You Will Be Terrible, But Start Anyway

watercolor Jim and Rumples
The first time I tried to paint a person…and a dog.

I am here to tell you that you will be terrible, but you should just start anyway. This is true of many things in life. People hold back from doing something they truly want to do because they can’t start off as an expert and worry about being embarrassed, or even worse, failing. Unfortunately, failure is the pathway to success. Failure means you are actually doing something and not just day dreaming about it. Failure is a good thing even though it doesn’t sound like it is. Trust me, I forget that too sometimes.

Near first attempt at a landscape (monochromatic).

I have had a few people tell me that they have always wanted to learn how to paint with watercolors. People are often afraid to start because the medium is not an easy one. Once the paint hits the paper it’s on. There is no painting over it, blending it in, or scraping it off (well, there is, but only in small doses and you have to be more skilled than I am). It’s intimidating. They also tell me they can’t even draw a stick figure (I really can’t either: Stickman Drawings). To that I ask, “WHO CARES?!” Do it anyway. Start anyway. It’s the only way you are going to get better.

watercolor cactus flower
First attempt at a cactus and a flower.

We all start at the same place: the bottom. It’s true. When I started this blog I only had three readers. My Facebook Fan page had three likes. It was embarrassing and yes I thought I probably looked a little foolish, but I lived through the awkwardness and look at me now. I have more readers, my Facebook page has more likes and I have also become a much better painter. I have been practicing. Everyday I am faced with something new to learn and I love it. A new painting technique, a new social media platform, a new technical challenge…html (Gah!). I’ve learned that putting things off only means it will take me longer to become an expert. So, I try to dive right in and I expect to be terrible in the beginning. I have learned to laugh at myself and my failures. Sometimes it takes me a week or two of grumbling and swearing under my breath to get there, but I usually do.

desert landscape watercolor
Really cheap paper…bad results. Boring composition too!

When I first took that free class on watercolor painting at the local library just about two years ago, my paintings were pretty goofy. At the time I was a little embarrassed by them, but also kind of proud too because they were better than I expected them to turn out. I had very low expectations. When I compare them to the paintings I am making now I can see the improvement. It’s taken me over two years, but I am getting better. I still have a long way to go before I can call myself an expert, but I am so glad I started when I did. I am two years further along than I would be if I waited until now to get started, right?

Another desert landscape watercolor
Yep, another desert landscape. Trying to make shadows…doing it badly!

You will look foolish many times: Start anyway. There will be epic failures and small failures. You will ruin paper and brushes. You will write something on your blog that offends people, you will post too often or too little on Facebook. You might fry your computer or get a crazy bill from your Internet company because you accidentally uploaded all of your pictures into “the cloud” and went over your internet usage by 20 gigabytes (true story). You might cry or stomp your feet or decide to quit. You might decide to keep going in despite of the setbacks and failures and small humiliations. Either way, at least you started. At least you know you tried.

watercolor of Tiny-Small (nose)
The fist time I painted a nose that sort of resembled a nose. This was supposed to be a double portrait. I abandoned it when I attempted to paint myself (missing to the left). I couldn’t find the painting to show you the whole thing.

You will be terrible, but start anyway. Start today. Live without regrets.


* Want to teach yourself how to paint? If you can only afford one watercolor book get this one! It’s only $1.39 on Amazon. Joye Moon explains every watercolor technique I can think of in this one book. Including how to use tracing papers for people who can’t draw well, but want to paint. She has projects that are very free-form and don’t even require drawing. She also explains different materials to paint on, brushes, and using watercolor in collage. It’s one of the best books I have gotten on the subject and I still refer to it two years later.




25 thoughts on “You Will Be Terrible, But Start Anyway”

    1. Sunsets are really fun to paint. I love swirling all of the colors together. So much fun! It is good to try new things.

  1. Great advice! I read a book over Christmas for 20somethings, which said the same thing, but not nearly as succinctly or memorably. It said that everyone is overwhelmed and underconfident when they start a career, and they should be! Experience brings skill and confidence, but that takes time.

