Throwing Away the Books

I was feeling a slight bit of frustration this morning when I sat down for another “watercolor lesson”. My lessons all come from various books, and recently — after feeling frustrated with No-Fail Watercolor — I’d downloaded a new one. Remember how I felt I was going back to square oneThose feelings were definitely with me again as I scrolled through page after page after page of “introductory information” about watercolor painting. It’s all important information, of course. We need to know about the paints, about watercolor paper, about using the right brushes, and yes, we even need to know about color theory. Of course, I’ve read all of this before. I know the basics about watercolors, watercolor paper, watercolor brushes, and yep, color theory, too. This isn’t what I need right now.

What I need is practical, hands-on experience in using those paints, paper, and brushes. I need opportunities to put the knowledge I do have to use, and here is where I’ve come to a stumbling block with watercolor how-to books. There are so many different ways to use watercolor! The lessons I’m finding aren’t really helping me develop the style in which I want to paint. Of course, it’s good to learn a variety of methods, right? That’s the approach I’ve been taking, and time after time, I’ve come away disappointed, feeling that I’m not really making any progress, simply because the paintings I’ve done aren’t the sort of paintings I want to do.

By the time I reached any actual painting project in the book, I was almost out of the mood for doing art this morning. The instructions given in the book I’m reading now — How to Paint in Watercolor from the Beginning — are fairly general, and for me, that’s probably a good thing really, because what I most need now – I think — is simply more practice at trying things on my own, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Instead of spending time trying to re-create watercolor paintings from books and tutorials, I think it might be better for me to just put the books aside and play with different methods.

This morning I chose to work with the “wet on wet” watercolor technique. Wet paper. Wet paints. As a learning experience, I went to extremes here. For me, that’s always a useful learning tool.

I didn’t just wet my paper. I soaked it until it was dripping with water. I didn’t just have wet, juicy paints, I had them very wet. The result was a very loose — and very pale — landscape scene. It’s not a great watercolor painting, but it was a very helpful exercise.

I’ve done “wet on wet” watercolor before, but this time it seemed a bit different. This time, I wasn’t just “following the rules” about what I was “supposed” to do. This time I was deciding for myself what I wanted to try, which colors I wanted to play with, which of my brushes I wanted to use.

By going to extremes with this method, I think I now have a better awareness of how to use “wet on wet”. I like some of the effects I was able to create in the sky by using a LOT of water. I wasn’t so happy with the tree line, mostly because having so much water made it difficult to create the effects I wanted or get darker values.

I happily let my paint “bloom” wherever it wanted, and later — as the paper dried a bit — I used an angled brush to give a few trees more definition. It was enjoyable to watch the paint move on the page and to work with the colors to create a scene instead of working against the paints.

The reason I’m learning watercolor is because I do find it fun, and by throwing away the books and just playing with the different techniques I’ve learned in the past, I think maybe I’ll enjoy watercolor even more. On my own, it might take me longer to develop the style I really want, or maybe not. Maybe following my own artistic instincts will actually help me find my way.

Of course, I won’t really be tossing all those watercolor books out. They’ll stay in my art library, and from time to time I’ll probably turn to them as references. And later I might change my mind here. I might decide that I need more direct one-on-one instruction. I could find myself going back to those books or looking online for watercolor tutorials.

For now, though, going off on my own seems like a very good idea. Much like a child who’s been riding a bike with training wheels, I’ve come to that point where the wheels need to come off, if only so I can see whether or not I’ve actually learned anything at all. I think I have learned… maybe even more than I realize. But as long as I’m following along on step-by-step projects — that I might not even like — I’ll never truly see what I can do on my own.


  1. Keep looking forward. One can only be an apprentice of the masters for a short while before going alone with all that knowledge and forging that unique path, failing a lot, and succeeding. The Impressionists did it. Abstract Expressionists did it. They kept hold of the fundamentals and did art that moved their souls to keep painting every day. You can too.

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    1. I think it’s time for me to start “trusting” my own processes a little more as part of my learning. It’s important for me to look not at “the right and the wrong way” of doing something (which doesn’t really exist) and think in terms of “what works for me.” I appreciate the encouragement.

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  2. Agreed. It’s always good to reassess how far you’ve come before choosing which way to go next, and the best way to do that is something along the lines of … for every formal lesson, do your own thing and apply what you’ve learned.

    If fear of the blank page and lack of inspiration create a block when there is no book or video instructing a lesson, you can always make a random generator to give yourself a challenge based on what supplies you have, what subjects can be created, and what techniques you’ve learned.

    Some people do this by writing those topics on little scraps of paper, throwing them into a bag, and drawing a random challenge either singly or in combination. So, you could have a bag of landscapes or natural elements, then a bag of your supplies, then a bag of techniques. A random project might look like “beach” … “watercolors” … “loose”. Or in a single challenge, “animal” … and then you choose which kind, what materials, and what, if any styles to try. The only difference here is the block; big blocks respond better to exact instructions. Small blocks just need a kick in the backside to get started and then inspiration takes off on its own. (And sometimes getting an “assignment” this way can show you what you *don’t* want to do so that you are more able to focus on what you *do* want. You can include easy and difficult challenges. You can pretend someone has commissioned you to draw or paint something for them, regardless of whether it’s something you’re familiar with or never done before.

    Another way to do this is to type up numbered lists and roll dice. Different lists and different rolls, or multiple dice for longer lists. Or there are idea generator sites all over the Internet for things like random animals, random colors, random figure poses, etc. Just pick 1-3 generators and combine them into something that speaks to you. I’ve seen people do this to come up with ideas like two random animals and three colors to create a mythological creature. LoL … Or pick a random object and draw it three ways. Create a schedule or rotary that offers structure for what is practiced, but allows for freedom of everything else. Or illustrate a song lyric, a book passage, a scene in a TV series, etc. In these cases, don’t think about it. Just turn on the music, open the book, or turn on the TV and whatever pops up, that’s your assignment to recapture in some way. Childhood memories? Future inventions? Anything is game. And there’s always community challenges online, too, so you can pick something you want to improve and set the number of days you want to do it. Then just do you, rather than following step-by-step instructions from someone else. (Kinda like how we bend the rules for Inktober to make it more personalized.)

    Anyway, just some ideas to help bridge the gap between lessons from books and finding ways to practice your knowledge and skills in a way that maximizes your *enjoyment* of the practice. ^_^ I can’t wait to see what you explore next!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I first started learning … well, about 6 months after… I started doing “random” art projects. It was fun and I came up with some doozies. I use a LOT to randomly select colors for abstract watercolor or for making other decisions about what projects to do. I’m a firm believer in the power of randomness. 🙂

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  3. I really enjoyed this blog post and I think you’re definitely on to something. You’re leaving the nest and trying to fly on your own, which is inevitable and will actually help you find your style so much more naturally. Judging from the painting you made and the way you wrote about watercolor, I think you’ve got the know-how to continue working in your own methods. I definitely like the fact that you went all out with the water, because now you know exactly what that will do and you have a measured experience with it.

    I believe that the more an artist works within their medium and plays around with it, in combination with gaining knowledge, they will undoubtedly develop a style. Thanks for the great blog post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! So glad you enjoyed the post. For me, watercolor needs to be fun. I don’t want to get “too serious” about it, so just doing my own thing and “learning by doing” seems like a good approach for me right now.

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