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Artistic Expectations

"In watercolor, the simple mastery of basic skills can go a long way in producing a wonderful painting."~ Al Kline

When I began painting, I would often look at other artists work and marveled. The paintings are so beautiful! How did they get that effect? How did they do it? Appreciation of other artists work is one thing that inspired me to paint.

“More than friends” Watercolor 26×40″ Artist Gunnar Tryggmo

One of the first paintings that inspired me to paint was “More than friends” by Gunnar Tryggmo, a wonderful Swedish artist. It was so simple, 2 birds in the surf with a lonely rock. So simple, so beautiful.

Deep down, as I began to paint, I expected and wanted to paint like the masters that I studied. Not really realizing that they , too had taken a long and arduous journey to get to where they are today. I didn’t realize that they probably experienced the very same frustrations that I encountered to get to where they are. I was reassured by their success; they got to where they were going by hard work and perseverance.

Very often our expectations often supersedes the work. In other words, we want to always paint that masterpiece. Unfortunately, we often paint something, in our minds, that falls short. Often this may be an unrealistic expectation leading to disappointment, failure and frustration. Many times, you may find yourself overworking that painting in order to achieve an improvement. In reality it results in a failed work.

“Beach Weekend” – One of my first paintings. It lacks the hallmark of watercolor and I was sorely disappointed in not having it look and read like a watercolor. This stems from a lack of understanding and studied practice. But it’s a start.

Improvement comes with patience, practice and what I call ‘layered or staged development’. And most importantly is perseverance. Arnold Palmer, the great golfer once said, “if you putt the ball short of the hole, it will never go in!” In other words, if you don’t persist, you will never get there.

Dan Mondloch, in his article “Learning to Paint-Embracing the Struggle”, explains beautifully how to embrace the struggle that we may face everyday as we paint. It’s obviously much easier to keep your expectations in order. As an artist you want to utilize the best part of your skills and keep moving forward. For many of us , success can be measured in a number of different ways. And success is a development, usually in stages. Like watercolor itself, once you begin layering your development, only then will your work improve and go to the next level.


“Achieving success partially depends on your definition of success. When you stop and think about it, it is amazing how much we need to know and be able to do in order to paint a satisfying picture, but sometimes things don’t turn out the way we thought they would, so we get disappointed. That disappointment stems from the gap between what you think you can do and what you actually can do. As a college professor once told me: “Knowledge will always surpass ability”.  You are able to envision it long before you can actually do it.  Keep Painting. “

Dan Mondloch
“Dry Docked – Plein Air” – (Arches Paper 11 x 15 – Daniel Smith Watercolor Paints)- One of my first en plein air paintings. In this early work there are sparks of improvement and a painting style beginning to emerge.

Some may not agree with the professor however. Ability can also surpass knowledge. Natural ability is surely enhanced by knowledge and learning. Prodigies often start with tremendous ability and it’s up to that individual or the people around them to harness and cultivate that ability. In the long run it’s entirely up to the indiviidual what they want to do with that ability.

I remember when I started painting watercolor in April 2017 and it was so frustrating. Not only frustrating to not be able to understand the medium, but also the simple things like drawing and composing a painting. Very often, I would draw directly on the watercolor paper, with heavy handed lead pencil and paint my painting in ‘one go’, not really understanding the medium or the process. Out of this frustration, however, I gained small and meaningful progress. My drawing improved. I took lessons and did a lot of reading.

Purchasing books and videos on watercolor painting was the quickest way for me to improve in those early stages. Even now, after 2 years, I continue to read and watch videos every chance I get. You see, I’m searching for the Holy Grail of sorts. Even though this may not be attainable, trying is half the fun.

“In watercolor, the simple mastery of basic skills can go a long way in producing a wonderful painting.”

Al Kline

Probably most important thing that led to my improvement is sticking with it and having faith. There have been a number of paintings that I would start and not finish because I didn’t have faith in the process. However, I quickly realized that no matter how bad you think the painting might be when you start, try and finish it. Magical things can start to happen.

You must also have faith in the process of painting watercolor. It’s just now after almost 2 years of painting, that I’m beginning to have faith, not in my abilities, but in the process of painting. Sure, my outcomes may not be perfect, but I’m beginning to realize that it’s a work in progress and you can build on your experiences and improve, but only if you stick with it.

I asked Anders Andersson, when I first began painting, some tips and the quickest way to improve. He simply said, “Stick with it and keep your brushes wet”. In other words, practice and paint, every day! So I do. I’ll take a simple quote from Frank Webb and Dan’s article that rang true for me almost as soon as I started painting:

“Success in watercolor painting is not measured in the quantity of paintings completed, but in the acres of paper used.” 

Frank Webb

Now I have piles of watercolor paintings. In that quantity, I began to see flickers of quality and a style that I am beginning to call my own. Some paintings can even be failures in some respect, but I’m always searching and trying to emulate the best parts of my work. Once you begin to embrace and duplicate the best part or your work, other aspects of your paintings will also improve.

“Spoonbills” – (Arches Paper 11 x 15 – Daniel Smith Watercolor Paints) -SOLD

There are so many artists in this world, and they are all unique. Not one can paint exactly like the next. Edgar Whitney, who may be considered the greatest watercolor teacher of all time, wrote in his Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting introduction:

All knowledge essential to the painting of a fine watercolor can be obtained from books, many books; teachers, many teachers, and subscription to the truth of the pragmatic theory that doing is part of the knowing.

Edgar Whitney

As you may have guessed, I liken painting to something akin to golf. Golf can be a difficult game and utterly frustrating at times. But when you attain and master some simple skills, such as a proper swing plane, grip or ball position, the act of playing can become enjoyable and rewarding. In watercolor, the simple mastery of basic skills can go a long way in producing a wonderful painting.

“Golden Temple Japan” – (Arches Paper 11 x 15 – Daniel Smith Watercolor Paints)

For every individual watercolor artist, we are unique. As in golf, every swing and golfing technique can be different, but a shot well played and low scores are what really matter, if you are so inclined. In watercolor painting and most art, the end result is what really matters. Expectations will change, goals and subjects will come and go. The important thing is to persevere and have fun and enjoy the process along the way.

9 comments

  1. Loved your post. The way you describe your struggle of learning watercolors (possibly the most difficult medium) by including your inspirations is great. One usually looks at a completed work and thinks, “oh, that’s a nice picture,” but how the artist happened to acquire that skill is something we seldom give much thought to…

    Liked by 3 people

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