Watercolor for Beginners

In Issue 60 by Janna Whitney Rider

Watercolor for Beginners
Photo by Fuu J on Unsplash

It was as if all my colors had changed. There was no control or curation to my feelings anymore, only raw and wild outbursts. I tried explaining to a friend, “I’m a Jackson Pollock painting right now. Red! Blue! Yellow! I prefer a bit more nuance. Something impressionistic typically suits me, like shadows that fade in the afternoon sun. Purple and gray into peachy yellow ochre – these are my colors.''

Only a few weeks later, antsy and anxious to occupy my mind with healthier things, I signed up for a community class, Watercolor for Beginners. We sat around a large, square wooden worktable in the back classroom of the art gallery. We brought with us beautifully white cold-press paper whose dense spongy surface – we’d soon learn – would absorb our wet washes and show back to us our colors but more mollified, dispersed. We were given plastic trays filled with eight rainbow-colored paints, exactly like children use, and we filled glass jars with tap water we would need to revive the hard, dry pigments in our paint trays. We chose from a selection of watercolor brushes whose fibers were specially shaped to draw in water and give back graceful curves of color.

During each class, we listened to the art instructor’s strange music and laughed at his silly jokes. We practiced making our brushes wet. We filled our papers with watery blobs and streaks of color. And, with the careful and attentive generosity of watercolor beginners, we smiled and admired each other’s work.

The grandmother worked on a bedtime story with no words for her young grandson. The retiree practiced illustrations for his e-book about iguanas. The eight-year-old mostly watched her mom grimace and sigh at her wet, wet paper.

I painted a fox in watery red, a rabbit in watery blue, and an owl in watery yellow. A square field with carrots was green with orange triangles. A bubbly shaped berry bush was green with small purple circles.

And, as I painted, I watched water coaxing variations from my plain colors, separating pigments away from each other and showing me gradations that I couldn’t quite control, or at least not yet. The paper was tucking moisture into itself, leaving only color, or trace of color where the water ran out of pigment. The brushes were laying down watery plumes, leaving feathery wisps and bright petals, pastels into vivids that dried on the page. These tools could access an elegance I could not.

Rachel, the quiet college freshman, said almost nothing during the first three Saturdays of classes. She was more protective than the rest of us, letting her dark hair fall over her work with her shoulders hunched, her nose only inches from her paper. But, Rachel finally let us see what she’d been so quietly creating, during our roundtable sharing time. She flashed a small piece of watercolor paper toward us too quickly to register much more than a dark wash of a color. She shrugged and her eyelids darted up and down at the table. She apologized in a soft voice that she wasn’t an artist, and she didn’t really know how to paint, and she wasn’t even really done yet.

The grandmother encouraged Rachel to please show us again, and the rest of us leaned toward her with kind, soft smiles and nodded gently in invitation.

On a hand-sized piece of Rachel’s cold-press paper, colors came together into shadow and shape, softly fading into and out of each other. Gray and blue blended into seamless curves and darkening dimensions. Lavender outlined thick skin folds that fell into wrinkles at joints. Pale green tinted gray where earflaps followed creases into cracks. Soulful brown-black eyes stared out at us, as thoughtful and plaintive as Rachel’s. Faded beige feathered out to the edges of the paper, where the color gave up to the water, and the paper absorbed it all away. It was an exquisite African elephant in midstride. Its stout, stump feet fell just above the bottom edge of the page and a gentle shadow cast to their side. Broad shoulders filled the middle, so mottled you could almost see its rough, thick, skin-covered muscles. Magnificent ears fanned out fully, from edge-to-edge. A trunk barely lifted from the ground, thick as a tree near the face but delicate as fingers at its dexterous tip. A ropey tuft-ended tail flicked to one side in the background. To look at this portrait, you could nearly hear the wild and powerful beast’s snorting and sighing as she heaved her weight across the savannah, feel the heat from a close, white sun reflecting off her hide, and smell an earthy breeze of hot air as her ears flipped away buzzing flies.

Only the artist with quiet patience and soft-handed stubbornness could summon this wildly colorful animal out from hiding and bring this imposing, sophisticated beauty to us on a smaller, finer scale. With imagination, water, and care, the creature came in from its slow roaming to reveal to us its more precious side – one that reflected a color-changing sky tinting white-ish gray with green, deep blue, and lavender into shadowy beige that blended to brown and black.

I considered this lovely painting and was nudged gently toward a new thought. Maybe my colors hadn’t changed, but the light had shifted around me so that I didn’t recognize myself. And maybe the light would always be moving, recomposing itself with every season; and therefore, I would too. And so, the most precious lessons I could ever learn would be how to begin, and how to begin again.

Maybe, in the end, our best work is not a masterpiece of nuance, where shadows pull together from purples and grays, or peachy yellow ochres blush in the sun as it fades in the afternoon. Instead, it is this: coming together, opening to a new page of cold-press paper, filling our jars with fresh water, and selecting a brush with a graceful tip. It is sitting around the table, listening and laughing and admiring each other’s watery blobs and feathery plumes with quiet, careful attentiveness, and giving generously to others the permission to try and to practice and to make their papers too wet. And offering kind, soft smiling faces and looking each other in the eye as we say, “Oh, yes, my dear. All that you are doing here is lovely.” And then, gently, inviting each other to begin again.

About the Author

Janna Whitney Rider

Writing has been a beloved pastime of mine for as long as I can remember. It's been the foundation for my professional career as a Communication Executive at a large, global multi-national consulting firm. And it's one of the activities that fills my evenings, alongside yoga, jogging, or spectating high school sports games. I reside in Upstate New York and enjoy a beautiful view of Lake Ontario with my husband and family.