A Word From the Unwise: 5 Pieces of Advice

I recently had a conversation with another watercolor artist as part of her research for a watercolor instruction project. She asked a lot of interesting, thoughtful questions about my process, how I judge a painting to be a success, and the tools I seek out to learn more about watercolor. It got me thinking about what advice I would offer to someone who was just starting out with watercolor, from the perspective of someone like me who is fumbling along and figuring it out as I go. I decided to compile my top five bits of advice, much of which could apply to any creative project. And much of which I need to remind myself of almost daily to stay motivated and happy with my art.

In this recent painting you can see that I tried to plan for my highlights, but still felt the need to add more in at the end. Keep trying!

In this recent painting you can see that I tried to plan for my highlights, but still felt the need to add more in at the end. Keep trying!

1. Don't Kill The White Space:

I read this bit of advice early on, probably within the first week or so of painting. It has been the single most valuable tool at my disposal, and I wish I remembered where I first saw it. If I find out, I'll update this post. In watercolor, this means very literally not to apply paint to every little bit of the paper, even in a landscape, portrait, or detailed still life. Negative space and light are what bring life to the painting. Even if there wouldn't be a highlight, in the strict sense of a ray of light reflecting off the surface of my subject, I still try to leave some white space. It lets the painting breathe. It's where the sparkle and happiness live. I cannot tell you how many of my paintings didn't succeed strictly because I accidentally ate up all the white space with paint. Now I always try to plan the highlights and negative space in the painting before I apply any color. Sometimes I get carried away and still smother it, but I always try to let the light through.

In another context, this could be applied as: Don't fight your materials. Let them do their share of the work. Don't overwork. Know when to have a lighter touch. Take advantage of the resources you have at hand. Sometimes the least assuming part (whether that's paper, cake, the leg of a table, a line in a poem, etc.) is going to be the thing that makes the end result shine.

2. Share Your Failures:

For most people, this is incredibly hard to do. I still don't do it as often as I should. It takes a lot of bravery to show your weaknesses. But it's worth it. Most of my paintings don't come out the way I'd hoped. A few exceed my expectations, a few are right on the mark, but many, many, many fall flat in my eyes. Sometimes it's the whole painting, sometimes it's just a smudge outside a line when I was trying to be tidy. But I try to share these pieces anyway. The feedback I get on them always stuns me. People are impressed. People see strengths that I couldn't see through my frustration. And when I look at other people's art, I see something that I admire, that I couldn't even imagine having the talent to produce. And then I read the caption and it turns out they feel like it wasn't successful. It's a cliche because it is so painfully true: You are your own worst critic. It is highly, highly likely that someone else will be charmed by your mistakes.

More important than other people's validation - which I will not for a moment pretend isn't important to many artists - are the lessons you will pick up, usually unconsciously, from making a lousy painting. You may not realize it, but somewhere deep in your mind you probably have an instinct about what you did that sent the piece down the wrong path. Odds are if you try again, maybe a few more times, you're going to get so much closer to the result you were hoping for, without even knowing you changed anything about your process. Better yet, if you're able, film yourself painting. Making a few hyperlapse painting videos has allowed me to see exactly where things went wrong – and exactly where things went right. You probably have tricks and strengths up your sleeve you didn't even know about. Watching yourself paint (or bake or whittle or hit golf balls, etc) can help you recognize and fine tune that strength.

And for my fellow Instagram artists - the great thing about Instagram is that people consume what you post very quickly. Scroll, tap, scroll, tap. Even though your post stays up indefinitely, odds are very few people will see an individual post more than once. So it's okay to put something up that isn't your greatest masterpiece. No one is going to double back to your feed and say, wow, this person is actually terrible. If they do, they'll probably unfollow you, in which case you didn't really want them there anyway.

