What Makes A Watercolor Painting Really Special?

Angela Fehr Watercolor Paintings In Progress - Doodlewash

The first painting I ever made was, unfortunately, a copyright violation. Not that I knew it at the time. I was sixteen years old, and for my birthday, I’d been given a set of watercolor pencils. On the box was a painting of the Matterhorn, and I painted my own version using my new pencils. It was so exciting to realize that my new tools were helping me create the best painting I’d ever made, and that success motivated me to continue painting.

Angela Fehr watercolor pencils painting - Doodlewash

Some paintings are just special, and as I think about my twenty-four year painting journey, there are a handful that really stand out in my memory, and they do so for a variety of reasons. I want to share a few of them here, and as I do, I encourage you to think about what your most memorable paintings are, and why they are significant to you. I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Paintings That Inspire

My Matterhorn painting mattered so much in my watercolor journey. It gave me hope that I could make good art, even though, years later when I found that painting in storage, it was painfully more amateur than I remembered. It’s a little embarrassing to look at now and remember how good I thought it was at the time. I’m showing you, because I don’t believe in being ashamed of past art. Rather, I see it as a mile marker showing the progression of growth. When I feel like I’m not painting any better, I can look back and see that change does occur and trust that growth will continue to happen as long as I am painting.

Paintings That Assure

Angela Fehr Botanical Illustration Watercolor Painting

My first “real painting,” that is, one that I composed myself and successfully completed, was this botanical style floral that I painted when I was twenty-one, after taking watercolor classes and working to learn watercolor techniques. The burning question I lived with at the time was “Am I good enough to call myself an artist?” and this painting symbolized the “Yes” that I needed to hear.

I was confident that this painting showed enough skill and potential that I could take the next step I was yearning to take, and so I framed it, joined the local art society and began participating in member shows at our local gallery. This is the painting that gave me permission to own my dream, and while today I believe that if you are making art, you are an artist, at the time it was the nod I needed to be able to call myself an artist.

Paintings That Prod

Angela Fehr Unfinished Watercolor Painting - Doodlewash

I never finished this painting, and you’ll never see it in a frame, but when I look back on my artistic development, it was this painting that changed my direction to a more heart-led personal style. As I worked on the first layer of this painting, the colors flowed so beautifully, and I was so happy in the result. I remember thinking, “I wish I could call this painting finished right now…but no one would understand it.”

I kept painting, and overworked the painting. I was never able to bring back the joy I had felt in that first layer.

That dissatisfaction was a major impetus for change. It didn’t happen that day, or even that year, but every time I thought about the way that promising painting had failed, I grew more frustrated with my desire to paint for others rather than for myself. As I became aware that in seeking to please the expectations I assumed from my audience, I had ignored my own instincts and failed to trust myself, I realized that only by painting to please that inner voice would I be able to develop a truly personal style.

Paintings That Hold Memories

Angela Fehr Landscape Painting - Doodlewash

I’m not a portrait artist, so you might not see the faces of my loved ones in my paintings, but when I look at this scene, I think of my friends. We hiked together through the forest on one of the last days before they moved away, and when I painted this scene, I poured into it a tribute to the closeness we cherished. I think of them when I see it, and it makes my heart happy.

Paintings symbolize my roots. A simple painting of a fence post that reminds me of the farmers who homesteaded this land, my grandfather and our history in this country. A painting of the ditch on the road to town is about the daily search for beauty as I watch the seasons change through that simple curve of weeds and sky.

I’ve realized that all of my landscape paintings are connected in some way to my memories and emotions of time and place. This helps me connect with art collectors, because I know that my paintings will speak to people who similarly hold dear to their roots and relationships.

Paintings That Make Magic

Angela Fehr Watercolor Landscape - Doodlewash

If only I could say that every painting I create has this quality, but not even Picasso could hit a home run every time. Especially since he’s not known for his ability to play baseball. As a professional painter, I might paint a hundred paintings every year. Many of these are sketches from which more “serious” paintings are developed, but from the ones that I might consider “good,” I might get lucky enough to see one that is really special. This would be a painting that is truly memorable, one that encapsulates who I am as an artist and a person, that shows my heart in unguarded self-expression, while also conveying something of the beauty of watercolor.

