Painting Fast, Thinking Slow

Painting storage is an issue for me. In twenty-five years I’ve painted hundreds of paintings, and while I’ve sold some, and given others, there are many that weren’t really good enough to show, but not bad enough to throw away, and I save those. Sometimes when I sort through old paintings, I see a chance for a quick fix that turns a so-so painting into a frame-worthy masterpiece, sometimes I see good paintings that I was over-critical of before, and sometimes I simply get the chance to look back and see how my past paintings have informed my future growth.

I have a journey stored in sheds and cabinets, one that tells a story of my love for watercolor and the time I’ve invested in growing my skills and ability to express my unique perspective of my world. My very first watercolor painting is pinned up on the bulletin board in my studio. My first waterfall painting is tucked into my high school portfolio, and when I look at it, I choose not to look for the mistakes, but to see the hints of promise of the artist I was becoming. I couldn’t have painted this year’s waterfall painting without the waterfalls explored in past years, both the successes and the failures.

I Identify as Stubborn

I’m not the fastest learner when it comes to my artistic skill. I wasn’t a child prodigy or a notable up-and-coming artist in my twenties. Though I couldn’t control how quickly I would develop my skills or receive recognition, I realized that I could, however, choose to be too stubborn to quit.

Value the Journey, Not the Painting

Have you ever noticed that when something takes a long time to achieve, it becomes valuable? The things that mean the most to me are the things in which I’ve invested my time, things I’ve sacrificed for, and given myself fully to. It’s interesting because it’s actually changed the way I value my art.

As a new painter, I would labor hours over a painting, agonizing over brush strokes (usually lifting out more strokes than I placed on the page) and problem solving to fix my mistakes. There were many times that I chose to frame a painting despite glaring errors simply because I had so much time invested in that painting that I couldn’t bring myself to admit that it wasn’t very good.

As I racked up more “brush miles,” I added strategies to my toolbox that helped me paint with more confidence and a stronger plan, and that sped up my painting process. A painting that had previously taken me eight hours could now be completed in two, and that meant it didn’t hurt so much if I messed up and had to redo it. I could afford to spend two hours making sure I got the result I was looking for, because I knew that would also make me a better artist. I was learning to value my entire painting journey – creating a sustainable lifetime painting practice – over the time invested in a single painting.

Magic in Moments

I also noticed a funny thing; paintings that had taken hours might show a lot of skill and competence, but it was the little “doodles” that I fooled around with on a scrap of paper that felt alive, that had a magic that my “serious” paintings didn’t have. I realized that a looser, intuitive approach could be found if I gave myself permission to play a little. In one of my first YouTube tutorials, I asked myself the question, “What if I painted the berries I loved to paint in a minimum of brush strokes?”

How much freedom did I have to relax and capture the spirit of my subject; quickly? In the years since I first asked that question, I’ve made rapid expression my frequent approach, recognizing that sometimes a few brush strokes say all they need to say, and everything else is just overstating the point.

Painting Quick, Thinking Slow

There is beauty in simplicity, and I’m seeking that for my art. I frequently assign myself the challenge, either before or after I start a new painting, of trying to capture that image in ten minutes or less, or in as few brush strokes as possible. What would the scene look like if I didn’t allow my brush to touch the same spot on the paper more than once? What would I have to leave out in order to complete this scene in ten minutes? In five minutes? This obstacle of time forces me to distill the painting down to the most essential parts. It helps me to create paintings with more impact, less distraction. It frees me to try out an idea without investing hours to find out I’ve been focused on the wrong focal point, or used the wrong colors, or chosen a lackluster composition. In working fast, I create an environment of discovery.

Please note that painting quickly doesn’t mean rushing. We are often told that because watercolor dries quickly, we need to paint fast, and this is true. However, I like to remind myself to “Think slow, paint fast,” so that I can enter into the painting session with intention and mission but without urgency. I pause before I paint to allow myself time to visualize the next step before my brush starts moving.

Video Lesson: In this video, I’m painting a scene I’ve painted about five times before. In this version I get to set aside the reference photo and paint from memory, focusing on simplicity, contrast and flow. So far, this has become my favorite painting of the series; in this instance, speed and simplicity worked in my favor, with the knowledge of the scene that I have from the past versions guiding my instincts.

Recommended3 recommendationsPublished in Tutorials, World Watercolor Month

15 thoughts on “Painting Fast, Thinking Slow

  1. I first found Angela from Doodlewash and have been a fan ever since. Thank you for all you do for the watercolor community Angela!

  2. Wonderful post Angela! Your voice echoes in my ear as I log those brush stokes, experiment and play. I count you as one of the major influences in my painting journey. Thanks for all that you share!

  3. I enjoyed the video very much. But instead of feeling encouraged, I feel daunted. The chasm between your free style and where I am today as a painter feels enormous. But I have one thing in common with you. I am stubborn and unwilling to give up.

  4. I so enjoy and look forward to your videos, Angela. Your freedom in brush strokes and allowing the painting to speak and flow is fun to watch and emulate! I have miles of brush strokes behind me and hopefully many more to go. Thank you again!

  5. En verdad hay artistas que pintan muy rápido y crean obras de arte, diré que yo soy lento para pintar, pienso mucho en el cuadro antes de pintarlo no sé si esto será bueno o malo, un artista dijo , no importa si pintas lento o rápido, lo importante es el resultado.

  6. Yesterday I told my granddaughter, 12 years old and worried about “mistakes,” that it’s about the journey, not the finished product. (Though being proud of the achievement at 12 is also very important.) Thanks for a healthy perspective on being creative, and for the story of your art experience. I love how fresh and alive your paintings are.

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