Should I be doing watercolor tutorials or original artwork?

December 26, 2021. Tutorial from Claire Giordano’s Adventure Art Academy – I always learn so much!

Whatever I’m doing, I tend to believe I ought to be doing something else. (I think this is what they call “anxiety.”) That applies to life in general, and specifically to art. If I’m doing a tutorial? “Oh, well, it’s not my idea, and someone else showed me how to do it. To be a real artist, I should really be doing my own original stuff.” If I’m doing my own original stuff? “I don’t deserve to do this; I’m not good enough yet. I should practicing.” I can’t win.

Upside: If my internal voice is going to nag me no matter what, I might as well do what I want! 

Sometimes I want to do tutorials, and sometimes I want to do my own thing. And as I go back and forth, I’ve found that it’s all valuable. What I learn by doing one activity helps me in another.

When I first started, I thought of different activities as a hierarchy, like:

  1. Do “easy” then “intermediate” then “advanced” tutorials
  2. Graduate????
  3. Do your own stuff forever, you are now a “real artist”

In reality, it’s been more like: do some tutorials, do some of my own stuff, do some more tutorials, do some more of my own stuff, repeat forever!

The Value of Tutorials

In a tutorial, another artist has taken care of a lot of major steps for you: deciding what to paint, how to compose the painting, breaking it into layers, identifying which techniques to use, and so on. That frees you up to focus on painting technique. When you’re a beginner, that’s exactly what you need. You already have enough to worry about figuring out how to hold your brush and make the sorts of marks you want to make, how to get the right amount of water on your paper (and what the right amount is), and how to mix up the colors you want.

I have never “graduated” from tutorials to my own stuff, even though I do my own stuff as well. I get something different out of them! It’s fun and soothing to be able to paint without doing all the brain-work of deciding what to paint and how to compose the image. Sort of like a paint-by-numbers, but with more opportunity to put your own spin on it.

Besides, I’ve never reached a point where I feel like I’m “good enough” that I have nothing left to learn from teachers, and I don’t think I ever will! I learn something in every tutorial, even ones where I think I’m already in my comfort zone.

If, on the other hand, you don’t enjoy tutorials – if you feel they are too limiting or you just don’t find it fun to be told what to do – skip ’em! There is nothing saying you must do them. You can self-teach painting technique as well as be taught; it just may take longer, or you may have your a-ha moments in a different order.

The Value of Going Back and Forth

When I’m working on a tutorial, I’m building the fundamentals. I’m learning specific techniques, like “a method for painting pine trees,” or “how & when to make water blooms.” 

When I’m working on my original stuff, I work on skills that you don’t typically get from tutorials, like composition and planning. But I still need those fundamentals! In fact, I become more motivated to learn the fundamentals because I can truly understand how they help me to communicate my ideas.

It goes both ways: just as practice helps you to make original work, so does making original work help you to practice. When I first started, I assumed it’d be like taking piano lessons, where you have to do a lot of boring drills before you can get to anything fun. Not so! There’s no reason your “practice” can’t also be the kind of art you want to do. Go ahead and turn that practice gradient into a sky by adding some trees or a silhouetted bird. Why not? In painting scenes I love, I still end up practicing all the fundamentals, but I have more fun doing it. 

How do I know when I’m ready?

There are moments when I think, “What gives me the right?” What gives me the right to paint this photograph, to copy this painting, or to render this scene from real life or my memory? I’m not “good enough yet” to attempt it. I don’t know I’ll be able to do it justice. 

Well… so what? I don’t “use up” a scene by painting it. I can always try again. I’ll learn something and have an artistic experience whether I end up with a product I like or not. The thing is, nobody will ever give me the right. No Certified Art Officer is ever going to come to me and say “Congratulations, you did enough practice gradients, now you can paint any sky you like.” I will always win some and lose some. I will always feel like I’m experimenting, messing around. The liberating thing is that means I can take on whatever project I feel drawn to at any time – no matter how audacious, or how humble. 

Everything is practice, and nothing is. Paint whatever and however you want to, and ignore that little voice in your head that says you “should be” doing something else. You are right where you need to be.