Painting… With Attitude!

TECHNIQUE. 

Learning and practicing your watercolor TECHNIQUES until they become second nature will help you attain painting success. A little knowledge is helpful, as well. Get to know the ELEMENTS OF DESIGN (color, line, value, shape, and form) to create the effects you want. (See my blog posts Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition, https://wordpress.com/post/leemuirhaman.com/401, posted 10/16/2018, and Creating Form and Space In A Painting, https://wordpress.com/post/leemuirhaman.com/390, posted 9/18/2018, for additional information about design elements.)

MINDSET OR ATTITUDE.

While technique and design elements need to be mastered, an artist’s mindset (or attitude) has a huge effect on every aspect of painting! Whatever emotions an artist is experiencing can often be observed in their painting. Uncertainty and fear can come across through tentative, uncertain brush strokes or pale, washed out colors. A creator in a rush can be sloppy and less than observant. A tense artist trying to control their pigment paints a stiff, tight picture, while a confident painter creates with a bolder, looser stroke. In many ways, painting echoes and reflects each artist’s attitudes and emotions.

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Sometimes the hardest thing to master about watercolor painting is our own mindset or attitude toward our painting. So what is an effective mindset for an artist to have? How might a painter think about the process of painting?

DON’T LET FEAR CONTROL YOU.

Try not to let fear of making mistakes or looking foolish hold you back. Everyone makes mistakes – that’s how we learn. No one will think less of you if you have difficulties. Don’t hesitate to paint – just begin taking action. Start! Everyone can learn to improve their painting!

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AVOID JUDGING.

Strive to not put yourself down. Show compassion and encouragement to yourself instead of judging and criticizing your efforts. None of us will ever paint a perfect picture. Give yourself credit for being brave enough to paint!

 

BE OPEN TO THE PAINTING PROCESS.

Make an effort to be open-minded. We don’t always know what will happen next in art (or in life). And that’s okay! Your painting may go in a direction you don’t intend or expect it to go. It may take longer than you expect for your skills to improve. You don’t always have complete control when painting in watercolor – trying to force watercolor paint to do your bidding instead of flowing with it can cause frustration. Trust the process.

Tomatoes painting.jpg

PERSEVERE.

Stay optimistic. Keep trying. There will be ups and downs during the learning process – learning (like a baby’s growth) seems to move in spurts, or a spiral. A discouraged painter will tend to avoid their art and be less likely to practice and improve. Persevere.

ENJOY YOUR PAINTING.

Try to find something you like in each painting you work on. Make time to paint what interests and excites you. Be inspired. Laugh. Enjoy yourself. Play! You’ll be more likely to continue with painting.

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EXPERIMENT.

Eventually, as you become more practiced in technique, you will become more relaxed when painting, and able to experiment. You will become better able to plan and respond to your painting as it develops. Your goal is to listen to your own reactions to your work and adapt to what is happening on the paper, without panic or self-criticism.

Remember to paint what interests you and pleases you. Play! To read more about how painting can be affected by attitude, see my blog post I’ve Always Wanted To Paint Watercolors But I Don’t Have The Talent (7/20/2018), https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/07/20/ive-always-wanted-to-paint-watercolors-but-dont-have-the-talent/.

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Become A Problem-Solver To Overcome That Awkward Stage!

The awkward, unlovely stage in painting a picture is a difficult time for me. I begin a painting excited and inspired to paint an image or scene that appeals to me. I create a plan of attack having a vision in my mind of what I would like the painting to become.

But the stage between the initial underpaintings and the finalizing of values and details can be difficult for me. At this stage, the picture usually looks uninteresting, incomplete, sometimes confusing. Well, it is! It’s not finished! I know this, yet, it’s sometimes hard not to get discouraged at this point. If I start to judge my work too soon, I may not think I’m going in the right direction. I can start to second-guess my original plan and self-doubt can set in.

