My surprise mid-life discovery: a love of watercolors

In one way or another, I’ve been making art throughout my whole life.

I was raised by artists, which automatically predisposes me to be more creative than the average Sally, because my parents were always doing art projects at the house with us as kids. My parents taught me basic photography, pottery and sculpture, papier-mâché, origami, drawing, and paper crafts. At school, I chose to take art classes and learned most of the other mediums my parents hadn’t taught me.

Of everything I learned, watercolors were my least favorite. They were just so messy. And uncontrollable.

After I had my first child, my friend Lee bought me a scrapbook starter kit and encouraged me to begin documenting my daughter’s life. I was hesitant to begin at first, but then my daughter just got so cute, I couldn’t resist. Plus, who doesn’t love shopping for craft supplies? I went away on scrapbook retreats with my friends and gabbed and crafted for entire weekends. If nothing else, creating scrapbooks required me to learn how to balance elements on a page.

A few years later, I got divorced, and I scaled back on scrapbooking. It was expensive, after all, and living was already difficult enough on one part-time paycheck. But soon enough, I unpacked all of my art supplies and found numerous half-used sketchbooks which were in great shape. I had bought them years ago, and most of the pages were still empty.

So I began to draw again.

And for years, I’ve had a sketchbook sitting on the table at my end of the couch, a fine-tip pen at the ready. I’m always working away at some page full of triangles or moon shapes while Mr. Fussypants is watching TV. He used to bug me to watch TV with him, but he’s since learned it’s a lost cause. The instant I put down the pen, I’m drifting off to sleep. Yay, adulthood.

But then something new happened.

When I began traveling with Mr. Fussypants, who has a deep appreciation for art, photography, and sculpture, we began collecting art that spoke to us. I kept choosing watercolors. He would buy a big acrylic or oil painting for thousands of dollars, and I’d want the tiny watercolor 5" x 8" abstract simply named “Feathers.” Over and over, I made similar choices. On subsequent trips, I sought out and purchased many similarly-sized original watercolors. I didn’t think about it… I just bought what appealed to me.

Soon I realized that something caught my eye — or captured my heart — with these pieces of art, and I bought some watercolor paints and decided in the future to give them a shot. They were cheap watercolors from the art store on sale for $5.99, and I picked up some mid-grade watercolor paper to go with it. No top shelf stuff for me. And I admit it — those materials sat in storage for a very long time.

In the meantime, I began to follow watercolor posts on social media. I would find art on Pinterest and Tumblr that would make me feel I just had to learn this somehow. I watched master watercolorists drop contrasting color into puddles of water and the paint bloomed and blossomed and spread out across the page. It was fascinating.

About this time, my friend Gwen showed me some of the watercolor art she had made herself — and it was amazing. She had taken some classes, but mostly it was practice, practice, practice, she said.

I thought about the watercolor supplies in storage downstairs. I remembered what Stephen King wrote once upon a time: The hardest part is just before you begin.

So I started plugging away with my cheap materials. And I was terrible. I had no idea what I was doing. I used too much water. I painted on top of a pile of paper towels to sop it up, all the while thinking, This can’t be right.

Then I tried to use less water. I painted landscapes as if I was using acrylic paint. They came out all right, but I couldn’t get the lovely imperfect blotches of paint that I adored so much. Again, this can’t be right.

I borrowed a few books from the library and started watching YouTube videos and taking classes on SkillShare to get a better understanding for technique.

I also remembered what a dear friend once told me — that cooking good food is much easier when you have good ingredients to start — so I thought, Maybe I need to upgrade my materials to improve the quality of my work. And then my heart said, “Shopping for art supplies? YES! Let’s go now.”

My boss gave me a gift card for Christmas and I used it to buy better quality paints (not great, but better) and my very first high quality brush, a Filbert, size 8. I used a coupon to buy my first Arches cold press 140-pound paper from Michaels. I got myself a cheapo color wheel.

Soon enough, Mr. Fussypants built me a temporary art studio in the basement of our new house, complete with LED natural lighting.

Then I began anew, armed with some knowledge and better supplies. And the more classes I took, the better I became.

I learned how to pick up excess water with a dry brush.

I learned how certain colors mix well together.

I learned how to create blooms of color in spaces.

I learned how to sketch out my subject prior to putting paint to paper.

I learned how to “stretch” my paper across a board to keep the paper from curling.

I learned to use two cups of water instead of one — one for washing the brush and one for rinsing — to stop having to run back and forth to the kitchen to get clean water. (Duh.)

I took notes on what kinds of paint, paper, and brushes my online instructors used, and I added them to my Amazon or Blick Art wish lists. I bought myself a travel kit of Winsor & Newton watercolor half-pans, which are used by many professional watercolorists. (Commence Homer Simpson-like drooling.)

And let me tell you — these paints go on the paper like silk. Using these paints for even one day made everything else before feel like child’s play. (I have my eye on a $384 complete Schmincke Horadam Aquarell set, but that’s for the future… when I am finally at the professional level.)

Now, I practice as much as possible — three hours a week minimum — to keep up the momentum. And I haven’t gotten tired of painting yet. Here’s some of my more recent work.

What I have found in the past two years of practicing with watercolors is that they are still very difficult. But the process of learning how to use them has been worthwhile.

There is something else I need to say — and it’s difficult to put into words. Watercolors aren’t a medium to be controlled. On the contrary, the medium sort of dictates what you’re going to make that day. Consider this tree:

In its basic form, this tree appeared as a random streak of paint that decided to burst upward when I added water to the green below it. I didn’t expect to put a tree there, but the paint moved that way, so I went with it, and made it work. And it turned out pretty cool.

There is a certain relinquishment of control that comes along with working with watercolors. I can’t predict exactly the way the paint is going to fan out across the page, but as I cultivate my skills, I’ve gotten better at working with the natural, organic-looking elements that emerge. Nature is not perfect. No leaf is perfectly symmetrical or the same solid color all the way through. It’s why the watercolor medium works so well for nature, plants, and so on.

I think of the relinquishment of control as a metaphor for life. Really, we are only in control of a tiny percentage of the things that impact our lives, and the rest is left to chance, destiny, nature, or fate — whichever you prefer. With some things, the way to get the best results is to give up control and allow someone or something else — like nature itself — to take over. I feel this acutely when I paint, because I know nothing I make by my own hand can be anywhere near as beautiful as the intricate patterns that will emerge on their own with just a few strategic dabs. By letting the watercolors do what they want a little bit, the painting looks better, more natural. The whole experience has been an unexpected lesson in self-control.

I’m going to continue painting, and I hope you’ll come visit me on Instagram to keep up with my progress, since I post most of my work there. I haven’t developed my own style yet (as you can see from the scope of the work above) but that will come in time. (See? I’m relinquishing control!)

Thanks for reading. Have a few fresh-baked cookies.

(Gotcha!)

Esther Hofknecht Curtis, MSM-HCA is a freelance writer and artist living in Dover, Delaware. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TheArdentReader19977/

Book nerd and freelance writer finding gold in ordinary places. Email me at ejhcurtis@gmail.com Visit https://www.facebook.com/TheArdentReader19977/

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