Most of the time, I go to the studio and paint and I just hope that magic will show up. Often it doesn’t, or only reveals itself in tiny glimpses. When the magic comes, it usually feels accidental, often almost an out-of-body experience. It’s so elusive! When magic comes, you can’t grip it too tightly. Give in to the freedom and beauty, and be thankful for the wonderful gift that watercolor is, for the luminous color, the movement of the water and paint, for the release of pouring yourself into that white sheet of paper and finding joy in the process.

Paintings Yet To Come

Watercolor Paper Texture Detail - Doodlewash

Each of the paintings above have one thing in common, and that is that I didn’t know they would be significant when I was painting them. Hindsight may be 20/20, but the path ahead is cloudy and indirect. You don’t get to know which paintings will matter, which ones will mark a breakthrough or a pivotal moment in your artistic journey. In fact, often my grandest plans were followed by failure. The big sheet of paper that was going to become that year’s masterpiece turned into a disappointment, and the quick sketch that was supposed to be a warm-up holds unexpected and memorable beauty.

Let the promise of paintings yet to come inspire you to keep painting. We don’t know when it will happen, that magical painting, but we paint in faith, believing it will happen if we hold on, paint more, and watch for the magic.

Painting Your Heart

Often we think of our special paintings as being the ones that show the most skill, but there’s more to it than that. Looking back, I can see my journey as an artist in my significant paintings. The ones that stand out show where I have come from and who I am as an artist. I can see my heart in the paintings that mean the most to me, and that has helped me develop my style and paint with authenticity.

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26 Comments
  1. LoriCtoo 2 months ago

    This is wonderful inspiration. Thank you for sharing. Your work is beautiful.

  2. Mireya 2 months ago

    I kept painting, and the painting. I was never able to bring back the joy I had felt in that first layer. Oh my goodness this happens tp me ALOT and I start this cylce if amI really doing what I believe I must. I say yes I always get in this overthink phase and that’s what ruins tings. I am so glad to have read this today!! I am not alone and its all part of the process. Thanks!

    • Author
      Angela Fehr 2 months ago

      Yes, you are so right; it is part of the process! When you know your tendencies to overwork it becomes easier to keep them in check, but it takes time to learn to trust yourself. You will get there!

      • Mireya 2 months ago

        Thanks

  3. mstrendy01 2 months ago

    Nice post😊👍 Every painting from the past is a stepping stone to becoming a better artist….

    • Author
      Angela Fehr 2 months ago

      Absolutely! It’s all about logging those brush miles!

  4. marmeladegypsy 2 months ago

    I love every word of this post. We paint for many of the same reasons. The important thing is we do it and it means something. Lovely, as is your work.

    • Author
      Angela Fehr 2 months ago

      I became so much more satisfied in my work when I began painting for me first. This brought significance to my art even when it didn’t make sense to anyone else. It’s always like meeting a friend when you encounter another artist who understands this. Thank you!

  5. mlaiuppa 2 months ago

    I had no idea I was violating copyright until I joined our local watercolor society and it was part of their rules for entries. I was already retired and taking local community college classes in the emeritus program and the teacher never mentioned it. in fact, she would bring in clippings from magazines as examples for us to paint. I had spent most of my life painting calendar pictures sent to my from my relatives in Germany, something I still like to do. But until I joined the water color society copyright violation had never occurred to me because I was changing the medium from a photo to a painting.

    The first painting of the Matterhorn still shows the budding artist in you, even though you see it as amateur now. You did something that can be very hard for the rest of us. You edited it. You left out the flag pole and other objects that cluttered the original. You didn’t try to paint a photo likeness.