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Rationally, I understand that a painting proceeds in a series of many steps – from beginning to end. And I know I should not despair. I realize all artists encounter frustrations and self-doubt. Struggling is part of learning and growing, and being creative. So, I try to accept my feelings, to not worry, and to open myself up to the possibility of continuing to improve my painting, pushing beyond the awkward stage.

Attitude is important here! Don’t give up, I tell myself. Don’t criticize your work. Have faith that the awkward stage will pass, that it is just a problem to be overcome. Trust yourself!

It may be a good time to step away from the picture and get some perspective. You could even take a break and come back to the painting the next day. Don’t get too frustrated before you step away. We are often are own worst critics.

 Maine fall Start.jpg

 Maine fall Middle.jpg

Maine fall Final.jpg

When you come back, often your work doesn’t look as bad as you remember it. You’re rested, fresh, and may already know what your next step in the painting needs to be. If not, think again about the big picture and what you’re trying to accomplish in the painting.

Taking a cell phone picture can give you more objectivity. Are colors in the painting too bland? Does the picture need more emphasis around the center of interest? A black and white photo (gray scale) can help you decide where to strengthen your contrast and values (lights and darks). Determine where in your picture you want to add (or not add) details and highlights. Turning your picture upside down (or looking at it in a mirror) can make it easier to see if your shapes are accurate. This helps to insure you are not focusing on unimportant details. Squinting your eyes is yet another way to evaluate the quality of values and details in your painting.

After evaluating your work with a positive problem-solving attitude, you will have some ideas about what your painting needs. Continue to follow through with your plan and vision. You can do it!

Remember, as artist Angela Fehr says, “Every painting starts out as a problem… and continues to be a problem, right until it’s finished. Think about it, your first problem is a sheet of white paper.” So, become a problem-solver!

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I Guess We’ve All Made Painting Mistakes!

Joe Garcia in The Watercolor Bible puts it well when he says “A common misconception about watercolor is that it’s one of the most difficult mediums to use because you cannot correct mistakes.” In fact, you CAN often correct or adjust mistakes in watercolor painting! You can lift colors, blot, scrub, scrape, change values by lifting or glazing, even adjust a composition.

One of the simplest techniques to correct a mistake involves BLOTTING AND LIFTING wet paint. If while you’re painting you accidentally smudge or paint over an area you intended to keep white, quickly blot up the wet paint with a paper towel or tissue. As long as you have not painted with a staining pigment, the color will lift.

(Suggestion: Become aware of which paints on your palette are considered staining. Common staining colors that cannot be easily lifted include Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Phthalo Blue, Phthalo Green, some of the Sap Greens, Gamboge, Permanent Rose, Prussian Blue.)

Another technique used to alter wet paint is using a THIRSTY BRUSH to remove some color from your painting, e.g., to lighten a wash, create a highlight, or lift out clouds. The painted surface should be damp, with the shine just about to go dull. A ‘thirsty’ brush has been moistened but squeezed nearly dry before the brush is moved over the moist painted surface. After each lifting stroke with a thirsty brush, wipe the brush clean to remove wetness and lifted paint from the brush, before continuing to lift.

If your paint has dried, WETTING AND LIFTING can remove areas of dark color. A staining color will require a stiffer brush and stronger scrubbing to lift any color. Use a very wet brush to wet the area where paint will be lifted.

Work in small areas to loosen and lift paint, before moving and moistening a new spot. SCRUB until the water loosens the dried pigment. Quickly blot to absorb the liquid with a paper towel or tissue, removing the loosened pigment along with the water. Do not let the loosened color remain on the scrubbed surface. It can be reabsorbed by the damaged paper fibers and not be able to be lifted again. Be sure to have a wet enough brush when using this technique – using just a damp brush may rough up the paper and scrub the paint deeper into the paper. A slight variation to the above scrub and blot technique would be WIPING OFF COLOR with a paper towel or tissue.

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Mountain Stream, scrubbing and lifting.

