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Guest ARTicle: Creating Habits in the Studio

by Elizabeth "Beth" Thurow

SAGE Member, Watercolor artist, SAGE Community Arts Education Committee Member

APRIL 9, 2020


Because of that edict I am now acutely aware how often I touch my face. The more aware I become, the less control I seem to have over touching it...especially my nose...and allergy season is upon us...


Everyone develops habits. We artists trust and rely on them when we are in the creative process of making “the invisible visible." Similar to breathing, throughout the day we cannot be hyper-aware of each and every action we take in the studio. Habits allow us to focus on the new point, innovation, aspect or idea we wish to express in paint. Our well-worn familiar ruts and ingrained techniques don’t need to be consciously considered each time we stand before the easel. We are able to proceed and do. Habits are efficient.

However, every so often it is good to take an inventory of previously unexamined habits to determine if they are serving us well. Some personal habits may have sneaked across a line to form an undesirable, even bad habit.

My favorite medium is transparent watercolor. There are many tricks and techniques, which make it fun and exciting. Compare it to freestyle skiing, with those crazy athletes who cartwheel airborne over a mogul, seemingly out of control. However, if they forget about gravity and slope they will not land properly -- often finding themselves in a tangled mess of skis and poles (which means no gold medal).

Years into painting, I was becoming frustrated with my tangled messes. Adding new tricks was not helpful because I was not landing well. Finally, an instructor watched me as I nervously, self-consciously painted. We discovered I had a habit -- a bad habit.

Like gravity and slope for the forgetful skier, I had concentrated for so long on flashy tricks I forgot and neglected the basic 101 of watercolor; the absolute necessity of controlling the amount of water I had in my brush. I had formed a sloppy habit of rinsing my brush clean of the pigment...but not shaking out the excess water...before putting the now clean brush into pigment or onto the paper. When water ratios are inconsistent, the natural laws of water will affect the painting. These inconsistencies usually create the dreaded curse of dull “muddy” pigment on the paper.

The remedy for this bad habit was a three-month boot camp of putting that brush into water and shaking it two times before proceeding to touch that brush into pigment or onto the paper. This momentum-killing routine would make a drill sergeant proud. I had to retrain my body/mind habit and it was surprisingly difficult -- not to mention humbling. My mantra became: swish, swish, shake, shake (or tap, tap the edge of the water container). Success was defined by how well I did that practice, not the end product of how the finished painting looked.

Over time the glory of transparency (which is crisp, clean and clear) began to show up, consistently, predictably and joyfully.

Right now, during this time of coronavirus anxiety, I have some ennui and don’t seem to have the stamina to be in the studio more than a few hours a day. Nonetheless, I keep the daily habit of showing up and being available to pencils, paint, and paper.

At first, I thought I would be extremely productive during this time of national solitude. However, I understand the challenge better now and respect it more. I think rigid and lofty expectations were setting me up for self-berating and disappointment. Perhaps it is kinder if I say well done if I am able to keep and reinforce a good habit during this disruption.

My nose itches like crazy but I touch "Thumbkin" to each finger (first Pointer, Tall man, Ring man and then Pinky) until the urge passes. Let me also say well done if I form one new and good habit.

Peace and health to you all.

View more of Elizabeth's work on her website.


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