“Time stands still best in moments that look suspiciously like ordinary life.”
— Brian Andreas
When I first got the idea for 40 Days of Moments a couple of months ago — a personal project that saw me giving up my camera for Lent and creating one sketch a day — I had just returned from a weekend trip to the beach here in Uruguay.
Before leaving Montevideo for the beachside town of José Ignacio, I had eagerly packed my sketchbook and watercolors, having loved sketching there once before. But when I returned to Montevideo a few days later, there wasn’t a single new sketch in my sketchbook. Instead, I’d spent the weekend sharing photos from José Ignacio on Instagram — especially a large number of photos and videos via Instagram Stories, i.e. photos that are visible in my account for just 24 hours before they disappear offline.
As someone who loves encouraging others to set down their cameras and pick up a sketchbook more often, I was disappointed in myself, and felt like I could have done better. But my first day back in Montevideo also happened to be the first day of Lent — the period of 40 days leading up to Easter, which many people use as a time of fasting — and that’s when the idea came to me: To give up my camera for Lent, to rely more on my own eyes and memory, and to sketch one moment a day for the next 40 days.
And to kick off the project, it only felt right to begin by sketching a shell I’d brought home with me from José Ignacio — the very place I’d been too distracted recording with my phone to capture in my sketchbook:
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I loved sharing updates from the 40 Days of Moments project with you all each day, most especially the weekly videos that showed each week’s collection of sketches. It’s now been exactly one month since Easter Sunday, which marked the end of 40 Days of Moments — and I’m excited to finally share a few lessons and reflections from the project with you:
Lesson #1 – I didn’t miss taking photos as much as I thought I would.
The impulse to reach for my phone and snap a picture was far easier to disengage from than I expected it to be — and in fact, I found the photos I missed taking the most were really just the quick, candid photos I normally snap during meals or while I’m out in Montevideo, and then text to my friends and family back in the U.S. Before this project, I didn’t realize how much I enjoy using photos to help me stay in touch with people, sharing visual glimpses from my life as much as written updates.
But the few times that I felt an almost painful wish to be able to take a photo were all around sunsets and moonrises. There’s just something about that time of day, when the sky changes in such magical and fleeting ways, that I always feel compelled to record.
Instead, I had to start catching nature’s fleeting moments with my sketchbook:
One of the first things I did after deciding on the 40 Days of Moments project was to clean out my sketching supplies bag and pare it down to the bare essentials. I normally keep my kit loaded with extra pens, erasers, and watercolor refill tubes, but for this project, I wanted to keep my sketching supplies light and with me at all times, just in case inspiration should strike. And I’m grateful that inspiration did strike — often, but especially one evening in Montevideo, right at my favorite time of day.
As José and I were walking down the rambla (or the 14-mile-long promenade following the coast), we suddenly realized the enormous orange orb glowing over the horizon of the river was none other than the rising moon. Because I had my sketching supplies and a bottle of water with me, I could instantly set up camp along the shore and race to capture the moon while it was still huge, orange, and close to the horizon. At one point I even said to José, “I feel like an Impressionist,” finding inspiration in the colors and light of the world as they were in that singular moment.
It was a moment that at any other time, I would have simply taken a photo of with my camera — and for that, this sketch now means all the more to me:
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Lesson #2 – While it wasn’t always easy to make room in my days for sketching, I never regretted the time I spent on each sketch.
As an illustrator, my days are often filled with art — sketching out ideas for clients, drawing and painting commissions, etc. — but the 40 Days of Moments project showed me that I don’t take the time to draw for myself on a regular basis. Usually, sketching is something I leave for the weekends, once that week’s workload is behind me.
So it was a strange shift to suddenly pull out my personal sketchbook every day — and it wasn’t always easy or convenient to set aside an hour of my day to create a sketch. Still, I never regretted the time I spent on each sketch for this project, and I even began carving out more time in my days for sketching. They say it takes 21 days to make a habit, and by the third week of this project, I could definitely feel my daily sketches becoming part of my normal routine, and not something I “had” to make time for.
