Like A Kid Again: Layers Upon Lairs

Guest post by Mandy Russell

Remember making forts as a child? The infamous indoor kind; involving sheets, blankets, pillows and a few couch cushions turned on their sides? This building design usually involved a piece of furniture as a key structural element. One had to often crawl to enter and any false move could bring the whole thing down. Once inside you ruled the space. It was like confined liberty. Bring in a flashlight, some coloring books and crayons, a Gameboy and you could stay all day – freedom from parental eyes.

The power of a secret hideout is exhilarating. A place all one’s own where the world cannot invade. No one can see you. Time stops. Now, as a “grown up,” I’m no longer trying to escape the watchful gaze of my parents but instead longing for a bit of escape from busy adulthood. As a mother of two (three if you count the dog), the self-appointed house keeper and cook, the family’s event planner and one who works outside the home, I totally get the delicious idea of a secret lair. My hideout would come equipped with a TV, all of the Golden Girls seasons on DVD, a comfy couch and art supplies for sure. While this idea of mine is currently just a fantasy, I love depicting it in my artwork. There it becomes a reality, even if for just a little while. Like a kid again, through art, I can build my little cramped kingdom.

Follow me in this fun filled art journal exercise while I demonstrate one easy way to create your very own small place of solitude and serenity. Instead of hanging around inside the house however, we’re heading underground through a geologic layer or two of your own invention. I am quite a closet earth science geek!

Lair in Fall

For this technique, I prefer using the smoother side of Strathmore brand mixed media paper or hot press watercolor paper by Fabriano. Using a 2B pencil, begin by dividing the page into about five cross-sectional earth layers and one slightly larger sky area. The five earth layers should all be about the same height and the sky area should be a bit larger, able to fit your home structure – whatever that may be. I like these dividing lines to be a bit wobbly, not perfectly straight.

Draw a cross-sectioned, 2-dimensional home on top of the ground level. A two-story house, an igloo, a teepee or a circus tent make quite lovely homes! Drop a small ladder down from somewhere inside the home to the second underground layer. This layer is your secret lair. (Of course at the top of the ladder is a touchpad keyless entry for which only you know the code!) Give your home and your hideout a bit of furniture. Draw cartoonish child-like depictions of a bed, a couch, a bureau, and a TV if that’s your thing. Don’t forget the easel and canvas in your hideout. We all need art supplies in our lair, right?

Now, artfully label your layers. You don’t have to stick with geologic layers here, I encourage you to use your imagination and think about your favorite substances (i.e. food, art supply items, or things that just make you smile). Grape jelly is a good one. So is cake batter, ice cream, gel medium, dog hair and so much more.

In tall lettering, write the designated name of each layer within the lines drawn. The idea is to have each letter touch at one or more points on the top as well as the bottom line. Mix up capitals, lowercase, cursive script, and whatever funny fonts you can think of. If you’re not sure how to approach the lettering part, do not worry! Visit my website, HERE, for a very easy tutorial on how I form these artsy letters. Try to fill most of the layer with writing. If your layer’s name is too short to fill the space, think of a word to add on to it.

Lair in Winter1

Now it’s time to color in the spaces made by your lettering and drawing. For this exercise I especially love using watercolors. I loosely plan a color scheme for each layer. Reds/Oranges for one layer, blues/purples for another and so on. I do, however try and avoid painting the rainbow here!

Lair in Winter2

I always want my secret lair, ladder and interior of the house (tent or igloo) to be bright and light colored. Using a number 5 round nylon brush, fill each empty white space with the watercolor of your choice. Keep the wash values between light and medium. In other words, don’t make your colors too dark. Have fun and experiment, there are no mistakes, only valuable practice and learning!

When your paper is completely dry, I go over each layer with another wash. I choose a different color for each layer and meticulously fill in each and every space again. I love seeing how the colors change when the second layer is applied. My intent is to darken up the layers a bit around my hideout, so that the lair, the ladder and the house will stand out. I also go over the secret lair layer with another vibrant light color.

Lair in Winter3

I’m quite fond of a neutral gray (like Davy’s Gray) for the sky. Only for the large sky area do I wet the paper first with a large brush. Then while still wet, I drop in the gray wash.

Next, I trace every drawn line, except for the furniture, yet including each letter, with a dark soft graphite pencil, such as a 5B. I burnish these traced lines with a skinny blending stump. I also burnish the drawn furniture. This has a great effect; it really makes the pencil lines stand out amidst the delicious watercolors. It gives the composition a nice balance too.

Lair in Winter 4.0.JPG

Mandy Russell is passionately in love with art and craft making. Lately, she’s particularly fond of using water-media, like watercolors and water soluble crayons. Her German Shepherd dog, Odin, can do no wrong. Her two goofball kids and handsome hubby are pretty spectacular too. She lives in a romantic 1920s Colonial, in a sleepy Maine town, and is forever grateful for the artistic opportunities presented to her. To read more about her artsy endeavors, visit

Lair For Gypsies

For more art journal inspiration, check out the following titles:
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