Keeping a beginner’s mind

For years now I’ve held onto a couple boxes of watercolor paints. Stashed underneath my many tubes of oils and acrylics, which were the mediums I’d previously used, they waited patiently. I was always unwilling to throw them out, but too intimidated to actually use them. Oil and acrylic painting allowed me to be very slow, controlled, precise, qualities that sort of come naturally to a perfectionist type like me. Watercolor painting, by its nature, seemed so free, uncontrolled, and prone to imperfection.

And those were the reasons I decided to finally start learning how to do it.

Time to go back to having a beginner’s mind, I knew, a classic Buddhist concept I admire. Stay open, be unprepared, let yourself make mistakes, I told myself, it’s okay that you won’t be great at it right off the bat (or maybe ever).

I thought back to my experience several years ago learning to paint with oils. Already comfortable with the ease of water-based acrylics, I’d been intimidated by them once, too. Oil paints are very slow to dry, and can need a lot of preparation and mixing of other things in with them to achieve certain effects. That makes them also rather expensive, messy, and hard to clean up. But they allow someone to work on a painting over and over if they want, blending and changing things to their heart’s content. I was very fortunate to have a great teacher, and learned a lot. I eventually made several paintings I was really pleased with.

But in my last year or so of her classes, I grew frustrated by my own realistic tendencies. I would paint from a photograph, and couldn’t get past the desire to make my painting look like the photo, even though what I began to want to paint was more the feeling I had when I looked at it. Trapped a bit by the tools of the medium, the slowness of it, I couldn’t get out of my own way.

Plus, I had no language for abstract painting, translating feelings, ideas, or emotions into images. I’d actually never even liked abstract art that much. But I was beginning to understand the desire to paint beyond what I could physically see.

Work and life eventually interfered with taking classes, adding to my internal frustrations with painting. Then the pandemic came, and there were no more classes for awhile. Everyone seemed afraid there might not be anything ever again, not just short-term. Although I continued working in my job as a nurse, I was still socially isolated more at home, from friends, events, and activities I normally enjoyed.

Thankfully the Internet came to the rescue and online learning started to grow, opening up whole new avenues for me and everyone else stuck at home still eager to keep their minds, hands, and spirits occupied.

I’d kept up with my writing during the pandemic and had also tried out printmaking. But I felt more and more drawn back to painting. I still had all the supplies, my canvases, paper, brushes, and paints. Like anyone who has been away from something for time though, I felt a bit shy about reintroducing myself; we hadn’t really conversed in awhile.

Still, I wanted to see my old friends again and revisit that relationship.

Digging through my paints and supplies, I found the watercolors. It occurred to me that their very looseness, quickness to dry, their simplicity – some of the very things I’d always been afraid of – and finally learning to paint with them might be helpful for me in many ways, including trying to convey the kind of emotional expressiveness I’d wanted. Technically they are very easy to use, requiring only water and some paper towels for blotting. I also had plenty of paper and brushes.

And it would be a new skill to try out, I reasoned, instead of just revisiting an old one.

Searching online, I found a class I liked through a site called The Great Courses. I get their catalog a few times a year, and it’s filled with interesting and different types of classes, all without the drawbacks of tests and papers. I signed up for a beginner’s watercolor course, all of which could be completed through video lectures and demos, and at-home practice at my own pace.

Early exercises in my online watercolor class include using washes, large areas of color, often applied over each other.

Although it’s only been a week or so, I feel like I am learning a lot. The videos are great, and the instructor is very thorough and clear. Her work, displayed around her as she lectures, is simple and beautiful. And my early efforts, like the green apple and bowl above, are surprisingly good to my eyes, meaning I haven’t totally forgotten what it’s like to paint something.

Watercolors are very fluid, like their name implies. They go on quickly and easily, dry fast, can’t be erased really, or painted over. They are transparent, allowing the white of the canvas to show through, creating that soft glow that’s part of their appeal. You can’t hide brush strokes, or cover up mistakes. It’s all very open, honest, and right there in a finished painting for the world to see.

So you have to learn how they work, like any other tool, and then let them help you say what you want to say.

I’ve remembered, too, that it’s hard to be good at painting without being even somewhat skilled at drawing. You have to be able to look, to see, break that all down, and then translate it back into a reasonable facsimile with your hand (unless we’re talking abstract art again, but that’s a little further down the line).

Part of the process I’ve been taught is planning a painting, sketching it in roughly and lightly before putting anything else down on a canvas. Whether using a still-life or a photograph or any other subject, it helps figure out where things should go in order to make a pleasing image, kind of like creating an outline before you write an entire book or paper.

Although spontaneity can be fun, with painting it’s usually good to have some idea where you want to end up.

So in addition to keeping a philosophical beginner’s mind about watercolors, I feel like I’m starting over again in other ways. I’m revisiting the basic principles of drawing I first learned years ago, and excited at the same time to be experimenting creatively with this new medium. This time I hope once I’m comfortable with it’s rules and techniques, I’ll be able to expand beyond realistic work into the more expressive and abstract images I’ve been longing to create.

Maybe I will learn that language at last, of putting ideas and emotions down on a canvas instead of just writing them down in words. Maybe it will help me finally feel free to paint what I (for lack of a better term) feel. I’d love to be able to say things without speaking sometimes. Painting in any form always holds out that hope for me, and is part of the reason I come back to it again and again.


2 comments on “Keeping a beginner’s mind”
  1. Think of the paintings on the cave walls–the first non-verbal expression of thought. Even music and singing came later.

  2. dwlcx says:

    Such synchronicity — I’ve been interested in trying watercolors, so thanks for the Great Courses tip!
    & you made me think of a quote that helped get me through some tough work days “Learn how to be wrong — the world is full of people who are right — that’s why it is so revolting.” — Louis Ferdinand Celine (maybe not good advice for a nurse, but works well for a bureaucrat).

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