Paper as Moon

Attar of Rose, Suzanne McDermott, Watercolor

If I had a nickel for every time I've said, "In watercolor, white is the absence of all color. Black is the presence of all color."...
So many students think that they can paint with watercolor on any old kind of paper. This drives me (relatively) crazy. Another point I often find myself repeating is that the medium of watercolor is not just the pigment and binder in the tube or in a cake. I even go over this (briefly) in my signature lecture on a Brief History of Watercolor. The medium includes the paper (if that's the surface of choice).
In transparent watercolor, white is the white of the paper. Personally, I like a clean, bright white paper (rather than cream) because I prefer clear, bright color. When I started writing this post, I was thinking of the paper as sun. But after further...reflection, I realized that the sun is the sun and the paper acts like the moon, reflecting the sun's light back through the pigment, projecting onto our retinas and up through our optic nerve into our brainy brain so often compromised with critical and wounded emotions attached to all those thoughts tumbling out of our incessant streams of consciousness. Or unconsciousness as the case may be.
Anyway, I like my white. It shows off all the other colors so nicely and the strokes and surprises as well.

The Emergency of Presence

Happy Vernal Equinox!

It's the first day of Spring (Yay!) up here in the Northern Hemisphere. The beginning of the astrological calendar. Everything is budding and bursting or just about to (under a fresh layer of snow).
While painting yesterday, I was thinking about how we need to be absolutely present as we work with watercolor. Certainly not the first time I've thought or talked about that!)
There are few experiences that force us into being absolutely present for any length of time. Meditation is usually a nice try but even masters of meditation, Pema Chödrön for example, reveal that stilling our wild minds is a practice that helps tremendously but rarely leads to long periods of being here now.
Chödrön's teacher, Chögyam Trungpa wrote a great little book called Meditation in Action. There's a lot to that title because, in my experience, some of the greatest practices that keep us present are those involving some kind of physical engagement. Which makes sense because, after all, we are living in physical, temporal structures. Playing music, tennis, and, definitely, painting with watercolor are those sorts of activities that require physical attention with temporal limits. We have to be absolutely present or we'll lose our place, miss a ball, ruin a painting.
Emergencies are another sort of experience that require our complete presence. You know that when an emergency arises you can't be thinking about the past or the future, you are suddenly, solving immediate problems with your full attention and you can usually, in retrospect, break your memory of the entire experience into a narrative of milliseconds.
The word emergency comes from the Latin emergere "arise, bring to light" and, of course shares that root with emerge.
Spring is an emergency of sorts, isn't it? One day, there's snow on the ground. Then, suddenly, a crocus. The cherry trees bud and blossom. A cast of color passes over bare branches and our flowering friends burst forth again. And, boy, are we happy to see them.
Painting in watercolor is my favorite meditation practice (though it's more than that).  An images arises and is brought to light, through light, actually. It requires all the focus that any emergency requires. But don't take my word for it...

"Painting in watercolor is making the best of an emergency."

—John Singer Sargent

White on White (on White)

Painting inspired by an adorable Bichon Frise. Title inspired by Malevich after last night’s online lecture on 20 century painting. But this IS white on white (on white). Rife with (fun) problems to solve. Reminder that I’m running a free webinar next week on a brief history of watercolor.

Why Transparency Matters

After a long, cold, rainy day, it's snowing now. Dim and grey though it may be, my windows let the lovely light in. With the doors and windows shut against the cold, the light makes being inside bearable.

Grateful for the plain old panes of window glass, I shudder to think of life in buildings without windows.

I love watercolor for many reasons but one, for sure, is its transparency. (Not all watercolor is transparent but it's the main game and what I've used for over half-a-century.)

At best watercolor is clean, clean, illuminated. Like window panes, watercolor is transparent, which matters because it lets the light shine through.

To send light into the darkness of men's hearts - such is the duty of the artist. —Robert Schumann

Join me for a Free Webinar on a Brief History of Watercolor!

Click here 
to sign up for
March 21 Webinar on
A Brief History of Watercolor

Space is limited!

Prélude au dimanche après-midi d’un faon

Wow. I have been breaking my brain, straining my personality, taxing my ability to withstand personal assault while creating a long, broad and deep set of practicum courses in the history of painting via one particular watercolorist’s curation. That would be me and I’ve been putting myself through the mill that I’m asking my students to work through.
After a bit over 12 months and running the practicums live and online, at what I thought was total sacrifice to my personal practice, I’ve had a personal breakthrough. It’s been arising over the past month but after some recent posts and the last two assignments that I demoed for my 20th century painting practicum, I laid this baby out.
She’s been coming along over the past month but now I see the full effect on me of creating the courses and doing the demo work over the past year. It’s good. This is one of those moments I can definitively say, boom. I’ve evolved onto a new level of expression.
I’m psyched and overwhelmed with emotion. Pleased. Happy. Let’s see if I can keep this up and expand upon the foundation.
It doesn’t matter what anyone else sees or perceives in these pivotal works. Ask any creator. These are moments we live for.
Join me for a free webinar I’m hosting on a brief history of watercolor.

