound mind shift that seems so rudimentary when I think about it now. My perfectionism was paralyzing. In my mind, if I couldn’t produce a realistic flower the first time I put pen to paper, then there was no point. It took many failed efforts for me to realize I needed to lighten the hell up! I seriously had to sit down and write out all the reasons why I was being ridiculous. How no one begins a new skill with perfect execution. How I was going to have to open my mind up and be willing to learn.  

Around that time, I was given a book of sayings by Bruce Lee, whose writings I had studied for years, and I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from him, “Research your experience, absorb what’s useful, discard what’s useless, add what’s uniquely yours.”  I find myself returning to this mantra again and again when life forces me to pivot, so I donned his words like a cloak once more and finally began to learn how to draw.

Finding a Good Teacher is a lot like Dating

There are a LOT of teachers out there. Pick any skill and you’ll find endless tutorials that promise you instant results. I have gone through dozens of them myself. What I found out very quickly is that - much like dating -  you’re going to go through a lot of them before you find one that works for you. I lost count of the number of classes I took the first year that I spent learning to draw. I cycled through all the big names and the lesser-known until I found the teachers whose style (and quite frankly voice) worked for me. My favorites are Mandy Corcoran, Jennifer Nichols, Carrie Cantwell, Lisa Glanz, and Chanel Ly. Each of these teachers explains things clearly and succinctly, breaks their content up well, offers excellent resources, and has a voice I can listen to. It’s a thing, seriously. If you’ve ever tried to listen to an audiobook with a terrible narrator, you know. A teacher whose voice is irritating or hard to listen to can ruin the experience. 

The Right Brushes Make a HUGE difference 

Even as I was learning to draw, I felt limited by my tools. I adopted digital art rather than traditional mediums more from a practical standpoint. Traditional art is costly and traveling with supplies is cumbersome and tedious. With my iPad, I have an endless well of art supplies at my fingertips. However, I realized quickly how difficult it can be to find your voice and your style until you find (or make) the bushes that let your artistic voice fly. 

For me, that moment came when I purchased Lisa Glanz’s Aqua Real Watercolor Brush set. It was like something unlocked inside me and I suddenly saw my artistic style forming in front of me. It was with these brushes that I created my Frenchie painting. At that moment, my painting style was born and I knew in my heart I was an artist. Since then I’ve found other brush sets I adore:

Lisa Glanz: Anything she puts out

Jennifer Nichols: Posca/Micron brushes

Olga Rom: Amazing Markers (especially her Mechanical Pencil)

Nico Ng: Ultimate Lettering Brush Set

Ouss Mezher: Pattern Template Kit

Art is a Practice, not a destination 

The most important lesson I’ve learned over my artistic journey is that art is a practice, not a destination. Every time I think I’ve settled into a “way” of doing something, I see a tip, reel, or tutorial that once again proves that there is always something more to learn. Unlike before, when I saw not knowing something as inherently dangerous, I now see that continuous learning is how we expand our artist’s skillset and add nuance and flavor to the art we create. Three years ago, I couldn’t have imagined working in any other medium than digital art. Now, I flow between digital art, traditional watercolor, hand-bound books, and lettering. I can draw in sketchpads and on my iPad. I routinely experiment with new styles and ways of doing things. I have embraced the beauty and necessity of play in my art and know intrinsically that the only way to continue to grow is to be willing to start over again and again. 

Signature image reading Until next time, Janet


Janet Federico, MBA, MFA is a licensed artist, award-winning author, trauma educator, and speaker from Washington, DC now based in the Midwest. Her art has been exhibited at the Wichita Art Museum, the Wilson K. Cadman Art Gallery, City Arts, and InterUrban Art House. Janet’s writing has been featured in Elephant Journal, Writer’s Digest, and The Mighty. Want more? Get Janet in your inbox.


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