Intuitive Painting, part 1—Getting Started With Intuitive Painting

Not everyone starts a painting by carefully planning it out in advance. 

Some of us—like me—are too impatient to get started, and pause to plan only when we have to. A photo (or actual scene), plus some rules of thumb for what order to do things in a watercolor (like “default” painting sequence in this video), is often enough guidance for knowing how to get started on the painting, and what to do in what order. You know you’re done when you’ve rendered everything to the level of detail you prefer. 

But what if you don’t know exactly (or at all) how you want the final painting to look? 

If you don’t have a target destination to guide your creative decisions, you need some other way to deal with these questions:

  • How shall I begin?
  • How do I know what to do next? (What guides my creative decisions as I work?)
  • How do I know when I’m done?

Instead of a plan based on how the final painting will look, an intuitive painter might construct a structure or system that leaves room for intuitive choices, but gives some guidelines for how to start, what to do next, and when to stop. 

In later posts in this series, we’ll build up some structures like this. In this post, we’re going to start by getting a feel for painting more intutively. 

When you’re painting realistically from a photo or from life, you may be accustomed to putting most of your attention on whether things look right. That can make it hard to listen to the quiet little voice of your intuition.

The first activity below gives you a chance to practice listening to nothing but your intuition. Most painters don’t make every choice based solely on intuition, but if we introduce structure too soon, the structure can become the place where you put your attention. So in this first activity, the structure is as minimal as we can make it: just listen to your intuition. 

Activity 1—Pure Intuitive Painting

Your only guideline is to follow your “gut feelings”. Listen for the tiny voice or the little nudge that comes from deep inside you, and act on that impulse without trying to find a rational explanation for what you’re doing. Ignore any “rules” you may have absorbed about how watercolor is supposed to be done. 

Gather your supplies, put down a fresh sheet of paper. Give yourself a little room to work freely, at least 6×9” or so, bigger if it feels freeing. 

Take a moment to just breathe and get in touch with your body. Then simply keep asking, What feels right (or good or true) to do now? and do that. One possible answer is always, stop. Even if you’ve only made three marks. If your intuition is saying stop, then stop. 

Don’t worry about trying to “make a painting”. If that happens, great! If not, you can save this page and use it as a starting point when we try strategies for continuing or finishing a painting. 

Activity 2—Tell Me Sweet Little Lies

The last activity was pure intution. This one shows how you can tiptoe into allowing some intuitive choices without completely changing how you work. 

Start from a previous painting that you’re not completely satisfied with. (Don’t worry! You’re not going to paint on top of it.) You can use whatever references and structure/steps you used to paint the previous painting. The only difference is, you’re going to change your answer to “How shall I begin?”

In this activity, you’ll begin by telling a lie. 

Specifically, choose one thing about the previous painting that you’re not happy with, and change it to something that isn’t/wasn’t true about the initial scene or subject. 

It can be a really obvious change, like giving your dog green fur, or making your flowers flat and two-dimensional like paper cutouts. Or it can be something that only you know is changed, like changing the color of the door on the cabin you’re painting or shifting the colors of your meadow from the greens of summer to the gold of autumn. 

The video examples

These videos are an experiment, so please let me know if this is at all helpful. They’re just examples of how each activity played out for me on a particular day, not something where you follow along with me and do the same thing. Just a little encouragement to help you get started, or maybe some company while you work. (There’s no need to watch the videos at all, if you don’t want to.)

For the first activity, I show two work sessions (side by side) of the same activity, so you can see how it went entirely differently on different days. 

The actual work sessions were about an hour. I’ve edited the videos down to about a half-hour each, but I did it by removing chunks instead of speeding things up, so you’ll see me working at my normal pace instead of the frantic brushwork that happens sometimes when I’m trying to demonstrate a technique quickly in a YouTube video. 

Aside from a brief introduction, I’m not trying to explain what I’m doing. I really can’t talk and work intuitively at the same time! Feel free to ask questions, but I may or may not remember what, if anything, was running through my head at any given point. 🙂

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