Prayer, Creativity & Faith

Learning to Paint

As many of you know, my dad was a professional watercolorist. He painted full-time for 45 years, and once he started painting, he never had another job. One of his favorite sayings, when people asked how long a painting took him, was “three hours and thirty years,” or eventually 40 and almost 50.

In other words, the reason he could paint something in three hours was because he had decades of experience working in his medium. Based on interviews he gave and records I’ve found, we estimate he painted between 150 and 250 paintings every year. That’s a lot. Let me calculate…  let’s say 200 per year times 45 years… that’s around NINE THOUSAND paintings.

Dad knew how to draw and crop and compose the images. He knew how much water to put on the page and when to add the paint for the right effect for the sky. He knew when the paper had the right level of moisture to add salt, or to sponge on texture. He knew which brushes produced the desired mark, and he had confidence when he made them. He knew which colors to mix and how much pigment he needed to get the strength of color he wanted after it dried. He knew what to expect, how to control it, what worked and what didn’t. And the reason he knew is because he had done it so many times. His paintings look effortless.

Over the last couple years I’ve been toying with the idea of seeing if I can paint. I did several paintings—some okay, some terrible—and then I didn’t do anything for the next year and a half. Last month I started sharing about a small watercolor journal and paint set a friend gave me for my birthday.

I discovered how much I love the combination of words plus images—doing tiny paintings as a form of expression or an illustration of the words I add to the page. I love the inherent limitations—because it’s a small page and a basic paint set with only one small brush, I don’t feel required to produce great art or intense techniques, and there is only room for so many words, so I have to be succinct and clear in my thoughts. It’s similar to the process of creating the prayer prompts in my calendars, the interplay between the words and pictures, trying to guide someone without saying everything.

But it didn’t take long before the little paint journaling wasn’t enough. I wanted to do more. Larger pages, more colors, bigger brushes, more details. Growing up around watercolors, I know lots about painting—and yet, there are some pretty basic details I don’t know at all. So I researched until I found what looked like an accomplished instructor and signed up for a class.

It’s been humbling—so much I don’t know, so many beginner mistakes. But it’s also been exhilarating—because I love it, because I am growing, because I’ve already learned so much. It’s so cool to discover that maybe I do could eventually get there—whatever that means. I’m not sure if it’s really about talent. Maybe it’s really all about practice, about experience, about finding your own way of expression. I have my moments, and I create little bits and pieces that have some promise. Sometimes I even think what I’ve done is pretty good…

That is, until I compare it to one of Dad’s (the first image in this post).

Still, though, I’m proud of myself for trying something new. For pushing myself to learn more. For doing something uncomfortable, and not always easy, and for recognizing that it will take time and still being willing to put in the time to see where this might go. My goal isn’t to paint like my dad. My goal is to learn enough about the process and techniques that I can figure out how he was able to get the effects he did—and to become comfortable with the process so I can find my own style or approach. Or maybe so I can decide that it’s really not my thing, and then move on to something else. Or perhaps this will lead me to something entirely new. I’m not trying to become Dad.

I’m just trying to really become ME. 

And I seem to be in a creative growth spurt. I am writing—a lot—trying to finish a memoir that is about my dad and this very kind of exploration and discovery. I am doing the little art journal entries. I am doing regular journal writing. And I am painting like crazy. I finished the prayer prompt calendar for next year and sent it to the printer (watch for announcements when they’re available to sell, probably in November). And this week I’m headed to Austin for a writers workshop that is a combination of several things—learning about the enneagram* (see more at the end of this post), becoming a better writer, learning more about indie publishing, and taking a good look at your writing career to develop a sustainable approach to get where you want to go.

My schedule seems overly full, and I have a lot on my mind and not enough time to do it all. There’s always so much that I want to do and don’t have time for. I’m dealing with some big emotional stuff, too—my sister (and next-door neighbor) bought a place in Indianapolis and they’re moving in a couple weeks. We’ve been helping them clean out their place and coming home and feeling the need to work on ours, too. It’s kind of a lot.

And yet when I am painting, when I’m creating, all the turmoil in me ceases and I feel peace.

And that, more than anything else, is reason enough to keep going.



*Speaking of the Enneagram, in case you don’t know, it’s a model of the personality types which all people use to cope. I’ve found it to be a transformative tool for me. By understanding the strengths and weaknesses of my type (or the way I move through the world). I have learned to identify my unhealthy behavior and correct it. It’s helping me interact better with friends and family and coworkers because I have a better understanding of what makes them tick. There are hundreds of tests out there, but one of my favorite tools is the book The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. I also found the WEPSS test to be a comprehensive assessment tool.

I’m an Enneagram 8, or Challenger. The short summary: I can be bold and strong (but sometimes bossy or prideful), I don’t like to be controlled; I want to do my own thing. I can come across to others as pushy or hurtful, even when I don’t mean to be. I love to discuss and debate things and don’t take it personally when someone disagrees. All I want is to be real, to have others be real, and to protect those I love. Sound about right? If you love the enneagram too, I’d love to hear what it’s taught you!

As I said, I’ve been in a creative zone. You can see some of my recent creations at my Etsy shop. I created a whole line of enneagram merch, plus a couple other things. Hope you’ll check them out!

Leave a Reply