The Zen of Watercolor: Practice in releasing perfectionism

Published by Nela Dunato on in Art, Personal, Sketchbook, Thoughts

The Zen of Watercolor: Practice in releasing perfectionism

When I tried watercolor for the first time after elementary school, I hated them.

When I tried them for the second time, I was frustrated.

When I made an attempt at my third watercolor painting, I was hooked.

Lipizzan horse watercolor painting
That fateful third painting from 2009

All this happened during a drawing class I was taking to improve my human anatomy skills. While my humans didn’t improve one bit as a result of this class, I can credit it for one thing at least: introducing me to watercolor.

My primary art medium is drawing. Graphite, ink, ballpoint pens, colored pencils, Photoshop – give me any of these tools, and I’ll be able to draw pretty much anything.

When I paint in acrylics, I draw my whole way through the painting. I just can’t do those wide, expressive strokes. I’ve tried, but I didn’t enjoy it at all. Drawing with a brush on the other hand, I could do that all day long (more about this in my post What Do You Enjoy The Most About Creating Art?). When I’m done with a painting, you can still clearly see the canvas texture underneath the layers of paint – that’s how thin they are.

You can’t do that with watercolor. You can certainly try, but this will result in streaky areas, over-worked muddy colors, and it won’t look anything like those beautiful watercolor paintings that have inspired me to try this technique.

Sketchbook watercolor seascape with a sailboat

If you want your watercolor pieces to look vibrant, you need to work with them, not against them.

You need to understand their flowing nature, and let it guide you. Isn’t this a beautiful art metaphor for life?

The most gorgeous watercolor paintings are made with the least brush strokes possible. Every excessive brush stroke takes away from the beauty of the final art. This is a challenging lesson to grasp for a person who’s used to putting in a lot of effort and fixing things until they’re perfect.

In watercolor, fixing can often backfire. You need to learn to live with the “happy accidents” and anticipate them, even hope for them.

I’ve heard the saying “the way you do one thing is the way you do everything”, and I’m pretty convinced that it’s true with art because that’s consistent with my personal experience. Our life gets reflected in our art, and our artistic expression can transform our life. (I’ve written about it more in my post On being in The Process.)

I find watercolor the most challenging and the most unforgiving of the mediums – worse than ink, even (ink can get fixed and look fine, if only with white paint).

Sketchbook watercolor landscape: Lake Lokve

The more I strive to strive to be precise and meticulous, the worse my paintings turn out.

But why do I keep going back to them, day after day?

Because, like my ambitious desires, they beckon me to master them. They’re a path of growth I can’t turn my back on. They invite me with their colourful lightness, even though my natural affinity draws me toward the shadow, towards the red and black and blue.

The neat, the dark, the detailed is my place of comfort, of “been there, done that”. When in doubt, I can always go back to it and instantly feel at home.

Watercolor is like a wild horse I want to tame, but in reality it’s it that needs to un-tame me, to show me a different way of being in the world: to be more free than I thought is even possible.

It will never be saddled, reined, locked up in a barn.

I need to let my hair down, take off my shoes and let it take me off into the wilderness, into the deep forest, into the starry night.

Sketchbook watercolor seascape

Except: letting go is hard.

Unimaginably hard.

The paper is precious, costly. The sketchbooks are pristine. To splash the paint about, to let wet surfaces mingle and create unforeseen effects – it’s frightening. I cherish my tools too much and keep them for a time in the future when I will “deserve” them.

I create one little painting a day, two at most.

To paint three, four, a dozen in one day? It’s frivolous! I’d burn through a sketchbook in a week, and a new one costs a small fortune.

I know it’s just excuses. It’s silly. But what would happen if I forced myself to paint one watercolor painting after another, all day long? I don’t have the slightest idea. I might actually try it. One after another, stopping only for food and restroom breaks. Like in the old days, when I used to paint.

Sketchbook watercolor seascape

And waiting.

Waiting for the bottom layer of paint to fully dry before I can sketch in the details that need to be crisp. I’ve ruined so many paintings by rushing and painting details before the paper was ready. Paint leaking into wet areas, details getting blurry…

I’m not the most patient person when I have to wait. I can patiently work, scribble, dot, make a thousand repetitive strokes to fill the surfaces with intricate lines – but when the painting calls for waiting, I feel lost.

