What Went Wrong? – Part 1

I had high hopes for this painting. I suppose that was my first big mistake.

Winter Stream (2)
Winter Stream – Watercolor

My second mistake, I think, was that I tried to do everything right, to the best of my ability. The reason that was probably a mistake was because it only added to my expectations. I approached this with the thought of doing everything the way I should, taking my time, following directions, and coming away with a reasonably good watercolor painting.

Unfortunately, I’m not at the point yet where I can expect to paint reasonably good watercolors. It’s not that I’m really such an awful artist. It’s not that learning watercolor is a hopeless endeavor. It’s simply a matter of reality — I’m learning. I’m practicing. I’m only now beginning to develop basic skills. In other words, I don’t yet have enough experience to create paintings that meet my lofty expectations.

Someone once said something to the effect that the best way to achieve your expectations is to lower your standards, and while that might seem a little amusing, there’s actually a lot of truth to it, especially when it comes to art.

With my attempts to learn watercolor, I have to accept the fact that even if I have knowledge about what to do and how to do it, I don’t yet have the “hands-on” experience required to put that knowledge to good use.

As with every painting I do, I learned something from this watercolor. A lot of what I learned comes under the category of “What Not to Do”, and maybe the first thing on that list was the admonition not to cry when art goes wrong.

That’s how I felt, you see. As I worked on this painting and realized how awful it was looking — compared to my references and my vision — I truly wanted to just sit down and cry. All those despairing voices were shouting in my head. “You’re not an artist. This is stupid. Why are you wasting your time?”

If there’s one thing I have learned over the last five years, it’s how to shut down those nasty voices. Sometimes it’s difficult to do, and I’ll admit that it was hard to ignore that disparaging self-talk with this painting. But I finally hushed the voices by looking at anything positive I could find, and when we look for the good, we can always find it.

What’s good about this painting?

  • I completed it. Even when things got off to a bad start, I persisted. I stuck it out, and I finished the painting.
  • I did my best. This wasn’t a half-hearted attempt, nor was it an exercise in making “bad art“. I took this project seriously, and even though the results weren’t at all what I’d hoped, I need to give myself credit for doing the best that I could.
  • I can learn from my mistakes. While I tried to do everything right, obviously things went wrong. By looking at those mistakes, I can try to correct them the next time I attempt to paint this scene. Yes, I do plan to paint it again.
  • Toward the very end of my painting session, I felt I was beginning to get comfortable with some of the brushstrokes. I started to see the scene from an artistic point of view, and I felt a greater sense of awareness on how I could create the effects I wanted.
  • It’s not all bad. Here and there are little brush strokes that work. In places, I have just the right color. In some areas, maybe there’s even a little sense of mood or atmosphere.

As always with my paintings, there’s a story behind Winter Stream. Understanding how this watercolor came about is important because it’s all part of my process of learning and growing.

First, let me begin by explaining what this scene is not. To look at it, you might think at first that you’re looking at mountains or hillsides. You’re not. All that blue, and pink, and indiscriminate gray is meant to be a winter sky.

I do hope you can recognize that there are trees running across the horizon line; as for the “winter stream” itself, it might look more like a road or path.  Those weird colors at the edges of the stream… well, they were supposed to be reflections of the trees, but my paintbrush somehow got carried away.

Yesterday I read an article about comparison as part of the learning process. While we’re not supposed to compare ourselves with other artists, sometimes a good method for improving our painting is to compare our work with something similar. By seeing the differences between ours and theirs, maybe we can get an idea on how to achieve better results.

I’m not quite sure I’m at that point, but here is a comparison of three “Winter Stream” paintings.

One painting. Three artists.


You will, of course, have no problem picking out my painting. Even if you hadn’t already seen it, the amateurish painting style would quickly have given it away.

The painting with the lovely, delicate, pastel pink skies is the original watercolor “A Winter Stream” by Aubrey Phillips. Yes, the same Aubrey Phillips whose book, Watercolour Painting with Aubrey Phillips is the basis for my 100-day creative art project.

Although I’m enjoying the project, I’ve also encountered a bit of frustration, especially with the way Phillips writes about watercolor washes. He seems to use that term in ways that have nothing to do with what I’ve learned in the past about washes.