3. Be Patient:

This is the hardest one, for me. A lot of what I enjoy about painting, with any medium, is the immediate gratification of taking a blank page or canvas and suddenly bringing something colorful into the world. When I primarily painted with oils and acrylics, I would go through canvases with ridiculous - and expensive - speed, because I created each painting so quickly. With watercolors, at least for what I like to paint, that doesn't work so well. I learned from watching countless tutorial videos that the key is to build up layers and washes of paint, adding depth and richness as you go. This slows down the painting process dramatically for someone like me who wants to just slap the right color on from the get go. The thing is, if you look at an apple, it isn't really just red. It's brown, orange, green, and yellow, too. Maybe even bluish depending on the shadows and light source. And the only way to capture that variation in color is to add each in little by little, letting them change each other as you paint. It takes time.

Layers layers layers!

Layers layers layers!

If you're like me, once you get an idea in your head you want to do it right now. But the unavoidable fact is, most things that are done well are done slowly and with care. The more you do it, and the more you see the positive results of that care, the easier it becomes not to rush things and to let them unfold in their time. Solid relationship advice, too, y'all.

4. Practice Every Single Day:

I work on my art every day. Every day. No matter what. Now, that doesn't mean I make something of quality every day. I'm a stay at home mom (a term I don't love, but I haven't found a non-cheesy alternative yet), and my daughter is the lowest maintenance human on the planet. My life is not that hectic compared to most people's, but even I have a hard time squeezing art into every day. So give yourself a little wiggle room about what it means to practice. For me, a doodle on a grocery list counts. Making a list of ideas I'm mulling over counts. Ordering a new paintbrush counts. Reading about color mixing counts. It's all part of the package. If you're a baker and you don't have time or money to make a three tiered cake every day (also, no one should eat that much cake), then at least commit to reading a new recipe every day, or browsing food colorings online, or doodling cake themes on your receipt from the gas station. Being mindful and intentional about taking a moment to think about your art can only ever move you forward. When I look back at my first few paintings, I don't think they're bad, but I am absolutely shocked by the difference from the way I paint now. I didn't magically become talented, I just made time for it every single day.

5. Own Your Successes:

I just read this article about how many women have noticed that responding to a man's compliment in a confident manner by saying "Thank you!" or "I know!" actually makes the complimenter angry. I won't get into all that just now (you can read the piece here), but it did make me think about how ingrained it is for most of us to be sheepish or outright deny it when we do something well. It's a societal thing, this idea that we shouldn't announce our own success, should be quiet about our pride, if we have any at all. Well. That's just silly. I'm not saying you're silly if you do this. I also do this. But it is very silly that we should work so hard and achieve something wonderful and then feel obligated to demur in the face of praise. Of course there's a line here. A point at which constantly shoving your accomplishments in people's faces isn't a great character trait. But there shouldn't be anything wrong with saying, "I did this thing. It's great. I would like other people to know I did this great thing." And then when someone does, in fact, tell you how great your great thing is, saying, "Thanks! I know! I'm pumped!"

This is, perhaps, harder for me than sharing my failures. When I receive a compliment on a painting, even one that I think is exceptionally well done, I find myself thanking the person but qualifying it with "but the side is a little messed up where I..." or "I can't seem to get the shine just right." Like it would be rude of me to agree that it was well done. I see other artists doing this even to the point of "I don't deserve to have followers. I don't know why anyone likes my art." Yikes. That's just a mess. But most of us do it to some degree, and I'm trying to stop. I just did it yesterday, so clearly I've got work to do. But I am proud of my art, and I'll say so.

I have to say, it feels great to be at a point with my art where I might have something to give back to the community, to help someone else work through something they're struggling with. I'm certainly no expert, I don't even know the names of the different kinds of brushes I use on a daily basis, but learning is half the fun for me. And one of the best things about art is that there will always, always be something new to learn.

How about you? What's your best advice for someone starting out in a new art form? What advice did you receive from someone else that made a huge difference to you? Let me know in the comments below, and happy art making!