Yesterday as I fell back into the groove of painting my abstracts, I was reminded of a painting class I took at an art center during 7th grade. I can only faintly remember the palm tree clad building, but I do remember the classroom; the tall windows letting in afternoon light and the still lifes assembled on pedestals around the room. One wide pedestal had more intriguing decorations than the others. There was a thick throw rug behind a collection of wooden birds and vases. This was the still life I wanted to paint. Our medium for the assignment was watercolor. As I concentrate my memory, I can picture my easel and painting cabinet complete with a small water jar and the tray of oval, elementary-grade watercolor pigments. You remember the trays, right? They were the concentrated smell of an art room.
I began my painting having been given instructions I no longer recall. At some point while painting my masterpiece, the bubbly art instructor came over to my easel, pondered my brush strokes, perspective and offered a bit of advice. She said with a jovial tint to her voice, “Cortney, you’re using watercolors, which means you actually need to use water in your paint.” She proceeded to take a brush, immerse it into the muddied water jar and fill each little oval with a tall bubble of water. The ovals were so full that If I had placed my brush into a bubble, it would have spilled across the white tray, spreading pigment where it simply didn’t belong. When I didn’t say anything in return, she patted my back and moved across the room to another student. I was left staring at these many abominations in my paint tray and wondering what I was supposed to do about it.
If you’re curious how I had been using my watercolors, this is my answer: I was using the watercolor pigments as though they were acrylic paints. There were no watery, sweeping brush strokes for me. That was not the effect I had in mind. No, I wanted precision and saturation that can only be achieved by creating a small well in a paint oval with only the smallest bit of water. Layering my watercolor? Please, I didn’t have that level of patience as a seventh grader.
I wish I could say that I took her advice and dutifully washed my paper with sweeping strokes, but I didn’t. I’m stubborn by nature and once she was safely across the large room, I careful soaked up the bubbles of water and continued with my original technique. I needed to finish my painting in the style with which I began. Every art teacher I’ve ever had would nod their head in frustrated agreement knowing I would do no less. My poor art teachers and professors. Please know I am grateful for each of you every day.
In the time since that episode, I’ve had my share of watercolor classes and have been well versed in the proper way of painting. But that was precisely what brought about my memory as I painted yesterday using broad sweeping brush strokes with my acrylic paint. I was using watercolor techniques with my non-watercolor paints.
If only I could go back and tell the instructor, “Look, I’m finally using an ample amount of water and it looks beautiful!” Something tells me she would not be impressed. In fact, since I’ve had a few similar conversations before, I know she would look at me, look at my painting and shake her head with defeat. “Yes, it does look beautiful,” she would say as a lengthy sigh left her mouth.