Watercolor and the art of flow

Alex Tran
6 min readFeb 12, 2021

Watercolor is an art, and I’m certainly not an artist. Actually, that depends on how you define the word ‘artist’. To me, an artist (or a painter in this case) is someone who lives in the attic, sits next to an oval, dusted window overlooking a church in the middle of a meadow field full of blooming dandelions. She wears a brown beret hat and a brown apron with two-year-old brushes coming out of her pocket, the ones she got from an art store in town that cost her a fortune but they were worth every dime. Her gaze on the canvas is soft but full of ambition. Her left-hand holds the color palette, and her right-hand guides the brush, painting a purple sky and a church in the middle of a meadow field with blooming dandelions. Her coffee on the windowsill gets cold since 7 in the morning but she doesn’t bother getting up to reheat it — she is in the flow of creativity and unless the house is on fire, she wouldn’t get up. The lights come through the window and shine on her whole life's worth of arts — the paintings that she loves but struggle to find the people that love them as much as she does.

Day 1 of painting — A flower garden.

Sometimes I wish I’m that artist — to have art as my world and see the world as my art. But the truth is, I’m not. I’m just someone who uses colors to speak for my soul and pretends that I got some talents. I buy cheap art supplies from Amazon and paint in my free time, or when I have nothing better to do. The other day we moved to Manitoulin Island, an island that is five hours away from my house in Toronto, somehow I had the urge to paint after a full year of not touching my watercolor set. I went to a local office supplies store, the only store on the entire 2,766 km² island, praying that they have watercolor supplies. The town was in Covid lockdown just like the rest of Ontario, I stood in front of their door, trying to press their phone number with my freezing fingers in the -30*c weather. Lucky for me they had everything I needed: a pencil, an eraser, a set of paint, a brush. When the store owner asked me what kind of paints and brushes I wanted, I said ‘The cheapest brush please, and just 12 colors for the painting is fine, 24 colors would be an overkill’. Then I thought to myself, ‘Funny how just this time last year you thought you would quit your job and sell your arts for a living”. I laughed at myself — I didn’t quit my job, but I did quit painting.

When I was in the painting zone a year ago, I slowly developed a sense of appreciation for expensive, high-end brushes and paints. I stocked them all over my apartment. I even ordered a watercolor book from Korea that took months to arrive and cost me $20 shipping. I made cards with my painting as gifts for all the family members, friends, and co-workers that I love, and then one day without notice, the passion died. I wanted to remember the last day that I touched my watercolor set and trace back to what got into me for me to give up painting, but I can’t. All I remember was that I stopped framing and hanging up my paintings on the wall. I started to ignore watercolor posts on Instagram and maybe the algorithm picked up and no longer showing me new posts. Slowly, late nights watching Friends on my iPad and multitasking with painting transitioning into watching Friends and playing Candy Crush. Months after, I went through my files on a Marie Kondo cleaning day and threw all of my old, embarrassing paintings into the recycling bin, thinking that that was the end of it. I was inches away from donating all of my watercolor sets, but the tiny voice in my head whispered that I would regret it one day, so I put the color set back to where they belonged, and I moved on with my day without a second thought.

Day 2 of painting — Cherry blossoms for Tết

I wish I could look out the window and find inspiration on the meadow field like a noble artist would do, but most of my inspiration comes from the watercolor community on Instagram. They say when you want to learn anything, learn to follow the rule first before you break the rule. The first day of picking up watercolor after a year was a miserable failure. I followed the tutorials and step-by-step guide religiously, even trying not to mix and match colors to my liking, but all the paintings looked wrong. My flowers wreath looked like it had just been found from a dumpster, my hombre night sky looked like an upside-down universe, my cactus looked like it had never seen the sun. I blamed it on the cheap art supplies and not having my expensive brushes in the right size, in the right shape with me. But something in me urged me to keep going. Day 2 of painting went a bit smoother. I re-learned how to sketch, how to control water volume with my brush, how to layer and blend the colors to make it lighter or darker with all the hues. I was in the zone for hours and finished with three paintings and lots of bookmarks that I can now put in random books at the bookstore as a surprise for whoever buying books.

Day 4 of painting — my soul garden

Today is day 4 and I broke the rule for the first time. For the first time, I didn’t follow a sample that I found on Instagram. I followed where my brush took me and where my intuition guided me. For the first time, I see the true beauty of watercolor — the color palette. You see, when you bring home a new watercolor set, your palette is blankly and soullessly perfect. Then you start giving each color scheme a home on your palette: one corner for blue, one for purple, and so one for red, orange, yellow, green, brown, and black. The colors stay in their place in an orderly manner, and then you started mixing them by mistake and that’s when the magic happens. You discover that brown, black, and green combined create a dark, earthy moss green that didn’t come with the color set but it would be perfect to paint dark leaves, tree branches, and seaweed. You learn that red, purple, and orange create a seductive pink color that is not as dark as rosewood but not as bright as coral. Purple and blue with a lot of black coming together creates a deep ocean blue that is close to peacock color, but if you add more purple, the color will turn indigo. The discovery and understanding of colors was a thrill that I kept on painting for six hours straight and created the two paintings that I’m most pleased with. It turned out that for the entire year of painting, I never discovered the color theory behind it. All I focused on was following the rules and making things pretty — that was missing the point.

Day 4 of painting — My color palette, my muse

Art is about following the rule, but when the time comes, you need to have the courage to break it, for your soul is an array of rainbow colors that need to be seen. Seeing the colors transformed on the palette and ideas coming together on the blank paper is like seeing myself being expressed in a way that words cannot describe. In a way, it feels like I pour my soul out and it spills all over the pages, and I cannot stop — I am in the flow. I am one with the flow.