Watercolor painting is teaching me how to learn when it is time to stop.
Unlike writing, where you can rewrite and revise words for decades, if you rework a shape too much using watercolor, the paper starts to break down. The actual medium starts to deteriorate. If you try to fix a mistake or paint over something, the original mark is still there. The first draft is always final.
This is called “overworking the paper or the paint” as I’ve listened to teachers who share tutorial videos online. Overworking the pigment and water ruins a painting. The worn paper draws your eye to that shape; that’s all you see. Like a coffee stain on a white shirt. A dropped stitch on a knitted blanket.
Your mistake becomes the focal point.
I suppose if I was still writing by hand or with a typewriter, the same would be true. I am old enough to remember how frustrating it was to fix a typo using liquid paper or the backspace deleting of a typewriter. The curse or the blessing of the digital magic machine is that it allows you to keep drafts of drafts of drafts of drafts. A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
With watercolor, you have to make the call that it’s done. You have to say, this is the best I can do and it’s time to move on. You can either live with the obvious degradation of the materials or you can stop and preserve what you have.
But you have to call it.
I picked up my first set of paints the same week I learned about the virus that nobody took very seriously in my life. Almost everyone close to me discounted the severity of this virus at first. Discounted it like it would be a snow day. Like a temporary disaster similar to an avalanche sliding across a road. Seeing the doctor who scared us about AIDs and the seriousness of my state’s governor made me pay attention. Made me doubt others who were lighthearted that this was a temporary thing. I kept my opinions to myself and clung to the handful of people who make me a happier person. I started to examine the things I could change and control about my life as chaos swirled.
The pandemic was not the catalyst for my current obsession with pigment, but it definitely gave me the time and focus to learn and practice and think. A deep breath I did not know I needed.
Prior to purchasing my first set of paints, I had overworked the page with a written elegant appeal for why I no longer wanted to travel as part of my jobby job. Why I no longer wanted to be in a position of pretending like I love being an extrovert. Why others are better suited for the work I was doing. Why I wanted to create the materials others can use, but I did not want to spend my life in airports, hotels, strange cities, and that I can live my entire life to the end without ever returning to Texas or the southeastern states. Why I needed an extended break from academic conferences. True confession: I’d go to New York or any state north into Maine, but aside from seeing my family in the southeast, the rest of the country is not that interesting to me anymore. Turns out, all of those arguments were not needed as the virus circled the globe. My pitch was never spoken. That overworked page was never needed.
Life as we know it changed. A deep breath I knew I needed.
Instead, I did what needed to be done and I painted everyday. I had already been working remote for over a decade, so there was nothing to adjust to professionally. I disappeared into books from the library, and I wrote and revised a book. I was strangely content with being hyper-local; I only went south of Highway 20 a handful of times. I drove west because I love the Olympic peninsula. The big mountains that descend into rocky beaches has a pull on me like a magnet. In 2021, I lived within walking, running, snowshoeing, and cycling from my front door. I was treated to a whole month off from work where I painted and wrote while money magically appeared in my bank account. For a month, I got to experience what it must be like to be rich or comfortably upper-middle class. I deleted every app that connected to email, notifications, and focused on being a writer. I felt nothing but gratitude for 31 days.
I was able to take full advantage of the wise words of Mary Oliver from her Blue Pastures:
Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart–to pace, to chew pencils, and to scribble and erase and scribble again.
What I love most about this book is her use of the color blue in every chapter. Sometimes it’s sneaky like a reference to the “whole sky” or sometimes it is direct like fishing for bluefin tuna. But it’s there, that color blue. My favorite chapter is “Pen and Paper and Breath of Air” where she explains how she carries a small notebook to lists her thoughts as she walks. Her question below sends me staring into the sky on more days than I like to admit:
Do you think the wren ever dreams of a better house?
In 2020, I painted birds everyday for 100 days with the promise to myself that if I still felt depressed on day 100 as I did on day one, I would seek help. Those paintings got me through to the other side. Since then, I have progressed as a painter. I am still overworking the page as a writer. I am still not sure if the wren dreams of a better house.
Here are some thoughts for today as I head into the weekend with unfettered time and no commitments and no screens and birds in the sky above a trail I will walk. Pure joy.
I have been taking two classes in my free time as an online student. One I am not ready to talk about and the other brings me back to thinking about my early days of being a teacher.
The hardest thing about teaching is remembering what it is like to be a beginner. What it is like to learn something for the very first time. This is sometimes called the “expert’s blindspot” but I am not comfortable with that description. I could never point out where I was an expert and what I could not see. It’s an elitist description that only the worst people in education seem cozy with.
When I tell people who do not know me well about learning to paint, they immediately ask if I am going to sell what I am creating on an online store. Or if I am creating a “side hustle” which I cannot even say without puking in my mouth a little. Don’t get me wrong. Should somebody want to commission me to paint, I would faint, get to work, and happily accept their money. But no, that’s not the goal. I also really hate the phrase “being a Creative” because I believe every person has that potential.
The best questions are from those who are interested in the paint, the paper, and the materials. The tangible. The tools. Shades. Hues. Saturation. The scribble without the erase. The chewing of the pencil or the paint brush. They know the value of working the page. The creative work. And how it saves me. How it saves us to be creative in a time of chaos and uncertainty.
They know the value of thinking about pigment to water ratio. As Mary Oliver jotted down:
The sugar of vanity, the honey of truth.
That is such a lovely observation about analogue and digital forms of creative work. I’ll bet that there’s the same comparison between digital drawing and water colour too. I think I should go back to more longhand writing to draft. I just can’t stand how slow it is sometimes. Anyway, thanks for this post, Alyson!
Thanks for reading, Stuart! I think you’re right. I see a lot of tutorials where artists touch up their work using programs and scanners. Seems way beyond my skill level, but yes, I see this angle thanks to your reading. I recommend the long-hand scribbles and annotations on the weekends. It helps slow down the pace of life. Thanks again for reading:)
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I’m pretty ignorant of the act of watercolor painting, this is a fascinating new bit to know and also respect more especially as my sister does water colors. I love this difference from writing, it shows how much more deliberate one must be, or maybe, to have the full vision in mind.
Also appreciate the focus on the practice rather than the product. And as well, that you write here in such thoughtful ways. I was drawn here and return for the writing, not the specific topic. I appreciate this honesty about The Work, and can resonate with my own struggle to find my relevance/interest.
And on wren house dreaming, I might be mis-remembering what I read once, but from ym times living in Arizona I recall that the cactus wren was notorious for spotting another bird’s home made in a saguaro cactus and then kicking out the hose builder. Even if I am wrong (who am I to challenge Mary Oliver) it makes for a story we really do not understand fully, even with science.
Keep painting out and about and scratching here.
Thank you for this generous reply, Alan. I’m sorry I didn’t respond–I’m not sure how I forgot! Guh, well, please know I always appreciate your thoughts and your generosity. Thank you for reading, friend.