SCRAPING can help you recover a lost highlight or create sparkle. You can scrape with a variety of tools (for different effects), either before your applied paint dries or after. Create tree trunks; for example, scrape wet paint with a palette knife or hard brush handle. Scraping can form dark marks on wet paint as the paint flows into the scrape. Or, on less wet but still damp paint, scrape in lighter marks as paint is pushed away from the scraping.

 

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Red Canoe, scraping and lifting.

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Waves, scratching and scraping.

Rocks can be highlighted and textured with a knife or palette knife by scraping and pushing damp paint. An X-acto knife can scrape dried paint to reclaim highlights, generate sparkle on water, or repair unsuccessful dry brush work. Keep in mind that scraping can damage paper, so it should be one of the last adjustments made to your painting. (Sandpaper can also remove pigment and bring back the white of the paper, although it also damages the paper.)

Hazel Soan, in The Essence of Watercolour, maintains that errors in “light-toned early washes are NOT a problem. As soon as darker tones are employed the eye is distracted from the pale tones.” Soan goes on to suggest that sometimes you can reclaim your watercolor by disguising or DISTRACTING from a mistake. Add a dark-toned accent nearby the error, such as some grasses or reeds, “to distract the eye away from the problem.”

OPAQUE colors, if not overdone, can be used to cover some painting mistakes or recreate lost highlights. Edges can be redrawn with an opaque color. Titanium White, full strength, can hide a mistake against white paper, while a matching opaque color can reclaim a colored background.

Too many layers of paint will eventually destroy transparency. So, to preserve transparency, consider GLAZING to improve color harmony. Tame overly bright colors, make shadows interesting, or even enliven dull dark color by glazing with a TRANSPARENT pigment. When glazing, make sure the surface of the paper is thoroughly dry. To calm bright colors, choose a transparent NON-STAINING pigment and apply quickly (without scrubbing). To rescue dull, dark colors, use transparent STAINING pigments (such as Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Phthalo Blue, or Phthalo Green) for glazing. As Jean Dobie explains in Making Color Sing, “turn an error into an asset!”

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Apple Blossoms, background glazing.

By accentuating some areas of your painting and playing down other sections, perhaps by glazing or lifting, you can improve your focal point or center of interest. If a picture lacks a strong focal point or the center of interest is too weak, increase contrast of lights and darks between your focal point and the background. If your center of interest is too broad, choose a smaller area, strengthen color and contrast here, then darken or soften the surrounding sections to make the focal point stand out.

Try not to rush to correct all your painting mistakes. It is sometimes best to evaluate your work near the end of the painting process when you can see how one area affects or supports the other sections of a picture. While many mistakes can be corrected or improved, at times it can be best to start a picture over. Try to learn from any blunder. With experience you will become confident about what you can correct as well as knowing when you probably should begin anew. Don’t get discouraged – becoming frustrated or giving up could be the worst mistakes of all.

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Fostering Creativity.

How many of us are secretly afraid, although we hope it is not true, that we don’t have the abilities necessary to be creative? How many of us feel it is too late for us to become artistic and reinvent ours lives? How many of us don’t know where to start even though we have a desire to be creative?

If you’ve ever wondered about these issues, let me assure you: you are already creative, and you can become a still more creative artist if you wish. Creativity – bringing something new into being – is a tool we can all access and utilize. As the poet Maya Angelou has said, “We need to remember that we are all created creative and can invent new scenarios as frequently as they are needed.” And similarly, according to Brenda Ueland, “Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.”

