Doodlewash: Creating an Online Watercolor Community

Charlie O’Shields loves watercolor painting, but this has not always been the case. He built his passion by creating an online group to inspire him. He achieved this through starting, where Charlie initially posted just his own art journal, before getting lonely and inviting friends to join him. The community now has thousands of members, and its success has led Charlie to start the podcast Sketching Stuff, publish books, and even create the annual World Watercolor Month in July. We talked to Charlie to learn more about building an online community from scratch. 

How did you become interested in watercolor?

Back in July of 2015, my husband Philippe brought home a small student set of watercolor paints for something fun to do. I painted a tree that was next to our house. It was not an amazing painting by any stretch, but I was so thrilled that I signed it like it was a masterpiece!

The very first doodlewash,

When did you decide to take your interest online? 

The very next day! I was so excited to paint again and really wanted to improve and get better. I knew this meant daily practice, so I created a blog where I posted what I was making each day. I just hoped it would form into a habit that would keep me sketching and painting. The cool part was that people showed up and began to leave encouraging comments. That truly meant the world to me and kept me going. Within the first three weeks, I decided to start sharing watercolors and drawings from guest artists on the site. I wanted to inspire others, but it really was a great way to inspire myself as well. 

Why did you choose to use

I knew from the start of Doodlewash that I wanted to add community features one day and make something more than a blog. let me start out with a small investment and move to higher plans as my site grew. The features available are incredible and my site does a lot of different things at once, even though I’m only using a fraction of them! There’s much more flexibility to create and design a site than I saw on other platforms and that was the biggest draw for me. 

What WordPress features, in particular, did you find helpful? 

The community of bloggers and the Reader ended up being my favorite thing. It can feel so lonely creating a blog, and having access to an instant network of other bloggers, who share your passion, is amazing. Once I upgraded to the Business plan, I was able to add plugins and all of the features I’d dreamed of as well. And though adding lots of features can cause some bumps along the way, has an excellent and patient group of folks that provide excellent online support.

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What are the different ways people can connect through your site?

Early on, I created monthly challenges where artists across the globe can come together and share their work via social media by using that month’s hashtag, and there’s also a list of optional prompts for each day. It’s really fun to sketch and paint the same things together and see what everyone comes up with! A few years ago, I added social features to Doodlewash where people could create a free account and share their work and interact with others directly on the site. 

In 2016, I founded World Watercolor Month: a nonprofit event featuring the 31 watercolors in 31 days challenge to support the Dreaming Zebra Foundation to help underprivileged kids get art supplies.

You call Doodlewash a “social experiment.” Has it been a successful one? 

It was an experiment to see if a little online club where we could all connect would be appealing. For those who have given it a try, the feedback has been great! What I love hearing most is how sharing in a less crowded environment like Doodlewash has helped people gain confidence in sharing their art. Getting feedback from other artists quickly and without waiting to grow a huge following on other social media sites helps tremendously to build that sense of self-worth. We should all be proud of everything we create!  

What surprised me on this journey is that the term “Doodlewash” became a way of thinking. Currently, there are nearly 90,000 members in our World Watercolor Group on Facebook, and over 50,000 subscribers to the site’s content via email and social media.

How did your site lead to a podcast and a book?

My posts are mostly about those little things in life that inspire us rather than art instruction and technique. I realized the content would work well as a podcast and provide something inspirational that makers of all sorts could listen to and enjoy.

The first 12 episodes were compiled into a book, Sketching Stuff – Stories Sketched From Life, that was my illustrated memoir. Since then, I’ve created two fun Sketching Stuff Activity Books. These are built on the concept of the books I loved as a child where there wasn’t a lot of discussion on techniques, but simply lots of fun activities to jump in and DO!

Do you have any advice for anyone who may be considering setting up a site about their particular passion? 

I think creating a site based on a passion is a rewarding experience. One of the toughest things in starting a new blog is that it takes time to attract readers and it can feel like you’re just talking to yourself. I spent the first few weeks just talking to myself on! I hoped people would show up, but I had to love the act of creating content most of all. I had to remind myself that this was my passion project. And, even if nobody showed up, I could still be proud of what I was creating. Don’t give up! It just takes time, and lots of passion, and then people will come.

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