A conversation with artist Deanna Strachan-Wilson

Watercolor Portrait by Deanna Strachan Wilson

Deanna is one of our favorite artists! Her stunning, evocative and playful style of portraiture is as unique as she is. We couldn't be more thrilled to host Deanna's Sage Shapes workshop this September, with 2 full days of art instruction and 3 nights accommodation at the Homestead.

For those of you who missed our Instagram Live conversation with Deanna about how art helps her create balance and find rest and why beginners don't need to be intimidated by portraiture, here's a snapshot of our interview. 


How did you get into making art?

My dad is a creative.  He taught me to draw, write, and play piano.  I lived in my heart a lot when I was a child.  I colored.  I wrote poems.  In high school, I drew cartoons for the school paper and designed the covers of programs for our choir programs.  I was also the accompanist for our choirs.  As a young adult, I discovered scrapbooking and stamping.  I loved working with the papers, coloring the stamps, and creating a design to give to someone.  It was so fun to see someone’s face light up when they received something made expressly for them.

I got away from creating for a good portion of my adult life.  My time was spent in the outdoors rock climbing and mountaineering.  I still did scrapbooking of my adventures but even that died off eventually.  In 2013, I discovered Tamara Laporte’s Life Book which is about getting in touch with yourself through art.  This was my foray back into creating.  This class introduced me to a variety of art mediums and because it wasn’t an “academic” class, there was no pressure to be perfect.  That wasn’t what it was about.  For me, it was about getting out of my head and into my heart.  I was hooked!

Fast forward to 2023, I’ve taken a variety of classes to discover what mediums I prefer and to figure out “what the heck am I doing” with art.  I have found a love for watercolors and other water soluble materials like pencils, crayons, watercolor ground, ink, and charcoal.  I still love paper so I’m often adding pattern or text to help create layers and interest.  I don’t love everything that I create but I really love the “making” of it.  The making and the sharing with others is what it’s about for me.

Watercolor painting by Deanna Strachan Wilson

How does your art complement or balance your full time work life?

Oh my.  My full-time job definitely gets in the way of everything else I want to do.  I supervise three programs and 20 employees where we help people find jobs and housing.  It can be very stressful as some individuals we work with are really struggling and it can be hard to watch.  It can also be very rewarding to see someone become re-employed and re-housed.

Creating helps me focus.  It quiets my mind and connects me to my heart.  I don’t necessarily paint “happy” or “pretty”.  I can, but typically, my paintings have a bit of attitude or some deep expression.  I’m extremely empathetic and take on the energy of others.  Creating helps me put these emotions on paper.  It’s time just for me, to do what I want, say what I want, feel what I want with no input from the world around me.  It’s healing.

If someone is intimidated by portrait and watercolor how would you remove the stigma that it’s not something “everyone” can do and introduce your technique to a beginner?

Drawing and painting is a skill just like tying your shoes, driving a car, learning a sport.  It may come easier for some perhaps, but I guarantee even for those, there is learning involved.  We only improve through practice.  The more we practice, the easier it becomes.  I have to love the “making”.  For me, it can’t be all about the outcome.  Yes, I want to produce something amazing every time, but I also have to be willing to learn and grow which means not everything is going to turn out great.  I don’t have academic training.  I took classes I wanted to take, tried different things, looked at some academic books or tutorials, talked with other artists.  I create a more stylized portrait rather than realistic.  I look for shapes in the face, the expression, am I “feeling” this reference?  If you find a medium that you love, that feels good in your hands and your heart connects with it, then practice, practice, practice.  Be willing to be frustrated, cry, rip it up, and start again.  It’s just paper. 

In my class, I will demonstrate my method of applying watercolor ground to the paper first.  This prevents a bit of a barrier between the paint and the paper.  It allows you to come back and remove or lift off some of the paint that you didn’t like.  I also work in layers and gradually build up to more saturated color.  This also aids in placing paint where you want it, layering over colors to create depth.  Less is more.

Can you share any tips for artists trying to find time to create an art practice?

