The room was quiet. The sun had not yet come up. Everyone in the house was asleep, except the little girl, barely four years old, still in her nightgown, standing on her bed using the top of the dresser as a table. The warm light from the lamp showed her small hands holding her favorite crayon: Magenta! And there were other wondrous colors scattered nearby. She enjoyed making the white paper come to life with color, and she concentrated hard to stay in the lines.
With a mother’s sixth sense, it wasn’t long before her mom woke up and came into the room. She stood for a moment, watching her daughter’s little fingers moving quickly, her nose nearly to the paper, oblivious to her surroundings. The little girl startled when she felt her hair lovingly moved aside. “Shhh,” her mom whispered, so she wouldn’t wake the other kids asleep in the same room. “Let me see what you are coloring.” The little girl’s heart pounded with excitement. “You’re doing a beautiful job, Lavonne.” And, this was when a seed was planted in the little girl’s heart: She wanted to be an artist.
Hi. My name is Lavonne Cookman. I have lived in Northern California all my life, and I am the hopeful little girl from the story. The encouragement from my mom changed me, because in my family, compliments were rare, and we never talked about dreams. We were poor and took one day at a time. It was enough to be fed and clothed. To my mom, that powerful compliment was insignificant – she doesn’t even remember it. But, it changed me, and throughout my childhood into high school, art was a passion.
Time ticks away, as we all know, and it seemed that in the blink of an eye, I was a mom myself. The seed from my childhood was neglected, as I went about the business of raising my kids. My priority became them, and like so many others in the world, I quieted my desire for art and focused on parenting.
With time still flying, in my thirties, my dormant dream to become an artist nudged me again. I enrolled in art courses at our Junior College. I took classes from local artists. For twenty years, I dabbled in artistic endeavors, always telling myself, “I wish I had more time, because then I could do it properly.” The truth is: I needed to make time.
My mid-fifties came at me like a jet, and with five grandkids, I realized that I had actually been a wisher for too many years. Mid-fifties! How did this happen? Time hadn’t been waiting for me, while I was waiting for the perfect time. The perfect time would never just plop in my lap. I had to find it! Sheer desire wasn’t going to make me an artist: I had obviously proven this.
I began to attend workshops from professionals. It was scary at first. I felt very under qualified to be among such talent. And, a magical thing happened. In a workshop given by Bev Jozwiak, she told us that “miles on the brush” would make us all better painters. I remember thinking, “Whoa! Really? That’s it?” It’s another way to say practice, but practice just sounds tedious and boring. Miles on the brush sounded exciting!
Bev also said that if the majority of artists are honest with you, they will admit that their success is a result of tenacity over talent. Again, I was struck with a thrill! “Tenacity? I can do that!” I knew without a doubt I could be tenacious! If that’s what it took, I was in!
With a newfound joy in myself, I set out to tenaciously put miles on my brush. Those quotes resonated within me. I was now solidly determined to paint a little or a lot every single day and no matter what the outcome, I would be happy, because I had put those precious and valuable miles on my brush. That seed planted over 50 years ago in my little girl’s heart had finally germinated and was about to grow.
For the past three years, I have painted almost every day, fully committed to make it a priority. My hope to become a better painter, my dream to learn art, and my wish to understand watercolor, is now reality. I discovered that watercolor paint produces magic when it is allowed to dance with water, so my particular style tends to be looser and splashy with bits of realism.
I want my result to clearly look like a painting, and I want the subject to be obvious, but I love to incorporate movement and interesting colors. I prefer to paint animals and people and even insects, because there is personality in those eyes. They lived! They breathed! If one day, I can find a way to paint a landscape or a floral or a still life with a fun personality, I will do those as well.
An unexpected dream has also happened. I now teach online watercolor classes. One of my free classes has over 2,000 members. My main goal for the students is to encourage them to become happy painters. I want them to go from doubting to daring to doing. No procrastinating – like I did. We never retreat: we always advance. I sing for them, and I dance for them, because I believe they need to be cheerful and love themselves when they paint. “Be your own best friend,” I say. This includes complimenting your own paintings – as a friend would do. My course titles include the words joy and happiness, so there is no mistaking what we will be doing.
I start with a great photograph that is interesting to me. It could be the light or the composition, but it needs to capture my attention. From there I draw it out. Afterwards, I set about asking myself how I can change it. What do I need to keep? What can I leave out? Shall I give it a new color? Should I splash the background? I am not aiming for photo realism – after all, I already have a photograph.
