Watercolor is Like a Cat

With enough training, most art media will fall into line, obey and express the will of the artist much like you can expect a well-trained dog to respond to you in obedient, predictable ways. Watercolor is, well, not like that. And that is its attraction.

The watercolor artist soon learns that he or she must build a relationship with the water. The water has its own behaviors that in time we can generally but not precisely predict. Yet we can learn its tendencies and quirks. We can coax, stroke and guide while allowing the water the freedom to flow.

Disapproving cat.
Cat disapproves of my developing watercolor.

Cat “owners” may recognize this kind of relationship. We respect and appreciate the qualities of our feline friends. Each cat has a mind of its own, a unique personality and absolutely no instinct to obey a superior or assimilate into a pack. Those who love cats value their independence and the gift of affection freely given in the form of a headbutt to the ankle, loud purr or spontaneous lap sit. We do not like, but sort of understand, the cat’s need to push things off shelves at 3 am. We adore the opportunity to stroke the soft fur, waggle the red laser dot and lure the kitty into playtime. It’s an interaction that may include impossibly large pupils, spectacular jumps, lightning fast paw grabs and spring-loaded pounces. Or, honestly, a bored cat that won’t even LOOK at the feather wiggling on a string. You just don’t know until you try. But those failed attempts at connecting make the successes so much sweeter.

So let’s take those lessons taught by our cats and apply them watercolor painting.

Each combination of paint, paper and water will create something unique. The more the artist understands the properties of the materials chosen, the more he will be able to guide the finished result, but it is unwise and undesirable to be in control of everything. Think cat on a leash. No one wants to see that.

Allow water to do its thing. Sometimes it will create a happy accident that you never would have planned. Follow its lead, be inspired and make the most of it. Sometimes, you will have a disaster you will not know how to remedy. Don’t get too invested. Remind yourself that your watercolor painting is just a piece of paper with some marks on it. Learn what you can from the experience and move on. Kinda like parallel scratches on the back of your hand.

Enjoy the act of painting. It is just plain fun to charge wet paper with a pigment-laden brush and watch the magic happen. Let your brush jump, dart and pounce, or smooth in a graded wash. Give yourself permission to purr a little.

Do not push the hairs of your brush in the wrong direction.

Watercolor is a medium that you will not master. No one calls themselves a Watercolor Master – that is a label applied by others and I suspect the artist called such will be laughing on the inside as much as a cat companion chuckles at the idea of owning a cat. It just doesn’t work that way. I’ve read about many aged watercolorists who say the enduring attraction of watercolor is that the learning never stops. Dogs have masters; cats have staff. Embrace your role.

Cat “helps” me with my drawing.

Now smooth your hair into place and keep painting. Right after you lift the cat off the piece of paper you need to use. (How do they know?)

Do you have a cat for a studio companion? Leave a comment about what you have learned about painting (or general life lessons) from your feline.


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