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Lessons from Mishaps

life as an artist watercolor Jul 11, 2019

Yesterday, while filming a demo for Creating Dala Art, I left one of the dalas too close to my water container. A large drop of water fell from my brush onto the example of transitioning a wash from one color to another. My heart sank.  I'd already lost an hour by filming with the camera set on zoom by mistake. Fortunately, the transitioning wash had dried completely.  Even so, If I were to disturb the water drop, some of the paint would lift and the result would be a small circle, of a MUCH lighter value, ruining my beautiful wash.


What do I tell my students when disaster strikes? 

"It's just a piece of paper.  Before calling it rubbish, try something.  You'll at least learn if something works ... or it doesn't." 

I had to follow my own advice.

Flashback from 1978 ...

I was teaching a Nights School Community Education watercolor class. Because I needed water, I was assigned to teach in the chemistry room equipped with a sink.  I had a full class of about twenty students. It was October and the leaves on the trees were at their peak in beauty.

Earlier that day, I'd completed a 16" x 20" autumn landscape of a nearby pond surrounded by trees dressed in their most glorious autumn attire; a commissioned piece I'd bartered for dental work. I planned to deliver it the next day after matting and framing it.

Before dashing out the door for class, I grabbed the painting as an example of a local autumn scene painted realistically, slowly and carefully, combining many of the techniques I'd demonstrated.  I begin most classes with a short demo.

The students arrived, helped themselves to coffee and gathered around the table at the front of the classroom. The focus of the demo was how to read the dampness of your paper to have a bit of control over edges between colors and the degree to which the colors mix. The subject of my demo was a hedgerow of autumn trees; reds, yellows, oranges and a few greens.

My personal preference is for loosely painted work that expresses the energy of the artist and the subject.  Most of my students wanted to learn how to achieve photographic realism.  My dentist also wanted photographic realism in the painting he commissioned. Tonight, my students were treated to seeing both the quick energetic version in the demo and the realistic version of the commissioned piece.

I pulled the painting out of my portfolio and presented it to them.  You would have thought I set off fireworks hearing the oohhs and aawws. I hoped my dentist would be as impressed as my students.

Pleased by their response and excited about getting on with my demo, I set the commissioned piece aside at the end of the table, safely away from where I was working. I didn't anticipate one of students placing her coffee mug down next to the painting and then tipping it over in the direction of my dental payment.  Hot, brown coffee covered the painting. Following a group gasp, the room fell silent.

I was young ... my brain still quick.  I couldn't show the panic pulsing through my body or my desire to scream. Out of the reservoir of information I'd read or heard, a possible solution emerged.  Grabbing the painting, I ran to the sink at the back of the room.  As I ran I told the class not to worry, the painting would be fine. I had absolutely no idea if the painting would be fine but I'd seen the look of death on the student's face, the one who had spilled the coffee.

At the sink, I turned the water to a gentle flow, made sure it was cold, and carefully, at as great a distance as possible from the faucet, let the water flow across the painting. I was grateful for the large size of the chemistry class sink. I turned off the water, gave the painting a shake and lay it flat on a desk at the back of the classroom to keep it safe as well as out of my vision so that I could get on with the demo and not fret about it.  If I had to start a new painting for my dentist, that's what I would do.

It was a quiet class that night.  I noticed that many of the students went back to the sink more often than usual.  Each time, glancing at the drying painting.

We ALL went home happy that night. The solution worked beautifully.  I thanked the student who spilled the coffee for giving us such a remarkable test of a solution I would never have thought to share with them if the mishap hadn't occurred.

... My dentist loved the painting.

Back to 2019 and the water drop on my dala.  I decided to let the drop dry on its own without doing anything to it. I lay the dala flat on the floor away from where I was working. Fortunately, the drop had been clean water, not the dirty water I'd washed my brush in. Though the dried drop left a small, shiny ring when viewed sideways, the wash now looks fine!

viewed from an extreme sideways position.

The appearance of the ring being lighter is only due to the shiny surface reflecting the illumination from the ceiling light. Absolutely NO color was lifted from the wash!

viewed from normal directions

Another lesson learned.  This isn't something I care to repeat, but it's a great solution to add to that reservoir of knowledge.  My older brain will just need a little longer to access that information.


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