What I’ve Learned from Watercolor

John Dewey, philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, once coined the term collateral learning. He said on the subject:

“Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular things he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of like and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned…the most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning”.

As I’ve played with — and attempted to learn the proper use of — watercolors over the last few weeks, I’ve found that I have learned a lot, but not necessarily about those contrary, unpredictable paints. I’ve learned much more about myself, about what it means to be an artist, and how I approach my artwork.

I noticed it first when I painted my little orange with eucalyptus leaves. It was like breathing a sigh of relief to have my comfortable, familiar oil paints on my brush. I felt a little more in control, had a slightly greater sense of knowing what I was doing, felt a lot less concern about the results I would achieve.

In recent weeks, I’ve also noticed a tendency to work quickly. I’ve made fast and furious sketches, raced through online portrait drawing, and have even taken to slapping — or slopping — oil paints on a canvas, simply for the pure fun of it.

Yesterday I was working on my winter scene painting. It’s an oil, one that’s a bit larger than I usually do, and it was far from finished. I actually laughed at myself a bit, and I wish I could have captured my own pose as I stood at the easel, holding my brush out — just like real artists do — stepping back, stepping forward, madly dashing paint across the scene, nodding and thinking, “Well, if this doesn’t work… so what?”

I looked at my palette, picked up different colors, and dabbled here and there on the painting. I was thinking about a quote I’d read earlier on the Bob Ross calendar a daughter gave me for Christmas.

“You have unlimited power here,

you can do that.

You can do anything on this canvas,



Zoro Mettini in beret

As I painted, I wasn’t thinking about what I was painting. I wasn’t painting trees, or rocks, or water. My thoughts were about making bold brushstrokes, and so I did. I took that artist pose — as I call it — and swept my brush across the canvas. In that moment, yeah, I think I enjoyed pretending I was an accomplished artist. I had fun acting like a stereotypical artist, the kind we see in the movies dressed in a smock and beret. I felt as though I were role-playing, and it felt so good!

Oh, here’s one quick note about those berets:

From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, this accessory had become a staple of artistic style among artists like Monet, Cezanne, Marie Laurencin, Picasso, and many others. While some people say this is because they longed to imitate the great masters of the Renaissance like Rembrandt, others say it’s more likely due to the simple fact that most artists in this era were poor, and needed to keep their heads warm when they couldn’t pay their rent.  From: Culture Trip

As I realized how much fun I was having — and saw how interesting my canvas looked — I began wondering where this playful new attitude had come from. How had I suddenly loosened up so much?

I knew the answer at once. Watercolor.

Watercolor has taught me not to obsess over the results of a painting. Some will be good; some won’t. Some mistakes can be fixed; others can’t. Sometimes the unplanned turns out better than anything we could have consciously attempted.

Watercolor has freed me from rigid thinking about the art I create. It’s helped me visualize art in exciting new ways, ways that are fluid and ever-changing, ways that can change and evolve right before my eyes.

Watercolor has taught me a lot about making mistakes. It’s fine when I do. And because it’s all right to make mistakes, I can take more risks now. I can stand back, look at a painting in progress and think, “What would happen if I…” Maybe what I try will work. Maybe I’ll shake my head, roll my eyes, and grab an old paint rag. But whether it works or not, it’s good for me to be daring and adventurous as I’m painting.

This is what watercolor has taught me.

Oh, yes, of course, I’ve learned a bit about watercolor washes, layering, and glazing. I now fully understand the difference between watercolor brushes and those designed for oil. I’ve even managed to learn better techniques for stretching my paper so that I don’t get quite so many buckles, bulges, and warps.

But mostly watercolor has taught me that it really is all right to make messes, to be creative, and to see myself as an artist. Watercolor has made me feel that I really can do anything I want in my art studio. It’s an awesome thing to have such unlimited power. It’s even more awesome to unleash it.




  1. Up until not that long ago artists didn’t have central heating in their often very large cavernous studios (yes I speak from experience) and so berets and other hats were definitely necessary. Excellent post all round. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Right now I don’t have any heating in my basement studio. My husband is in here at the moment painting walls, the whole studio is in disarray, and the usual heater I have near my desk is unplugged somewhere across the room. It gets a bit cool here — which I’m going to love as our summer heats up — but no beret for me. I have an old “paint sweater” I throw on, plus socks and “booties” of course! I’m glad you liked the post.


  2. Thanks you for an uplifting post. It’s given me new insight into how to approach watercolor painting. I’ve long saw watercolors as a tyrannical master asking me to do the impossible. I’m slowing learning to appreciate its unpredictability.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t say I’m learning to love watercolors, but I’m definitely coming around to appreciate it, to have fun with it, and to let it lead me to new discoveries. Doing a 15-30 minute “watercolor warm-up” each morning has really helped me overall. I use big sheets of newsprint or the backs of old paintings, and I just do whatever I want. One day I painted apples over and over. Another day recently I painted teacups in different colors. Some days I just scribble or do washes or practice making straight lines. It’s very liberating! 🙂 Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for taking time to comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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