Beginner’s Mind and Watercolors

Watercolor Tubes. All lined up and ready to go.

Yesterday I took an all-day watercolor workshop.  With just three of us learners and a very intense, French instructor, there wasn’t a lot of room to hide in that art studio – it was all learning, all the time.  Since I hadn’t held a paintbrush for many years, it was a humbling beginner’s experience for me.  A good reminder of what it feels like to be on the learner-end of the equation.

Tints from a mass stone.

We started with an introduction to color (hue, chroma and value), followed by some painting exercises to render mass tones (the pure color, right out of the tube) and tints (dilutions of that original color).  Fascinating. I couldn’t help but make note of the expert language our instructor used – how exclusionary it felt, how unwilling any of us were to ask for clarification or to possibly derail her by admitting that we didn’t understand a term she’d used a few minutes earlier. But my anxiety eased when I finally had the brush in my own hand and tried it myself.  Ah, yes…now I see what she meant (even if I didn’t remember all the terminology).

Following that, our instructor gave a few more painting demonstrations of various brush techniques. In addition to the expert terminology, there were many vague references to an understanding that would “come with time”, intuition that we’d develop with patient practice, and a “feeling” that we would eventually acquire if we worked hard. I was guessing that my peers, like me, were not planning a watercolor painting career and were most likely feeling a bit at sea.

“Your painting should float on the page!”  “Let the paint do its work, don’t control it!”  Her advice sounded interesting, but I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant or how to translate her admonishments into my actions.

Following the demos, the instructor put out some pots, shells, and a bunch of grapes on a purple cloth – a still life tableau – for us to paint.  Not really knowing where to start (were we expected to draw the whole assembly? do you draw the items first with a pencil?), we all floundered around for awhile. So many decisions to make!  Wet on wet?  Wet on dry? Brush size? Perspective? Which objects?  Realizing that I was wasting valuable workshop time, I decided to narrow my focus.  Just one brush.  Wet paint on dry paper. This color palette. And hone in on the grapes. It was just a few hours, afterall.

Once I made those decisions, I fell into a rhythm with my painting.  Just me, the palette, the brush, the paper, and the grapes.

Nothing but potential.

I love the process of mixing the colors. At the start of the workshop we were each given an enormous white enameled pan.  She showed us a method where you apply a bit of paint from the tube to the pan’s side, and then bring it down to the bottom, with water, push that over to another color with your brush, and blend.  As I worked to render my grapes, I mixed at least twelve  different combinations of red and blue….blue and yellow…that green with the ruddy violet.  A gorgeous alchemy of color splayed across the clean white of my pan.

Before I knew it, two hours had swept by, and the workshop was done.  I was happy with my painting –  one grape in particular, was my favorite.  It had just the right shades, a bit of transparency, a suggestion of roundness, and the hint of green where the ruby plum grape joined the stem. All the terminology, expert nuance, and trepidation was swept aside as I took pleasure in the satisfaction of one grape well rendered.

The finished grapes.


1 Comment

Filed under Reflections on Teaching

One response to “Beginner’s Mind and Watercolors

  1. Neil Heyden

    You are always observing and learning…

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