I have always felt that I have an “artistic soul” but never had a way to express myself. I am terrible at drawing, have done a handful of abysmal paintings at social “paint and pour” events (accompanied by wines) and even tried collages with pictures ripped out of the physical copies of National Geographic that I received once per month. Nothing was satisfying.
My kids have no fear when it comes to art, and often in the afternoons on weekends we will sit around the kitchen table, with paints scattered around. They will create something freely while I stare at a paper, wanting to encourage their creativity while I felt no inspiration. The kids would leave random drawings around the house, sketched quickly into a lined notebook or piece of scrap paper, showing a monster, or invention, or map to buried treasure.
Writing was always my outlet, though sometimes I would feel that while I recount my feelings that I am often “telling the same story” and not creating anything new. I love visual expression, but had no way of harnessing it.
A few months ago, I tripped across Let’s Make Art and thought that my 7-year-old would enjoy watching instructional YouTube videos. I bought watercolor paints, and we would sit down on our lazy weekend afternoons and attempt to recreate a forest or a bird. He would sometimes exhale in frustration over the lack of control that comes with watercolor painting and I didn’t know what to do – I was experiencing the same.
Then in the Fall, a friend of mine came to visit, who is an artist. She sat down with us and attempted to offer guidance while we worked through a video tutorial of a brick wall with a blue door and some florals. Of course, attention was divided between the one of her and the four people in our family attempting to paint, so she followed up with me later and offered to do painting lessons with just me, so that perhaps I could learn enough tips to guide my kids and help them build confidence.
After the holidays, we set up a time for a Skype painting session. She told me to find a picture or photo of something to use as inspiration – and to print it out. I used a photo that I took of my older son, flying a red kite in the shape of a bird. The background is a huge green field, with thick trees. My aunt’s land. Moments before, we had visited the tree where Nelle and Iris’s ashes are scattered. My son was running down the hill, his red kite stark against the green. Birds always make me think of the daughters I lost.
My friend taught me a technique I never knew existed: taking my photograph and tracing it onto my paper so that I had an outline of what I wanted to paint. Suddenly, my fear of drawing was gone and I could focus only on the paint. We worked for about an hour and a half during our first Skype session, until I admitted that I have an early bedtime and needed to wrap up.
I found painting to be immensely satisfying. My friend sent me a gift from Amazon of a little 5×7 sketchbook of watercolor paper, so I could work on a smaller scale. I invested in some additional brushes so that I had more variety, and higher quality full-size sheets of watercolor paper, and an art portfolio binder in which I could store my work.
I gathered photos – some of my own, and some from other artists, as inspiration. My friend assured me that it was not “cheating” and that artists “borrow” from each other all the time. To that effect, one of my favorite books on creativity is Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon, in which he writes that nothing is original and that all creative work builds on what has come before. I had no qualms about taking something that already existed and making it my own.
I am usually awake before the rest of this household, arising around 5:00 or 5:15 am. By the time I have caffeinated and written in my journal, it is closer to 5:30, but I still have at least half an hour before anyone stirs. I started going into my office to paint. I would bring up my latest audiobook on my Amazon Echo and find that I could trace out and paint a small 5×7 before anyone else stirred.
In 16 days, I have painted two 9×12 paintings, and six little 5×7 paintings, all in watercolor.
I have found that I like how undefined and unstructured watercolor is. The unpredictable way in which it moves doesn’t bother me. I like “happy accidents.” In 16 days, I toyed with painting, painting over, and reactivating the paint with water to see if I could get it move in a new way. Rather than become frustrated with an outcome, I would just shrug and say “it is what it is – good enough for this attempt” and move on to the next one.
Somehow, the frustration I had felt my entire life with art melted away with watercolors.
I also never hesitate on what to paint. I grew up in the country, so my sketchbook is filled with landscapes, simple barns and buildings, and many trees. Today I took another leap and added some birds into my painting. I woke early and did a painting this morning with a flock of birds, and then on a cold, slushy afternoon I did another with two birds, for the two daughters I lost. Without prompting, when I showed it to Quentin, he said “I think those birds are Nelle and Iris.”
It made my heart sing.
You can follow my watercolor journey on Instagram at @creativeyangout