One Step Forward…

No, no, this isn’t another post about feet. I’m sure we all saw enough of those yesterday. This post is about moving ahead and making progress while feeling downhearted and discouraged at the same time. I know I’m not the only one who experiences that chaotic mish-mash of mixed up emotions that is so much a part of all that art is.

I’ve been doing quite a few watercolor paintings lately. Some are simple exercises. Others have been more detailed paintings, and for the most part, I’ve been pleased. I can see that I’m learning. Of course, using better-quality paper has helped immensely, and I want to thank everyone who responded to my desperate pleas for help, especially Laura, Margaret, and Jodi. Check out their blogs if you haven’t already!

I'm both encouraged and discouraged by this "Windmill on the Hill" watercolor.
I’m both encouraged and discouraged by this “Windmill on the Hill” watercolor.

After several practice pieces, I decided to try another step-by-step tutorial from one of my watercolor books. I’m not sure how I feel about the finished painting. It has its good points, and its not-so-good points. I’m both encouraged and discouraged by the results.

Where do I begin?

Let me start at the beginning. I did use my cheaper-grade Canson paper for this project. I wanted to work on a slightly larger scale, plus I have an entire pad of the 11 x 15 paper.

Might as well use it up, get rid of it, and at least get a little good out of it while I’m still learning, right? So, from the start, I knew I’d have a few problems. I wasn’t painting this scene with the intention of creating a work of art. It was only for me, only for practice. I’m learning different brush strokes, learning more about mixing colors, learning different ways to put the paint on the paper, and learning a lot about trusting myself as an artist. I could do that on the less expensive paper. Still, it was frustrating to deal with the buckles and the pools of paint.

I loved the sky when I painted it. My colors were soft and gentle, and the hues blended nicely. While still wet, it looked beautiful. But then…well, we all know what happens with watercolor.

REMEMBER: Watercolor will be much lighter when it dries.

And then there were the clouds. I know, you can’t see the lines of gray clouds in the sky. That’s my fault. First, I mixed the gray much too thin, with much too much water. Instead of clouds, I had huge puddles across the paper. In trying to dab away excess water, I dabbed away the clouds and was left with a lovely sky, but a cloudless one. Those clouds were an important element of the painting, meant to draw attention to the windmill. Without them the sky is only a clear, cloudless void.

REMEMBER: Too much water can ruin a watercolor, especially on low-grade paper.

Wanting to avoid further disasters, I used a much thicker and darker application of paint for the line of trees. All things considered, I think these are among the best “horizon trees” I’ve ever painted, but…my color mix came out all wrong. I obviously went too dark, or too thick, or maybe both. The trees are nearly black. I tried going back and applying a little green over them, but of course, that didn’t really do much.

REMEMBER: Work from light to dark in watercolor.

Because my paint was so thick on the tree line, I had problems scratching out the tree trunks as the instructions indicated. “Use a fingernail or palette knife,” the book said. Huh? I grabbed a paper clip, unwound it, and tried scratching away. No use. I had such thick globs of paint nothing was going to scratch or scrape it away. On one tree, I used a little more pressure. Oops. I realized I was scraping away the paper. Not good.

REMEMBER: If working from a tutorial, it might help to read the instructions all the way through before attempting the painting.

About those instructions…am I the only one who finds it hard to understand exactly what I’m supposed to do at various points? More than once, after reading the directions for this painting I found myself wondering just what the artist meant. Much like my previous experience with pulling out trees, I was baffled by the somewhat vague instructions in the tutorial, such as “apply soap to the brush and mask out the area…” Masking fluid was listed among the materials required, but there was no mention of actually using it.

REMEMBER: Use your head — and a bit of common sense.

Okay, so go ahead and laugh. Yes, I actually tried applying soap to a brush and using it to mask out part of the windmill. I actually thought I’d learned a nifty new use for soap. Later, of course, when I came to the part about removing the masking fluid by rubbing a finger over it, I realized my error. Why can’t these directions be a little more specific?