Shed your skin

Yes. You are perfect just the way you are

and there's always room for improvement.

It's a human contradiction. But it's true for all living structures on our pretty planet Earth.

If I were a snake and my skin had become too stretchy or laden with parasites bugging me, read more here...


Year of the Yellow Pup

It's a New Year! The year of the Earth Dog brings an opportunity for change. How about reinvention?

You haven't lived if you haven't reinvented yourself at least once. That's an opinion, of course but whether or not we call it such, we all have to reinvent ourselves every so often. I've certainly had to on more than a few occasions.

While reinvention can be scary, it also holds potential, promise and the excitement of an unknowable outcome.

"You go through phases. You have to reinvent reasons for playing, and one year's answer might not do for another."—Yo-Yo Ma

Isn't it fabulous how odd experiences, chance encounters, random conversations, opening to a particular paragraph in a book, or hearing some snippet of a podcast or radio program can nudge you around a corner in your mind so that you find yourself in brand new lighting, looking upon new possibilities?

It is so easy to cling to certain things that are not working. Sometimes we cling to things, (people, places, thoughts) unconsciously or out of fear and don't even realize that we can change. With intention. Relatively effortlessly.

After an interesting week during which I tinkered with problem solving for a set of issues on my back burner, I woke up to the new year and thought... wait a minute... I'm going to change these things and make life better. I can write ad nauseum about change and reinvention but
here's one thing I've changed.

I've changed how I am offering and how you can take my online courses in drawing and watercolor.

I haven't changed the content, per se, (although that's always being tweaked to make it better), but I've changed some dates and how you can take the course. I'm excited! For you!

So, this Wednesday, February 21 at 8PM ET, I'm hosting a free webinar as a preview for my upcoming foundation course in March. Sign up for the free webinar here.

Read all about it.Sign up for the webinar.It's going to be fun. A little taste of what it's like to work and play in my online course. No pressureno obligation except that you do have to do a bit of scribbling before Wednesday evening (which is why I'm sending this post out early in the week).

Simplify, simplify. Click here to learn more about See Here Now.

Click here to join webinar on Wednesday evening.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”—George Bernard Shaw

The Sanctity of the Blank Page

When I was a Catholic child, there was a rack of religious pamphlets in the vestibule of our parish church. One day, while my parents were in conversation, I looked through the display and grabbed one small paperback with vivid colors splashed across the cover. I opened it an started reading. Each page was like the cover, bright fields of varying colors bleeding into one another with just a line or two on each page.

Page one: In the beginning..., page two: was the Word,...  page three: and the Word...,  page four: was with God, ... Page five: and the Word was..., and I turned the page to a spread of two pristine, empty pages. Except for one word tucked into the lower left,


It blew my little mind and I can still feel the reverberation of my five-year-old consciousness now. That experience forever informed my understanding of that word and concept of god. 

Even though I wasn't thinking then about the blank page, per se, I certainly have since. 

There is a sacred quality to the blank page whether it's an actual piece of paper, a canvas, project, performance, or the day ahead. However you may think about the word god, the divine, source, creative spirit or some other construct around that concept, the best results of taking action on any creative endeavor is often a matter of getting out of our own way.

All creative processes are rife with insecurities, mistakes, fear of judgement, confusions as to how to start, confusion as to where we are mid-way and how to proceed, how to complete. Almost without exception, I get lost somewhere in the middle of every project and I have learned to either stop and walk away briefly or find some thread of faith to push through and continue. I think that every creative act requires a certain amount of faith to begin and certainly to follow through to some conclusion.

In On the Question of Form, Kandinsky writes about the creative process in terms of the white, fertilizing ray and the black, death-bringing hand. Essentially, he's describing the opening up of our experience to the great unknown and our all too human tendency to cut that connection off with ego fears and constricting habits of thought.

It's a delicate balance. We have to learn technique, presentation, formal constructs, but then, eventually, to let go of those things and take the plunge to make that first mark or shepherd that first mark along. It's not so much a balance really, it's more like a dance. We have to give into the unknown and not worry too much about making a misstep, trusting  that the momentum will probably carry us along.

Trusting takes practice. It's sort of okay when you're alone writing or drawing or painting. Less so when you're working with a rare  piece of wood or stone. As long as you don't quit in surrender to failure.

When a novice musician steps up to perform in public and makes a mistake, the worst thing to do is to stop and start again. Everyone makes errors in performance. Once upon a time in my 20s, I was performing a long guitar solo in the midst of a song and completely lost my way. To this day, I have no idea how I found my way out of that solo and back into the song to the end. I did not know what I was doing but I did not stop. (I did, however, break out in a cold sweat.) What I do remember is that the best guitarist in the audience came backstage to tell me what an awesome solo I'd played. I still laugh about that. 

Trust and faith in the creative force, keeping ourselves open and side-stepping fears and other ego concerns are de rigueur for the artist. So is follow through and knowing when to pause for breath and reflection. It's also, of course, a good practice for living because what is living if not a creative act? But, let me pull this back to the drawing board.

