When I fell in love with watercolor, it was for life. I couldn’t help it! It was so beautiful, and for a long time, it seemed to like me too. I loved the joy of seeing the color flow in the first wet-in-wet layer, and the richness created by layers of glazes. I saw “artist-like” marks come off my brush and believed that despite my beginner status, I could trust that I would be able to create beautiful paintings. I could be an artist.
But my relationship with watercolor got a little tattered when I started to realize that watercolor has a mind of its own. The script in my head for how my life as an artist would evolve didn’t seem to line up with the pace of my growth or the directions my paintings often took. Many paintings became a battle for control rather than a symphony of beauty, and I didn’t know how to fix it. I was just starting to realize how much I had yet to learn to become the artist I wanted to be.
We’re climbing a mountain!
The path of an artist is never a level, well-marked avenue. This creative journey is more like the mountain hikes I take with my family, with narrow, muddy trails, scrambling up steep slopes and bushwhacking when a fallen tree blocks the way. When we hike, we plan our gear; grippy shoes (we tease my mom about the time she went hiking and forgot her shoes. She had to hike in flipflops!), layers to keep us warm and dry, water to drink and a dry pair of socks in case we fall in a creek. We prepare for predators by carrying bug repellent and bear spray (we’ve never had to use it), and we expect that while portions of our trip might be uncomfortable, it will all be worth it for the experiences we share and the view at the end of the trail.
The right gear makes all the difference.
Let’s have the same approach to our pursuit of watercolor! We can recognize that our adventure in painting will not always be easy, but that we can be prepared for the ups and downs of the journey so that we aren’t tempted to turn back. Every artist has gone through stages of doubt and discouragement; in fact, two artists I admire each confessed that they had recently gone through deep periods of drought and discouragement that had prompted them to consider quitting painting. If professional, highly esteemed artists feel this way, we should expect that we will encounter similar obstacles. Rather than shrinking back, however, we can use this knowledge to equip ourselves to face them.
Creative health is the well from which we draw.
One way I equip myself is by caring for my creative health. I don’t hike injured, and I need to realize that I’m going to need a healthy creative practice if I want a long-lasting artistic lifespan. Many professional artists burn out by forgetting to take time to feed their creativity; busy creating work for their careers, they turn painting into a product they create for others, and fail to fill their creative bank account by making time to make art purely for their own personal fulfillment. I NEED time to play and create without expectations or the need to produce something useful; this is where my best ideas are born. It’s an artistic daydream where inspiration feels safe to emerge.
Dress for the weather.
I’ll never forget our second hike to Boot Lake. We had hiked there just two weeks before on a beautiful June day, and expected our hike in July to be even more sunny and glorious. And it was…until we reached the top of the mountain ridge, where the wind was howling and pelting us with snow! In short sleeves, we were completely miserable until we retreated back down into the trees where the sun was still shining. Just as smart hikers pack gear for changes in the weather, as artists we can prepare for the fluctuating weather of a lifetime of tenacious creativity.
When I start a painting session, I choose from a toolbox of options depending on my “creative climate.” If I’m feeling excited and confident, I can paint almost anything I want from that position of strength. But if the weather is a little stormier – if I’m struggling with negative self-talk or stress, for example – I choose the option of painting just for my mindset. I choose easy wins; playful warmups, slow & meditative painting to my favorite music, or even simply sorting through my colors and cleaning my palette. I adapt my approach to meet my mental and emotional needs in that moment.
Defend against predators.
I want to arm myself with defenses against predators. Mosquitos – negative thoughts of self-criticism, the thoughtless comment of a well-meaning art critic, and expectations – can all buzz around when I’m trying to paint. Larger predators might be more rare, but sometimes we don’t even need to experience them to allow fear to stop us from creating or putting our art out into the world. Fear of rejection held me back for years from participating in many art events where my art would have been welcomed. (And fear of bears has kept me from going hiking alone!)
Knowing that negative self-talk and criticism are the two biggest factors to discouragement means that I expend a whole lot of energy into combating those thoughts by reminding myself of how far I’ve come, celebrating my wins, and repeating the phrases that remind me that I’m right where I’m supposed to be. In fact, I’ve made a career out of repeating those things out loud, so they can encourage you, too. I talk about this mindset stuff because I need it for myself.
Don’t go alone.
We often have an “us and them” mindset towards artistic growth. We observe everyone who has achieved what we have not, and we feel alone in our struggle to achieve something as significant. One of the best ways we can stay encouraged is by finding a safe space in community with others who are working through some of the same processes as we are. Among like-minded artists, we can honestly share our victories and our struggles and encourage each other on this journey. We can offer direction to each other, sharing travel tips for this amazing, rewarding watercolor journey. That can happen in person, when you seek out and join a local art or sketching group, or online, when you seek out artists who share your mindset in a Facebook group or online community.
I’m so thankful to Charlie O’Shields and his generosity in organizing World Watercolor Month for just this reason! In his open-hearted desire to make watercolor more accessible to and celebrated by the world, he’s given us the chance to get together as a community and share our love of this beautiful medium. We get to love watercolor and I want to love it and play with it for the rest of my life. Don’t forget to check out the World Watercolor Month shop, where you can purchase limited edition items that go to support art education through the International Child Art Foundation. And tag your paintings, all this month with #worldwatercolormonth and celebrate watercolor with us!
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