How Can I Become My Own Watercolor Teacher?

Wouldn’t it be terrific if we could each find our perfect watercolor painting teacher (if watercolor is our chosen medium)? But they are hard to find! And a great artist doesn’t necessarily make a great teacher. How many good teachers are there? And how easy are they to find? I looked for years for a local watercolor teacher before running into my mentor by chance. You may be limited by where you live and the desire to take in-person classes. You will have more teachers to choose from if you are willing to take a workshop or even an online course. But after the workshop ends, then what? Even if you could find a good local teacher, would classes cost a lot of money? And each teacher you are able to locate will provide instruction in their own way, in their own style. Will they teach what you need to know? 

What if, in addition to any painting instructor or classes you find, you could also become your own teacher, able to learn about and explore all the things you need and want to know? You can, with the proper attitude and mindset. First you must make a strong commitment to improve your painting. To become your own teacher, consider what you’d hope for in any good teacher, then strive to cultivate those same characteristics in yourself. 

Forsythia In Vases Watercolor.

Are you able to cultivate the awareness and OBJECTIVITY necessary to evaluate your paintings with some detachment? In other words, can you get some distance on your work? To be a good teacher to yourself, you must be able to step back and view your work as though someone else painted it (during the painting process, as well as after the painting is complete).

CLOSELY OBSERVE details in your work and the scene you are painting. Does what you’re doing in your picture work? What is going wrong? If something is not quite right, pause during painting to evaluate the situation. You’ll need to figure out the problem if something looks odd, before rushing in to try this or maybe that. While pausing, ask yourself what you might change to correct the problem. For instance, are my values (lights/darks) correct? Am I using the colors and color temperature I need to create an effective image? Are edges soft or crisp enough where they need to be? Am I using too much (or too little) wetness? Am I emphasizing my center of interest appropriately, or has another section of my painting taken over center stage? Have I lost important highlights? Through such an assessment, you can become aware of the picture’s difficulties and create a plan to resolve any problem. With possible solutions in mind, you can then resume painting.

Red Flowers Watercolor.

You will need to have PATIENCE with yourself. Learning to paint takes perseverance and time. While we all strive for quick progress, often it seems like we take two steps forward only to take one step back. Yet, that is how we all learn – we need to take action and learn from our mistakes.

Be KIND to yourself. You deserve respect and understanding. A good teacher is warm, caring, supportive, and has empathy – encouraging painting strengths as well as pinpointing places to make improvements. 

Don’t give up! A good teacher is positive and reassuring. It’s okay to step away from a painting for a breather if you need it, but remember to be ENCOURAGING and give yourself a pep talk, in spite of any frustrations.  For more insight on self-assessment of painting problems, you might like to read ‘A Positive, Problem-Solving Attitude To Overcome Frustration’, (1/9/2020), https://leemuirhaman.com/2020/01/09/become-a-problem-solver-to-overcome-that-awkward-stage/.

Crocus Watercolor.

Let’s be HONEST. Give yourself honest feedback (but not harsh criticism). Painting is NOT a matter only of talent – painting skills can be learned. Improvement comes from lots of practice and repetition.You know learning to paint can be difficult, and sometimes frustrating and discouraging, but don’t forget it can be fun and worth all the hard work!

Take RESPONSIBILITY for improving yourself. Search out and study when you want to learn more (through books, YouTube videos, ‘googling’ a question you might have, signing up for a workshop, joining art Facebook groups that interest you, taking online classes with teachers you admire and joining their online support groups). Try not to blame mistakes or poor painting on outside circumstances (poor quality paper, humid weather, lack of time, confusing template image, cheap paints). Blaming takes responsibility out of your hands and will make it difficult for you to see what YOU can do to take charge and resolve any difficulties.

Apple Blossoms Watercolor.

Do not settle for half-hearted effort from yourself. Strive to do your best! A good teacher has high expectations, and will MOTIVATE and CHALLENGE a student. Encourage yourself to do the hard, consistent work necessary to improve.

Finally, don’t take yourself TOO SERIOUSLY. Yes, you need to work hard, but keep in mind that everyone makes mistakes. No worries! Strive to enjoy the process of painting. Remember a good teacher is fun, full of joy, playful, perhaps even high-spirited. My favorite watercolor teacher told jokes and stories throughout every single class.

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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!