He gives these examples — a waterfall and a tree, and more — none of which bear any resemblance to anything I’ve ever called a watercolor wash.  Well, the seashore,  maybe, but definitely not the others.

Aubrey Phillips Wash (2)
From “Watercolour Painting with Aubrey Phillips”

As an exercise in my 100-day project, I attempted to copy these examples. Several times. Over the course of several days, I made repeated attempts to follow the “directions” — such as they were.

That was another difficulty for me. Phillips is not real specific in the instructions he gives, leaving me once again try to figure things out on my own. In looking back to 2016 when I first bought this watercolor book, I recall that this was one of the reasons why I set the book aside. I needed more “step-by-step” information then; maybe I still need it now.

But, undaunted, I turned to the internet, wondering if Aubrey Phillips had made any tutorials or if any other artist could shed a little light on how Phillips painted. I came across a video from a watercolor artist whose work I greatly admire: Edo Hannema.

In Watercolor the Aubrey Phillips Way he talks a bit about Phillips, his art, his style, and then goes on to copy the “Winter Stream” painting. Although his isn’t an exact copy of the Phillips painting, he definitely re-created the soft, misty watercolor feeling of the work.

Edo Hannema
“Winter Stream” by Edo Hannema

I look at his painting, look at mine again, and shake my head in wonder. Even with the video, even following along step-by-step, my painting is nothing like his!

Judith Kraus
My unsuccessful version of “Winter Stream”

So, what — exactly — went wrong? How could I do everything right and still get results that were so wrong?





  1. Watery watercolour is hard to to, Judith. I used to teach it both ways – detailed and tight, and loose for backgrounds – the backgrounds were always tougher, getting the right amount of water for the wet into wet and not playing with it too much. Little experiments can be good for practicing, but honestly, I think you’re doing fine :>)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’ve been fairly successful in the past with the “tighter” watercolors, where my subject was carefully sketched out. But it’s really the “looser look” I want in my own art. So I keep practicing. My flat washes always come out streaky, and I can’t seem to get the right amount of water/paint on the page. I do hope I’ll improve with practice because that’s what I intend to do each day — practice, practice, and practice more. Thank you so much for your encouragement! It means a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent advice! The monkeys are quiet now, and I’m doing lots of watercolor washes for my warm-up practices. I’m getting inconsistent results at this point, but that’s how art goes, right? I learn from each practice.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I resonate with the strength and confidence you have in your process. That’s got guts. That has strength. That’s as much MiracleGro for your painting over time as repetition, and dare I say, good for the Soul Gardener as well. Play on. And, no problem ever with tooting your own horn. Somebody has to start the band. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Oh, I love the way you shifted your thoughts about it like that. I have been focusing on “shifting” a lot lately because it’s so easy these days to let the heavy stuff, wrong stuff, difficult stuff, etc. weigh me down. Impostor syndrome seems to be eating me alive lately because I see only what’s wrong. This is an excellent shift to try to regain perspective. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I believe it’s necessary to consistently look for whatever good we can find in our art. I have learned, too, that if we look we can always find something good. Even if it is only a single brushstroke…it is enough to give me hope and keep me going with this crazy pursuit of art.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I really admire Aubrey Phillips watercolours and pastels and I have copied many of his paintings. Copying is no bad thing but I do think it’s important to actually appreciate the artist in the first place and to really want to make the image look as close as possible. What’s the point in trying to interpret it in order to make it yours?

    On a practical note regarding the sky, you seem to have just laid the colours beside each other rather than letting them blend together. You could try tilting the board to help with this and you can continue to move the board around as the paint dries to manipulate it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I liked Aubrey Phillips and his style when I first became aware of him. Later on, I realized that his style just wasn’t “my style”. But, let’s be honest here. I’m not a watercolorist, so I don’t really have any style of my own. Following along with Aubrey Phillips was a learning experience. I wasn’t wanting to “copy” his work, but merely to learn from it. Later I re-did that particular painting with much better results. Working with his watercolor book was very beneficial to me. It was a way of exploring who I am and seeing my own style start to develop. This has been a very important lesson for me since I began drawing and painting a few years ago.


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