Every Painting Starts in Play! How Playful Painting Transformed My Paintings

I start every painting session with one goal; to play. I have the skills to create a competent painting, but I know that unless I welcome play and experimentation into my painting practice, my paintings will be missing the life and energy I want for my work. I learned this the hard way; for years my goal was to create a perfect painting, but when I realized that the loose style I yearned for couldn’t be created in an environment driven by perfectionism, I found freedom, acceptance and joy, and my paintings came alive.

Angela Fehr Quote Welcome play into my painting practice

I play to let go of the day’s stress. In watercolor, I get to tell myself that everything will be okay, that nothing is expected from me in that moment but to enjoy the painting process. 

Do you give yourself permission to paint without worrying about the outcome? Have you ever worked hard on a lackluster painting, and then spent just a few minutes “playing” on a scrap of cheap paper and seen it come to life in a way that the masterpiece you’d slaved over didn’t? That’s the magic of play! Let go of results, give yourself to the moment, and trust that there will be an outcome that reflects the joy you’ve invested in your art.

Here are a few ways that I love to invite play into my work. With play, it can’t be boring. Trying new things and asking “what if” are essential to creating a pattern of play.

Playful Tools

Mark making is a great way to have a little fun with watercolor. I keep a stash of non-standard brushes that I grab to loosen up and create more playful brush strokes (Don’t forget to hold the brush loosely around the middle of the handle or higher, for more natural strokes.) If a brush feels too comfortable, I might grab one of the non-brush mark making tools that I keep nearby. A wad of string, a feather, a twig can create fascinating organic shapes to invite the unexpected into your paintings.

Watercolor birch trees painting by Angela Fehr and circular watercolor palette
This painting was created with an attitude of playful experimentation…and no paintbrush at all!

Color Inspired

One of my favorite ways to start painting is to create a big splashy mark of a single color on my paper, the looser the better. I let that first mark suggest to me what the next step, next color should be, without trying to “see” nouns in my painting. I don’t want to start out with a first stroke telling me that now I have to paint an elephant, a flower, a waterfall. The goal is to stay open to possibility for absolutely as long as possible, working only as far as the very next brush stroke or color choice.

Abstract Watercolor Painting by Angela Fehr
A splash of Daniel Smith’s Piemontite and Cobalt Blue directed the outcome of this painting.
“Taking a Breath” watercolor on paper

Doing it “Wrong”

Sometimes you don’t know what’s holding you back until you break a rule or two. Playful painting gives me the chance to think, “I know it’s against the rules to try this thing in watercolor, but I don’t have to follow the rules if I’m playing.” I can use mixed media instead of purely transparent watercolor. I can deliberately overwork my painting and see a beautiful complexity in dense layers of color. I can choose unexpected colors and paint from my imagination instead of only painting what I can see.

Watercolor Painting by World Watercolor Month Artist Ambassador Angela Fehr
This painting measures 36 x 48 inches and I set out to deliberately overwork it. From its original blue-green color palette, there’s very little left, but there’s a richness you don’t achieve in one or two layers of paint.

Can I do that in watercolor?

Some enormous breakthroughs and disastrous flops have happened because I saw a new technique in a non-watercolor art discipline and decided to see if I could adapt it for watercolor painting. I have tried using gouache as masking fluid, pouring beeswax over my paintings in a faux-encaustic method, attempting printmaking techniques, stencils, collage, origami, fabric painting & sculpture, paper-cutting, and while not all of these experiments turned out to be something worth sharing or framing, each one gave me the feeling that in watercolor, there are far fewer limitations that we initially believe, and that maybe the limits are only defined by my imagination!

Abstract Leaves Painting by Angela Fehr
Stamping with autumn leaves in watercolor and metallic pigment powder. Delicious!

Here’s an experiment for you to try: In this video, I’m pulling out beeswax again, to serve as a resist in my painting, followed by a little pen & ink to define my scene. Does it spark some “what if’s” of your own for your next playful painting session?

Watch the video


Recommended2 recommendationsPublished in Tutorials
  1. memadtwo 3 years ago

    Some truly excellent ideas in here. How often I’ve wished to have done something on better paper!

    • Author
      Angela Fehr 3 years ago

      Sometimes the cheap paper frees us to try things we wouldn’t on the good stuff! Funny how that works!

  2. Karen Fortier 3 years ago

    Still doing this Angela!

  3. Sandra Strait 3 years ago

    As usual, your work and wisdom are inspirational, Angela!

  4. Leila Skye 3 years ago

    Always inspirational. It shows in my paintings

  5. Susan Cuss 3 years ago

    It was so fun watching you play, Angela! I try to play every day, and sometimes, that’s when interesting things happen.

  6. Mandy Markram 3 years ago

    Loved the playfulness here Angela. Thank you for the inspiration, as always, while reminding us that we’re never too old to play and have fun. It’s an important aspect for creativity to come out.

    • Author
      Angela Fehr 3 years ago

      I really feel like creativity comes in a place of the unexpected and surprise – so I need play to make that happen!

  7. Laura 3 years ago

    I always enjoy Angela’s insights. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Laurie Gillis 3 years ago

    Can’t wait to do some playing today! I was feeling the need to get unstuck and this is just the ticket.

  9. Susan 3 years ago

    Thanks for your encouragement of letting go! I used different widths of yarn in my painting today.

  10. Julie Grossman 3 years ago

    Thanks, Angela, for the inspiring words in your post, as well as a fun exercise. Freeing!

  11. Kellie 3 years ago

    Great stuff, and I think play could be incorporated into lots of other things too, thanks for sharing 😊

  12. Maura 3 years ago

    Thank you Angela , I have stopped trying too hard myself , and always try to relax , have fun and play although your playfull paintings are masterpieces ❤️
    Thanks for all your videos , encouragement and all you do 💐💐

    • Leila Skye 3 years ago

      In the last 3 days I’ve grown in confidence painting self portraiture by play.

      • Author
        Angela Fehr 3 years ago

        Oh, I always take self portraits way too serious! That’s a really good idea!

  13. Mireya 3 years ago

    Far to often we mess up because we judge ourselves by others’ rules. I paint with watercolor and acrylic. The best, my best work happens when I just play. Watching children create is a lesson for us all. They just pick up the brush and paint. I always am amazed and ask them how and why they did what they did. The always say,” I don’t don’t I just painted. There’s so much power in that. One artist might say these are the five msitakes that you make. I say there are tips to help us but we should always question and explore.

    • Author
      Angela Fehr 3 years ago

      Yes! There is a balance there but I think we usually err on the side of being too serious about our work.

  14. Monica De Wit 3 years ago

    Interact with the paint…that’s the plan! Pour it out…there’s another one.
    Do I have time to play today?….I think I can do that.

  15. Monica De Wit 3 years ago

    I must remember to pay that bill first however, oh yes, those close need folding…but play WILL happen.

  16. Fascinante, muy bueno el vídeo

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