Bravery is something we all have to search for once in a while. When we aren’t brave—or when we’re trying to be practical and realistic—we tend to stick to what we know and what is the most comfortable for us. But when that happens, do we ever truly evolve? Can we learn from doing the same thing over and over? Maybe?
I doubt it.
For me, bravery is something I thought I had a lot of in art because I paint intuitively. I don’t know what I’m going to paint. I just know I want to paint and so I grab a few colors and go nuts. That does take a bit of bravery. Especially if I grab a new color, or try a medium other than watercolor. Still, like most people on this planet, I worry I’m going to mess it all up. That I’m going to destroy a perfectly good piece of paper, or that I’m going to spend hours working on something that ultimately doesn’t pan out.
But It’s important to remember that the fear of failure is not Necessarily a bad thing. It’s actually a sure sign that We’re on the right track.
I’ve known for a long time that I’ve wanted to try a larger painting. I wanted to take huge 22x30 sheets of hot press straight from the plastic and throw them under a waterfall of paint. I wanted to go crazy and just play around. The bigger the mess, the better.
But I kept cutting my sheets of paper…into halves, quarters, eighths. I mean, eight small paintings is better than one big utter failure, right? And for a while that worked for me. I would talk myself out of going large and I would settle for 6x9 and I would be in my little bubble of comfort with my coffee and my script brush and my quinacridone orange. Don’t get me wrong. I love working small, as it begs an intimacy that larger pieces don’t necessarily need. But there’s a difference between painting small for the painting’s sake, and painting small because it’s easy.
The other day I was working on several tiny little studies to find a decent color combination and I thought, “a few of these would be awesome on large sheets.” I tried talking myself out of it, but my mission was clear:
Either I can do right by my art, or I can slip back into that same comfort bubble where everything is the same and stagnant as a pond and my art never gets a chance to evolve.
My first mission was to find an artboard big enough to stretch my paper on. I have a large stack of artboards, which are all basically cut-up pieces of wood bought from the hardware store, but my largest board could maybe work for half of a 22x30. So I had to get creative. I found our card table folded up against the wall of our entryway and I lugged it upstairs into my dining room studio. My husband laughed and gave me a playful jab as I taped this huge sheet of paper to a folded-up table and then lugged it outside to the front porch. The key here was to move fast before the fear talked me out of it.
I went with three Daniel Smith colors: indigo, transparent red oxide, and gold. Knowing this was going to need a lot of paint, I got a sheet of palette paper and poured out a ton of paint—way more than I’m used to—and then I grabbed a few of my largest brushes and filled the largest jar I could find with water. I also made sure to grab my spray bottle so I could keep the painting wet, as I haven’t been used to working with such a large space and figured it would start drying on me before I could work out any hard edges.
Working intuitively as Goo splashed around in the sprinkler and my husband sat next to me in a green lawn chair, I proceeded to smear on a ton of paint, spritzing it with water and letting it all blend together. I love how the red oxide melds into the indigo so I made sure that happened a lot. I also had to add quite a bit more gold, as it tends to dry very light.
One thing was definitely different about laying down this initial layer: I had lots of room to roam. I had room to play and frolic and try things I maybe wouldn’t have with a smaller sheet of paper. I loaded my brush with gold and flicked it at the paper, I added tons of indigo and lifted the table on one side to watch it all spill down. I got my front porch all covered in paint.
It was so scary! But a good kind of scary. Like the feeling you get when you’re strapped into a roller coaster and you think to yourself, “no going back now.”
Once the initial layer was dry I learned that I hadn’t, in fact, used enough paint. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, watercolor dries a lot lighter than it looks when wet. As you can see in the photo above, the colors look very deep and bold and beautiful. But once they were dry, it was all very transparent and faint. So in the midst of dinner-making, I lugged the big table out to the back deck and proceeded to add more and more indigo and orange and gold, spraying and dabbing with paper towels to avoid any hard edges. I took turns between going inside to stir dinner, and going back outside to smear on more paint.
Not going to lie, y’all, this the process behind a lot of my paintings.
I left the painting outside leaned against the barbecue grill so it could dry as we ate. Then I brought it back inside and leaned it against the back of the couch, where it sat for a day as I worked up the next bout of courage required to start the mark-making process.
Really, the only way to get past the fear, was to jump right in the same way I’d started that initial layer. So once I had my “focal point” and knew what marks I’d like to make, I immediately drew several lines to just get over that “no going back now” mentality.
Once I had my lines started and my dots, I finally relaxed and was able to go into that meditative state that is “the zone.” For the white marks, I used a chalk marker and a gel pen. The lines were quite light once I was finished, and so I went over the lines a second time. This was the more time-consuming process which took maybe five hours total. But it didn’t really matter, or feel tedious, as I could plop myself down on the living room floor and work as the family watched movies, or set myself up in front of the back door to watch the rain.
So what did I learn from this whole process?
Jump right in: don’t wait for the fear to talk you out of it. You may even need to ignore it banging around in your head until you smear on the first stroke.
The first stroke/line/mark is the hardest: Just get that part out of the way!
More paper, more paint: really lay it on there! And make sure you try and keep the paint and water from collecting in the warped areas (if you’re working with watercolor) otherwise it will dry different than what you might be going for. Warped areas will flatten once dry, but the watercolor will dry in blooming streaks, which don’t look as cool as that sounds.
More room, more play: the more space you have, the more you are likely to feel that freedom and try things you wouldn’t have tried on a smaller sheet of paper or canvas. Think big fish in a small pond, or a child running through a grassy meadow instead of the living room.
Paint can always be painted over with more paint: this is more a “mantra” than a lesson. With oils and acrylics this is a no-brainer. But with watercolors it’s hard to see this as an option if something goes amiss. The key is to start light, as watered down as possible, and continue to add layers until you have what you want. Another method is to have some gouache or acrylic handy, just in case you went too dark. To lighten up dark areas you can also add some white marks with ink.
Embrace the Happy Accident: Going too dark or too light is one thing, as is overworking your paper until it tears, and these are things you definitely want to try to avoid. But the happy accident is something that happens all on its own. For me, it was when the indigo paint dripped down the orange at the bottom of my painting. Instead of freaking out and trying to get rid of it, I took a deep breath and let it flow. I even added more drips later simply because I liked the way it looked.
The next feat for this painting was obviously getting it all scanned. It took fourteen separate scans to get the whole painting. Luckily Photoshop has that “automate” option, and so it did all the rest of the work for me. Now I can add it to my wall art apps to see how it’d look once framed and fabulous.
“Finding Bravery” is now available on my Etsy shop. You can view it here.
Until next time, may your canvas be large and your happy accidents be extra happy.