| Oct 25, 2021

Watercolors and Work: How Mastering This Difficult Art Form Translates to Business

My hobby of watercolors transformed my career and changed the way I approach problems. Here's how.

Many leaders have pursued interests and hobbies that help them balance the stresses of their work and escape from the daily rigors of packed schedules and pressing demands. For me, that’s painting in watercolor. As I continue to pick up my brushes, they add to my picture of business, with just about every lesson of this fussy medium translating into lessons I take to the office every day.

1. Master the Foundations First

Like any skill, watercolor painting requires an understanding of foundational techniques to get the expected result. Mastering those techniques improves how easily you can manipulate the art – change just one stroke and that single innovation can shift the entire look of the picture and either improve it or destroy it. By making the time to deeply understand the foundational skill of the art, you greatly increase your chances of loving what you’ve created. 

In business, your mastery of established foundational techniques allows you quick credibility with your team and leadership. Leveraging long-tested and established protocols and actions is a terrific way to turn a challenge into a success. Testing things out, layering steps with all your expertise – it all slashes the risk of wasting the one shot you have at success. 

2. Step Back for Perspective

When you keep your eyes too close to a watercolor, the painting can look awful. You see all kinds of streaks and blotches – a mess. You lose a sense of how everything comes together. To really understand how everything is working, sometimes you have to step back from the painting. 

When you’re deep in your work, in the nuts and bolts of a project or initiative, we are often too close to what’s happening to see anything more than what appears to be a disorganized mess and that can color every decision we make, impacting the results. Watercolors are like that. They suggest the final picture and stepping back ensures you see what you actually have in front of you. It shows you the full picture and allows you to move forward knowing you have all the necessary information.

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3. Exercise Both Speed and Patience

When you paint in watercolor, you sometimes have to move quickly and without a defined plan before the pigments dry on the page. Otherwise, you miss the moments of blending paint for the right expression. Other times, though, you just have to wait and have patience, because if you try to add another layer before the first has dried, you’ll destroy the whole composition and make it muddy.

This is just like at work – where you are called upon to make fast decisions and actions without having 100% of the information you need. You have to believe that in those situations you’ll make the best decision with the data you have at the moment. Other decisions either aren’t as pressing or they have such a potential for long-term or major impact that you have to slow down and be more thorough. Being able to regulate yourself based on the circumstances and goals becomes imperative.

4. Employ Clear Strategy

Watercolors are notoriously tempestuous. You can’t just slap paint on the page or pick a random brush or color and have it work. You get the best result when you think it through. For example, if you have areas of the painting that are going to be white or much lighter than others, you have to paint the dark colors around the light areas almost in the abstract. There’s a real strategy to reaching the end.

Business initiatives have to be addressed strategically too before you leap into execution. A big advantage of operating based on a specific plan of action is that picking a strategy requires you to think about the “why” behind everything you do. With that “why” clearly communicated, everyone can rally behind the same goal and get a sense of purpose. 

Strategies don’t guarantee that things will turn out 100 percent the way you expected, and not getting what you expected can be disappointing for some people. But, like watercolors, if approached correctly, your results will be even better than you anticipated.

5. Embrace Creativity

Even though there are common techniques a watercolor artist grabs off of their palette, it is also an art form that rewards taking your own unique approach to color and composition. The more creative you are with the application of color, perception, and design, the more you innovate and the better your results usually are.

Business is similar in that even though there are some principles or strategies that are standard and lead to a very predictable outcome (e.g., security, reviewing your books, working lean), you have the best chance of standing out when you innovate in ways nobody else has thought of before. Forging your own path means you have a differentiator in the market and can solve more problems than if you stayed in a box.

6. Be Ready for Complexity

I recently did a study on how to paint transparent bubbles – something that you’d think would be easy, since a bubble is just a bubble. Simple, right? Except, it wasn’t. There was enormous complexity to it. How do you suggest transparency? Where does it have color? Where is the light coming from that is hitting it?  How do you delineate the edge and does it cast a reflection? 

When you implement something new in business, there are often many more complexities to it than you initially expected. Things can look really incomplete for a considerable time until you reach the final point of execution and all the layers come together. You have to trust that you’ll make it through, that you can learn or make decisions on the fly, and that it’s not a mistake to keep going. Messy, confusing, time-consuming, unfamiliar – none of it means quit.

Business Is Art, and You Control the Brushes

Watercolor painting reminds me that it’s okay to escape once in a while to keep myself, and those around me, sane. The process of the art holds big truths that I apply to my job every day. While you might not consider business the place for an artist – it is, because the many lessons we learn from art apply to our day-to-day challenges at work. Through internalizing and applying what you learn from doing what you love outside of work, you can create a new masterpiece with priceless and enduring value for your organization.

By Laura Cooper
Executive Author

Chief People Officer, BlockFi

Laura Cooper is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) and licensed attorney with 20 years of HR experience. view profile

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