Cooking can supply an example of how creativity enters into even everyday processes. At first, you learn the lay-out of the kitchen and how to use equipment; you learn how to read a recipe and where to find and how to prepare ingredients. However, with a little practice, time, and effort, you begin to change the recipes, combine two or three different recipes, adapt a recipe to use ingredients on hand. You have begun to create something – perhaps dreadful, but often wonderful – with your own style. You are being creative! You take the time and make the effort needed to finish cooking the meal. You persist through difficulties and interruptions. You focus on what you’re doing, observe the process. You might take a chance and trust your intuition, adding less of one ingredient and more of another. With luck, you do not judge the results negatively, put yourself down, or feel a failure, and you are not afraid to try again, make a mistake, or feel foolish. Instead, you taste and evaluate the product, keeping in mind what worked well and what you might improve next time. You note your reactions and ideas, are inspired to plan another meal and to keep practicing your skills. You continue to experiment.

Once you’ve decided you want to get acquainted with your creative self, where do you begin? How do you jumpstart the creative process? First, be yourself; you are original.

With mass production, mass marketing, and mass media, it is important to remember that an artist needs to be independent of pressure groups and popular opinion. Have the courage not only to say no to superficial trends, but to say yes to your own emotions, thoughts, and creative impulses.

Abstract Beach.jpg

Don’t be in a rush! Take the time to get to know yourself. Get beneath the surface, and observe your reactions to what goes on in and around you, allowing yourself to notice details you might have missed. This patience and openness will allow you to recognize the invitation of inspiration, whether the stimulus is an idea, a hunch, a thought, or an impulse. (See my related blog post, titled “Painting Begins With Looking and Seeing”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/, published December 18, 2018.)

When you choose to follow your inspiration, whatever it may be, it needs to be captured and recorded. One of the best (and most adaptable) tools available is a journal to help provide a “visual record the way your creative ideas evolve.” Write down what you want to make. Think about your project – subject, materials, technique, color, time, cost, style, shape, whatever seems relevant. “Record everything.” In writing (or sketching) your thoughts, you honor their value. Brainstorm. Research. Plan. Get organized. Create reminders of what you are doing and symbols that are visible to you.

Tiny Waves series - crashing wave.jpeg

The next part of the creative process may take an hour, a week, or months. Don’t be impatient – you mustn’t be in a race to the finish line! The project may need time to come together, to simmer, to mature, to evolve. Allow the time necessary for this incubation. It often helps to carve out a corner as a sanctuary where you can sit in quiet reflection. Spend time regularly in your creative space. A ritual, or simple routine, can often spark the creative process, whether it is taking a walk, lighting a candle, or sitting with a cup of tea. Interestingly, shaking up your routine can also cause a creative spark. Try some new things, a museum, gallery, or art fair, and expose yourself to new ideas. New experiences will stimulate your imagination. (See my related blog post, titled “Creativity Can Be Learned”, published January 8, 2019.)

It’s one thing to have an idea, but it’s quite another to trust your idea and follow where it leads. Translate your thoughts into a plan of action. Take the risk and begin! Many of us have been taught to be too cautious, too nice, to play it too safe. To be truly creative, you must be willing to try and fail, and then get over it. Remember that perfection is NOT the goal – this is the time to experiment! Have courage and heed your intuition. Sample or test, change a variable, and sample again. Do the work and DON’T give up!

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Avoid judging yourself by whether your project is a “success.” Enjoy the journey instead of focusing only on your results. If your goal is creativity, it’s the process that matters. Trust that if the process is good, the end will be good as well. And NEVER allow other people’s opinions to intimidate you or make you feel vulnerable.

You might seek out mentors, role models, or advisors who are supportive of your uniqueness and expression. Creativity flourishes within an atmosphere of security and trust but dies if surrounded by a climate of criticism and stress. One thing a mentor might tell you is to leave enough time in your life to do something that makes you happy. Keep in mind that what you really WANT to do is what you are really MEANT to do. Don’t feel guilty or selfish! Take the time to make painting (or whatever else you choose to do) fun, and strive for your dream.

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Creativity is within your grasp. It means you being yourself, thinking your own thoughts, responding to what you feel, NOT rotely copying someone else or a reference photo. Creativity transforms conditions as they ARE into conditions as they COULD be or OUGHT to be. You create only when you bring forth something that was not there before. There is no need for you to make your painting abstract, realistic, or any other particular style if these options make you uncomfortable. Make your own shapes, values, and color!

