Explorations with a Digital Sketch Book: An Interview with Jannebeth Röell

Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself? What is your experience as an artist? What mediums do you work with?

I first trained as a nurse during the 1960s when there was no television in the patients’ rooms, and volunteers came to the hospital with crafts and games for the patients. I always thought the volunteers had the best deal because they brought joy and new activities into the patients’ lives. After receiving my diploma in nursing, I worked closely with an anthroposophical doctor and learned about anthroposophical medicine in a hands-on, experiential way. In that environment, I created approaches to external therapies using insights gained. I learned a lot about the human being and how an illness should be considered a challenge rather than just a bother. I began to understand how difficult it is for a patient to “get better” without participating in something creative. This “getting better” is a process of lifelong learning and growth. Now that I look back at this time, I realize it was probably through the volunteers in the hospital that I first saw creativity at work in a patient’s life.

During those years of anthroposophical nursing, I came across a thesis by a Dutch psychiatrist about the effect of colors on the life of the soul. This thesis was written by the late Dr. Zeylmans van Emmichoven, who was the general secretary of the Dutch anthroposophical society in the later part of his life. To this day, I still treasure my copy. All of the above stimulated me to go to art school. Two experiences stand out for me from my time in art school. I had to report on art exhibits regardless of whether I “liked“ the artwork. I was required to write about art exhibits objectively, which helped me expand and deepen my interests. My class on color was given by a teacher who knew all there was to know about color and color mixing; you can guess my surprise when she mentioned that Kandinsky had studied the thesis of Dr.  Zeylmans. It is difficult to explain the experience of color beyond the technical mixing process. For example, have you ever observed a green tomato turning red? Or a bruise turning from red to blue? Or the endless variety and beauty of sunrises and sunsets? These experiences all added to my interest in doing art. Watercolor is the medium that most resonates with me because it is so alive.


I wanted to talk about your digital work. How did you become interested in this medium? Were you resistant to it at first? How has your relationship with digital artwork evolved?

I became interested in digital art when I first saw iPad art by David Hockney and loved it. At first, I thought it was something just for him, not me. I became very curious when my husband got a digital art program on his smartphone, and to his regret, I was the one using it the most. I was amazed at the nuances of color available, many more than I could intentionally achieve with my color mixing knowledge. The variety of brushes available is so great that it can be somewhat distracting as you learn about their possibilities. But in the end, you pick and choose what works for the art creation at hand. In the early days of digital art programs, you used your finger; now, you can use a digital pencil with great precision. We have a beautiful garden, and I often use the program to observe the plants and flowers in detail or to capture icicles on the roof of my studio.

You can never observe enough, and I can record my observations with my iPad, regardless of my location. The iPad and its programs function as a sketchbook, a canvas, and a collection of mediums, meaning I do not need to carry a bag full of art supplies everywhere I go. Digital technology does not determine the subjects you are interested in drawing or painting or the nuances you want to express. The resulting sketch is based on what you see, and the digital tools facilitate this work, like watercolor paints on paper do when in the studio.


I think with almost all kinds of technology, there are pros and cons. Technology might make some aspects of our lives easier or more convenient, but we often lose something in the process, perhaps an element of human connection or something else. Do you find there are pros and cons to digital vs. physical artwork?

There is something very physically satisfying about using your hands when working with charcoal, soft pastels, or wax crayons, for example. They all have a different “feel.” Try to imagine that you are holding a large brush loaded with watercolor and letting it flow onto your paper. Your whole arm can get involved. When using the iPad, you can choose the “look” of watercolor, pastel, or crayon but not the tactile “feel.” Your tactile sensation is limited to the touch of the pencil on the screen. The sensation is as if holding a pencil when you are writing. The movements are small. Your visual field is limited to the size of your screen. My digital work stays on the iPad, I never print them out. David Hockney figured out how to print his digital work in a larger size without pixelation, which is a great technical accomplishment. I continue to promote physical artwork; in my home and studio I like to hang handmade works of art on the wall, although that may be considered old-fashioned. The digital option is for me really more like a sketchbook.


Is there some subject matter that you feel translates better into the digital realm?

I cannot think of anything in particular, although learning certain techniques for sketching may be easier in the digital realm because of the undo and erase functions, the layers, and color management tools, for example. With the iPad, the tools and time needed to create different effects are different than traditional studio tools. Importantly, I can work on my iPad without attracting too much attention, for example, when I am in an airport and want to sketch a person sitting nearby.


I believe you also have some experience in art therapy. Do you think there are any therapeutic applications for digital art?

With art therapy, it is important to get a “feel” for the fluidity of the color; this is why I often work with watercolors. When you imagine painting a sunrise or a sunset, you enter into a breathing process with your surroundings; the idea is for the person to grow beyond themself. There are many possibilities for working with art for therapeutic purposes. You can do it in a group painting, with boards lined up so the group can paint a large sunset or other shared picture experienced together. I would not know how to do such group work on the iPad easily. But when it comes to practicing observation, there is no reason to avoid these new tools. When learning to use these tools, you are often on your own, and self-motivation is an important part of the experience. Some people hesitate to do artwork because they believe they do not have the correct pencil or color with which to work. There is no excuse anymore when using the iPad or similar digital art device. In one case, a very isolated and withdrawn person found that working on the iPad was just the right tool for beginning their therapeutic process. It is all very individual.


After graduating from nursing school in the Netherlands, Jannebeth Röell was asked in 1967 by Willem Englebrecht, an anthroposophical doctor in the Netherlands, to work as his office nurse and to focus specifically on the development of external remedies. This is a field that Rudolf Steiner recommended for exploration in his medical courses. The external therapies are a specialized field that embraces everything applied to the skin, including poultices, compresses, wraps, baths, massage, inhalations, and color light therapy, for example. After fifteen years of working in this capacity, Jannebeth moved to the United States, where she continued her work in the medical field and co-founded the Anthroposophical Nurses Association in America (now part of AAMTA). She then obtained a BFA from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and transformed her work into a focus on art therapy. She worked with AIDS patients at a private hospital in San Francisco, the homeless, and saw clients in private practice. Jannebeth is now retired and lives in Portland, OR, with her husband, James Lee, where they pursue interests in art and geology. www.jannebeth.com