REMEMBER: Soap is a good thing to have, but it doesn’t go on the paper.

Still, my windmill came out looking fairly good, despite the soap.  I mixed my paint more carefully, managed to get the shadows about right, and even the fine little details — the blades, the ropes, the pulley — turned out better than expected. Yes, I was quite pleased with the windmill. At least, I was pleased until I read additional steps about adding texture to the surface with dabs of gray. I didn’t want to touch my windmill! I liked the way it looked. Oh, well, I dabbed in touches of gray, just like it said. I was not happy with the result, so I grabbed my tissue and dabbed the gray away again, dabbing away some of the original color, as well. I still like my windmill, but it doesn’t look nearly as good as it did.

REMEMBER: If you like the results you’ve achieved, leave it alone.

Next came the tree on the left. This tree was a near-total disaster. The scene, you see, is supposed to suggest a wintry day, and that particular tree should only have a few “wintry leaves” clinging to its slender, graceful branches. My branches were neither slender nor graceful. To make matters worse, I’d failed to mix enough paint to complete the tree, so my branches ended up two different colors. I was getting frustrated by this point. My brushstrokes were getting a bit heavy — and careless — and soon I had another “kindergarten tree” —  one of those that looks like it was drawn by a six-year-old. The only hope to salvage it was by adding leaves. Forget “wintry”. I added leaves. Lots of leaves. On a positive note, the colors I mixed for the leaves came out about right.

REMEMBER: Frustration never makes a painting better.

Perhaps the highlight of this painting — for me — was adding in a lovely little shadow for my horrible tree. Before I touched brush to paper, I actually stopped to consider my light source. I then painted a very nice shadow. I felt really good about it even though it hadn’t been addressed in the instructions. Or, if it had been addressed, I’d missed it. Of course, at the same time, I also felt I was doing something wrong. That spoiled the good feelings a little.

REMEMBER: You are the artist, and you’re free to make your own choices about your painting.

By now, my frustration was mounting, and along with feelings of guilt and shame, I just wanted to be done with the painting. Only a few areas remained. Grass. Walkways. By now, my entire workspace was a mess of brushes, water cups, paper towels — and let’s not forget the soap — and it was getting late. Time to start dinner. But grass wouldn’t take long, right? After all, what could be so hard about painting a bit of grass? Everything, as it turned out.

REMEMBER: Green is always the most difficult color to get right in a painting.

Green has a bad reputation, and I’ve come to see that it’s well-deserved. Every time I’d read about how difficult greens can be, I’d sort of shrugged off the information. How hard could it be to find the right green? After all, there are dozens of them, not to mention all the variations we can mix on our palettes. Right? Of course, I wasn’t in much of a mood for careful mixing, so I squeezed out a bit of this and a little of that, and I painted the grass with bold strokes. Egads! The color looked horrible. Garish. Unnatural. I couldn’t bear to even look at it. Maybe I could add a touch of gray to tone it down, I thought. But I didn’t have any more gray on the palette, so I grabbed a touch of black. Yes, black.

REMEMBER: Use black sparingly. Better still, avoid it altogether.

So, what was I supposed to do with black grass? Grab a paper towel, of course, and frantically try to wipe it away. Now, what? Well, how about the green I’d mixed for my leafy tree? I grabbed what was left of that mix, already forgetting again that putting light over dark is not going to work with watercolor. In the end, I was left with messy, muddy grass. Forget about adding any texture to it. I just wanted this awful afternoon of painting to be over with.

REMEMBER: Know when to quit.

It was definitely time for me to quit. I still had the walkways to paint, so I grabbed a color. It no longer mattered which one. The painting was ruined, so what difference did it make what color I used? I don’t remember which one I grabbed first, but I didn’t like it. So I grabbed another. And then another. Lemon yellow. Gamboge. Yellow Ochre. I wasn’t happy with any of them. The grass was still wet, so my colors were running into each other, and I no longer cared what color anything was.

REMEMBER: When you lose all patience, step away from the easel.

