Watercolor and Stoicism by Sarah Florer

I’m a watercolor artist and practicing Stoic. These two interests of mine may not seem related, but the more I paint watercolor and study Stoicism, the more I find the two have in common. Watercolor is a medium that is fickle and hard to control. Stoicism is a philosophy that has a strong focus on the dichotomy of control and accepting the things that are not in our control.  In this post, I’ll talk about how watercolor and Stoicism relate around this concept of control and what the two have taught me about each other.

What is the Dichotomy of Control?

The dichotomy of control is the understanding of what is in our control and what is not. The concept is very simple: something is either in my control or it is not in my control. Understanding what falls in each category is more difficult. We tend to think of many things as being in our control that actually are not. The number of things that are in our control is extremely small. Learning how to accept the things that are not in our control is also difficult.

The list of things that are not under our control is large: other people and what they choose to do, our health, our reputation (what other people think about us), how much money we have, natural disasters, traffic, how busy our favorite restaurant is for lunch today, the weather, etc. Pretty much everything in the world around us is not in our control.

The things that are in our control are small. We can control our thoughts and actions, but little else. Everything else is out of our control.

Unfortunately, people tend to confuse being in control of our actions with being in control of the outcome of our actions. You are in control of the actions you take, but the outcome depends on many factors, most of which are outside of your control. We can possibly influence the things that are out of our control by our actions, but we have no guarantee of the outcome. That is why, for example, you can take actions that are likely to be beneficial to your health, but you cannot control if you are healthy as health is not a guaranteed outcome of your actions.

So, what do we do about the things that are not in our control?

There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.— Epictetus

If something is not in my control, then I cannot change it. It just is what is. Therefore, I have two options: the thing I can’t control has happened and I can be frustrated, angry, and upset or the thing I can’t control has happened and I can cease worrying about it and choose to be happy instead. In both cases, the thing I can’t control has happened. The only difference is I can choose to be happy or be miserable. Obviously, it would be nicer to be happy.

This is easier said than done. But it can be done and is a big focus of Stoicism. Once we accept that we don’t control the things that are out of our control, we can learn to stop worrying about these things and instead focus on using what is in our control (our thoughts and actions).

Even though our actions do not guarantee an outcome, we still take actions. We take actions with the knowledge of what an outcome is likely to be, without getting upset when the outcome ends up not being what was desired or expected. For some actions we take, the outcome is more predictable (though never certain). With other actions, the outcome may be more unpredictable. We use this knowledge to take actions that are more likely to get us to the desired outcome, but again with the knowledge that the outcome is out of our control and is not guaranteed.

How does this Relate to Watercolor?

As I mentioned above, we control the actions we take but do not control the outcomes of our actions. Some actions have more predictable, though never guaranteed, outcomes while other actions have less predictable outcomes. Watercolor is a kind of painting that has less predictable outcomes.

Watercolor is a medium that is hard to control. Watercolor is known for having a mind of its own. It does what it wants.

There are many actions that I can take as a watercolor painter, but watercolor constantly reminds me that I am not in control of the outcome and that the outcome can often be very unpredictable.

When I paint with watercolor, I find it’s a good reminder of the dichotomy of control and accepting what is not in my control.

What don’t I Control with Watercolor?

Blooms – Depending on the humidity, how much water I use, how fast I work, and other factors, I may end up with blooms on my painting due to uneven drying times.

Wet on Wet – Whenever I use a wet on wet technique, I can use my skill and experience to guide the color, but it does what it does. It never turns out the same way twice.

Accidental Bleeds – If I’m not careful enough, I may touch color to an area that’s still wet and color will quickly go where I did not intend for it to go.

Mistakes – Everybody makes mistakes. With the transparency of watercolor, it’s not easy to cover up a mistake in the painting.

Going too dark – Like with mistakes, when you go too dark in watercolor you can’t easily go lighter. As Stoicism teaches us, you can’t control what’s in the past. In watercolor, once it’s on the paper you’re kind of stuck with it.

What do I Control with Watercolor?

The tools I use – Different brushes, paints, and paper behave differently. I can choose tools and materials to help increase or decrease certain behaviors of watercolor. This isn’t a guarantee of an outcome, which I don’t control, but it does influence the outcome and I do have control over my choice of tools and materials.

How I paint – While I can’t always control exactly what the watercolor does, I can practice and learn techniques that help me encourage the watercolor to do more of what I want it to do.

How I address mistakes – While I can’t turn back time and undo a mistake, I can get creative and figure ways around something unexpected.

My attitude – I can control my attitude while I paint and how I act when things aren’t turning out how I was expecting.

You don’t control watercolor.  This can be difficult for artists who are more familiar with other mediums, like acrylic or colored pencil, where you can exert more control. If you want precision and want things to turn out exactly as you command them, then you are going to be very frustrated the first time watercolor decides to do its own thing. For this reason, watercolor isn’t for everybody.

Watercolor is not a good medium for someone who needs control. To succeed in watercolor, you must work with the watercolor rather than against it. It is futile to try to make watercolor do what you want.

The Obstacle is the Way

If watercolor is so hard to control and the outcome is unpredictable, why would anybody want to paint with watercolor? What is the point? I enjoy painting with watercolor because when I accept the unpredictable nature of it and just go with it, I end up with some really neat paintings.

What stands in the way becomes the way. — Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius teaches us that we are successful when we work with the obstacles we face, rather than against them.

We don’t control the obstacles that are in our way, but we can control what we think and do about them. We can work with the obstacles that we face and, since we can’t control these obstacles, there isn’t anything else to do.

