Are You Getting Worse At Painting Instead Of Better?

Are You Getting Worse At Painting Instead Of Better? by Angela Fehr - Doodlewash

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.”

Getting Worse At Painting Instead of Better The Obstacle Cycle by Angela Fehr

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.

(Ready to take your watercolor painting to the next level? Join Angela for her Watercolour Mastery course!)  

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29 Comments
  1. Sarah 6 months ago

    What a beautifully inspiring post!! 😄 And I have to confess that it is very reassuring to know that this happens also to very experienced painters. 😉 When I happen to get to that new learning curve, I usually take a step back, take up something equally artistic but different in nature, like pottery for example, and make myself realize that all I need to do is accept a new perspective. 😊

    • Mireya 6 months ago

      Yes it helps lesson the negative

  2. Leena Uniyal 6 months ago

    How true! Seems like this post was written for me😊..feel motivated to continue logging in those brush miles. Thank you, Angela!

    • Mireya 6 months ago

      Yes I’m goin through this too.

  3. Rag Tag 6 months ago

    this gives me hope

  4. Carole Pivarnik 6 months ago

    I’m in the midst of embracing a more abstracted style in my own watercolor work after years of highly realistic work. When I get frustrated (often!), I recall this excellent advice for creatives by Ira Glass of This American Life; in fact, it’s framed and hanging in my studio. https://csuphoto.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/enhanced-buzz-5314-1367445376-0.jpg

    • Author
      angelfehr 6 months ago

      I frequently share Ira Glass’s talk – it so aptly explains the creative process!

  5. Carol Rieger 6 months ago

    I was so inspired and relieved by your blogpost. I had a friend who looked at one of my watercolor “attempts” as I call them, and said, “I don’t care if you don’t like it, I love it!” Best encouragement I ever got. I smiled at one of the comments that said they were encouraged to continue logging “brushmiles”. Love this stuff.

    • Author
      angelfehr 6 months ago

      It’s even better when you get to the stage where you love your own work so much (even when you don’t know why it feels so good) that it doesn’t even matter if others don’t see the same beauty you do!

  6. Bekki Mundy Page 6 months ago

    Yes!!! Thank you for putting this concept into words. Im trying to move from planned layers to pulling hints of edges out of beautiful washes in a more organic way. It. Is. So. Hard. I still have to do at least one ink and wash piece a week to keep myself sane. Thanks for the encouragement.

  7. Hey Girl,

    I really loved this post! ThnQ for sharing this post with us!
    Have a great weekend ,Hugz And Kisses!

    Miss B. X

  8. Anita Sinha 6 months ago

    So inspiring…Thank you, Angela!🙏

  9. Moony 6 months ago

    A wonderful and helpful post! Thank you

  10. Carol 6 months ago

    This is a very helpful, realistic explanation, Angela. Thanks for the encouragement, as always!

  11. dkatiepowellart 6 months ago

    Great topic… I have this as a topic o write about as well… For me, when I stretch to try new things I get before they are integrated when I try my old moves they seem awkward.

    • Author
      angelfehr 6 months ago

      it’s the clumsy learning time! It’s okay – without those awkward transitions, we would never get anywhere.

  12. Mireya 6 months ago

    I’m working on art for my book and I’ve faced this. Instead of beating myself up I have learned to accept my me-isms . I’m still learning. The more I let go of how they paint, I am able to just paint my ideas and I love creating just like I did when I was a kid.

    • Author
      angelfehr 6 months ago

      I call this “trusting the process!” Doing the work and knowing you are moving forward, even when you can’t tell. Yes!

      • Mireya 6 months ago

        Yes well said

  13. Sandra Gilbert 6 months ago

    I seem to hit the obstacle cycle fairly often. Thank you for encouraging us when it happens.

  14. Sharon Marlow 6 months ago

    I must confess that this was the first time I have felt so incredibly inspired to do what I love I may never be considered a artist but with these wonderful words I will always enjoy whatever art I create

    • Author
      angelfehr 6 months ago

      That makes me so happy to hear! When you paint for the love, it shows in your work.

  15. Frances 6 months ago

    Hi Angela!

    It’s funny, but your article made me feel the same way in church when the pastor would encourage and welcome those congregants who were in pain, had a problem, wanted to get “saved.” It was always as though it was personally directed at me, his encouragement, suggestions, targeted towards me. Your article made me feel the same way. It spoke personally to me at a time in my life when I needed someone to let me know it was normal, it was okay, and how to move forward from my “stuck, comfy” spot. Perfect timing, Angela, as all your writings speak so clearly to me. Thank you!

    • Author
      angelfehr 6 months ago

      Thank you, Frances! I have had that same experience – it’s so meaningful when we get just what we need at the time we need it, isn’t it?!

  16. D & D Productions 6 months ago

    I watercolor, and whenever I feel like that, it helps to look at how simplistic my early stuff was. So, when I feel like I’m not painting well, it’s because I’m doing more advanced stuff:)

    • Author
      angelfehr 6 months ago

      Yes – why is it so hard for us to remember this sometimes?!

  17. Jane 6 months ago

    Oh My!!! This is EXACTLY what I needed right now. Every single word and idea resonated completely within me, to such an extend that it gave me goosebumps and made me tear up. I big big big thank you for “hearing me”…even when I said nothing out loud…and being the Earth Angel sent to bring me the answers, guidance and direction to move forward along this journey. Much love light and JOY.

    • Author
      angelfehr 6 months ago

      Isn’t it wonderful when that happens!? I’m so glad these things I’ve learned get to encourage other artists.

  18. Laura Kate 6 months ago

    This post offered me lots of encouragement to try things. I teach fibers arts to children, and my mantra is, “it’s always hard until it’s easy.” In other words, success requires repetition. Thanks for encouraging me to leave my comfort zone.

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