Why Watercolor?

I grew up with a huge, built-in hutch in our New Hampshire kitchen that was absolutely stuffed with craft supplies. The “art cabinet” was always well stocked, if disorganized, so painting, drawing, and experimenting with crafts became second nature to us. My mother, a talented painter and creative crafter, always planned fun art projects for us to pass the time and make gifts for holidays. 

As a senior in high school I took a Crafts class. It was really designed to meet the graduation requirements for the kids who couldn't care less about art. We spent close to a week just putting polymer clay around pens. I took it because I figured, correctly, that it would be fun and easy. But I made a few pieces I really liked, and it got me into the habit of sketching. At home I would make moody posters of Blink 182 lyrics for my bedroom (don't worry, I'm rolling my eyes, too) and turn license plates into purses. I made a lot of wire jewelry and altered an old alarm clock into a cute character. I splatter painted a significant portion of my clothing and shoes. Art was a hobby I was constantly engaged in, but never really thought about. 

I didn't think of myself as an artist until college, when I took an oil painting class and fell in love with painting. The paintings I created in that class were...not great. I was very stiff with the brush, impatient with building layers, and, frankly, I skipped a lot of classes. I was a terrible student. But I loved doing it. One girl in my class always painted with her palette knife instead of a brush, and to my eyes her work had so much more drama and personailty than the rest. When I brought all my leftover oils home for the summer I started painting with the palette knife, and a passion was born. 

Example of my older work. Acrylic, 2011.

For a long time my paintings were experiments in texture and color, using oils or acrylics. I almost exclusively painted abstracts, focusing more on new ways to manipulate the paint than on the final result. But oil painting is an expensive, and, for me, space consuming hobby. I did less and less as my husband and I moved in together and tried to start building our life. At the time, I was working in the infant and toddler room of a daycare. My favorite part of that job was doing art projects with the kids and creating the monthly bulletin boards. I'm going to be completely immodest here and say that my bulletin boards kicked ass. They were the stuff of legend. I put ridiculous amounts of energy, at home and at work, into making my bulletin boards as cute and creative as I could. Other teachers were always asking me to make pieces for theirs, too. Just writing about it is making me smile. They were so fun. I worked at the daycare for seven years. That's a lot of bulletin boards. I got really damn good with construction paper, glue, and Crayola markers. 

After I left that job, I missed those bulletin boards more than I can say. I thought about buying one for our apartment just to be able to decorate it every month. When my daughter's old enough to be bringing home artwork and balancing activity schedules, I still may. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that kid friendly, lighthearted art was what I really loved to make. But the attempts I'd made over the years to create anything less abstract with oils or acrylics had been disappointing, so I never did anything about that inspiration. I got pregnant, we moved, my daughter was born, life went on, and other than the ocasional colored pencil doodle or birthday card, art kind of fell to the wayside for a while. I knew I wanted it to be a part of my life, but I felt like I hadn't found the right medium, and felt stalled out with all my dabbling. It wasn't unusual for my Google history to read, "What to do if you're an artist who's bad at art?" 115,000,000 results. A common question, it seems. 

The beginning of my journey with watercolors can be directly attributed to getting an Instagram account. My husband and I had never owned smartphones until March 2016. We were beside ourselves with excitement when our tax refund came in and we were finally able to make the switch. The first thing I did after basic setup was download Instagram. At the time I mostly just wanted to see pictures of technicolor donuts and outrageous, candy covered cakes. But then I started finding fun local accounts. And then the cartoonists and artists. I was so inspired by all the photographers and illustrators I found there, and I knew there was something I could add. 

In July of 2016, I decided I wanted to start keeping a visual journal. My daughter was the most laidback baby on the planet, and I found myself with more and more empty time. I decided to make an Instagram account specifically for sharing the journal entries, thinking that if there was an audience for it anywhere, it would be there. I decided on watercolors largely because I had never tried them. Nothing else I'd tried over the years seemed to be a great fit, and I had always admired the looseness of pen and watercolor sketches. 

As an early birthday gift, I bought some UniBall Signo pens, a nice Stillman & Bern sketchbook, and an inexpensive beginner's Royal & Langnickel watercolor kit with all the tools I'd need. A lot of ampersands in the art supply world. I knew it wasn't necessarily the highest quality, since it's the kind of thing grandmothers buy for 12 year olds because they don't know what video games they like. But it was good enough to get me started, especially since I had no idea yet if I would even enjoy it. I watched a few five minute watercolor basics tutorials on YouTube, and I went for it. I hadn't used watercolors since elementary school, but from the very first painting, I knew I had made the right choice.

First watercolor, July 2017.

Those first paintings were not good. I had no idea what I was doing, and it showed. They weren't bad because they were amateur. They were bad because I was fighting the materials. My sketches were simple and hesitant. I'd never been all that confident in my drawing abilities anyway. I applied the watercolor as if it were acrylic, sometimes in thick coats that make me cringe to think of now. I was terrified to actually let the paper get wet and let the paint move around. I wanted to be in control. In those early days I was still writing a lot; the sketchbook was truly an illustrated journal. The first post I ever shared on my art Instagram account was a painting of a sponge. I was so earnest about documenting my daily life, I posted a painting of a dirty dish sponge. What I had really set out to do was to see if I had a natural drawing style. I'd always envied people who could do twenty sketches, and their personal style was strong and apparent in every one. I had no idea if that existed in myself. It only took about a week of daily sketching to realize that it did. It wasn't very sophisticated, but neither am I.

The turning point, the moment when I went from journaler to illustrator, was when I stumbled upon the Instagram and Facebook based World Watercolor Group. Run by Charlie O'Shields (see his amazing work here), the group offered daily painting prompts centered around a monthly theme. The first month I decided to follow along was November 2016. A lot of those paintings were hurried and haphazard, and I did miss the occasional day, but the challenge had me reaching for my brushes more often. I started writing less and less, and instead focused on creating the kind of lighthearted images I had enjoyed so much at the daycare. It wasn't long before I was arranging my entire day around making time to paint.

Candy Apple, May 1, 2017

World Watercolor Group also helped me find a community of other watercolor artists who were mostly amateurs like myself, excited to learn and to hold each other up in our journey. I can't express enough how kind and supportive that community has been to me. Every day I feel so encouraged by their words, and I turn to them time and time again for inspiration and troubleshooting when I feel stuck. I've even had a few people turn to me for advice, which has been a shocking, humbling experience. I've never met any of these people, mostly women, and I probably never will, but I feel so much gratitude for them every day. 

Now I see myself making leaps and bounds in my paintings. My objective has never been realism, though I admit it gives me a thrill when a painting nears it. I'm constantly seeking out new techniques and tricks. I spend so much time watching tutorials and reading about materials, and seeking this wisdom from others has made all the difference in my art. There is no better feeling than when the painting matches, or even exceeds, the image that was in my head. I've always felt restless in life, like I was just wandering through until I found it. That elusive something that would give me purpose and excitement in my day. Watercolor has already taken me further than I could ever have imagined, and I have so many ideas that I'm now facing a very new kind of problem. Which project to tackle first? So I'm starting here, sharing my evolution with you. And from here? What's next? I can't wait to find out.