Epictetus talked about how we are actors in a play that we do not control. We don’t decide how long we are in the play or what part we get to play. These things are outside of our control. We can only choose how we play our part, and Epictetus tells us our job is to play our part the best we can.

While much in life is outside of our control and up to fate, that doesn’t mean that we give up and stop caring or trying. We still have the things that are in our control, our thoughts and actions, and the Stoics teach us to use these things to work alongside fate rather than (futilely) against it. We use our thoughts and actions to work with things as they are, so that what stands in the way becomes the way. This way of using what is in our control brings us in harmony with the world around us.

The obstacles of watercolor are the way of watercolor. Fighting against watercolor is a lost battle. Instead, success in watercolor painting comes from going with the flow. You have to accept watercolor for what it is, and work with it.

I love watercolor because by letting go of control and letting watercolor do its thing, I end up with something more than I could do on my own with 100% control. These uncontrollable elements of blooms, bleeds, textures, and water adds a level of richness and uniqueness to my paintings that I wouldn’t accomplish by myself.

When I accept watercolor for what it is, it does great things for me. One of the great secrets of watercolor is that when you let it do its thing, it often does a lot of the work for you. Watercolor painting is still a lot of hard work and requires a lot of practice and skill, but sometimes the watercolor does so much of the work for you that it almost feels like cheating.

Watercolor is a good reminder for me that I don’t have to be in control of everything and that life will turn out much happier for me when I accept what I don’t control and focus my energy on what I can control.

You Control Your Thoughts

I control my thoughts and when I’m painting I find it important to pay attention to my thoughts and how I am using them.

With watercolor, like with life, things don’t always go well. Even when I have a clear vision for a painting and I have the skill needed, sometimes it just turns out wrong.

But that’s ok. While I can’t always control how a painting will turn out, I can control how I think about it and what I do about it. I can decide to not get upset about it and to try again.

As Sarah Cray of Let’s Make Art says, it’s just a piece of paper. The worst that is going to happen when my painting doesn’t turn out how I wanted is that I’ll throw it away. That’s not so bad. I can try again.  I can’t change what has happened with the painting, but I can choose my thoughts and choose what actions I will take going forward.

I also find it important to make sure that I am paying attention to which of my thoughts are facts and which are opinions. Epictetus told us, “What upsets people is not things themselves, but their judgements about these things.” Art is very subjective and creating art can be a vulnerable thing. My thoughts can easily take the form of judgements if I am not careful.

I was recently working on some paintings to submit to a juried exhibit at a local gallery. I tried multiple paintings and none of them were ending up as something I would be happy to submit. I looked at the paintings and had thoughts like, “This painting is terrible”, “I’m just a crappy artist compared to some of the artists at this gallery”, and “Maybe I’m not good enough for this exhibit”. I took a pause and realized that these were all judgements. Instead, I needed to take a factual look at my thoughts. My paintings so far hadn’t turned out how I wanted and I wouldn’t submit them for the exhibit, but that’s ok. My worth as an artist isn’t defined by one painting (or a few paintings) that I’m not happy with. That doesn’t mean that I’m not good at painting; it could mean that I don’t currently have the skills to paint what I was trying to paint. I can take action to practice certain painting skills and try the painting again. And I don’t know if my paintings will be enough for the exhibit. Art is subjective and whether or not a painting I submit gets chosen for an exhibit depends on a lot that is outside of my control. But whether or not my paintings are chosen (which is not in my control) has nothing to do with my self worth.

With my reoriented thoughts in mind, I decided to take a different approach to my paintings for this exhibit. I painted something that was more in line with my style and skill level as an artist. I came up with three paintings I was comfortable submitting to the exhibit and I reminded myself that I had done my best with the paintings but it was out of my control on whether any of them would be accepted.

All three paintings ended up getting accepted into the exhibit, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t happy about that. But I did make sure to remind myself that this is a preferred indifferent. While I obviously want my paintings to be accepted into an exhibit, which is why I took the action of submitting them, I have no control over whether or not they are accepted so it would be unwise to place my happiness or self-worth as an artist on that outcome.

Likewise, I try to be mindful of the fact that I do not control the thoughts and opinions of other people. As an artist, I naturally want people to like my work, but I have no control over whether or not people will like my paintings. People liking my art is a preferred indifferent, and I have to be careful not to become dependent on the validation of others. I can take some actions that might lead to a greater likelihood of people liking my art, such as painting subjects people are interested in (like coffee and cats) or painting in a style that people find appealing. But at the end of the day it’s all subjective and up to each individual on what they like. I can just make my paintings; I can’t make anybody like them. I will enjoy it when someone does like my art but won’t be disappointed when someone does not. I have no control it, so I will not let it bother me.

This is what I aspire to, at least. I try to be a practicing Stoic, but I am not a perfect Stoic. Like watercolor painting, Stoicism takes practice.

As I continue my watercolor journey, I want to use my Stoic practices to help me continue to embrace the natural and uncontrollable elements of watercolor that make it a very special medium. This year I am planning to focus on painting more local landscapes and doing a series of painting with wine (I’ve already done a series of paintings using coffee from a local coffee shop). As I work on these projects, I hope that painting will continue to help me reflect on Stoic ideas.

The next time you see a watercolor painting, think about the beauty in accepting and working with the things we cannot control.

Sarah Florer is a watercolor artist in Haymarket Virginia. She paints a loose style of watercolor using watercolor paints and coffee. You can see her work at www.sarahflorer.com

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