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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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