Inspiration Sara Berrenson: On Hand-Painted Designs and Being an Artist Entrepreneur


Who is Sara Berrenson? How did she start falling in love with watercolor? How did her hand-painted designs help her build a sustainable career as an artist?

In this article, we will get to know visual artist, designer, author of Watercolor the Easy Way and our ZenARTist of August 2021, Sara Berrenson. Not only will we take a look at her life and art journey but we’ll also learn how her hand-painted designs helped her carve her own path as a successful artist entrepreneur.

Early Life in California
The Path to a Design Career
Eight Years with Barbie and Mattel
Falling in Love with Watercolor
Hand-painted Designs of an Artist Entrepreneur
Watercolor the Easy Way
Sara and ZenART Supplies
Hand-painted Designs from Sara’s Body of Work

Sara Berrenson is a visual artist, surface designer, and author of Watercolor the Easy Way. She is known for her hand-painted designs rendered on various home decor, gifts, and stationery. These designs can be found across different brands such as West Elm, Pottery Barn Kids, Target, HSN, Materialised and Bed Bath & Beyond.

Sara’s body of work consists of paintings primarily rendered using gouache and watercolor. Her aesthetic has been described as uplifting and colorful, with a dash of whimsy. Sara is currently based in California and can usually be found on the weekends at the flower mart buying flowers or taking photos for inspiration.

Sara Berrenson with fresh flowers
Sara likes to arrange fresh colorful flowers both to decorate her studio and for painting inspiration.

Early Life in California

Sara was born on the 5th of January 1982 and was raised by her parents Peggy and Bob in Los Angeles, California. Her parents have always been supportive of her artistic inclination and encouraged young Sara to keep creating. Not only would they let their young artist daughter bring her art supplies wherever she went, they also let her bring art materials whenever Sara’s dad, Bob, coaches a volleyball game in LA.

“I’ve been making art for as long as I can remember. My dad used to coach volleyball, and I remember drawing with my crayons during his games. I brought my art supplies wherever I went!” 
—Sara Berrenson

Sara’s parents encouraged her to make art at home, and helped her get through extracurricular creative activities throughout her schooling. For example, they enrolled her into different art classes like painting, photography, and mixed media art among many others. Furthermore, to gain inspiration, her parents also brought her to see art museums around Los Angeles as a child.  

The Path to a Design Career

It’s not surprising for someone who grew up in an art-centric life to choose a creative path in college. For Sara, it was a natural progression to design. Hence, she chose to take her BFA in Design and Applied Arts at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Surprisingly, although her main medium today is watercolor, she never actually took a single watercolor class in school. In fact, she mostly used oil and acrylic while in college.

Young Sara with florals and patterns everywhere.

After graduating from university, Sara started working for Trader Joe’s, an American chain of grocery stores. Since her BFA focused more on graphic design, she was involved in conceptualizing and designing functional yet appealing packaging for the food products at Trader Joe’s. Then after two years, she moved on to Mattel.

“My parents have always been very supportive of my art. They could tell it was a passion of mine from a very young age.” 
—Sara Berrenson

Sara Berrenson in a Barbie box
Sara Berrenson with friends in a life-sized Barbie box in 2011.

Eight Years with Barbie and Mattel 

Sara worked as a packaged designer with the American multinational toy company, Mattel for eight years. There, she was specifically involved in the graphic design requirements of Barbie and Monster High. Barbie being the world’s favorite fashion doll and Monster High, a monster movies, sci-fi and horror fiction inspired doll label. Furthermore, it was in Mattel that Sara started fully exploring her art practice. She not only gained the prerequisite skills she needed to run her own business but also earned lifelong friendships along her eight-year journey with Mattel.

Sara Berrenson in a Mattel exhibition
Sara Berrenson with her painting on view at a Mattel curated art exhibition in 2011.

Falling in Love with Watercolor

Technically, Sara did work in the arts department of Mattel albeit rendering her designs digitally. At some point in her graphic design career she started missing the tangibility and materiality of painting. Such as the feel of actual paper, the magic of colors in paints, and the anticipation of what comes after every brush stroke. Finally, on a whim, she decided to take a watercolor class. 

Sara Berrenson with ZenART Black Tulip Collection
Sara plein air painting in Joshua Tree National Park using watercolor and her Black Tulip collection brushes.

Sara immediately fell in love with watercolor. Not only because of its spontaneity but also because of the way the colors interact and blend with one another to create some really beautiful effects. It was around this time that she learned about surface design. And it seemed like a perfect path for Sara to explore hand-painted designs.

