I Am a Watercolor

(photo via via Rawpixel)




In “For My Lover Returning to His Wife,” Anne Sexton wrote of the Other Woman as being “all there…as real as a cast-iron pot.” Solid, enduring, generous, necessary. Anne, on the other hand, was a momentary luxury, an experiment. “I am a watercolor,” she ended. “I wash off.”

Which, for me, was the practical appeal.

After years sticky with decoupage glue and gloppy with oil paint, I decided to try watercolor. Easy, I thought. Set up a little palette and stand and just add water whenever I have an extra hour to play.

Oh my God. It is harder than an affair. For months I tried to use the watercolors like they were tempera, putting them on too thick, not trusting the water to work its magic. Then I was tentative, dabbing in a little water for each stroke instead of mixing up a pool of ready-to-go color so I could paint more loosely. Then I “overworked,” something I am prone to do in every aspect of life, and the result was pretty much the usual: either I muddied the colors, or I scrubbed away the surface and made a mess of things.

Slowly it dawned on me just how challenging this splashy, casual medium could be. The way real fun is often harder to find than work or habit, because it has to be spontaneous yet you have to take great pains to prepare for its possibilities. Schlepping home huge stacks of watercolor books and ricocheting around YouTube, I began to gather little tips.

For watercolor, I thought.

Wiggly lines, I jotted. Imperfections are charming. Oh, to have known that in my teens.

Even ghosts cast shadows, one artist pointed out, sending a shudder through me. Others offered newbies ways to quiet peripheral areas, something I have been trying to do in our home and inside my head for quite a while now. The ringer on the landline is, after several fumbling attempts, at last barely audible. The dryer has been silenced, as has the microwave, and my neurotic internal worry about getting everything done has softened to a background hum.

Choose a “mother” color and mix a bit of it in every color you use. Unify, in other words. In marriage or friendship or politics, focus on stuff you both care about. Use common purposes, values, or experiences to pull people together.

Warm colors advance, and cool colors recede. Warmth engages us, and introverts are so often misinterpreted as aloof. Any composition needs a bit of both. Our eyes like the contrast of warm and cool.

Soften hard edges. Perhaps because I am more conflict averse than most, I have spent my life trying to do this. Finding ways to soften my words, explain someone else’s, brighten bad news or a boring task, play at the borders of all categories, avoid rigidity and mandates and cruelty….

Never use colors straight from the tube. Instead of buying black paint, mix raw umber and indanthone blue for a rich black, burnt sienna and French ultramarine for a dull black. Stop taking lazy shortcuts. Get your hands involved. Make whatever you do your own.

My notes included tips for techniques, too. Woody Allen told us how much of life was about showing up, but the rest is about technique. And so I now know how to spatter with a toothbrush, sprinkle salt for texture, sponge foliage to make the leaves airy, blot reflections into a pane of glass. Eyes, too, should be blotted; they are a lot like glass. We want them to be transparent. Windows of the soul.

Most of the tips are about color mixing, how to avoid overdoing it. Blending two color-wheel opposites will give you gray or brown, like those mottled Easter eggs I used to overdip. Deep darks work best if built in layers. Like experience.

Want luminosity? Apply a thin glaze—but remember, it only works if you do not disturb the colors underneath. Would it be overreaching to conclude that we can only glow when we remain fully ourselves?

Some watercolor artists gave pointers about anatomy. I had never noticed how the areas above and below the mouth become shallower as the lips widen in a smile, or how the neck pitches forward slightly, and does not narrow as it goes up to the jaw. How do I look at people every day and not realize that a third eye would fit between their eyes; that their lower lid comes up when they smile; that their temples are wider than their cheekbones? Most important: we are all orange. No matter the ethnicity, all human skin is some shade of orange. Take that, bigots.

Predictably, much of the advice was about caution. When mixing, start with the predominant color and add another color gradually. Don’t leave your brushes in the water too long. Mix more paint than you think you’ll need. Some colors, like alizarin crimson, will stain the paper, so you cannot lift out your goofs. Be patient, let it dry. Yes, yes, yes, I thought, moving on to the important advice, which was always about risk. Paint loosely and freely. Don’t worry about filling in exactly. Paint wet on wet and let the paint blur. Use the biggest brush you can. Don’t overbrush; get in and get out. Don’t be timid. Don’t get fussy.

I still get fussy, trying too hard to do it Right. On paper as in life.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.