A few months ago, in one of the watercolor Facebook groups I follow, a user asked the group, “Who is your favorite watercolor artist?” When I saw the question, my instinctive response surprised me. My immediate reaction was, “Who’s my favorite artist? Me!”
What? So Arrogant!
I didn’t answer that poll; at the time it felt so arrogant to list myself as my own favorite artist, and I’ve spent a lot of time since then thinking about my answer. Was it arrogant? Should I be ashamed to name myself as my own favorite artist? Or is this the only true answer, and one that every artist should aspire to feel for their work?
That Perfect Painting
Think about it; you have a favorite artist. They are skilled in watercolor and their paintings are full of color, skilled in technique and express the artist’s love and personality. Perhaps recently they made a painting that you really connected with, and yearned to own for yourself. Maybe you even took the plunge and bought the painting! Isn’t it wonderful to own something that uplifts you every time you look at it?
And the Not-So-Perfect
But not every painting your favorite artist creates arouses that response in you. There are some that are good, but don’t make you feel the same way. There might even be a few paintings by your idol that you really don’t like at all. I connect with the older style of one of my favorite artists, but her more recent evolution of technique just doesn’t thrill me the same way.
But when it’s YOUR art, your decisions, you are in charge. You can choose the painting subject; one that inspires and fascinates you. You decide what colors you want to use, the emotion you want to convey, whether to exaggerate or diminish different elements. You don’t have to explain or justify your choices. Monet painted haystacks and water lilies until I’m sure his friends were bored to death (he painted literally hundreds), but he was painting to his own muse, and outside opinions mattered less than satisfying his obsession with light on the landscape.
But did it get any likes?
You get to choose not just what to paint, but how to paint it. As my own ability to implement watercolor techniques grew, I became dissatisfied with just copying what I saw. Expression and personal style began to matter, but for a long time, I struggled with a desire for external approval. This was in the days before social media; I think it’s even harder now! We want to paint things that other people will like, and this can be an obstacle if we feel it conflicts with what we really want to paint.
I remember thinking, “I wish I could call my painting finished, just like this, but no one would understand it.” My connection to a loose & fluid approach seemed less important than pleasing potential admirers or buyers, and I chose instead to disappoint my inner artist. Those years of approval-seeking weren’t wasted – I gained skill in technique during this time – but I wish I had given my instincts more credit and let them guide me sooner than I did.
This is mine, and it is Awesome.
When you’re your favorite artist, you get to celebrate your identity expressed through your art. When you trust your inner artist, and let them out to play, it’s like opening a box of treasures you didn’t know you had. Here in Canada, growing up, I watched a show called “Mr. Dressup” and every week, Mr. Dressup would open his tickle trunk and pull out a different assortment of costumes for himself and his friends to wear. (Maybe you had to be there, but I learned a lot from Mr. Dressup; he was an artist too!) There was always something amazing in that trunk!
Our creativity is a lot like that bottomless trunk, although it might be a little lacking in fanciful feather boas, it does hold an endless supply of inspiration that we can trust will be just what we need. I love the beautiful things I get to create with MY brush, my decisions, my inspirations. They are deeply, personally me. How can I not love my own art the best, when it comes from such a true and authentic place?
Making friends with the inner artist.
If you’re learning watercolor for the first time, it takes time to learn to hear the little voice inside, especially when your brain is wrapped up in learning technique. But as you grow in skill, you might start to feel restless; yearning to put more of yourself in your art.
It’s funny how this simple thing, painting from the heart, can feel like a struggle. Children have a fearless confidence; they paint because they heed that visceral urge to create, and they take joy in their creativity. As we grow, we become more guarded, often giving up creative pursuits as we become self-critical and aware of outside opinions. As adults, we wear social masks, trained to guard our true feelings, and learning how to detach from this training in order to free our creativity, is a process that can feel dangerous and counter everything we’ve come to believe. And, of course, like adults, we complicate it by thinking. And over-thinking, instead of learning to cue in to the little moments when time falls away and our heart sings in response to the motion of the brush.
Those little happinesses that occur as you paint? They are your favorite artist, chafing to come out to play. Encourage those moments, seek to repeat them, pursue them in childlike wonder, and in the process, you will fall in love with your artistic journey as it becomes less about the painting, and more about the process, and the work that results in the happening shows your unleashed spirit.
Create conditions for success.
I’ve realized that as a “serious adult” I do have to work pretty hard to create a nurturing environment that will support heart-led painting. As I teach watercolor, I get to preach to my students the same message I need for myself; one of acceptance, freedom from guilt, pursuit of excellence in my art, forgiving my own mistakes, and love for what watercolor provides in my life, even when my paintings aren’t turning out.
This mission of becoming a fearless, heart-led artist is so important to me that I created an online course to help others discover this same inner favorite artist. In Watercolor Mastery, artists who have been looking to make the transition from serious beginner to independent, confident creative, can find principles to build foundational artistic skills while seeking to adapt them to a developing personal style. Click here to find out more about the course and hear from students who have seen their art and mindset transformed through lessons and community found in this six-week intensive.Recommended6 recommendationsPublished in