Sara Berrenson making hand-painted designs using Black Tulip brushes
Sara Berrenson painting with a Black Tulip brush with friend Leah Ayer.

Hand-painted Designs of an Artist Entrepreneur

When Sara discovered surface design, she was already backed up by years of corporate graphic design experience from both Trader’s Joe and Mattel. So, what exactly is Surface Design and how does it differ from what she was already doing?

Hand-painted designs by Sara Berrenson 2012
Sara’s earlier hand-painted designs for Society6 in 2012.

According to the International School of Color and Design, Surface Design is often described as the “development of prints and patterns that can be applied to any surface. For instance, surfaces like cushions, bed linen, fashion fabrics and wallpaper, to name a few.” 

Hand-painted designs by Sara Berrenson 2019
Sara Berrenson’s 2019 hand-painted designs – Tropics collection of textile and wall covering prints with Materialised.

At Mattel, Sara worked mostly on the graphic design requirements for Barbie and Monster High. This means she created designs that are exclusive properties of Mattel. On the other hand, being an independent surface designer would enable her to retain ownership of her hand-painted designs. In addition to that, she can also license them to selected brands for a certain period of time. This opened up a whole new world for Sara.

Hand-painted design by Sara Berrenson 2021
Sara Berrenson’s hand-painted designs on a most recent bedding collection with HSN, Peaches. A design that would make one want “to sip peach tea at a farmhouse porch on a warm sunny day.”

Sara eventually found her distinguishable visual style. Thus, using her new found visual identity, she created collections and built up her own portfolio. And as a surface designer, she plans a collection, paints them by hand then prepares them digitally so they can be applied to one or a whole collection of products.

Later, she started joining exhibitions at trade shows and from there slowly but steadily grew her business. After eight fruitful years at Mattel, she shifted her career to focus on art licensing.

Watercolor the Easy Way

Sara is passionate about painting and hopes to inspire others to discover the joy of painting with watercolor. So in 2020, on top of creating art and designing for her own brand, Sara published her first art book Watercolor the Easy Way #1. The book includes 50 step-by-step tutorials on different motifs.

Her new book focusing on her favorite subject, flowers Watercolor the Easy Way #2 – Watercolor the Easy Way Flowers: Step-by-Step Tutorials for 50 Flowers, Wreaths, and Bouquets is available from the 5th of October 2021.

Sara Berrenson Watercolor the Easy Way
Sara’s first watercolor book, Watercolor the Easy Way (2020) published by Better Day Books

Sara and ZenART Supplies

Sara Berrenson is part of ZenART’s Luminaries, an international community of artists we love. She enjoys using her Black Tulip collection brushes for some of her watercolor paintings.

Sara Berrenson hand-painted designs with ZenART Black Tulip brushes
Sara’s watercolor paintings created using the Black Tulip collection water media brushes.

Hand-painted Designs from Sara’s Body of Work

We’ve selected a few of Sara Berrenson’s hand-painted designs and paintings from throughout her art and design career. Let’s take a look at some of these wonderful pieces.

Holiday Floral (2020) by Sara Berrenson

Bottle Brush (2020) by Sara Berrenson

Bouquet (2020) by Sara Berrenson

Hand-painted designs by Sara Berrenson Bouquet

Joshua Tree (2021)  by Sara Berrenson

Hand-painted designs by Sara Berrenson Joshua Tree

Say hello to our ZenARTist for August 2021, Sara Berrenson! Send some love her way on Instagram @saraberrenson. Did Sara’s story inspire you to start painting? Have you tried creating hand-painted designs using watercolor with the intention of using them for other objects? Share your stories below and let’s start a conversation!

Get some motivation and inspiration to start painting today, join our group on Facebook Painting Inspiration Daily.  Also, to enjoy the process, make sure to learn about the essential watercolor painting techniques. Happy painting!


Fabrianne is the Ambassador of Art Buzz at ZenART, resident eccentric pocket-sized art curator, editor, and art world liaison. She builds and develops relationships with the arts community and makes sure that ZenART’s inspirational articles get to you “hot off the press.” She co-founded an online contemporary art gallery, worked with over 100 artists on exhibitions and performances, wears only black clothes and when she’s not creating buzz or curating and saturating in art, still daydreams of becoming a quirky Wes Anderson film character.

Reference and Further Reading:

Youtube, Sara Berrenson Design Showcase, https://youtu.be/ifDkYN3BGX4
McGowan, C., Materialised, Q&A with Sara Berrenson, https://materialised.com.au/qa-with-sara-berrenson-on-her-new-textile-wallcovering-print-collection/
Sara Berrenson bio, https://www.saraberrenson.com/about