Best of all, my sketchbook from 40 Days of Moments is now filled with sketches I never would have created, had I not committed to sketching once a day:
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Lesson #3 – In a daily sketching project, you will, inevitably, sketch a lot of food.
I’ve only ever committed to sketching every day one other time — in 2015, when I was a sketch artist-in-residence in the Costa Brava region of Spain for six weeks. During that residency, part of my job was to be out and about exploring each destination every day, so there was never any shortage of fresh subjects to sketch. During the 40 Days of Moments project, however, I was simply going about my normal routine in Montevideo, and thus my surroundings didn’t change nearly as much as they did in Spain.
The result? I discovered that one of the biggest moving parts of my days here is actually just the different meals I eat, and the various restaurants and cafés I visit each week — and so, as some of you even commented during the project itself, about 25% of my sketches from 40 Days of Moments ended up being of food…especially desserts! 🙂
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Lesson #4 – Sketching helps moments last longer.
On a related note to sketching food, I had another epiphany about two weeks into the 40 Days of Moments project. On a Friday afternoon in Montevideo, I was working in a café with one of my new friends in the city, a fellow writer named Kimberly. Around five o’clock, we decided to treat ourselves to a glass of wine for happy hour, which I ended up sketching for that day’s moment.
Normally, I wouldn’t have paid too much attention to the glass of wine itself — but because I was sketching it, the wine suddenly had my full attention. I savored every sip and drank the glass much more slowly, because I wanted to be able to observe the colors of the wine while I was painting it. And it was then that I realized how sketching has this beautiful way of elongating time.
This was certainly true with the glass of wine — and with other sweet treats and drinks I sampled throughout the project — but there were other moments, too, that lasted far longer than they would have if I hadn’t been drawing them, such as stumbling across a colorful colonial streetscape in Montevideo one morning. If I’d been able to use my camera, I would have just taken a photo of the scene and kept walking; but because I had an hour to spare — and my sketching kit with me in my backpack — I was able to stop, sketch the scene on-location, and more fully appreciate its colors and beauty.
In an age when life often feels like it’s moving too fast, I love how sketching makes time stand still, and how it can help us live more fully and deeply in each moment.
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Lesson #5 – Sketching every day gives you the courage to take more risks…and make a few mistakes along the way.
In 2016, I have to admit that on average, I managed to get out and sketch on-location just once a month, which meant I often put a lot of pressure on each image to be a “good sketch.” I didn’t take a lot of risks creatively, or choose subjects that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to capture. But once I began sketching every day for this project, my approach to each sketch became very different.
There wasn’t quite so much pressure riding on a sketch to be “good,” so I was able to push myself more and try out subjects I would have normally avoided — such as a jazz musician José and I heard playing at a restaurant one night. Drawing people is far from my forte — let alone sketching jazz musicians and their flying fingers *live*. But when I sat down at our table that night, prepared to sketch yet another glass of wine, I looked from my wine to the jazz band and back again, and decided to stretch myself.
Sketching the musician was one of those sketches where it was hard to keep my inner critic at bay — and yet there were also moments when I got completely head-bopping, toe-tapping lost in the music and was practically moving my paintbrush to the rhythm. With other sketches, like the ones below of a tiny cactus on a café table and a basketball game I was watching on T.V., I was even less satisfied with how they’d turned out, and could hardly bring myself to share them on social media.
Still, it was rather freeing to know that even if a sketch didn’t turn out like I had envisioned it, there was always tomorrow to try again.
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Lesson #6: Sketching every day also gave me the courage to work faster.
Just like I used to always put pressure on myself to create a “good” sketch, I would also never give myself permission to sketch on-location if I didn’t have more than enough time to create a “finished” sketch. I’m a rather slow sketch artist, so this means that if I didn’t have at least an hour and a half or two hours, then I often wouldn’t even attempt to begin a sketch.
