The Lazy Way to Build Painting Confidence

This article is the third in a series. The preceding articles are:

  1. Is My Painting Done?
  2. Are You a “Photocopier”? There’s a Better Way

In response to the last article, a reader made a couple of excellent points about why it’s sometimes difficult to deviate from a reference photo:

  • lack of confidence, and
  • the planning process is such a painful chore!

Thanks, dear reader, for being brave enough to voice what all of us are feeling!

In later articles, I’ll share some ideas about making the planning process simpler and more useful. But first, let’s talk about confidence.

How to Build Confidence in Your (Painting) Skills

The number one way to build confidence is to give yourself the opportunity to have many small wins.

To do that, you first need to be able to relax and not worry too much about “failure”.

And you need to break things down into manageable chunks, so you can focus on learning one new thing at a time. I have to tell myself “One difficulty at a time!” a lot!

Here are some of the things I do to help myself build new watercolor skills.

1. Calm the Reptile Brain.

Watercolor painting doesn’t qualify as a high-risk activity, so why do we hold our breath and paint with a white-knuckle grip? Why do we spend hours fiddling with the weeds on one corner of the painting instead of putting in the central figures that are the whole point of the painting?

Because we care. We want this painting to move people, to express something beautiful and meaningful . . . and that’s not easy!

The temptation is to play it safe and stick with whatever is “tried and true”.

But, if you want to have any hope of a painting that’s more than just “nice” or conventional, you absolutely must be willing to experiment (and maybe fail). If you want your paintings to have emotional impact, you have to push yourself to be bold and try things that might seem a little crazy.

So why don’t we do it? Because the primitive parts of our brains are wired to treat all risks as if they are risks to life and limb. So, we need to need to remind ourselves that there’s no need for fight-or-flight here. In words. Out loud is good.

Before I start laying a wash, I tell myself Stand up, relax and BREATHE!

If I catch myself dithering and worrying over whether something will work in a painting, I say to myself, Just try it; it’s not a chemistry set. No noxious fumes, nothing explodes, no trips to the ER. (It helps to smile.)

Cartoon painter with paint

If I’m getting too “fiddly” with an area because I got sucked into details in a reference photo, I put the photo away! and say, out loud if necessary, “I’m not setting it on fire. I know where it is; I can go pull it back out if I need it.”

If you paint with a group, you can agree to occasionally say, in a calm voice, “Remember to breathe.”

I know it sounds silly, but I guarantee you people will start chuckling because, yep, they were holding their breath.

2. Paint from life. (The non-scary way.)

Please don’t freak out! If you are accustomed to working primarily from reference photos, the idea of painting from life is totally intimidating. But that’s because you’re imagining painting something just as complex as what you are used to painting from your photo references.

That’s not what I’m suggesting.

When I first started painting, it never even occurred to me that I could use photo references. (Yeah, I know, not too bright.)

But I also didn’t want to do all that boring thumbnails-value-studies-color-studies stuff. And I couldn’t draw worth a darn. I just wanted to get started painting! (Sound familiar?)

So I went around looking for something, anything, that looked kinda, sorta manageable. Like maybe one coffee cup, or a bowl, or a simple vegetable, set up with a desk light to give me a good shadow.

When you take a reference photo, you’re usually asking yourself, “How can I capture the most exciting, beautiful, interesting scene?” Without really stopping to ask, “Do I have the skill set to tackle this?”

When you paint from life, you’re free to ask, instead, “Where’s something around here that I might actually be able to tackle?” And then, since you’re painting something pretty simple, you can feel free to play with questions like “What can I do to jazz this up a bit or make it a little unusual?”

Poppy in vase watercolor

3. Build a natural progression of complexity.

When I first painted outdoors, I was way too intimidated to try to paint a whole landscape, so I would try to capture just the overall shape of a tree, or maybe just focus in on one twig and a leaf.

I didn’t worry about “backgrounds” or “foregrounds”, because that was too much to think about. But eventually, I got around to wanting to have some grass and weeds under my tree.

I knew I was too lazy to paint whole masses of leaves or grass, so I would fiddle around in the studio with different ways to apply paint—sponging, spattering, spraying water, stamping with plastic film—asking myself “what does that sort of look like? how could I use that texture?”

And then I’d try to paint an interesting tree shape AND a suggestion of grass underneath. Then maybe some distant hills or trees.

Then I eventually learned how to lay a graduated wash so I could have some sky behind my tree.

At this point, I have a decent little postcard. I can create some nice little paintings using just these few skills. From life. Or using photos only as a reference for information like “what are the characteristic shapes of this type of tree?” I know I can safely ignore anything I don’t feel comfortable painting and the painting will still work.

Next, I can take these skills and work on ONE new skill (reflections in water), and build some new paintings with that skill, plus what I already know.

Keep on building new skills and adding them ONE at a time. Or maybe add one only some of the time, and let yourself rack up some more successes.

If you build skills this way, you’ll quickly arrive at the ability to find a manageable painting in the scene.

The hitch for most people is that the paintings you can make at the beginning are not the paintings you aspire to paint.

But hey, what’s better: a successful (although simpler) painting that teaches you some of the skills you’re going to need for the painting you eventually want to paint (and was kind of fun), or a laborious slog to a painting that includes all the “stuff” that you want in your ultimate painting, but looks tight, overworked and tired?

