I love to write; I love to paint, usually on the same day and often at the same time. Ink and watercolor, stories and images, my mind swirls with so many ideas it's a wonder I can settle down long enough to work on anything. If I could write and draw with both hands, that would be my ideal definition of time management.
Between the two, however, watercolors--no matter how many hands I use--will always be my most difficult challenge. Words come more easily to me than any skill with paint, probably because I consider writing to be talking on paper, and I'm not exactly an introvert when it comes to conversation. After I'd published my how-to book, The Essential Guide for New Writers, I was delighted when one of my writing students said, "The book just sounds like you!"
I don't know to what degree my watercolors "look like me" and I hope it's very little. At the moment they tend to be rather gloomy, not exactly how I want to be pictured for the rest of my life, but let's consider it a phase.
Unlike a manuscript draft which can be rewritten ad nauseum, you only get one chance with watercolors; start gloomy, stay gloomy. There's no going back. Once you begin, there you are. Watercolors simply cannot be "fixed." Whether it's a bug flying into a freshly painted surface, or my hand suddenly dropping a loaded paintbrush onto a pristine area that was meant to remain white, things happen. Yet with every "mistake" I have also discovered I can turn happy accidents into something worth keeping. So what if the white paper is now orange? Call it a sunrise. Bug smears? A vital part of my style.
The other day while I was painting outside on my balcony (not for glamor, but because it's the best place to make a mess), I started thinking about how I would feel if I had to give up one or the other. There was so much I had learned from each discipline and not about technique alone. Patience, realistic expectations, perseverance, these things are integral to my approach to creativity and stem from rock-solid basics:
1. My Favorite Supplies. Every new watercolor painting begins with paper, paint, and brushes, and preferably high quality paper, paint, and brushes. But something I've learned is that quality rarely has anything to do with price. In reality, quality is whatever is the most fun to use. A springy brush from the discount store or a smooth-gliding glitter gel pen can make me want to paint or write all day. Most of my painting disasters have stemmed from using the most expensive supplies because they weren't conducive with what I was trying to do. Student-grade paint, for instance, has turned out to be in many cases much richer in color than pricey "professional" brands. Brown paper bags are an amazing background for painting with opaque watercolors.
It's the same with writing tools: take those gorgeous leather-bound journals you see lined up in bookstores or gift shops. Gilt-edged blank pages, jewel-toned covers; they terrify me! They're so difficult to use: the covers don't fold back enough for writing on the go and the paper can be too textured, making my pen skip, stop, and eventually destroy the pages with ink blots and holes in the paper. For me, the very best journals and notebooks are spiral-bound and have cardboard covers I can collage with my own designs. The paper inside accepts any kind of pen, even an ink-dipped twig. I can't write in anything too genteel, nor with a designer pen that looks great advertised in a magazine, but is so heavy it could double as a snow-shovel. Struggling with supplies because they're beautiful and what "the professionals use," is a surefire way to write or paint nothing at all.
2. Work from light to dark. A frustrating aspect of watercolors is how you have to work in layers. It's nearly impossible, for instance, to create a shadow area in a painting with just a single stroke of dark color. To make matters even more frustrating, watercolor has a tendency to always dry lighter than what you thought the color would be. You have to lay down an initial wash, wait for what seems like forever for the paint to dry, and then add another layer of color. And then another. Sometimes this can go on for an entire day!
When we're writing, it's tempting to want to get everything right with only one draft. But more often than not we have to write, and write, and write some more to really achieve the exact meaning of what we're trying to say. Don't give up when you re-read a first, second, or third draft and find it to be too "light" or lacking the depth you want. Keep going. Experiment with different approaches to your subject matter. The main thing to keep in mind is that you will reach the right shade with perseverance. Keep going.
3. Let the paint dry! Depending upon where you live, waiting for a watercolor layer to dry can be fast or molasses-slow. In Albuquerque where I'm currently based, I don't have long to wait, but when I was living in Georgia, the humidity kept my paper wet for hours. Whether you're in the desert or at the beach, it's still boring to wait for paint to dry, but it's also essential. The quickest way to create "mud" on the page is to rush into adding fresh paint before the previous layers are dry. My solution has been to work on several pieces at once, which is also the way I write. At any given time I have about three manuscripts in progress: a short story, a journal of ideas and freewriting, and at least one novel. If my enthusiasm wanes for any of it, I can move to something new.
Multiple projects can be helpful with painting, too. If my paper is taking too long to dry, I like to doodle in my sketchbook, or put some color washes onto a new sheet of paper. While the clouds are drying on the first piece, I can start painting the hills on another. It's a handy trick that saves time and keeps me from wanting to rush in too quickly, and thereby destroy, whatever I'm working on.
4. Don't over-mix your colors. A common error many watercolor artists make is over-mixing their colors: putting, say, some blue and red on their palette and stirring it into purple soup. A much better technique is to wet your paper with clean water, then drop in some blue followed by a drop of red and let the two colors find their own chemistry. The ensuing violet shade will be much richer and more interesting than a standard recipe purple.
For writers, over-mixing colors is the equivalent of over-editing. Polishing and rewriting a piece too many times can edit the life right out of it. Sure, you want your words to be clear and understandable, but don't over-strive for perfect grammar or syntax if it's going to end up putting your reader to sleep.
5. Use your largest brush. Tiny, delicate paintbrushes are cute and look as if they're exactly what you need for painting hundreds of tree leaves or fur on a cat, but the truth is you can get into terrible trouble by being too finicky. It's a lot more liberating, and exciting, to paint bold and quick with your largest brush no matter how small your paper is. Using a flat, wide brush is the equivalent of freewriting, letting first thoughts, first words spill onto the page in broad strokes and unrestrained, uncensored expression. You can always go back later into a piece with a smaller brush, outlining and emphasizing your details. But start too small and you'll be fussing over your work for hours and days without any visible progress.