Watercolor Expressions: Variation on a theme

Seascape Yellow, 9×12 watercolor

Mostly I don’t plan paintings beforehand. There are exceptions, but painting for me is primarily about expression.

The unintended similarities between paintings shouldn’t surprise me. They might simply be variations on a theme.

Still, the repetition in the absence of intention strikes me, makes me wonder what is being painted when there is no consciously identified subject.

I’ve called this a seascape, because that’s what the image most closely approximates. I’m also curious about what else it might be.


Watercolor Expressions: Freedom from expectations

Traveling, 5×5 watercolor (coldpress)

Some of my favorite paintings have been made from the passenger seat of long car rides. The time with nothing else to do and the light that streams into the car from every direction surely inspire me. But the absence of expectations and the willingness to improvise are the secret ingredients that make these paintings different, I think.

Folks in my life have wondered how I can paint in the car: Don’t you get carsick? How can you work with all the motion? How do you not spill the water or ruin the painting when you hit a bump?

Yes, I get carsick when I am not in the front seat. And I can only paint (or read) while highway driving. The paintings I make in the car are small, so the water is pretty well-contained in a cup holder. My travel paints sit on one leg; the paper pad rests on the other.

And the bumps? Well, they definitely happen! But, especially with abstract painting, the unexpected brush marks can usually be incorporated into the landscape.

And what a great metaphor! For when we keep our expectations loose – as ideas about form in a piece of abstract art – the surprises may add interest. The unintended marks might even inspire a major change in composition, impetus to create something better than we could have imagined.

The uncontrolled elements, and my unplanned response to them, may indeed be what makes my car paintings special. Maybe I like them best because they evoke the sense of freedom and flow I experienced while making them.

What frees you up to find creative flow?

Watercolor Expressions: Going with playful energy

Mexico Energy, 6×8 watercolor (hotpress)

Not uncommonly, my perception of a painting changes depending on my proximity to it, not just the viewing distance, but with the passage of time. Sometimes I love a painting more the longer I look at it, sometimes less. Enduring appreciation of a painting might be one definition of merit, I suppose.

And then there is this painting, which I love best in the first moments of looking at it, when the palpable energy shouts to be heard over my notice of the imperfections. This isn’t my favorite painting for a lot of reasons and may not be yours either. But it evokes an approximation of how I felt when I made it.

Mexico is such a colorful country, a place where the warmth of the people matches the strength of the sun. There is evident hustle and work, but also an abundance of playfulness. And not just when the tequila is flowing.

Yes, there a dark places – crime, drugs, and corruption. But I’d venture to guess our impressions of those cultural elements are largely overblown.

I remember watching this painting evolve while hearing the sounds of the ocean. And, as is true with many paintings, a creative backstory is hidden in the final image. This one could be a tale of alternating ground and sky, of keeping perceptions fluid, of going with the playful energy.

Many thanks, Mexico.

Watercolor Expressions: Light heart, light touch

Untitled watercolor, 5×8

Do anything, but let it produce joy.

Walt Whitman

Joy [joi]: 1. A state of happiness 2. Playful application of paint on paper

A fellow blogger reminded me about the importance of playfulness when making art.

Critical thinking has place in painting, but a considered break from striving is a lot more fun.

Watercolor Expressions: Knowing when to stop

Mexico Dreams, 7×10 watercolor (hot press)

Arguably an ability that ranks high on the list of life skills to master, it is also a valued skill to develop as an artist.

Although the inspiration to start a painting can be a challenge, the wisdom to know when it’s time to put down the brush may be even more elusive. Many of my paintings have been cast in a dull patina of excess fiddling. At the other extreme, lackluster efforts have been rescued by a few additional brushstrokes or slight color adjustment. The problem for the amateur (me) is learning to judge proximity to either pole, to make more calculated decisions about when to rest and when to push on.

If my experience is any indication, I’d guess that beginners err on the side of doing too much, desperate to fully manifest the kernel of a good idea. Masters almost certainly know when enough is enough, when to move on. Not every painting is meant to be saved.

My decision to let this painting rest has been an acute struggle. I see flaws – things I’d like to fix or explore further – and bits I’d like to preserve in a better painting. I also know that the risk of ruining this particular work is far greater than the likelihood of additional improvement. I’ve already edged into destructive territory. Perhaps my willingness to stop here is a small step towards mastery.


