The “Other How-To”

Many of you first got to know me through the postcard paint-alongs. Given that I released a dozen of them in a little over 6 months in 2020, it might surprise you to hear that for years I have strenuously resisted doing paint-along videos or step-by-step demos (except as examples of how to use newly-acquired skills in context).

That’s not because I think paint-alongs are all bad. They’re great for introducing people to watercolor. They demonstrate that even beginners can complete perfectly nice little paintings with a just a few skills and materials. They can be a fun way to practice basics and develop some confidence. They’re a nice respite for experienced painters who are feeling stressed and frazzled and just want to play with the materials and not have to think too hard. (Hence, my willingness to break my usual rule against them during the initial covid shutdown.)

My problem with paint-alongs is that they hide all the hard work that leads up to the point where you are finally ready to put brush to paper with a solid plan for a successful painting. With a paint-along, you come along for the ride across the finish line, without seeing any of the journey that got you there.

Paint-alongs, learning by copying photos, and in fact, nearly all watercolor how-to books, videos and courses are about the technical how-to of watercolor. By technical how-to I mean the “brush on paper” techniques: laying washing, mixing colors, using masking fluid, suggesting trees/fur/clouds/flowers/water/etc. This overemphasis on technical instruction often creates the impression that if you just work hard enough learning all the technical how-to, one day you, too, will magically be able to just sit down and dash off paintings without a single misstep, just like the instructor (appears to).

But the majority of the work, by far, in creating a successful watercolor is in the concept development, design and planning process. I call this “the other how-to” or “the hidden how-to” or “the planning how-to”. Some books do give a bit of attention to at least planning what order to paint things, and some classes cover parts of the planning process. But if you simply look at the volume of available books, videos and classes, you certainly get the impression that most of what you need to learn is technical skills.

But the real reason why most watercolor instruction is about technical how-to is not because it’s the only thing to learn, or the most important thing to learn, or even because you need to master it first, before trying to learn how to plan a painting. It’s simply because books, videos and group classes are well suited to how we learn technique: we watch someone demonstrate, we attempt to imitate the demonstration, we practice, and then we repeat the process. Watch, imitate, practice, repeat, maybe with a little feedback here and there.

But learning to plan a painting requires working on your own projects. That means it’s best learned in an interactive, personalized learning environment, so you’re not going to see much evidence of it on YouTube, or video-on-demand classes, or books and DVDs. Sometimes it happens through a formal coaching or mentoring arrangement, but often also through conversations with other, more experienced artists in artist guilds, arts centers, paint-outs or paint-ins and workshops. (And of course, many of us learned it slowly and painfully by trial and error, and a lot of failed paintings.) My interest in helping people develop the ability to plan their own, unique work is why I got started offering coaching, but this isn’t a commercial for my coaching services.

Even before covid cut us off from a lot of opportunities for artist-to-artist interactions, more and more people were gravitating to the convenience of online instruction (and more and more instructors, too, since it’s a lot easier for scale up to large numbers so you can actually make a living). The visibility of online technical how-to, and the relative invisibility of any online planning how-to, seems to be distorting perceptions of what’s involved in learning watercolor even more than a temporary disruption in artist gatherings.

A lot of beginners assume, quite naturally, that since all they see is technical instruction, they should just focus on developing technical skill and maybe all this planning stuff will be easy once they have more experience. Then one day, they find themselves with a lot of technical skill, but still no idea of how to use it to create paintings of their own design. They may have gotten good at copying photos, but it seems like a rather hollow exercise. They find themselves saying things like:

  • “I work and work, but I don’t seem to get any better.”
  • ”I need to loosen up, but I don’t know how; whenever I try, I just get a mess of sloppy brushwork.”
  • “I don’t know what to paint; nothing seems to interest me.”
  • “Painting just isn’t fun anymore.”
  • ”I’m tired of copying photos, but I’m just not creative enough to come up with a painting from nothing.”

I watched too many people give up at that point, thinking they’re not cut out for watercolor, or they have no talent. I find this terribly frustrating and sad. All that wisdom and humor and unique perspective that never got a chance at expression. All those people who thought less of themselves, who felt they had failed, when really, they just missed out on part of their instruction.

It’s great that platforms like YouTube and Skillshare and Udemy have made it so easy to learn the technical side of watercolor, but what about the other how-to? How are people who are learning online supposed to learn that piece?

Sometimes, we instructors try to explain how we planned a painting (especially in books or videos about design and composition) but even that can create can create a false impression. In a book or video, we have to drastically edit and simplify the process. No one would want to watch a 10-hour video of the actual planning process, including all the false starts, dead ends, silly ideas, failed attempts and staring out the window. But when you just hear a streamlined version with the good decisions that actually worked out (and that all seem obvious in hindsight), it makes planning sound like a perfectly straightforward, easy, painless process. So if you know know how to make a value study, but still find it baffling and mysterious how that helps you plan more creative paintings, there must be something wrong with you, right?

It’s definitely a challenge to develop one-size-fits-all instruction to teach anyone how to go from the glimmer of an idea to a solid plan that will lead to a successful painting. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do to develop those skills with at least a little less frustration and discouragement alone the way.

It seems to me there is a huge need for some sort of self-study materials on developing planning skills for people who aren’t in a position to take advantage of coaching or mentoring.

So instead of just looking at how experienced artists plan their paintings, I started observing how people learn to plan. How does that ability develop? What sorts of experiences or exercises tend to help people find planning strategies that work for them and the type of work they aspire to create? How does an artist’s thinking about planning change as they gain experience?

I’ve been watching my students develop planning skills, asking them about their learning, reflecting on the evolution of my own planning abilities, and asking other artists about theirs for about a decade now. I’ve developed exercises and strategies that have helped my coaching clients learn to plan their paintings and make them more personally meaningful. And I’ve been working on putting at least some of this planning how-to into the convenient forms people have come to want and expect: video and writing.

One thing I’m sure of: you don’t need to wait until you have a certain amount of technical skill or experience to begin learning the planning how-to. The time to start learning to plan paintings is at the beginning, when you are painting simple paintings. If there is nothing else you take away from this post, please don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to learn all the technical skills first. Maybe you don’t yet have the skills to plan every painting you aspire to paint. But you can definitely start learning to plan simple paintings and add complexity as your planning skills develop.

It’s time to get some of this “other how-to” out into the world. In 2021, you’ll be seeing less technical how-to from me, so I can focus on learning materials that help you develop a painting concept, design a painting that is meaningful to you, and devise a solid plan that will give you a good chance of success. It takes time to develop learning materials, test and refine them, and put them in a form that’s usable for self-study, so I’ll be publishing new material at a much slower pace than in 2020. I’m not totally avoiding creating more technical how-to materials. But at this point, I’ve already published most of what I have to add to the conversation about watercolor technical how-to. I think it’s more worthwhile to invest my time in developing resources for learning this “other how-to” and providing something that isn’t easy to find elsewhere.

So, my dear guinea-pigs-with-sparkly-wings, I invite you to come experiment with me. I’m sure some of these ideas will wind up on the Big Pile of Teaching Nope, but hopefully we’ll learn together which ones are worthwhile, all improve our planning skills, and maybe even spare some of our watercolor newcomers at least a little of pain and discouragement.

I know this probably all sounds awfully vague and philosophical at this point. The next post/video will be much more practical, I promise! It’s a new postcard video, but with a twist that brings you into the planning process instead of just painting along with the final step. I think you’ll love it. 🙂

I hope your creative batteries are all recharged and you’re ready to dive in and take your watercolors to a whole new level in 2021!

Happy painting!


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