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  • Writer's pictureJaime Pollard-Smith

What I Learned about Life in a Watercolor Workshop

This past week we were given a rare opportunity. Faculty members were offered two hours of professional development credit for attending a watercolor workshop. It was taught by a resident artist. He opened the presentation by explaining that painting with watercolor was a lot like a cat. You can tell it what to do, but it is going to do whatever it wants to do. What? Oh, HELL NO. How am I going to relax through a creative outlet that I CANNOT CONTROL? I have two children; I don’t need anything else in my life that will not follow my orders.

Needless to say, as the artist demonstrated how the paint would just run all over the page (leaking, really), I began to get really squirmy. I just read a book where the author discussed how water brings her a sense of calm. I am quite certain that is not my reaction. My crazy brain conjures up pictures of wild water damage, busted floodgates, and broken levees. Water is powerful and difficult to control or contain. Art, I was hoping, would be a way to relax and unwind after submitting my grades for the semester, but instead, I had this wild, unruly, primary-colored bleeding fiasco on my hands.

As I stared down at my blank, clean piece of paper, every fiber of my being felt the instinct to protect it. Keep the water away and never dampen the tiny, caked clumps of paint that someone had already recklessly mixed together and left to dry in brownish clay pucks. But, my inclination to be a good student won this battle. I also found a way to gain some semblance of control over this untamed medium. The instructor showed us how to use masking tape to keep parts of the paper dry and white while we painted around it. Ah ha! Tape was the answer!

I immediately marked out an L in the middle of my page, partly because my daughter is the creative one who would appreciate it, and also because it is the easiest letter in the alphabet (even I can’t screw up two straight lines). I continued by filling the page with every color available, in an orderly, controlled fashion. Next, I used the provided hair dryer to safely and efficiently dry the paint. My plan was working perfectly.

Then it was time for the very best part. You know when you are done painting and you get to yank away the blue tape to reveal perfectly straight, clean lines between paint colors? This was my moment. I got to remove the tape. I could hardly wait for the overwhelming sense of satisfaction that can only come from seeing that I managed to save a tiny piece of that clean, untainted space.

Success! I removed the tape and saw the beautiful blank white page staring back at me in gratitude. I had guarded that space for myself and for my daughter. It was her L, and although it was surrounded by vibrant, shimmering colors, that space was blank, undiscovered - her own blank canvas. Am I a control freak who just can’t let go for even two hours of creative exploration? Absolutely! But I also want my daughter to fill in her own L in the way she best sees fit. I fought to make sure she was surrounded by a variety of colors and plenty of options, but the L is hers to complete in her own way. My control can only go so far. Sometimes the lesson is in learning to let the water run its course, and other times I learn that someone else, in this case my daughter, will take the wheel. I am surrounded by endless opportunities to practice letting go.

There were other lessons learned during this workshop, like when I accidentally dripped red on the designated blue area of my painting. My poetic friend frivolously responded to my panic. “Just put water on it!” I did, and the mistake went away! It was magical. That watercolor paint might do whatever it wants, but it is also quite forgiving. Perhaps there are more areas of my life where one slip-up should not send me into a tailspin of panic. Most of my mistakes are not irreparable, and often the water, a drop or tear, can wipe the slate clean.

And it is always a bonus when professional development aides in personal development. I painted a customized gift for each of my children. I was able to use a hot glue gun to control the water while creating a Denver Broncos inspired piece for my son. Obviously, I immediately sent pictures to my husband boasting of my newfound creative genius. He was quick to respond, “Where is the B?” I painted lavender for him because my confidence was up. Less than an hour and a half in, I was relaxed - completely unfazed by the serene white page. It had become a space for opportunity, not damage or ruin.

As it turns out, many valuable life lessons can be gathered from a watercolor workshop. I could not wait to get home and share the homemade love with my people. They each appreciated the gesture, and it appears to have made an impact. After school today, my daughter’s first comment was, “Mom, I did the tape thing with all my friends! We painted around a letter for everyone!” It reminded me of Leo Tolstoy’s words, “True life is lived when tiny changes occur.” Slowing down and being present, fully awake, has allowed me to notice and appreciate these tiny changes. I'm learning that life is messy, and I can embrace the chance to grow and occasionally even go with the flow. As for today, I can say my little corner of the world was changed by some masking tape and insubordinate watercolor paint.

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