    I’ve kept almost every painting I’ve done so far. (I’ve sold one and given two as gifts.) While it might be cringe-worthy I do occasionally force myself to go back and look at them from the first I painted until my most recent just to see the progress I have made. Maybe at some point I will get rid of the early copyright violation paintings but for now, I think they serve a purpose. I will still do a copy or two of some photo I’ve found just to practice a certain technique.

    • Author
      Angela Fehr 2 months ago

      Copying is a great way to learn! I think part of the process of learning is that desire to do something ‘more’ and it becomes so exciting to put more of self into the art. And there is never any shame in being a beginner, a learner or looking back at the work that led to the development of where we are now. I’m so glad we are able to be proud of our work as we create it, even though better art lies ahead as our skills grow.

  6. Stacey H 2 months ago

    A study is not a copyright violation. In the same way that you might use a quote from a famous book to practice your penmanship, using a copyrighted photo to practice your technique is perfectly legal. It only becomes a copyright violation if you are entering it in contests, selling it, using it to teach your own workshops, or otherwise benefiting professionally and/or financially.

    • Author
      Angela Fehr 2 months ago

      It’s important for all artists to educate themselves on copyright – it’s a complicated topic!

  7. Laura Hale 2 months ago

    Wonderful words from a wonderful artist. Thank you for sharing your art and explaining so well, some of the feelings that go along with the journey.

  8. Carol Rieger 2 months ago

    Interesting discussion started on copyrights. I take a watercolor class that is mostly about techniques and many times I have had someone offer to buy the work. When I tell them that I can’t sell it because it isn’t my composition and also that it was done under the steady eye of an instructor, they are surprised. I take photographs of everything! When it is time for me to paint, I first go to my photo collections for my own work, and if not, lean on the “free images” available on search engines for animals, flowers and other artifacts for the composition. Copyrights are complicated, best to create your own archive of materials and images if possible. Inspiring post, thank you.

  9. Sandra Strait 2 months ago

    Excellent write-up and so very true. It’s something I have to constantly remind myself of, and keep from trying to please everyone but myself.

  10. Anita Sinha 2 months ago

    Wow..You have written such an inspirational post from your heart…Your tutorial and posts are so helpful…They have helped me in understanding what mistakes I am making and in trying out new techniques…

  11. Anne Albright 2 months ago

    Your words and work always inspire me! Thank you!!!

  12. Melanie Kayell 2 months ago

    Beautifully written, Angela. Your words and work continue to inspire me.

  13. Indra jain 2 months ago

    Your post is so inspiratonL…..
    I have so many ideas in my mind
    But I am not an artist.
    I wish my ideas to be implemented on canvas…

    But don’t know what to do

  14. Thanks Charlie for another inspirational article! On 26 January this year I set a goal to to a Watercolour Sketch a Day and have thus far done 16. Today is Day 17 and am thoroughly enjoying the journey. 🙂

  15. Shilpa 2 months ago

    This is so very inspiring Angela. Thanks a lot for sharing. Keep sharing….Keep inspiring….

  16. glacken2016 2 months ago

    Angela,

    I truly enjoyed reading this article. You made three points that really resonated with my art journey and hope to keep in the front of my mind as I paint:

    “I can look back and see that change does occur and trust that growth will continue to happen as long as I am painting.”

    “I kept painting, and overworked the painting. I was never able to bring back the joy I had felt in that first layer.”

    “I grew more frustrated with my desire to paint for others rather than for myself.”

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful article with us.

  17. Nanci K Robison 2 months ago

    Thank you for this post. I havent painted very much the last couple of years and starting again! I get discouraged and look at my past favorites….not knowing if i will get to that level again. It was good to read even you have those times! I am not alone! Perseverance is the key…i will get there again with practice and will try not to overwork my piece. Thank u!

  18. Erin Friedman 2 months ago

    This is gold. Thank you.

  19. Barbara 2 months ago

    This is an inspirational post! I’ve just started painting again after 29 years. Kids, family and career got in the way. So it feels like I am starting from the beginning again. I’m looking forward to your classes and relearning my style and the reason why I fell in love with art in the first place.

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