Letting Go

What I learned in a watercolor class that was so good, I knew immediately that I had to drop the class and not go back:


There are four keys to being a good artist, he told us, swooshing his brush across the cotton paper.  He painted much faster than he spoke.

Learn to use your medium: how to mix, how it meets the paper – this would be the first step.

Standing at his camera tripod-turned-easel, working left to right, he painted the sky in less than a minute.  It looked scattered and messy, like a child’s first attempt at Chinese characters.

Step 2: Learn to compose: to narrow down the whole world into one view.  He’d returned from his first few trips as a Plein air artist with absolutely no paintings – never settling on what made a good view.  Now he can stand in a parking lot and compose something just by choosing what to include.  To paraphrase Proust, “The landscape painter does not need new landscapes – he needs new eyes.“¹


He continued:  Van Gogh’s shoe painting is evidence enough that it’s not what you paint, it’s how you paint.  His shoes required no road trip, he “didn’t even need to get out of bed,” yet his painting of the shoes pulls us in with vibrancy and movement.

Learn a little about drawing – step 3 – and it will serve you well.  Drawing is not the painting, but it shows through.  It’s the structure, the bones, the outline of a good essay, that lets the reader relax in the form and enjoy the color.

He stood back to look at his work so far.  The foreground had form, a long driveway leading to a country house under some loose trees. 

The classroom art piece by instructor Tom Henderson

The class was fixated, captivated by his work as much as his words.

“Now these three things I can teach you: using the medium, composing the frame, drawing the structure.”  He turned to face us for the first time, “but the fourth must come from you.”

He was taller than Yoda, but I half-expected him to suggest using The Force, and in a way, he did.

“The fourth step is letting go.  It’s what allows the first three to flourish into creativity.”

Stop being so careful.

Don’t be afraid.

With details dabbed into place along the driveway – grass in the field, a latch on the gate – the untamed sky no longer looked like a mistake. 

 “Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion."

"Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"...

"Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good.” 


“Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion.²

Stop being so careful.

Don’t be afraid.

Letting go…


Author’s note: This post is based on Tom Henderson‘s class, “Beginning Watercolor: Painting with the Flow”. After hearing the above on the first night of class, with the admonition to paint freely and frequently, I knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do – with my writing.  Seeing the passion and time required to improve in watercoloring, I saw that I wasn’t likely to improve in writing and painting in the same season.  This idea came from multi-talented artist Tad Wagner‘s blog, (“Uninterrupted deep focus on one thing brings the momentum.”).  I was so inspired that as the first class finished I walked into the office and dropped the class,  and have been using the time to write freely and frequently.   Stay tuned…


1 Actually it seems Proust’s original quote was, “The only true voyage of discovery…would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes.”


Photo by Heather Ridenour. Stop right now and see her work: https://www.instagram.com/artbyheather_rid/

Cover photo by Heather Ridenour

2 Replies to “Letting Go”

  1. Smiling at the wisdom expressed here! What a gift to “know that you know” –when it’s time and when it isn’t. Good call! Good illustration!


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