    1. I think people are so used to getting what they want right away that they forget it takes time to develop skills and confidence. We also get pressure from other people when we start something new to be perfect. When I first started painting some friends of ours kind of laughed at me (we aren’t really friends anymore) and made some comments about my work that weren’t supportive or kind. Then, months later I won an award from the local art arts council and shortly after sold my first painting. Suddenly our friends found my work interesting, but by then I had enough confidence to know that I had a shot at making this happen and so their opinions didn’t matter as much. I guess my point is that it is OK to be terrible and that as long as you keep at it you will get better, despite what anyone else may say or think! I have to remind myself of this from time to time because I get discouraged or frustrated and have to take a moment to reframe the way I am seeing things.

  2. I agree, great advice! When I first started painting minis I tried using oil colors and failed miserably. I abandoned them until I learned to handle acrylics well and now I’m friends with oils. Learning doesn’t occur until trial and error happens. I’ve also ruined many pieces but every failure is a lesson learned.

    1. I was the same way with painting. I started with oils because that was all I knew. I didn’t understand acrylics or how they worked, but I got tired of smelling turpentine and waiting for paint to dry. I decided to experiment with acrylics and now I prefer them too!

  3. This is a great post! I bought myself a scetching pad, some pencils and a ‘how to draw’ book recently but have been reluctant to dig in. I think I’ll give it a go tomorrow. And yes, it will be bad but hey, who cares, right?!

    1. Yes! It probably will be bad, but it will get better and even the bad stuff usually has some good stuff too. Practice and more practice!

  4. What a great post! I took an acrylics class last spring and a watercolor class last fall – I use a combination of techniques now in my acrylic paintings and I am loving it!

    1. I have been reading about using acrylic and watercolors together, but haven’t tried it yet. I am looking forward to experimenting with that in the future. I am glad you had such a good experience with your classes!

  5. you are so right lillian. it’s our own fear’s and ridonkulous expectations that so often hold us back. for myself, it’s the first hurdle of just starting, which is the hardest
    i went to art school and failed water colour painting. it’s so impossible. my mum is an artist of many mediums and is fantastic at it. that’s quite intimidating! i’m an oils kinda gal when i paint, but it’s been over a decade since i even touched oil paints!
    (huh… that last sentence is kinda depressing. i’m asking my hubby for painting items for mother’s day!)
    great post!

    1. It had been over a decade since I had really painted too, but a little over two years ago I started again. I don’t think I will ever stop now. I love it! I hope you get those paints for Mother’s Day. 🙂

  6. This is such important advice where everyone wants everything NOW. And they want it perfect. Earning skills through dedication, practice, and hard work is a lost art. We should text this post to every 20-some “I think I should be CEO NOW” hipster we know!

    1. I know someone who at 18 wanted to get a job. His dad asked what he wanted to do. The son said he wanted to sell jewelry, so his dad told him to go down to the jewelry store to see if they were hiring. The kid was confused and so was the dad. Apparently the kid wanted to own a jewelry store (not work in one) and expected his parents to buy him one. This kid is 22 now…never had a job! I am going to do everything I can to make sure T.S. doesn’t think that is how the world works.

  7. Lilly, you are right, failing means we are actually doing sth and we should be proud of it. Too bad many people do not have enough patience or do not believe in themselves to keep it going…I am pretty far from being an artist BUT sometimes I translate artistic texts and the act of translation gets pretty artistic, too. I remember when I first started and almost went crazy when I saw another copy of some kind of Polish-English “Agreements” that had to be translated or sentences like: “To all the matters not covered in this agreement the provisions of the Polish Civil Code shall apply” which sounds completely different in the target language or does not have an equivalent at all…I was failing, true, but after zillion times of practice I got better and eventually translating such documents brings me a lot of joy (here is a sentence I never thought I would say!).

    1. I see translation as an art form for sure. Choosing the most appropriate word (especially when the exact meaning does not exist in another language) has to be a real challenge. I see art in everything…problem solving, writing, experiments! I would find pure joy in making words accessible to other people…translating so they can participate or enjoy something. Very cool stuff!

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