Learning to Paint

When I found out that I’d be taking a class called Personal Well-Being in college, I thought it sounded a little silly. I’d chosen a leadership major because I wanted to change the world–not learn how to be healthy! But there it was, on the list of required courses.

Nothing could have prepared me for the first day. We sat in a circle in the dark, wood-paneled room, all 30 or so students a little apprehensive. Our professor stood in front of the class, a smile illuminating her broad face, and said: “Your final project will be to find something you’ve always wanted to do and do it.”

My answer was easy: I’d always wanted to paint. As a child, I would stare entranced at my mother’s watercolor paintings on the walls. From autumn leaves to stormy waves, their brilliant hues and dreamy pastels transported me to landscapes far away. Whenever my mother saw a sight she wanted to preserve, she would sigh, “I should paint that someday!” Growing up with her creative influence, I grew to pursue and love many forms of art. However, I never mastered painting. In a high school art class, I copied a tropical scene with acrylics, and ended up with blocks of color and no depth. My grandmother painted beautifully, so during a visit I asked her for a watercolor tutorial. She showed me how to wet the paper and create wide bands of color. I dabbed on too much water, and blue streaks went all over the place. I added a walking man but he blurred into a blob. I gave up.  

Painting was not like drawing or pastels, where I had only to look at an object and duplicate what I saw, and it certainly lacked the instantaneity of photography. There was more than difficulty at play, though–my mom’s watercolors held an almost mythic quality in my mind. For years I promised myself that I’d learn to paint, but fear of not living up to my mother’s work held me back.

My classmates buzzed with excitement. Caleigh, who wanted more meditative practice in her life, was going to learn to chant. Lindsey was going to try yoga. I talked my plans over with Jeremy, who’d gone to art school. I had two sets of paints with me: a cheap set that I’d received in fifth grade, and a high-quality set which my grandmother passed down to me. I was apprehensive about using the good paints, and planned to wait until I’d mastered a few techniques. “No,” said Jeremy, “go ahead and try them.”

One night, I put on my favorite music and got out a large watercolor page. I opened one of my mother’s books on painting techniques. I took a deep breath, wet the paper, and dipped my brush in some green. Colors smudged, but that was okay. Lines looked funny, but that was fine. No one was watching me. By the end of the night, I wanted to paint something more than textured patches of color. I started using the paintbrush like a pencil, making minimal use of water, creating controlled lines and shapes.

The next night, I took out a picture of stargazer lilies from home and sketched them on a large paper. I filled in the outlines with pink, gold, and green. I moved my brush bristles sideways to create a rough, streaky background. I found some techniques that worked for me.

I practiced every week. I painted a bird-of-paradise that someone had brought into the dorm. I joined some dorm-mates in painting to music with acrylics. One song was reflective, and I painted a misty mountain. As the second, vibrant tune played, my brush released a sunburst. The results weren’t much better than my blocky high school palm trees, but I didn’t care.    

“Artists learn a lot from getting critiqued,” Jeremy explained. His project was learning to play guitar and he practiced every night now. A cluster of us joined him with drums and voices, one person on the piano. The college’s rich wood-paneled rooms rang with music. I set up a date to hear critiques from Jeremy and Cat, the art student who’d led the painting-to-music sessions, and met them nervously in the classroom where our teacher had given us that final assignment. My friends looked over the pastel-colored paintings I’d done. “They’re good,” they concluded “but you should work more with dark colors.” They had a point.

I looked for a visual reference for a darker painting, and happened upon a stock photo of a saturated orange sunset over dark water. It was harder to paint than it looked. I added layer after layer of black. Sometimes I wanted to throw it across the room, but I kept going. When a bit of the darkest layer of paper tore off, I gritted my teeth and painted over the new white patch. I brightened the orange and purple by piling on what felt like endless amounts of paint. A few weeks in, my sunset finally looked convincing.         

When you keep at it, somewhere along the line the “I can’t” transforms into an “I am.” Jeremy became a person who played the guitar. I became a person who painted. I gave paintings away for Christmas gifts and sold them at our college’s art auction. My walls bloomed with watercolor flowers. When we gave our final presentations, my classmates showed off their stretches and high notes. I held up my watercolors with pride.

That final project was one of best things I did in college. Thanks to my teacher’s challenge, I learned that a fear of doing something is easy to overcome if you just try it out and keep at it. “I can’t paint” was a story I’d made up to stop myself from painting. You don’t need a fancy class to learn that lesson, or to gain the rewards of mastering an interest you’ve been putting off for years. This is my challenge to you: find something you’ve always wanted to do and do it.

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Melanie Bell

Melanie Bell holds an MA in Creative Writing from Concordia University and has written for various publications including Autostraddle, Cicada, The Fiddlehead, Every Day Fiction, and CV2. She's the co-author of a nonfiction book, The Modern Enneagram (Althea Press, 2017). You can visit her website/blog at and follow her on Instagram @Inspire.envisioning, on Twitter @InspireEnvision, and on Facebook at

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