That’s when she wondered whether she could give them away to people on her Facebook page and, in exchange, they could make a donation to a cause they cared about.
Colwell, now in her 70s, started posting her work on Facebook.
“When I was working various jobs, I always had this part of me that thought, ‘I’m not changing the world,’ ” she said.
She awards each day’s artwork to the first person who, in the comments, tells her they want the posted painting. There is one condition: They have to agree to contribute $25 or more to an individual in need or a nonprofit.
During the past five years, Colwell said she’s helped raise more than $57,000 and given away more than 1,000 paintings.
Buyers are given 24 hours to donate to the charity of their choice. Although some buyers insist on showing her they’ve made a donation, she doesn’t ask for proof. Donations run the gamut — animal causes, homeless shelters, food pantries. This year, recipients included individuals and immigrants. One woman took the process one step further: She made donations for multiple paintings, then donated the artwork to charity auctions to raise additional funds.
Last year, the biggest donation resulting from a single painting of Colwell’s was $1,000, along with a few for $500 and matching funds from various buyers’ companies.
Before she began her art for a cause, Colwell worked in corporate communications. After she retired, she started a movement in 2007 called “Green Halloween” with her daughter in which they encouraged schools, banks and other institutions that give kids candy to instead consider offering toys or healthier options.
She retired for a second time and started taking online art classes in 2014. She said she initially lacked confidence.
“I didn’t know art was a skill,” Colwell said. “I thought you were born an artist or you weren’t.”
But something made her try it. The go-at-your-own-pace aspect of online classes appealed to her. She also enjoyed learning various mediums: watercolors, watercolor pencils and crayons.
When she and her husband of 50 years downsized in 2015, she moved shelves full of art supplies into her dining room, which doubles as an art studio. Each day, she spends between two and six hours in her Redmond, Wash., studio and takes a 10-minute break every hour to stretch and exercise. She never plans a painting in advance.
“I’m a spontaneous painter,” Colwell said. “Many artists will start out with what is going to be a scene, but I like to start as if I don’t know anything. I may use eight colors or two.”
She creates her paintings on mixed media paper — she prefers painting on hard surfaces — and avoids canvas because it has too much give. She also prints with ink on deli wrap. Her work features diverse women.
“I focus on women’s faces because women are underrepresented in so many aspects of the world,” Colwell said.
Another component of her work is customized sayings. She was a freelance writer for many years, and words are meaningful to her, so she incorporates them in her work. After she finishes a painting, she pulls slips of paper from one of two boxes. One is filled with common words — she, her, with, the — while the other box contains mostly verbs and adjectives — smooth, feathery, angry, upset.
“Sometimes I’ll take three or four words out of the box, and that will spark an idea,” she said. Then she attaches an inspiring quote to the painting, gluing each word individually.
Colwell initially wasn’t sure how people would respond to her postings.
“I was flabbergasted at what happened,” she said.
Almost every day she posts a picture, they have been claimed and donations have been made. She creates an average of one painting per day.
She packages her paintings every few days — she covers all shipping costs — and sends them to their new owners.
Barb Sickles owns two of Colwell’s paintings and each time has donated to Home Fur Good, an animal rescue in Phoenix, where she lives. She said she wanted the paintings because they “spoke to me.”
One day Colwell noticed a particular buyer consistently requesting her paintings. Finally, she asked the buyer through Facebook messenger, “What are you doing with these things? “Are you giving them away?” The buyer, Carole Carlson, explained that because of limited display space, instead of hanging them, she was compiling the paintings into a book.
“I find the words and the paintings are inspiring,” said Carlson, who lives in Derwood, Md., and has donated to various charities, including So Others Might Eat, an organization dedicated to fighting poverty and homelessness.
Colwell asked another frequent buyer about her multiple purchase — she has bought 21 of them.
“My legacy is that each family member will have their own piece of me to remember,” said Gay Barnes, who lives in Broken Arrow, Okla. “On the back side of each, I will attach a card and explain what the painting means to me and why I chose it for them.”
Barnes has donated to charities such as RAICES, an organization that provides legal services for immigrants and refugees, and Mission Together (Children Helping Children).
Colwell said her project of giving away paintings and encouraging donations has been endlessly satisfying, and she feels gratitude to the people who “buy” her paintings. She says she still pinches herself that so much good emanates from paintings that she creates.
“All these years admiring people and their art, I never thought I would be here,” she said.