Recently, I finished teaching a six-week intensive online watercolor course, teaching principles to help intermediate watercolorists develop their personal style and achieve mastery of watercolor. It is so exciting for me to see students fired up and excited about the possibilities they see as they strive for greater levels of skill and expression in their painting journey, and it really is the most fulfilling part of teaching watercolor.
As we wrapped up the six week series, one student asked me, “Angela, what does it mean if you are actually getting WORSE at watercolor instead of better?”
Several other students chimed in and commented that they felt like they were seeing more paintings fail instead of succeed at this stage of their watercolor development, and it was starting to get discouraging. I have experienced this same pattern in my own painting history, more than once, and I often look back and reflect on the things I’ve learned when I’m caught in what I like to call “The Obstacle Cycle.”
The Obstacle Cycle
Imagine yourself as a new painter in watercolor. Just putting paint on paper feels like success at this early learning stage, as any positive outcome feels like a win. Those happy accidents are so exciting and motivating!
As you continue painting and learning, you want to be able to reproduce the good things that happened in those early successes, and this isn’t immediately forthcoming. Good things happening by accident feel easy – after all, they were accidental – but having the skill to be able to plan similar outcomes takes a level of experience with the medium, an anticipation of what is going to happen, that only experience can develop.
So begins the first obstacle cycle; moving from accident to intention, in even a small way, is going to involve some trial and error. Trial AND error. If you’re trying things, NEW things, you’re going to get some errors along the way. This is a sign that learning is happening.
If it was easy before, it’s because it was safe.
When painting is comfortable, it’s because we’re in a comfort zone. Comfort zones are safe and familiar. We do what we know how to do, and don’t venture beyond. But comfortable is boring; no one thinks of their cozy sofa as an exciting place to be!
For many years, I was comfortable in a cozy place in my painting practice; working on copying reference photos in a fairly realistic style, looking for success in matching what the photograph represented. This was a safe place for me, and at the time, I needed that safety. Those years spent copying photos were technique-building, helping me to observe watercolor, water load, pigment and brush handling in a more controlled environment than I would have found as a looser painter. While I still went through cycles of growth and learning (more on that in a bit), I did so from the comfort of known subject matter and style.
Humans aren’t really made to stay in one place, however. When it comes to creativity, we crave more. Our hearts aren’t satisfied with the comfort zone, and there is continual learning that takes place, even when we think we aren’t learning at all. Even when it feels like we are doing the same things we’ve always done, our brains are still taking in more information, and our practice will stretch to accommodate the new.
Suddenly everything familiar is gone.
You’ll get dissatisfied with what you are achieving right now. When my children were babies, they would get really grumpy for a time, and it nearly always signified that they were on the cusp of developing a new skill; sitting unassisted, learning to walk, speaking their first words. Their brains were itching for that new level, usually before their body was, and that dissatisfaction gave them the push necessary to reach that next stage of development.
I don’t think that has changed, just because we are grown-ups. We still have brains that become ready for a new challenge, and feeding that challenge means our bodies have to master something new.
Failed paintings are a good sign!
When everything is going right, it’s likely that you are in a comfortable place of having mastered what you’ve set out to achieve. This is a wonderful time of fulfillment. It’s exciting to see your paintings turn out even better than you expected, to see your brush making magic.
But when it’s making mud, instead of magic? That’s actually an even better sign. You’re the courageous artist who is unwilling to stay safe and familiar. You’re setting out to new places you’ve never been before, searching for more skill, more authenticity in your work. Your artistic growth cycle has swung around to the “learning” side again, and only by pressing forward will you satisfy that deep urge to do more with your art.
My Obstacle Cycle Mantra
When I’m in the midst of the ugliness of a learning cycle (yes, 20 years in they are still a part of my artistic adventure), I repeat these words to myself, “This is a learning cycle. A breakthrough is right around the corner.”
I’ve been in this place a dozen times before. It’s hard. It’s discouraging. But you can’t go back. No baby would willing go back to being unable to sit unaided, and you’ll never be happy back where you were before either. Push forward, trust that a breakthrough is right around the corner.
Every single time I’ve told myself that, I’ve been right. I just need the patience to keep painting until I get there.
This is one corner you CAN paint yourself out of. I believe in you.Recommended7 recommendationsPublished in
Angela Fehr is an internationally known watercolour artist and instructor living in in northern British Columbia, Canada. Teaching over 5,000 students in her online school, Fehr emphasizes fluid and intuitive painting, teaching technique clearly and encouraging students to explore their own unique style as they develop watercolour skills.