My painting was done, and so was I. I did indeed walk away, leaving it to dry. When my husband came home, he praised it highly. I’m glad he liked it, but I didn’t want to even talk about it. Later, I looked at it and saw the good, the bad, and the ugly. I considered all I’d learned from doing this painting, and I saw a lot of potential. The most important thing I discovered was that I was responsible for all that went wrong.

REMEMBER: Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy in painting.

From choosing to work on low-quality paper, to carelessly mixing my colors, I ruined this painting. It became a series of mistakes — mistakes that could have been avoided. I was taking a step forward, making progress as an artist, yet at the same time, my bad decisions and poor choices were setting me two steps back.

I know I’ll make a lot of mistakes in future paintings, and some of them will likely be unavoidable. I know, too, that I’ll likely make more avoidable mistakes, as well. But I hope to make fewer of them. I think this painting really has taught me a lot of lessons — not about art, but about attitude.






  1. If you learned something, it’s all good. Watercolor is a tough mistress. She’ll step on your toes more than a few times. My advice? Sit down in expectation. What will happen? Here goes nothing. I am a beginner. I’m learning fast but still a beginner. Don’t expect much and roll with it. I know, easier said than done but don’t be discouraged unless you give up completely. Which won’t happen. Deep breath, roll on! Play. And play some more. Otherwise she will step on you. Get to know her by playing. My .02.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s quite an interesting learning process…and I’m learning so much more than “art”. I am developing more patience, learning a lot about myself, and definitely understanding the importance of having the right attitude. 🙂 As always, your “two cents worth” is worth much, much more.

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  2. What s challenging piece to take on and what lovely results you achieved and so much you learned ! Bravo! Have you tried tutorials? Or YouTube? I find them much more enjoyable than books and you can watch the artist paint. You will learn a lot that way. I enjoy doing them.

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  3. Also wanted to add – I think you’ve done a nice job with this painting. My comment was more in response to what you wrote than what you painted. When I started, I did all the books then went to videos and it was all pretty much an exercise in hit and miss until the good paper and then honestly it’s still hit and miss. Even with acrylic it can be very much hit and miss. There is no step by step formula for a “successful” watercolor painting. It’s not like following a recipe in a cookbook. I agree with Jodi that the videos are way better than the books but it’s like everything else, you have to find your own way and do more of what works and feels good in your gut. And less of the rest. I admire good watercolor painters, but I may never be one. It’s all a journey. We never know unless we try, right? I think art is a blessing and whatever we do and where we go, it’s good.

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    1. Trying a lot of different styles is helping me figure out where I want to be with watercolor. I’m actually starting to get a feel for what I like and don’t like, and I’m beginning to develop a few personal preferences with colors and techniques. I’ve got a long, long way to go, but I do think I’m actually starting to make progress in some areas. It’s exciting, and despite the occasional frustrations, I really am enjoying watercolor.

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      1. so true….I love that keen observation. It is helping you to find your place in watercolor, what you like or don’t like….your preferences in colors and techniques. I would caution you that you don’t allow discouragement and frustration to be your companion while you are learning this notoriously little mistress of watercolor. Laura nailed it by calling it that, I love it. 🙂 I have found that when I start on the path of discouragement and frustration that it takes about 50% of the learning and the excitement away. Continuing on in this frame of mind is just setting it up for more frustration. Ugh….I know! been there so many times. I don’t recall once of ever “changing my horses in the middle of the stream” (attitude) to work…never. So, you are learning loads! I love that but I hear more frustration and the fun isn’t happening for you. I totally get that…remember I have been in your position far too many times to count. Allow yourself the learning stage….know what I mean? Allow yourself to learn. Do beginning carpenters know how to completely build a house off the bat? I think you are learning to “frame”….get that under your belt before expecting to build an entire house. I love what Laura mentioned….play with watercolor, have fun! Also I have found what is totally helpful is to paint what enthuses you….the subjects that you love! Maybe that will come later but at least paint what you like. Also, forget that darn canson paper, it isn’t worth it! I have kept mine to use it for color swatches or use it for value sketches. Also….like Jodi suggested, watch the watercolorists work… a lot of youtube videos….you are doing great! It takes a lot of work but it is so worth it. Keep that frustration and discouragement at bay, that is a mood and learning destroyer! 🙂

