I remember the first time I water colored. My best friend came over one night, with some tubes of paint and a couple sheets of huge, cardboard-like paper. It was part of a college project, she said, and invited me to have a go. I had no idea what I was doing, but I remember being transfixed by the way the colors mixed and swirled together with the addition of water. That was over 30 years ago and through those years, I have not only found water coloring to be a wonderful healer, but a holder of great wisdom, which I have distilled into bite sized entries, below.
1. Know When to Stop—
In watercolor… if you mess with it too much, the colors get over-blended and the whole thing becomes “muddied.” A suggestion is often more than enough. No need to fuss and overwork your point. A light touch has a kind of magic about it. Get in and get out.
Like in life, it’s so easy to overdo things. As a philosopher and teacher, I have seen this in my own tendency toward thorough and detailed answers to questions, not only in the classroom, but in day to day life. It hit home when one of my spiritual teachers said to a small group of Yoga teachers once, in a masterclass, “you don’t need to over explain.”
Sometimes… for example, in a courtroom, we need complete and protracted presentations and arguments, but in life, simple is often the most elegant approach. Know when you’ve said enough and leave it alone. Just as the colors blend themselves most beautifully once they’re already on the paper, ideas and words spoken are best digested and reflected on by the listener, with time… in the space of their own silence… without us hammering the point. The Tao Te Ching takes this approach with its poetic entries that continue to ripen with meaning with every re-read.
The point is, we really don’t need to work so hard!
2. Let go of control—
In watercolor… you can never create the same thing twice. That’s because you never have complete control over the way water moves. Or over a dozen other factors, like the humidity in the room, which will affect the way your painting settles and dries.
Like in life, mostly all we really have at our disposal, is our experience. Which gives us deftness and good judgment… We can take a better guess; I know what will happen if the paper is too wet or too dry, etc.
In every situation, you do what you can, and leave the rest to the universe. Because anything else is a lie. We think we control more than we actually do. I remember someone asking my Zen teacher about this letting go business… “but what if you want to go to law school?” he asked, expecting the Roshi to validate the need for excessive poking and prodding. The Roshi’s response was to the point: “fill out the form.” The assumption is that you do your best; with proper effort, you’ve gotten yourself to this point, and now it’s out of your hands.
What’s left? This moment. And the process of creating. Enjoy it, and let’s see how it turns out!
3. It’s (More Than) Okay to Screw Up—
In watercolor, you can’t dip a rag in linseed oil and wipe away a bad painting. Yes, you can scratch off little things with a scraper brush or find a way to creatively camouflage a little mistake. But, with watercolor, those fixes reach their limit quickly. I have “wasted” many pieces of expensive watercolor paper.
But I have come to see it differently. It is not “wasted.” It’s “putting in your time.” It’s “paying your dues.” After all, how much would you spend on lessons? Consider the throw-aways the price of experience. There is really no other way to get here, without trudging through the swampland of growth.
Think of “bad relationships.” Rather than seeing them as failures, recognize that through them you came to know your own needs better. It’s wonderful. It’s as Esther Hicks says about those Step One moments (the act of noticing the unwanted things in your life)… you have to know what you don’t want in order to know better what you do want. For a more specific example, through that relationship with the narcissist, you learned that you require more thoughtfulness from a partner.
In short, the lost paintings in the bin are just as important as the successful paintings (knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what does work, in cultivating any skill).
4. Things Always look Different in the Morning—
With watercolor, the pigment gets absorbed, right along with the water, as the painting dries, leaving the colors more muted than they appeared to be while wet. In other words, once the painting has dried and settled, it will look lighter in color. The colors will also continue to blend as it dries. So, when you look with fresh eyes in the morning, the painting you thought was a goner may surprise you! It’s like finding something new. (It can go the other way too!)
How often has this happened in life… We get ourselves worked up over something, only to see it differently and with a more understanding perspective under the light of a new day. For example, you realize that what was said, was said out of fear by the other person, and not with the intent to be hurtful. It was about them, not you, at all.
The point is… Don’t be too quick to conclude! See how it looks, with fresh eyes, in the morning.
5. Progress Isn’t Visible Except in Retrospect—
In all artistic endeavors, the creative charge comes in surges. Known as “writer’s block,” among writers, it makes us feel as if we’re all dried up! Worse, like we’re inept and can’t perform in our craft. But, then you get a glimpse of your early work, and it dawns on you that your perspective is distorted. You see how far you’ve come when you compare it against your current stuff.
You don’t recognize your progress until you look back. And that is because we are all works in progress, in every way. Do we ever really “master” anything? Medicine is a practice. Spiritual practice is “a practice;” not an “accomplishment.” Take meditation, for example. How can you ever master it, when the mind is the way it is? Some days you’ll be more settled than on other days. So, it’s all a part of it… the good days and the bad days. And then you get to a point where there’s no judgment about it at all. You just practice.
But then at some unexpected moment, say, in traffic, or some other situation which would have ordinarily left you frustrated, you suddenly look at yourself, as if witnessing yourself from outside your body… and you say, with some amusement, “Wow! That woulda pissed me off a couple of years ago!” Must be the meditation, you think. It has yielded fruit in a most surprising and subtle way. You never saw it happening, any more than you saw yourself aging. You only see it in intervals. And especially, when looking back, at old pictures.
It’s also that our expectations are higher as we progress, so we’re less impressed with what so easily impressed us at the beginning. This is when, as the Zen saying goes, Beginner’s Mind serves us well… To be able to dive in without the self-censorship that comes from knowing better. In the beginning, we knew no disappointments in our work… we were just having fun! But as “experts,” we’re constantly getting in our own way, with our hefty expectations and difficult-to-please selves.
So, the take away on this one is… you have improved immensely, you just don’t see it yet! But also, have fun… remember that spirit of abandon that you had in the beginning. Because if you’re not having fun, then why do it?
Love this. What suggestions do you have for someone who is very hard on himself (i.e., me) and is a relentless perfectionist? I never feel what I do is good enough. When I write something, most of my ideas wind up as crumpled balls of paper on the floor. All my thoughts sound derivative and insipid. I know my expectations are unrealistic and unforgiving, but I compare myself to writers I regard as great. Their words have touched me in profound and enduring ways, and I want my words to do the same for others. Yet when I read over what I’ve written, I react with disappointment and self criticism. Any suggestions?
As a recovering Virgo perfectionist, I can relate, John!
I saved this quote from an editor, which I thought was helpful… maybe it will be of use to you, too:
“Blocks often occur because writers put a lot of pressure on themselves to sound ‘right’ the first time. A good way to loosen up and have fun again in a draft is to give yourself permission to write imperfectly.”
Would it be going too far to say “give yourself permission to write garbage”? That might be even more useful for me! Thank you!
Absolutely… yes! The analogy I use is to just “dump bricks.” The writing is in the re-writing, and you’ve got to have something to work with. (Which goes along with my #5 – not censoring yourself). Because also, sometimes you see later that it’s not as bad as you thought… you can tweak and add, etc., later. Just go wild:)
Enjoyed reading this very much, Donna, and will send to my son, a budding watercolorist. Hope to check in on you soon, all best wishes, Rob
Nice to hear from you Rob! Thank you!
Yes…and you can tweak and add to death! Sometimes you take the life out of something by messing with it too much. Your point #1 knowing when to stop. Sounds like you’re familiar with this…
Really great piece Donna, all your points are spot on, and how you expanded them to other life areas was excellent. I had a watercolor class in college and always struggled with the medium and the lack of control, being able to “let go” was difficult.
Thank you, Dave! I appreciate it.