Sometimes the best course of action is no action. I’m still learning how to do that.

Sketchbook watercolor seascape: Baska

There are many paths to learning, growing, centering yourself, easing into yourself, finding your way back home.

People choose religion to support them. They choose ancient spiritual systems. They choose New Age. Magic. Therapy. Shamanic journeying.

Some of us chose creativity: writing, music, painting, sculpture, dance, performance.

In the expressive arts community there’s a mantra “process, not product”. I struggle with it – I love products. I’m a champion for beauty. I feel good when my products turn out to my liking.

The splattering about with a paintbrush with no goal has never been enjoyable for me. (And believe me, I’ve tried.) My works have been expressive, intuitive and true even without it. My process is lead by a vision – that’s how I work, and that’s what feels great to me.

It took me a long time to get comfortable with that, because so many people around me have sworn that here’s something special and superior to not knowing the vision in advance, and instead being guided to the vision through the brush strokes. And there it was again, the opportunity to learn to trust myself, instead of trying to adopt what works for other people. (Funny how that keeps happening. I’ve written about it in more detail here: From art block to a new art series: Notes from navigating my creative processa.)

Sketchbook watercolor seascape: Porat

And here’s where the Zen of watercolor kicks in: it won’t surrender to your vision. It will flow the way it wants to.

And while I won’t surrender to the brush because the brush is just a tool, I have to surrender to the elements: the Water, and the Earth*. It’s no surprise that those are the elements I feel the most disconnected from.

* Earth is represented by mineral and organic pigments – tiny crystalline formations of beautiful colors.

Maybe one day I’ll learn how to be the High Priestess of Watercolor and bend the elements to my will, but there’s a period of initiation I need to go through in order to learn the true nature of the interplay between water, paper and paint.

This initiation is testing my patience and I can’t decide whether it delights me or frustrates me more.

Sketchbook watercolor seascape: Small oak tree

Maybe once I’m done with it, I’ll conclude that I got what I came for, put my watercolor box away and move on to something else. Maybe there will be a day when the paints whisper “you’ve learned everything we were meant to teach you”, and I will never paint another miniature landscape again.

But for now I paint them.

Not because I enjoy landscapes as an art form (I don’t – I find them boring).

Not because I want people to appreciate them (I don’t – it frustrates me when they admire them and ignore my actual art)

I paint them because each little painting leads me closer to understanding how watercolor is meant to be played with, and how to allow it to reveal its effects.

And when my vision appears in my mind’s eye, well, I hope by then I’ll know enough about the nature of watercolor to enjoy the process, as well as the product.

Sketchbook watercolor and ink: Noise Sensitivity


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4 responses to “The Zen of Watercolor: Practice in releasing perfectionism”

  1. Happy to have found you. Finally someone who is gutsy enough to call a spade a spade. I am a hobbyist and struggle with almost same challanges in watercolors

  2. Thank you, Anu :) I’m happy that you’ve arrived here. This is the space where we can openly talk about our artistic struggles.

  3. It’s a great pleasure reading your post. It’s full of information I am looking for and I love to post a comment that “The content of your post is awesome”.
    I would like to know what paints do you use. I usually use the Camlin professional ones. But I heard foreign brands such as Winsor Newton are far superior. Any suggestions on what watercolor sets to buy?
    I am a great fan of paintings and I have several collections of paintings from different art galleries in various countries. Here, I must share one thing that is My recent purchase was “Trendy Abstract Paintings”. I bought it from IndianArtZone and it is Very Beautiful and fits perfectly for my Living Room. They sell only original paintings and artist verified authenticity. I am very satisfied and appreciate their prompt shipping as promised. Thanks for sharing this blog. Great work. Keep posting!!

  4. Thank you for your kind comment, Robert!

    I use student grade watercolor paint. The set pictured in my photos is a Van Gogh 12-pan set, and I also often use a Sakura Koi 24-pan set. For my larger works I use Winsor & Newton Cotman tubes. I’m not the best person to give suggestions, since I’ve only tried these so there’s not a lot to compare with. I don’t have any experience with professional grade paint. Check out “The Mind of Watercolor” YouTube channel, the owner is an experienced painter and I would trust his recommendations.

    I’m glad you’ve found some really nice original art to enrich your home with!

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