Can you see how the painting below could be built from a gradual progression of skill development like this?

Best of all, I did not feel like I was a slave to the reference photo. There was no photo involved in this painting. It was based on memory, a small ink sketch and a little watercolor postcard painted on location. I’m sure it’s not an “accurate” representation of the scene, but who cares? I can’t imagine any way in which improved “accuracy” would make the painting any more successful.

Without a photo, how did I know how to suggest things like the reflections in the water, the streaks of sunlight, the weeds in the foreground, the distant and close trees? Because I had painted numerous paintings before involving similar elements, so I was able to “build” the scene from things I already knew how to do. I certainly didn’t start here! (But it didn’t take me forever to get to this point, either. And I’m certain I wouldn’t have arrived here faster by using more reference photos.)

If you look closely at how the projects in Watercolor Jumpstart are organized, you’ll see this in action. First, there are lesson videos that build the necessary skills, and then those skills are put together into a project video.

A lot of people ignore the last part of each project, where I invite students to try to build paintings of their own based on the same set of skills used for the project painting. But if you want to develop the confidence to step away from your reference photos a bit, I suggest you have a look at that aspect of the Watercolor Jumpstart projects (even if you’ve been painting for a long time).

4. When making a big change (in subject, style, etc.), step way back in complexity!

I don’t normally do much figure painting, so when I took a couple of figure workshops, I let go of anything to do with color, backgrounds, etc. and just allowed myself to explore the shapes of muscle and bone and shadow.

I worked upright, because that allowed the easiest comparison between figure and sketch, and I let go of worrying about drips and runs and blooms.

There is a lot “wrong” about this painting—it doesn’t look at all like the model, and some of the proportions are weird—but it’s very successful in capturing the feeling I wanted to capture. The model didn’t really look so weary, but that’s how I was feeling after a full day of figure painting!

I am certain that if I had been working from a photo, I’d have spent a lot more time and effort on getting the shapes and proportions right. And I’d have run right past the emotion.

5. Start in the parking lot and work up to downtown at rush hour.

In a way, this is a variation on tip #3 about building complexity. But I’ve found that some people really want to keep working from photos. It’s MUCH harder to build complexity slowly when you are working from photos.

The majority of photos will not be simple enough, so you’ll have to work hard to “edit”.

Here’s something that can help: Instead of thinking about what to take out, start from zero and ask what to put in.

Just like you’d take a student driver first to a big parking lot. Then maybe on some undeveloped residential streets where they could learn to coordinate braking, signaling, shifting and turning before they had to do those things while also looking for a break in traffic and thinking about who has right-of-way.

You wouldn’t take a new driver through downtown at rush hour for their first few experiences behind the wheel, but that’s basically what you are doing to yourself if you decide to learn new skills in watercolor by working from a photo like this:

There are too many things all happening at once here. There are some challenging textures to suggest (ferns, grasses, massed tree foliage), there’s moving water, there’s dappled sunlight, and there are a range of landscape greens. Lots of overlapping and interlocking textures in complex shapes. Similar textures appearing at different scales, Challenges in reserving lighter greens and trunks and sparkles on the water. Whew!

However, something like this is perfectly manageable for most people after a few weeks in a beginner class:

How do you learn to judge whether a photo is manageable? Honestly, the best way is by painting from life and starting very simple. as in tips 1-4. Even if you plan to keep working primarily from photos, it will be helpful to work with tips 1-4 at least some of the time.

But, it can also help to actually write down every challenge you see in the photo and what skills you’ll need to meet those challenges, and then ask yourself, “Do I already have all (or all but one) of these skills?” If so, then have at it!

If not, then ask: can I design a series of simpler paintings that will allow me to develop the necessary skills or solve the individual problems one at a time?

I’m not talking about just going off on another piece of paper to practice techniques, although that’s also a great idea! I’m talking about complete paintings that you’d enjoy creating and that capture at least some of what excites you about the scene. Maybe you’re not ready for downtown rush hour, but can you map a learning path that gets you there? Are you ready for downtown on a quiet Sunday morning, so you can learn your way around?

Maybe you can do one painting about dappled light in a forest scene but without the stream or the ferns and with fewer trunks and branches. Maybe another painting captures just a small segment of the stream with a few suggestions of grasses or ferns on the bank. Maybe a painting that has a mass of ferns by some quiet water, so the reflections can be simpler and there are no riffles to deal with.

As you plan these paintings, do keep in mind that effects in watercolor have a natural scale. That is, things that work at one size might not work so well at another size. So it works best to design your “skill-learning paintings” so that whatever you are learning is being used at about the same scale as it will be in the painting you are headed toward.

Less is More for Building Confidence, Too

Artists are told all the time to simplify. It’s great advice. It makes the painting process easier. It helps you develop your skills and confidence. And it allows you to emphasize and showcase what matters most, so your paintings become more powerful and personally meaningful.

If you’ve struggled to develop the confidence to deviate from your reference photos, give some of these ideas a try. See if you can engineer small successes that will build skills and show you what you can ignore, invent or exaggerate.

Most of all, have fun and push the envelope! Remember, it’s only watercolor—it won’t explode! 🙂

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