I recently started to learn watercolour after years of avoiding them. Partly I was put off by those pastel-coloured landscapes you see in every English gift shop, but I was also intimidated. See, watercolour is way harder to work with than acrylics or oils – or at least I think so. 

My watercolour paints

My watercolour paints

When you paint with acrylics, each layer of colour dries and sets. Once it’s dry, there’s no budging that colour. And that means that if you make a mistake, you can just paint over it. 

But with watercolour, the paint is never fully set.  Each time you add a layer of colour, the paint underneath can be disturbed and if you’re not careful, the end result is that everything turns dull and muddy.

(This is one reason for those pastel landscapes – the artists don’t want to layer too much colour for fear of having everything turn brown. But the result is less than inspiring – at least to me).

But what’s so scary about that?!

If you’re not an artist or have never dabbled with painting and drawing, it may sound odd to talk about painting in terms of fear. After all, what’s so frightening about a piece of paper and a few brushes? It’s not like anyone will die if you get it wrong!

But if you do paint or draw, you’ll know just how intimidating it can be to try new things. You fear failure because that brings up all kinds of self-doubt and self-flagellation and before you know it, you’re crouched in the foetal position wishing you’d never even heard of watercolours.

It’s much easier to stick with what you know, so that you can produce a great result every time and tell yourself how fabulous you are. 

The problem is that gets very boring. So for the last few months, I’ve been taking an art class in a nearby town with a teacher whose watercolour paintings feature very vibrant colours. He taught me one simple secret that has made the world of difference to my watercolour work. 

What’s the secret?

To act as if your brush can only make one stroke and then has to stop. Moving the brush backwards and forwards is what disturbs the paint underneath and results in that yucky mud.  But when you lay down a layer of colour in one stroke, then leave it alone to dry before adding another layer, suddenly magic happens.

Each colour that you’ve used shines through the layer above, resulting in some beautiful effects and luminous colours. The result is something I could never achieve in acrylics and it’s been such an exciting process of discovery. 

“Cool Cow” – watercolour and pastel on Bockingford paper. 16×12 inches.

I haven’t mastered them yet – not by a long shot. But in some of my paintings I get close and that’s much more than I ever expected to achieve with watercolour. 

And that’s the best part

I don’t know why we have to learn the same lessons over and over again, but we do. Or should I say I do – for all I know, you’re incredibly clever and you always learn from your mistakes the first time. 

But the lesson I keep learning over and over is simply this: Any time something scares you, do it. The fear is telling you that this thing matters for some reason and when you conquer that little naysaying voice, wonderful things have the potential to happen.

“Melancholy Cow.” Watercolour and pastel on Bockingford paper. 10 by 8 inches

So what about you? What are you avoiding out of fear?

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  1. Kathy Strom
    March 28, 2014

    WOW… oh my gosh, those are just beautiful!! Your courage has paid off, and you’re a real inspiration to me. In fact, this blog comes along at the perfect time. You ask what I’m avoiding out of fear? Watercolors and acrylics!

    I gave away my oils when I moved to Wyoming because they were flammable, so the moving truck wouldn’t allow them. Although completely confident with oils, I then bought acrylics and watercolors because they produce no fumes.

    I was commissioned to paint three 18 x 24"acrylic paintings at once–an ambitious portrait story scene tryptic–more like illustrations. That project turned out to be so difficult and frustrating because the acrylics dried different colors than I had painted them. Yikes! I sweated blood while doing those paintings. It was a miracle they turned out okay, and the client was happy. It took me a month to recover.

    Since I finished those paintings, I’ve been putting off doing any fine art painting out of fear that I won’t be able to control the acrylics and watercolors to get the results I want. On top of that, my other problem is that I’ve been a designer/illustrator for decades, but haven’t done my own fine art from within for a long, long time. I was a compulsive artist when I was young, but somehow that is much scarier now. The possible subject matter is endless, and I end up discarding my ideas for fear that they are not worthy enough to spend the time and art supplies. Ugh. Waiting for the "perfect" idea that I’ll be able to miraculously paint brilliantly.

    Now I really have to get going because a new co-op arts & crafts center gallery has just opened in our little town and they need artists to submit artwork ASAP before their grand opening on April 7th! Now, I’ll be paying the price for my procrastination because I can’t start painting until next week due to other commitments. That deadline (plus my) fear is causing a worse creative block.

    I guess I should just DO IT… just start painting and see what happens. Just have FUN with it and keep evolving, like you’re doing. That’s what makes your artwork so delightful!

  2. Angie widdop
    March 29, 2014

    How about doing a step by step painting to get people started and to conquer their fears ie me lol

  3. Patricia Lane
    March 29, 2014

    Congratulations Louise you have mastered watercolour very quickly – many people never do. As a watercolour painter for most of my life – I found it difficult to break away from what, for me, was safe and easy. I finally managed to make that ‘jump’ 11 months ago and, that changed my painting style. I suppose the lesson is always be prepared to try something new – or use what is familiar in a different way. Some exciting things can happen. Keep experimenting, never say ‘never’ 🙂


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