Drawing and painting, especially watercolor, are performances, too. Phil Geiger at UVA taught me that and I've been grateful to him ever since. 

Give in to the sacred dance. Like the remains of a saint, the result on paper is a relic of experience.

As for mistakes, OMG, I have made way more than my fair share. But when it comes to drawing and watercolor, in the end I have to say...

Oh well, it's just a piece of paper.

Magnificent Imperfection

Jacques-Louis DavidLe Général Bonaparte, 1798

The word perfection comes from the Latin perficere, meaning to completeto finishto bring to an end. Sure, the word has additional meanings before that mark and since but for the sake of this post, let's focus on that main definition.

It follows, then, that imperfection merely means that which is not complete, unfinished.
Isn't that the state of being human? Aren't we perfect only when we are finished with our earthly journey?

Near the end of his life, Leonardo (as in da Vinci) went through his notebooks and wrote over and over again, "Tell me if anything was ever done".  Yes, Leonardo struggled with perfectionism.

So do many of my students. I've attracted many perfectionists to my drawing and watercolor workshops and courses of the years. As a recovering perfectionist, I recognize them and their suffering right away. I understand the syndrome and coax them (sometimes more successfully than others) through the process of letting one thing or another go.

Even if students aren't outright perfectionists,
 there's a more subtle, related suffering. A constant nagging sense of displeasure or defeat (or both) when showing work they consider subpar.

I understand that, too. Especially over this past year, when I've only had time, for the most part, to make mad dash demos under pressure of stupidly short amounts of time and (often) interruption, I then present whatever results as an example of my abilities. Actually, the results are rushed demonstrations of how to but still, my ego is crestfallen with the results and the what other people think nattering is super annoying.

“Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at it’s core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: “I am what what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.”

Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think? 
Perfectionism is a hustle.”

– Brené Brown

Even with my relatively private daily drawing blog, I am posting scribbles and drawings that would be better burned.

In fact, they're all just teases. Warm ups (with, at this time in my life, nowhere to go for follow up). However, if I can get over myself, all of these (mostly) disappointments keep my muscles flexed, the practice intact and provide some sense of accomplishment. The carrots of disappointment and imperfection keep me in a race that, eventually, as soon as there's more time, will have me winning more often on a daily basis.

Fortunately, the demos I'm creating for the online courses are mostly highly successful. So there's that. I'm not operating in abject failure.

All of what I've just described is experience that cannot be conveyed to a novice or to someone unwilling to let go of prescribed structures. That may be the most difficult part of teaching beginners. The other difficult notion to convey to beginners is that we're all beginners, no matter how long we've been practicing and working away.

There's a large degree of faith involved in the creative process. There are moments of inspiration and master pieces but the whole cloth unfolds over a longer period of time and experience and work that any one piece can adequately describe in terms of perfection. Faith kicks in when you come to understand that you cannot possibly know or control the end result or outcome of any process, let alone any creative process. Faith is a practice, too.

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.”
 Anne Lamott

Personally, I love unfinished paintings. Gilbert Stuart's Athenaeum Portrait of George Washington, David's Unfinished General Bonaparte, Freud's Self-Portrait, to name a few. I love seeing the process, the partial drawing against the partial paint against the naked canvas.

This may be one reason why I cling to watercolor as my main medium, because the naked paper is always a presence if not clearly visible. Just one reason.

Of course, drawing and painting are not always a matter of suffering. Not by a long shot. Many are completed quite nicely (if not perfectly).

Come learn about magnificent imperfectionism.

Work with me.

The time is always right

Strike, as in sudden success | Watercolor
©2011 Suzanne McDermott/All Rights Reserved

The time is always right to do what's right. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Doing equals action. Action is the stroke. All action takes time.

Before action comes envisioning, clarity, intention, decision, commitment.

Flow is the allowing, faith, patience.

Nothing is absolute but boy, for the most part, everything seems to take longer than we think it will. (Except for what doesn't).

For example, I intended to launch my new courses at the start of the year. It's going to take longer. Anyway, what I like about "the start of the year" is that there are so many.

With the new moon tonight at 9:18 PM ET, I feel like I'm just getting started with the year. There's been so much scaffolding to create to hold up the rest of the year's plans.

As far as this syndrome of things seeming to take longer than we expect them to, I'm holding to the wisdom that everything takes exactly as long as it needs to, that everything unfolds in perfect order and that now is always the right time. It's the only time.

Yep. Now is the only time. May as well enjoy it, get into it and let go of the rest as well as you can. That's what I'm really working on.

And... no matter how far behind I feel, I always remember to do the next right thing.

Okay. So, you are welcome to a gratis copy of my Drawing Primer. Go here to get yourself a copy. Pass the link along to your family and compadres. Share the link. Share the love (and pencils and paper.)

Learn to enjoy every minute of your life. Be happy now. Don't wait for something outside of yourself to make you happy in the future. Think how really precious is the time you have to spend, whether it's at work or with your family. Every minute should be enjoyed and savored.
—Earl Nightingale

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