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“I’ve Always Wanted To Paint Watercolors But Don’t Have The Talent.”

While watercolor painting has a reputation for being unforgiving and difficult, I believe anyone can learn to paint using watercolors. It’s NOT a matter of having some inborn “talent.” Painting well is A SKILL that is learned step by step, and it must be pursued with attention and effort. Skills improve naturally with PRACTICE. It takes time, and, yes, you may struggle in the beginning and be unsatisfied with your first attempts. However, keep practicing, and at some point, all that you have been learning will come together into a gorgeous painting.

I find that the ATTITUDE of each of my watercolor students makes a huge difference in their success in class! Students who become successful painters begin with a more open attitude. They try to relax, are willing to try new techniques, and accept that they have a lot to learn. These students understand that they are beginners. They don’t expect themselves to be perfect. In fact, they expect that they will make mistakes, that mistakes are inevitable. They are much more likely to ask, “What can I learn here today?” than to state, “Ugh, this picture is awful.” They keep trying, ask questions, and do not give up. No matter what happens, they keep painting. They understand that the more they paint, the better they will get. Successful learners are willing to try, take a chance, and not take themselves too seriously.

Believe me, nobody starts off as an expert; everyone begins as a learner. I can still remember one of the first paintings that I did on my own. I set up a still life that included a pair of old work gloves arranged on an antique redware milk pan. I had high hopes. I mixed my colors, and they were spot-on, but when I was finished and stepped back, what I saw looked like dead bananas on a huge pretzel bun! Very frustrating and disappointing!  It was, however, NOT the end of the world. I persisted and tried again. (I’m pretty stubborn.)

What do new students tend to get impatient with? Many difficulties arise involving students’ ability to judge and control the AMOUNT OF WATER used in mixing paint or applying paint to their pictures. Even executing a smooth and even flat wash can be tricky. SOFTENING or fading an edge well can also be challenging. Understanding how to avoid blossoms or cauliflowers also depends on controlling wetness.

Further, beginning painters often are disappointed when their paintings don’t look exactly like their reference photo or the objects that they have painted. But keep in mind: we don’t want a photograph! Painters with some experience strive to create an impression to express how they feel about their chosen subject. They SIMPLIFY, often eliminating some details while focusing on what they feel are the salient ones. They may emphasize lighting or specific colors or soften some edges to help focus a viewer’s attention on what they wish to have noticed in their picture. Keeping a painting simple makes for a strong painting!

I always encourage students to use QUALITY materials when they paint, as doing so makes success much easier to achieve. While many teachers recommend starting with student-grade materials, I think that is a mistake. Don’t buy the cheapest brushes, paper, or paint to try to save money. You will instead frustrate yourself!(Look for my post about what materials a beginner should look for, Help! I Don’t Know What Art Supplies To Buy!, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/07/31/help-i-dont-know-what-art-supplies-to-buy/, available July 31, 2018.)  On the other hand, just because materials are the most expensive does not necessarily mean they are the best.

Becoming a skillful watercolor painter does not happen overnight. When students make learning to paint a priority, they COMMIT themselves to the effort even when it seems that for every two steps ahead, they take one step backwards. They organize their lives to meet their goal of becoming skilled painters. They try to stop making excuses not to go to class or not to do the painting. They may at times feel unsure or afraid or discouraged, but they are determined to keep going. They promise themselves to finish what they start! And as time goes on, these painters produce better and better pictures. Their work becomes consistently amazing!

I really do believe anyone who has desire and the willingness to put in the necessary practice can learn to paint well. Give it a try! You CAN do it – one step at a time. Take a watercolor class, and you’ll get support and help all the way, AND you’ll have fun doing it. If you want to learn to paint, you can!