Ruth Spencer grapples with watercolour painting

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24 April 2022

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Every month Ruth Spencer casts about for a sense of self on a journey of reinvention.

One of my favourite books growing up was The Book of Heroic Failures. It’s a collection of anecdotes about people who did things badly and wrong, and how things then went badly and wrong for them. It was the handbook of the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain, the members of which, surprise! Weren’t very good at things. Apparently whenever they got together you’d overhear snippets of conversation between artistically inclined members like, “Yes, sheep are difficult.” The book was so successful the club became too popular and had to disband, having become too good at being a club to qualify for itself.

Sheep are difficult. Yet I have a long-held romantic notion of someday dabbling in watercolours myself, palette in-hand in the open air, the breeze ruffling my linen shirt. This vague longing was reawakened by the January issue of this very magazine. Somehow I knew before I turned to the shirt-based fashion feature that there would be a perfect painterly shirt in there. And there it was – boxy, earth-toned, wide-sleeved, whispering of rustic wooden easels and serene creativity in the dappled sunlight. Furthermore, it was captioned “painter’s shirt”. Reader, I believe in signs.

I was to take up watercolours. Or buy a shirt, the signs were unclear. Best to do both.

Ah, the dread among a person’s family and friends when said person takes up a craft. The results of this craft eventually have to go somewhere. For the loved ones of painters, birthdays and Christmases for years to come are tainted by the threat of yet another… yacht? Sea-bound fridge? Oh, Princess Di at her wedding, of course it is, how lovely!

In the past when struck by the urge to create I’ve tried to err on the side of consumables – soaps, bath bombs, cupcakes – things that dissolve out of existence and don’t add to clutter. Even a macrame wall hanging can be a cosy bed for the cat. I’d take up glass-blowing if only to know that if someone didn’t like the lumpy goblet (ashtray?) I made them, they could accidentally drop it in the fireplace or run over it with the car, and no hard feelings. But a bad picture lasts forever, unless you can manage a convenient house fire or tasteless burglar.

And despite my desire to reinvent myself as a watercolourista, my pictures are Not Terribly Good. I turn to YouTube. There are a lot of watercolour tutorial videos, a surprising number of them about sheep. Could it be that everyone finds them difficult? In the first one, a brusque Scotsman measures a photo of a sheep with little callipers. He uses a heavy pencil to draw squares and triangles, then a mysterious edit shows him finishing a beautiful flock and saying irritably “this takes absolutely no painterly skill at all”. He can’t be aware just how absolutely my painterly skill is no. The nice calm lady on the second video says, “just make a little cloud and build up the fluffiness” which is delightful but unhelpful. Both advise blobs, yet by the end their blobs look like sheep. My blobs bleed into the grass and look like slightly wetter grass.

I close the tutorials and take a step closer to my vision, which is to say a clamber into an actual sheep field to paint from life. It’s a misstep. For a start, this isn’t YouTube, and you can’t just pause a field when the composition wanders off. I have no rustic easel, and a clipboard just makes it feel like I’m doing a literal stocktake. There’s a twig in my Birkenstocks. My boxy oversized shirt inflates in the breeze like a mainsail and the wide glamorous sleeve keeps dipping in the Phthalo Blue, which, if it’s okay with you, I won’t try to say aloud. The sheep turn their daggier angles towards me, and suddenly I need more Burnt Sienna.

I probably shouldn’t have started with sheep, which are difficult. I don’t even particularly like sheep, nor do I own any sheep-related art. Or want any. Oh. These realisations are coming a bit late.

There must be a tipping point where watercolours start feeling joyous and serene instead of a fast way to ruin expensive paper. I may persevere in a quiet way, but I’m not yet ready to sign my name on the bottom of this particular heroic failure. It would only look like a flock of runny blobs anyway.

I wonder if cows are difficult?

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