I used to flee my paintings like I was running from a fire. Actually, I used to paint like I was fighting a fire; frantic, poking my brush at each potential mistake, scrubbing anxiously to blot out a too-bold stroke. I was always painting as though I believed that at any moment, the painting would lurch out of my control and end in disaster, and I wasn’t always wrong!
Whether a painting resulted in success or failure, I found freedom in setting the brush down and calling it complete. Each painting took so much focus and struggle, and my method back then was “one and done.” I would attempt to paint a scene once, and then move on to the next reference photo.
One day, a friend saw a painting I’d sold, and asked if I’d paint a copy for her. When I pulled out the reference photo to paint a new version of the scene, I noticed that I was able to paint it more confidently the second time. My previous decision making process was informing how I approached the painting the second time, and as a result, the second painting was better than the first.
Developing a “Do-Over” Approach to Watercolor
I started noticing that when I painted scenes with similar subject matter, I also was more confident in approach. As I painted landscape scenes, I learned strategies for painting trees, sky and grass that made future paintings with the same elements look better. Every time I paint, I add new competencies to my “tool box” of painting strategies, and it only makes sense that my tool box gets a little heavier if I paint the same subject repeatedly and gain extra skills in that area.
I’ve started making “do-overs” a frequent part of my painting process. My first version of a scene is much more likely to show me what I don’t know about my subject yet than it is to be the best version I could paint. My painting process has evolved to show a commitment to my reference photo that I never had at the beginning; a willingness to paint the scene up to twenty times in the search for the version that feels the most like me.
Here’s a look at how that might work:
Versions 1- 2: I paint a postcard size 15 minute sketch of the photo. Sometimes I will start with a 2 minute value study – a single color version that helps me look for contrasts. Other times I will do the value study after I’ve done a 15 minute color sketch.
Version 3: Literal version. This is the first “official” painting of the scene, completed in about an hour. I work quickly but expect that this version is most likely to show me what I don’t know yet than a strongly designed painting.
Version 4-6: In these versions, I continue to work quickly, but before I paint, I make a plan by asking a few questions.
- “What if I zoomed in closer to the focal point?”
- “What if I worked with more soft edges and flowed shapes together?”
- “What is the least amount of detail I could use here?”
- “What colors could I change to create more impact?”
Each time I paint the scene my goal is to ask “what if” and try something different, while also evaluating what works in each scene.
Version ???: At a certain point I get a little bored or frustrated. Often this is because I’m not seeing the changes I want to see, everything is kind of looking the same. This frustration or boredom is often just the impeller I need to push me to rebel and really change things up. I need to be in the place of being willing to throw out everything I’ve done before to try something new and trust myself.
Victory: Often, I will finish a series with a painting that really excites me, one that feels more authentic than anything I’ve done to that point, a combination of the scene I want to depict and my own self-expression and emotion.
Defeat? There are times when I walk away from a series not quite having reached the version that felt true. When I feel my frustration at not being able to show what I want to show start to feel overwhelming, I am okay with saying, “This is not for now,” and setting that subject aside for a time. I start something new, or revisit an old favorite subject, believing that even if the series didn’t result in a masterpiece, the learning that happened during the development process is invaluable and will influence all of my paintings, not just that one scene.
A Lifetime in Development
I spent a week or two developing this waterfall scene last year, from value study to literal version to a large format version on a full sheet of watercolor paper. Later, as I added that painting to my records, I realized that the painting I’d developed in a week had actually been in development for twenty-five years, ever since I painted my first waterfall painting as a new artist. I would not have been able to paint my most recent waterfall without the explorations into that subject from the past two decades.
I’m thankful for that first waterfall painting, and every successive one, and what they have taught me. And that makes me much more willing to make these repeated attempts at a subject today, because next year and ten, twenty, thirty years from now I will be so much better because I was willing to dive deeper into a subject and really get to know it, painting it again and again.
This week’s video lesson: I’m pulling out an older landscape and painting it again, one of the views from my studio window. Join me!
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