Graduating to a Whole New Level

Being a self-taught student of art offers many challenges, not the least of which is knowing how to assess my abilities and determine the appropriate level for studies. For the last ten months, I’ve considered myself a beginner. I’ve been comfortable at that level. At the same time, I’m hoping that all the hard work I’ve done will enable me to move on toward higher levels.

At what point does one go from beginner to intermediate? Are there certain standards to be met, certain skills that must be mastered before one becomes an intermediate student? I don’t know the answers to those questions. My approach is to push myself, take on new challenges, and use the results to help me decide if I’m ready to advance.

Recently I began to sense that I might be ready to advance a bit. Although I’ve been through a lot of emotional ups and downs artistically in recent weeks, I’d started to see a noticeable improvement in many of my paintings and drawings. That’s when I started wondering if maybe it was time for me to move ahead to slightly more difficult projects.

I was working on lessons from The Watercolor Workshop — one of the video courses offered by Matt Fussell, the Virtual Instructor. As I neared the end of the course, I grew bold. Instead of completing the project using the reference photo provided, I wanted to “test” myself by using a reference photo of my own. The online project involved using watercolor and ink for a painting of an old car — and I knew exactly what I would do.

Remember when I shared my drawing of “Ol’ Rusty“? As I shared that drawing I also shared the story of my husband’s old 1965 Falcon van. Yes, the story is true. He found it rusting away in a farm field, pulled it out, brought it home, and is in the process of restoring it. It’s running now. It’s actually licensed and legal to drive, although he doesn’t drive it too far. It still has a few problems he’s working out. Nothing has been done yet on the exterior. It’s still a rusty old mess. Several times my husband jokingly said I should draw the old van. Now, with this watercolor and ink project, I was ready to surprise him.

While he was at work, I slipped outside and took my reference photo. Then, as I listened to instructions from the “old car” project at the Virtual Instructor, I considered my van drawing and tried to apply the directions to my own project. I had to figure a lot of things out for myself, and this was an important step for me. I’ve learned, you see, that it’s fairly easy for me to get good results when I have an online instructor guiding me through every step of the process. Would I be able to successfully complete a drawing that, while similar, was different from Matt’s step-by-step project? I was eager to try.

A few hours later when my husband came home, his eyes lit up when he saw this:

Falcon Van

I’ll never forget what he said.

Honey, I suppose you know, you’ve just graduated to a whole new level as an artist.

My husband knows nothing about art, but as he so often tells me, he knows what he likes. He definitely liked my watercolor and ink drawing of his van — although he told me maybe I should do it again and leave off all the rust. The rust is the best part! I loved the rusty spots.

His words really touched me, because he had no idea that I was doing the project as a way of testing myself. Hearing those words were all the affirmation I needed. Yes, I was ready to move on. I’m now ready to think of myself as an “early intermediate” student of art.

It’s an exciting time for me because I know I truly have graduated to a new level. Once again, I’d like to thank all the online instructors whose tutorials and newsletters have helped me. I want to thank all the artists who have written books and articles about different techniques. I want to thank the friends who’ve encouraged me with kind words, and of course, I want to thank my husband for always believing in me.

Van Progress 1UPDATE: My husband is making slow but steady progress on the van. He’s started doing the body work now — learning as he goes. Here’s a photo showing what he’s accomplished so far.

I’ll post additional updates as the project goes along.



    1. Yes, it felt good to do something that really made my husband happy. It’s not one of my favorite drawings/watercolors, but everyone loves it. Maybe because it’s so different. Oh, I started reading “The Natural Way” yesterday. I have to go buy the paper he specifies for the exercises. I’ll be doing that this week so I can get started following his program.

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      1. The experience might be a lot like that one you described recently on the six-day project. Lots of gesture drawings and contour drawings (which are done without looking at the paper!), so the point isn’t the resulting drawing, but the resulting experience. Like yoga or meditation!

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      2. Right. I’m looking forward to it. I especially like the instructions about not erasing until I reach a certain point in the course. That’s so important, really.

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      3. Reporting in, teacher, on my experiences with Nicolaides. 🙂 I’ve done blind contour drawings in the past, but I’ve never spent so much time on them before. It’s a bit of a challenge, but I do like the idea of slowing myself down and “touching” the model with my eyes/pencil. I’m so glad you mentioned yoga and meditation because that’s an excellent way to think about it. Yesterday I was getting a little impatient and was almost asking “Is there really a point to this?” The point is the process itself, of course. I’m going to see each exercise now as an “art meditation”.

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    1. Everyone responds to that old van. Now, my husband has a project for me. He wants me to do a sky and clouds for the headliner. We’ve been discussing it, taking pictures of clouds, and planning how to lay it all out. It will be exciting, and I’ll post pictures when it’s done.


      1. Are you gonna do real clouds or them nasty fake sprayed geoengineering clouds. Remember the clouds when we were kids…so puffy. They made all kinds of cool shapes. I sware I saw bugs bunny once in them! We used to lay in the grass and watch them for hours. The sky was so blue then.


      2. LOL…never heard of fake sprayed geoengineering clouds, so yeah, I’m gonna get paintbrushes and acrylic paints and give it a try. I can do clouds fairly well in watercolor and pastels, but acrylics will be a whole new thing. I’ll practice first. I love clouds. So far that’s probably my favorite thing to paint.


  1. These are the start of fake clouds…then they wisp out in an undefined feathery ugly grey fashion. I know you have seen them, maybe didn’t realize it, but I think everyone has seen them. I have been in mourning for years. I started looking up at the sky and paying attention somewhere around 2005 maybe. They cover the skys where I live. I hate them. Absolutely hate them. I find myself painting clouds that look like them and it makes me sad.


  2. I am glad I was able to see the van that you referred to, I see what others like about this. The fact that your husband really likes it and from his comment, sounds like it was what you needed to hear at the time. When you are feeling down about your art or doubting yourself, use this van as your proof that you can do it, have done it! 🙂

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  3. Great post. I can relate. I go through so many emotional ups and down, sometimes daily. I have a hard time calling myself an artist and always call myself a “painter.” My husband says it sounds like I paint houses. I don’t even know what category to put myself in from beginner to professional. So I steer clear of that label. We are all students. I am always taking classes and consulting with other artists. Although I haven’t taken any online classes, I think they are a good idea. Have you considered taking a class where you can take your work in and get feedback on how to improve? That helps soooo much.

    Your van painting is great! The rust IS great.

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    1. I’m enjoying the online classes, but an “in-person” class with feedback would be very helpful. I’m going to look at some of the “community classes” in the area. I might something that would be just right. Thank you for the suggestion. And, yes, I really like the rust!

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