Sarah discovered Rock Painting in 2020 when she moved to a new town. She never expected to get obsessed with painting rocks. She’d done it before as a Camp Director and of course as a child. But, this time it was more than just painting rocks, there was community, mystery, adventure, and more. Read on to hear more in our interview with mail art and lettering artist Sarah Atwill-Bowen.
CW: You recently have gotten really into painting rocks. We all have done it before, of course, but this is new for you, why? What got you started?
Yes! You’re right, I am so new to this. I recently got into painting rocks because I bought a home and my new neighbors invited me to join them. These amazing, outgoing retired women were looking for something crafty to keep busy with during the stay-at-home restrictions and began painting rocks in their garages (socially distanced and with masks on). They worked closely with our USPS letter carrier and families in the area, and if a child found a painted rock and put it in their mailbox they would get a piece of candy in exchange. I thought it was such a great combination of things I already loved – crafting, the U.S. postal service, kids, walking, hanging out with good people. Initially, I was just drinking wine with them and painting a few rocks. That quickly turned into painting a dozen rocks at a time a couple of days a week and putting some serious thought into it!
CW: What has surprised you about your new hobby?
I knew painting rocks was a thing people were doing but I didn’t get into it because it was kind of in that category of hobbies geared towards parents to do with their kids. I was totally wrong and so delighted by how much I loved it! I was also surprised by how much I enjoyed hiding them, it’s like I’m hosting an everyday scavenger hunt for strangers. I love the idea that someone will just be out for their walk or run or exploring a park with their kids and find one of my rocks. I think when I’m making art in other areas, I always get to that point where I say to myself “Wow, to me this is cute and unique, but will others like it? Does it have a value? Would anyone even want this?” and with painting rocks there’s no pressure of needing that validation because at the end of the day, it’s just a rock.
CW: How has it enriched your life?
Well, it definitely helps me get outside and walk around more. I’ve explored and walked more in my new neighborhood in the past 5 months than I ever did in the area I lived in for 3 years. Painting rocks feels like a small random act of kindness in some way when you hide them for others to find, keep or rehide.
CW: When you leave them in parks, do you want to know who found them or are you ready to let them go?
I’m totally ready to let them go! I know some people put unique hashtags on them and number them to keep track of what ones have been found by who sends in a picture to them. I don’t need that feedback loop to be completed, that feels like so much work. In my ideal scenario, I imagine that my painted rocks are being found by people who love them whether it’s for a minute as they’re walking by, as they continue their walk and re-hide it in a new place, or maybe it’s living in their garden and adding some joy to their home. I love that most have probably been found by absolute strangers who don’t know me and I don’t need to know they have them — I just hope they’re bringing joy.
CW: What do you use to paint them?
Good question! I use acrylic paint to do a base background layer, POSCA paint pens for details and outlines, and a clear spray sealant.
This has changed for me over the past few months. I used to include so much information: my local Facebook rock painting group, instructions on what to do if found, my IG handle, my name, and the year. But, I discovered that my rocks weren’t being posted online once found regardless of what I added to the back. Now, it’s just my name or initials and the year. I should probably add my location in some way because it is cool to see them “travel” and for people to be able to get that info quickly.
CW: Any tips and techniques you have learned?
Store your paint pens horizontally. I found if stored vertically the paint collects towards the nib and makes the next time you want to use them a clogged mess. Go to your local decorative rock store with a bucket. I love Oregon Decorative Rock off of Denney Road out here in Beaverton, only 3 miles from the Cedar Hills Craft Warehouse. They are super nice and support rock painters and give a good deal on rocks that are clean and ready to paint!
Strawberry Painted Rock Tutorial by Sarah-Atwill-Bowen
CW: Has painting rocks so much (and giving them away) changed your art (or anything)?
Totally! It has given me so much more confidence in my creativity and the permission to make whatever I want and share it with the world. With rocks, you don’t have to think twice! You paint, you hide, you make someone’s day, done. There’s something really freeing about giving your creativity/art away for free and it makes me value my abilities and other work even more.
CW: Anything other tips for people wanting to get into painting and giving away rocks.
If you are getting started, please invest in a good sealant and seal your rocks and avoid using glitter/rhinestones. Especially if you’re hiding the rocks out in nature because without a quality sealant the paint will break down. I also check online to make sure that certain parks and nature preserves allow for hiding rocks. Most National Parks do not as well as Nature Preserves. Always best to double-check because trail volunteers and park staff will more than likely toss your rocks if found because they go against the idea of “Leave No Trace”. Which I totally understand and respect. My best practice has been to hide in well-trafficked areas by runners, walkers, and families and I check again in a week to make sure they’ve all been picked up.
Thank you so much, Sarah, for the interview and the inspiration. You can follow Sarah on Instagram at @que_sarahsarah and you can find her mail art account at @stampitsendit