Coloured Pencil Art is my Mental Health Lifejacket

Coloured Pencil Art is my Mental Health Lifejacket

by Frances Walker

My artistic journey began as a rather hyperactive toddler, refusing to take afternoon naps! My mother tells me that the only way to get me to settle down was to give me some paper and coloured pencils. She said I would spend hours drawing animals with lovely expressions! The ‘coloured pencil art seed’ was sewn!

“German Shepherd Dog" (photo credit: Ruud Van Unen). DuraLar film 0.005 two-sided matte (22.8 x 30.5 cm). Faber-Castell Polychromos, Caran d’Ache Luminance and Derwent Drawing pencils.

I have always enjoyed art, but never formally studied it. In my 20s, life took over, and art took a back seat as I tried to manage my ‘adulting’, including moving, without a plan, from my stable life and great job as an Occupational Therapist in London to the blue skies and sea of Barcelona in 2000. I didn’t pick up coloured pencils again until I discovered Johanna Basford’s adult colouring books in 2016 – I was hooked! I loved the colours, blending techniques, and final effects, with the added bonus that I didn’t actually have to draw anything from my imagination, which I confess I have always found a little tricky!

“The only way to get me to settle down was
to give me some paper and coloured pencils.”

During 2020, I started learning to paint with watercolours to help get through the Covid lockdown and to reconnect with art. The final project for one of the watercolour courses I took was to paint an animal, and I really enjoyed creating a memorial portrait of my beautiful cat, Archie. I was also having a very difficult time in my administrative job. I was overworked, overwhelmed, permanently stressed, and my self-esteem was at rock bottom for the first time in my life. By January 2022, at the age of 57, my work-life balance was out of control, and I just couldn’t cope anymore. I went on sick leave for work-related anxiety and ended up staying off for almost a year. During this time, in an attempt to get back to the ‘old me’, I could feel my art calling me back. So, after the thrill of painting Archie, I looked for other animal portrait artists online, and I found some amazing coloured pencil art by Bonny Snowdon. I was blown away by the photorealism of the animals she drew, and thought I’d love to try doing something similar.

“Suki” (own photo). Strathmore Bristol Vellum (22.9 x 30.5 cm). Faber-Castell Polychromos, Derwent Drawing, and Caran d’Ache Luminance pencils.

I joined Bonny Snowdon’s online Academy. I doubted I would be able to create anything near the quality of Bonny’s art but wanted to give it a go anyway. I took the plunge and started with her foundations course the same month. Little by little, my coloured pencil art improved, and my confidence grew. The final project was a gorgeous German Shepherd dog (on DuraLar film), which seemed almost impossible to contemplate. However, I completely surprised myself by drawing a pretty good portrait. I was (and still am) really proud of myself!

“I was just so engrossed in the process;
it was so mindful, and I didn’t have time
for my worries.”

Then came the challenge of creating an animal portrait without following any tutorials. Yikes! I had no idea where to start, which surface to use, how to choose the right colours, etc. For guidance, I enrolled in the ‘Concept to Creation’ course by another wonderful coloured pencil artist, Kate Jenvey, who was so supportive. I chose my gorgeous kitty, Suki, for the final project and was absolutely thrilled with the result. While drawing, I was just so engrossed in the process; it was so mindful, and I didn’t have time for my worries. Nothing else mattered, especially since I loved the subject on my paper!

I felt brave enough to post Suki’s portrait in a few coloured pencil art Facebook groups. With the attitude of ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained!’, I submitted it to the Pencil Box section of COLOR Magazine in October 2022. To my joy and amazement, it was accepted! What a confidence boost! On top of that, in August 2022, I was contacted to write a 3-page step-by-step article for the January 2023 issue of COLOR Magazine on how to draw a cat’s ear! Wow! I have to admit, I was terrified. This was totally out of my comfort zone! I’d only been drawing using coloured pencils for a few months and had a severe case of imposter syndrome. But I bit the bullet, wrote the article, and it was such a useful experience for me. The best part was seeing my 83-year-old mum’s face when I gave her a copy of COLOR Magazine with my article in it! I felt so incredibly proud! All the soul-destroying moments of the previous few years seemed to gradually fade away, and things seemed to be falling into place.

“Jewlz” (photo provided with owner’s permission). Strathmore Bristol Vellum (22.9 x 30.5 cm). Faber-Castell Polychromos, Derwent Drawing, and Caran d’Ache Luminance and Pablo pencils.

Little by little, I could feel the old me returning, and my self-confidence increasing. The feedback from my German Shepherd dog and Suki portraits was amazing! I have since been commissioned by friends to draw memorial portraits of their beloved pets, and the pleasure I receive from happy clients makes the time and effort it takes to draw them so totally worthwhile. It’s such an amazing feeling to bring joy to others!

This year, after much soul-searching, I decided that I finally deserve to do a job I enjoy and that makes people happy. I finally left my awful job in January, and I’m now dedicating myself to becoming a coloured pencil & mixed media artist. Although I’m only starting out as a professional artist now, I’m not afraid of change, and I’m excited about what lies ahead! I love this inspiring quote by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: “If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” Although scary at times, the journey back to a happy, balanced me has begun, thanks to coloured pencils!


Frances lives in Barcelona, and recently turned to art as a way to help manage her mental health. In 2022, she fell in love with the mindfulness and peace inherent in creating detailed photorealistic coloured pencil art. Frances has a true passion for making animal portraits come to life through her pencils, and left her stressful administrative job in January 2023 to pursue a career as an artist. She also enjoys the vibrant colours, bold brush strokes and textures of creating mixed media art.

Comments (2)

A wonderful take if self-belief and recovery.

Frances, you’re amazing!

Kerrigan Bryant - Aug 18, 2023

Wow Frances, all I can say is you are an absolute inspiration,I too have struggled with mental health (still do on occasion) I joined Bonny’s academy last September and I am slowly getting better and very proud/happy with what I can now achieve 😀
Your story and your wonderful art has really inspired me to keep going..I’m in a job I’ve been doing for 25yrs and just feel so stuck, I hate it ..but with what you have said and do I will keep trying 🙂
Thank you so much for your beautiful article. Trisha

Trisha Stainton - Aug 18, 2023

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