Addendum (day after original post): “Oops, I did it again,” to quote Britney Spears. I said I’d stop, but I didn’t. Hear me out though!

As promised, I stopped to let the painting rest. Then I looked at it. And kept looking. I’d already determined it would never be a great painting. Still, there was apparently more to learn. So, before burning it in a ritual fire, I began again with nothing to lose but time.

Ironically (considering the orignal post content), I think the painting is improved in a number of ways. Under no illusions it’s now a great painting, with areas that are evidently a little worse for the wear, I nevertheless prefer it.

What then is the lesson here?

Perhaps knowing when to resume is as important as knowing when to stop. Especially for a beginner, squeezing every last drop of learning from each creative experience may ultimately be more valuable than the final outcome.

Sometimes growth may require a step or two back before finding the right stride forward.

The before and after images are below. Which do you prefer?

Watercolor Expressions: Keeping it loose

Untitled, watercolor (2016)

One of the best things about making art is the essentially infinite possibilities. Not everything works and, of course, we all have preferences or definitions of a ‘good’ painting. Like most things in life, I suspect it’s important to find balance in painting, to blend technical excellence with expressiveness.

Recently I’ve been trying to stretch myself by working with more representational images, focusing on drawing skills and perspective. This older painting is a reminder for me to stay loose, to balance technical advancement with enjoyment, the reason I started painting in the first place.

Fellow painters: How much you play with different styles? What style you prefer for your own art making? Do you find that switching styles helps you progress?

Watercolor Expressions: “Spread the light; be the lighthouse”

The title is borrowed from a recent Yogi teabag, but is a practice I’ve been trying to embody. Only partially successful a lot of the time and well aware of my imperfections, I still aspire towards this goal. In the light of my best self I hope to find humble solace, to generate true love for others, and to move myself (and hopefully others I encounter) out of darkness.

Early lighthouse paintings

To the Lighthouse, 2017

As a lover of nautical themes and lighthouse symbolism, I’ve long wanted to make a decent lighthouse painting. My first attempts, about 2 years ago, were so technically poor I’ve stayed away from painting them since. The first of the series (pictured right) was done as a small sketch to prepare for the intended bigger version. It was ok, but I had difficulty seeing beyond the imperfections.

Beacon, 2017

My second effort (pictured left) was no more successful – maybe even less so – but came with a personally meaningful insight, the reason I treasure it. Made shortly after a disheartening world event, I, like many others, was searching for peace and hope. The working title for this second painting – To the Lighthouse – is also the title of my favorite Virginia Woolf novel, which added intellectual appeal. But as I worked on the painting for embarrassingly many hours considering the outcome, trying and failing to figure it out, my perspective shifted from seeking the light to being it. It almost seems silly now. After all, the idea is popular enough to be printed on a Yogi teabag tag! But at the time, it was an ‘aha!’ moment for me: You don’t need to find the light, you need to be the light! This insight unfortunately didn’t translate into making a luminous painting, but it did change me and necessitated a title change for the painting. To the Lighthouse became Beacon.

Another try

At times I feel future paintings are simmering in the background, not ready to be conceived, but still in active preparation. I’m not sure this makes sense to someone who isn’t me, but captures my experience of making the lighthouse painting shown below.

Nearly two years after the first lighthouse painting, I started by sketching lighthouses, this time using a photo model, to better understand perspective and form. That helped a lot! The first two paintings were generated from my imagined picture of a lighthouse scene, a vision equal parts primitive and inaccurate. I can see that clearly now.

The photo I used as a model for the new painting waited as an open tab on my internet browser for over a year, a long simmer! Finally, over the past weekend, I made the painting (pictured below). It’s still not perfect, but I’m happy with my progress.

Beacon, 9×12 watercolor (2019)

After I’ve finished a painting, I not uncommonly see new things and have impulses to change it. Away from it for a day, seeing it in my mind’s eye, I decided the sky should be a darker. When I shared that idea with my husband, he protested. The sky, almost indistinguishable from the lighthouse, is what he likes best about the painting. As a lover of metaphor, there are worse things – as we spread light, we may become one with the sky. I’ve quite a ways to go, but happy to be getting closer. Thanks for joining me on the journey!