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      2. Fortunately the frustration passed quickly, and getting my new M. Graham watercolors really sparked my enthusiasm. Yes, I’m going to use that old Canson paper for color swatches and mixing. Excellent idea! So glad you mentioned that. I’ve been using the Arches for the paintings I’ve been doing the last few days. The “Windmill” painting proved beyond doubt that, as Gordon McKenzie says, “Life is too short to use cheap paper.” Love that quote!

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      3. Oh I love that quote, so true! I am glad that your frustration passes quickly….mine unfortunately would latch on and keep me under the water for a while! you are tough, good to hear. I know that Arches is so expensive and often I will turn over paintings that weren’t so successful and paint on the other side, another way to stretch out the cost. 🙂

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  4. Great, generous post! I think what you said right in the beginning: “This post is about moving ahead and making progress while feeling downhearted and discouraged at the same time” is a good recipe for success – resilience and tenacity!
    I know you have received some great advice from the artists you mention. From my side, I think it is really important to tackle watercolour with confidence. For me, there is always a point where the painting looks bleak and washed out. But I have learned to push forward with confidence past that point. Keep on adding layers (the layer underneath should be bone dry) and you can achieve any depth and strength of colour you want. I also go to great lengths to pre-stretch my paper so that it remains flat and smooth – even when I have added a very wet wash to it.
    Although one technique is to keep watercolour light and fresh, you can also layer colours, and even paint with almost no water added. Watercolour can be very strong if used in this way. If you look at some of the drybrush paintings of Andrew Wyeth, you will be amazed how far you can push it! Good luck!

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    1. I’m learning patience, learning to let the painting dry, learning to slowly build up my colors. Oh, so much to learn! I’m doing a little watercolor painting/practice every day, and although I’m not sure if the improvement shows yet, I can FEEL that I’m getting better, if that makes any sense. I’ve been doing a lot of brushstroke practice, learning to gain better control over the marks I make, and that’s a huge step forward. What I need to remember now is to NOT set myself back again by making careless mistakes. I love Andrew Wyeth, by the way. I fell in love with “Christina’s World” when I was a little girl, and he’s always remained one of my favorite artists.

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      1. Great to hear you feel you are getting better. Truly, that confidence is almost everything. I find it also helps to pick subjects that stir an emotion in you. But THAT is another journey, perhaps the true journey of painting, because it goes to the question”who am I?”. Good luck, Inkeep following and stumbling along my own learning curve!

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  5. I think that I can see improvement and I think that soapy windmill looks really good…and your big tree, well that looks really good too and that is where my eyes are drawn. The windmill to the tree or vice versa. Every mistake you pointed out…I didn’t notice. I think that when we paint, we know every struggle we had with it, but remember the person viewing it….does not. They see it and think, wow…they don’t understand what it took to get there and we don’t have to tell them!!!!! I heard it explained like this….an artist is a magician. We know the trick and how the painting was done and so it is hard for us to look at our own stuff and see it the same way others do. A magician is not impressed by his tricks, but the one who sees it is. Same thing with your painting. You know every mistake, everything you should have done but didn’t, you know all the different things you changed and where it doesn’t look like you want it to…but no one else does. The advice I was given was….don’t tell them!!!! I think you should believe your husband and move on to the next!

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    1. Thanks so much for your thoughts. Art is an illusion. I tell myself that every time I sit down to draw or every time I pick up a brush to paint. It’s not what we see, but what we make others see. As much as possible, I try to focus on areas where I see improvement, and at the same time I want to be aware of those “learning experiences” where things didn’t come out quite the way I’d hoped. I really did learn a lot from doing the windmill painting. Now…if I can remember it all when I start the next painting!


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