As I said earlier, I prefer to paint a subject that lived and breathed, so I typically start with the eyes. This may be the only part of the painting that I want to be as realistically accurate as possible. I enjoy this part tremendously – I feel like the painting has begun watching me, cheering me on to finish, and also becoming my friend. I know that’s a silly thought, but it makes me happy. Many artists leave the eyes for the end, as these are details. There is no right or wrong way, but I don’t like looking at a painting where the eyes are white spaces, and everything else has been painted. If the eyes are the window to the soul, I want to see the soul of my painting as soon as possible.
I then move on to bigger areas of the painting and prefer using wet into wet to get some color down. I am just looking at the shapes of the values – the darks and lights. I bounce from place to place in my painting and try not to get tunnel vision on one area. Splashing paint helps! And also, giving myself mental breaks – both the painting and myself appreciate it. I often tell my students: step away from the painting! It’s not going anywhere without you. When you come back, the painting often surprises you with its progress.
As soon as the values are painted in, the painting immediately begins to take shape. The darks especially define spaces – they could be called the drama queens. They draw your attention to the area and push the lights forward. If your painting seems bland, ask yourself if you have been brave and bold enough with your darks.
Then it’s time to begin the details. Again, I bounce around on the painting, and my brushes get smaller, and the paint generally gets thicker. I often take a painting to a mirror to see how it looks. Or, I take a photo of it. Both of these will give you a new perspective on what’s happening.
To finish a painting, I look for areas that “jump out at me.” It’s almost always an edge. This is typically where the contrast also shows. Then I ask myself, “Do I want the attention there?” If not, I go about correcting it. I will either blur it or help it to become a lost edge. If I want the attention there, I leave it alone. My painting is like a cookie to me – a bit underdone is always better than overdone. Leave something for the viewer to wonder about.
Although, I am not formally trained, I have many mentors who taught me. I believe we should always give credit to other artists from whom we’ve learned. Mine include: Carol Carter, Meeta Dani, Bev Jozwiak, Susan Harrison-Tustain, David Lobenberg, and Nita Engel. Some I have met in person, and others only through books, DVDs, or email. It is critical to your growth to invest in oneself, and I happily paid for their expertise. Their support, they gave for free.
Carol Carter is the artist who also instilled in me one of the things I repeat to myself often. Value does the work: color gets the credit. She taught that a painting needn’t be photo realistic. It could be fun and vibrant and saturated with color. At her workshop we were given templates. My heart practically stopped, because prior to that, I had been spending as much (or more) time on my drawing as I had the painting. The template gave me the freedom to just paint and let the water move! My mind was blown, and I couldn’t stop smiling in the workshop.
After that, there was no looking back. Although I sometimes sketch free hand, I currently use a projector to transfer photographs to drawings on paper. This procedure helps me to not let the drawing become so precious that I am uptight when painting. Watercolor is best when the artist is relaxed. I include lots of detail on the drawing, but when painting, I always remember we are telling a visual story. So I leave out what might over-tell the story. A viewer loves the mysterious parts of a painting.
The mentor who pushed me the most was Meeta Dani. She inspired me and taught me how to become brave enough to teach online courses. Without her expert guidance, I would never have had the courage or knowledge. She is a force in the art world who helps artists to value themselves and their art. As a result, I am now a GAWA Certified Online Art Mentor.
Get the best you can afford. Invest in professional grade supplies as soon as you can. Watercolor is challenging enough without the added obstacles of pilling paper, chalky paint, or shedding brushes. However; don’t let a lack of supplies hold you back. Use anything you can find. Use coffee! Use a makeup brush. Use any paper you have. Get creative. But paint, paint, and paint some more.
I want to end with this: procrastination is the slow killer of dreams. It can eventually turn dormant seeds into dead ones. I want to motivate you to stop hoping for “one day” to come. You need to make it happen! Truly every minute on your brush will lead you closer to becoming an artist. If I had only painted 30 minutes a day during all my years of dreaming, I would have logged 3,600 hours, which equals almost two years of full-time work weeks. Think of what I could have accomplished with that daily, small amount of time! Think of what you could accomplish with only 30 minutes a day, starting now!
I don’t know what your dream is. But, I know this: Time stops for no one. Don’t make excuses like I did. It’s not too late. If I can do it, you can do it. Your dream lies waiting in hopeful soil. You just need to fertilize and water it a little each day, like I did, and here’s why:
I still wake up before everyone else in the house. It’s still dark outside. A white piece of paper still sits on a table for me. My hands still move in the warm light of a lamp. But, instead of holding a crayon, they now use a paintbrush to joyfully splash on beautiful paint. I get to watch watercolor dance as I create stories of illusions on paper. My dream has come true, and I feel like that happy, excited little girl again. Watercolor dreams are good for the soul! May you find yours!
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