Painting Out of My Comfort Zone

Day 174, Staying at Home

Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020; Santa Fe, New Mexico

This week it wasn’t smoke but snow that drove me inside for my morning coffee routine.

I awoke Tuesday to discover a light snowfall clinging to the shrubs, sage bushes and trees in the arroyo. I ventured out just long enough to take some photographs and wipe the slushy snow off the hummingbird feeders. By midmorning the snow had melted, but the early morning temperatures were in the 30s all week. An early fall has arrived.

The cold and damp weather came at a good time. I couldn’t linger outside for coffee this week anyway, as I had 8 a.m. Zoom appointments with more than a dozen other watercolor artists. Our three-day online workshop focused on reflecting color and light in watercolor. Yes, water and boats are our subjects, and it is quite a change in environment from the desert southwest.

Earlier in the summer this workshop tempted me, but it was scheduled in Dallas while I would still be in Santa Fe. Pandemic restrictions resolved my conflict when the sponsor, Southwestern Watercolor Society, instead made it an interactive online workshop. I signed up and purchased a lot of new paint tubes (remember – I’m still waiting for my world cruise luggage to arrive with, among other things, my paints), expensive large sheets of watercolor paper and a new palette.

Just like about everything during this pandemic, we had to feel our way through online instruction over Zoom. Our instructor Steve Rogers has led dozens of classes around the country and painting trips in Europe. For this online workshop, he and his wife Janet Rogers (also a professional artist and teacher) invested in new cameras, computers and monitors.

And while there were a few hiccups, I think the experience was a success. Everyone had a great “seat,” looking through the camera right over Steve’s shoulder as he painted. When he moved among us to critique, we each could see the work in question. Is this the ideal way to learn to paint? Perhaps not, but then again, none of us put our health in jeopardy to take the class.

Many of my fellow students studied art in college and have painted for decades. I studied art in kindergarten and have painted for months. So I wondered if I would be able to keep up. Steve described us as his one-room schoolhouse, where everyone works at a different level.

We focused on two different water and boat scenes, and I felt like I “blew” each one immediately when painting the sky. My biggest frustration is finding the right proportion of water to paint pigment. Perhaps it is a beginner skill, and there probably is a better venue than an online group class for learning it. I kept repeating “patience you must have” under my breath.

Steve’s paint just flowed, mingling into a colorful blend that would later reflect throughout his water. Mine buckled the paper and morphed into blocky patches that didn’t look like any sky I have ever seen.

I wanted to give up and start all over, but I didn’t have time to sketch the scene again. So I persevered, accepting that the result would not be a piece of fine art ready to frame and hang. And after all, with no permanent home, I don’t have a wall to hang it on anyway.

On to the next section of the painting – the boats, where I was a little more successful. If there is a subject I know something about, it’s the skipjacks of the Chesapeake Bay. I’ve anchored sailboats in this very same cove near Tilghman Island, Maryland. Still, it wasn’t easy to keep up, as I spent much of the class admiring and analyzing Steve’s work in progress and puzzling how I could come near the same result.

I didn’t even finish the painting, but I did learn a lot.

On day two we moved on to a second painting – a scene from Marigot Bay in St. Lucia, another place where I’ve chartered sailboats.

If the act of painting wasn’t familiar, at least the location was. I abandoned my first painting in progress and moved on to this one. Steve decided to leave out the volcanic hillside behind the scene and add some sky, giving us a more interesting reflection for the water.

Steve’s boat details
Steve’s work in progress

My sky wasn’t much better this time, but I really blew it on the palm trees. I’ve painted my share of them in the past, but not in this looser style. So once again I forced myself to just ignore those areas and plunge on ahead. I’m sure that Steve has put in the 10,000 hours it supposedly takes to master a field (as popularized by Malcom Gladwell in “Outliers: The Story of Success”). I only have maybe a hundred hours or so painting. I reminded myself to just focus on what I can learn today and don’t worry about the outcome.

Once I had finished the second painting, I stood back to take a photograph. And discovered that from a bit of distance it looked a lot better. Not good enough to go on the wall, but a good representation of all that I had learned.

My Marigot Bay painting

This was my first experience painting large and on an easel instead of a tabletop. It’s also probably the first time I’ve spent so many hours on each painting.

Many of my fellow workshop participants’ results showed their own styles, and some agreed to let me post them:

I still think I am more of a “sketch quickly on site and add some basic watercolor later” artist, looking more for spontaneity than excellence. But this experience gives me ideas about different ways to explore this art. Plus it was just a whole lot of fun.

Now I’m inspired to seek out some one-on-one basic watercolor instruction when I get back to Dallas. I’m determined to conquer those skies.