First, figure out what’s getting in the way.  Do you feel guilty for spending that time creating because you think you should be doing something else?  Are you tired?  Do you have the tools, equipment, and supplies you need to create?

For me, I need to be able to see what I’m working on regularly.  I used to have my art in a building in the backyard.  I thought having my own dedicated space out there would be great.  I found that I never went out there and then I wasn’t creating anything.  During COVID shutdown, I moved everything into a room in our house.  I wanted to be where the life was, with my husband, and cats.  It’s warm, cozy, and it’s still my dedicated space.  I can come in anytime I want and touch it, look at it, think about it.  I need to have access to it all of the time.  I tell my husband when I need a good chunk of time to create something.  We need to ask for it or let our families know we need the time.  It’s doing something for yourself that is caring, healing, nurturing.  That will translate back to our families, friends, community.

Many portrait artists, perhaps inadvertently, use themselves as a muse - are your portraits self portraits? Or how do you see yourself through your work?

My portraits are not self-portraits.  I do not find myself inspiring, ha ha.  My high school art instructor did say that we paint ourselves into our work.  For me, I think it’s the emotional aspect.  I usually choose a reference photo that is expresses a certain emotion.  I mentioned attitude earlier.  I tend to paint a sort of “you can’t hurt me” attitude or “I got this”.   Sometimes my paintings are sad or grieving and I think that comes out because of what is happening in the world around us or often with the people I come across where I work.  Definitely, I see my emotions in my work.

Where do you find inspiration for your portraits?

I love scrolling Pinterest for ideas.  I have thousands of pins.  When I was young, I used bulletin boards and pinned magazines images to my board.  Pinterest is definitely like that for me.  I try to find royalty free images because I will sell pieces.  Unsplash and Museum have been good for that.  I will also use computer apps to manipulate images and put someone’s head on a different body.  I like faces with big features, big eyes, nose, lips.  I also follow a variety of artists for other ideas and inspiration.  We cannot do this work alone.  We need each other.

Deanna Strachan-Wilson portrait sketch


How do you convey so much emotion through your work?

I think a couple of ways.  First, I need to be in touch with my heart space.  If I’m in my head, drawing will feel forced, the whole process will feel clunky and uncomfortable.  It’s important to know that some days are going to be clunky.  Sometimes there are seasons of clunky.  I think that is when a growth spurt is coming and I just have to keep practicing.  I try to do things to get into my heart space like spend time with my husband, go for a walk, clean my house, declutter.  The less that is on my mind, the more space I have to create.

Second, technically, I think emotion is in the eyes and the angle of the head.  I try to pick poses where the face is not entirely forward facing.  With the head tilted up and eyes up or eyes looking down, that will give the viewer a different feeling.  A ¾ turn of the head with a sideways glance gives the viewer a certain feeling.  Think about what you want the viewer to see or feel, what are you feeling, and work toward that.

Deanna Strachan-Wilson watercolor collage art


We’ve been spending a lot of time thinking and dreaming about art community and what that means. How do you cultivate community through your work and why is human interaction so important to your process?

Personally, I’ve connected with my creative community in two ways:  Instagram and art classes.  On Instagram, I follow artists who inspire me, artists I can ask questions of, share ideas, etc.  It is also my platform to share with and offer inspiration to others.  It’s a broader connection.  

By participating in art classes, whether teaching or taking, groups become a bit more intimate.  For me, teaching is about seeing the student have the “aha” moment, something clicks for them.  I’m very relaxed in my teaching.  I often tell myself “it’s okay” when I’m not happy with something along the way.  I share that with my students.  It’s okay.  It’s about showing up and trying.  Getting out of our comfort zone, being vulnerable, and getting to a place where we say, “hey, I made this, it felt great, I want to do it again!”.  We need to be with others who will encourage us, guide us, teach us, and then let us create.  We pick each other up when it’s hard.  We share knowledge of tools, equipment, supplies.  We gush and ooo, and ahhh!  We also say, what if you tried this next time and we can confidently answer, Why Not?


Deanna's class Sage Shapes will be offered at Hunter Moon Homestead September 7th-9th, 2023. Find more information HERE.