And so, as the 40 Days of Moments project unfolded, that was one of the most exciting ways that I could feel the project changing me as a sketch artist — that just as I grew more comfortable with taking risks, I also learned to make do with whatever time I had. I began to work faster, and enjoy sketching for whatever window of time I had open. There was the night that I was supposed to meet my friend Kimberly again for dinner at 9:30 p.m. — and so I got to the restaurant an hour early, ordered my favorite cocktail (an Aperol spritz), and sketched as much of the scene as I could, before finishing it later at home.
And then there was the morning that I was supposed to catch the bus from Montevideo to the historic town of Colonia. On the way to the bus station, I looked up and was struck by the beautiful architecture of the Italian hospital in Montevideo — especially as it had been far too long since I’d had a chance to sketch such classical columns and arches. Again, I had about an hour to spare, so I decided to race the clock and see how far I could get in my sketchbook before my bus departed for Colonia.
Before this project, I would have added a few more shadows later on, but the “new me” decided to leave my sketch of the hospital exactly as it is — in honor of what I created with just the time I had.
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Lesson #7 – Sketching from photos held some of my favorite moments.
While I began to sketch faster and became more and more comfortable with “unfinished” sketches, there were other moments where I was able to take my time on-location and feel the satisfaction of leaving with a complete scene in my sketchbook:
But while I’ve always loved sketching on-location, a surprising discovery of the 40 Days of Moments project for me was realizing how much I enjoy sketching from photos. Several times during the project, I drew on moments from past journeys for inspiration: from train rides in Myanmar and India, to a special Persian New Year celebration in Norway.
I started this project to honor the little gifts each day can bring, but it also became a great way to make time for reflecting back on favorite memories — and I’ve even thought about doing another daily sketching project in the future, entirely focused on sketching from photos from past trips.
When we’re traveling, we don’t always have time to honor every moment as it happens; returning to photos from a trip can be a great way to keep reflecting on the memories that journey held for us.
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Lesson #8 – When you are on the lookout for moments, the universe provides them.
One of the things I love most about traveling is the sense of anticipation we feel — how we keep our cameras or phones close by, because we just trust that memorable moments are going to happen to us. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t always live out my daily life with such excitement and anticipation. Usually, I’m more focused on crossing off my to-do list than I am looking out for extraordinary moments in the ordinary.
And that’s where the 40 Days of Moments project had the greatest effect on me: Because I was visually capturing only one moment from each day, I gradually became more and more expectant of every day, wondering what moment that day would hold that I would want to remember. Exactly as I would have been if I were traveling, I was constantly on the lookout for the small gifts each day can bring us — whether it was a single rose José surprised me with one morning, a beautifully illustrated card from my friend Rebecca in Italy, or a red paintbrush given to me by a street sweeper named Michele in Montevideo.
Throughout this project, I kept my eyes peeled for magic — and so often, magic appeared; perhaps because I was looking for it, but perhaps because it’s always there.
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Final takeaway: Life is all about balance.
After that trip to the beach in February, where I spent the weekend posting photos to Instagram but didn’t create a single sketch, my first reaction was to go in the completely opposite direction — to take away my camera and force myself to sketch every day.
But just as I knew deep-down that this reaction was an extreme one, so did I also have a pretty good idea of the conclusion that I would eventually reach through this project. I’ve written before about the need to balance our use of technology with greater awareness in our daily lives, and again, the 40 Days of Moments project reminded me that life is all about balance. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Moderation in all things, especially moderation” — and especially, perhaps, with social media in the 21st century.
As it just so happened, the end of my 40 Days of Moments project coincided with another quick trip to the beach — this time to a storied corner of Uruguay called Cabo Polonio, a beautiful national park right on the Atlantic Ocean. But unlike on the trip that had been the project’s impetus, I was far more conscious with my camera and phone, and I made lots more time to sketch — including a handful of purple-tinted shells I found on the beach, which felt like a fitting echo of the shell I drew for this project’s first sketch.
Most importantly, as I shared in my original goals for the 40 Days of Moments project, I slowed down, relied more on my own eyes and memory, and felt more alive to every moment.
Thanks so much for following along 40 Days of Moments! I learned so much through it, and hope
these lessons will be helpful for you too, no matter the shape or scope of your own projects 🙂
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