Angela Fehr

Giving yourself permission

How watercolorist Angela Fehr, a girl from a small town in the middle of nowhere, learned to trust the process of believing in herself.

Angela’s watercolor paints kept disappearing and she couldn’t figure out why.

Artist paint

It wasn’t until she saw, well, “pastel-colored cockroach turds on the floor” that she realized cockroaches were eating her paint – just another symptom of life in the jungle.

Angela grew up in Papua New Guinea with missionary parents who were from a small town in British Columbia, Canada. The jungle, even with the cockroaches, was where her creativity flourished.

She learned to improvise without a craft store nearby, and giant rolls of paper might as well have been pure gold.

I ask her about a giant roll of paper almost my height laying across her workspace – I recognize it from my own childhood garage (my mom used rolls like that for everything).

Watercolor canvas

“I owe it all to those big rolls of paper,” Angela tells me. They were the ultimate blank canvas, endless blank space where anything could happen.

Angela is also grateful for the women in her life, whose unspoken motto was “Here's some art supplies.” Her grandma always let her use her sewing machine, and Angela was always encouraged to create.

When she turned 18 and moved back to Canada, Angela was so excited about the opportunity to take a real art class that she signed up for the very first one available at the community center in her small town in Northern British Columbia – it was a watercolor class.

She was the youngest one in the class by about 50 years, but she loved the women there. Their encouragement meant everything to her, “because making art alone in the jungle, you have no idea if what you're making is good.”

Angela Fehr
Young Angela.

That community center watercolor class changed Angela forever.

It sparked a lifelong love affair with watercolor, coupled with a driving fear.

Angela met people who told her how they “used to do art until” they had kids or got busy or started working more hours.

I was terrified that that would be me. I was so afraid that I would become one of those people who used to make art.

At 18 years old she was determined to find a way to never let that happen.

Painting Quote

“I didn't know anybody who was making a full-time living as an artist.”

Angela didn’t think that watercolor painting could be a career, though. “I had no plans of being an artist as a career because I didn't know anybody who was making a full-time living as an artist,” she tells me. “Everybody I knew was either bankrolled by a spouse or doing it in retirement or as a hobby.”

She grew her business skills by day and her artistic skills by night.

Drawn to art and a need to pay rent, she got a job as a graphic designer at the local print shop. Her boss was willing to train her and she began learning graphic design software. Graphic design was “the one job that I thought an artist could have.”

She started to “figure out the business side of art.” And while she enjoyed the graphic design work, it wasn’t enough: “I was being an artist, but I wasn't being the kind of artist that I really wanted to be.”

So every night for two years after she got home from work, Angela painted in the evenings. Sitting on the couch with “everything just spread out around my lap,” she intensely focused on growing her watercolor skills. She grew her business skills by day and her artistic skills by night.

Angela Fehr prainting

Art was always more than a hobby for Angela, and even though she didn’t think she could have a career in watercolor, she still approached it like a professional.

Part of that is simply the way she is wired: “I'm very business minded. And I'm a little bit of a fool about it. I remember teaching myself to crochet and, after the very first thing I ever crocheted, I was like, Wow, I should do this as a business and sell them.”

Flower painting
Angela's first botanical floral in 1998.

Angela’s compulsion to turn anything she makes into a business isn’t about money though.

It stems from an inherent drive to “always want to do more with stuff” and a compulsion to answer this question after she creates something new:

How can I get this out into the world?

Naturally driven to share her art, it’s no surprise that after creating her first full watercolor painting in 1998, a botanical floral, she thought: “This is good enough to put in the art gallery.”

Angela jokes about her “foolish” confidence, but really it propelled her; belief, coupled with action, is powerful.

I think we're always waiting for permission, somebody to say you're good enough to grab that thing that you want so badly.

And of course, when you're a teenager, it's your friends and family telling you you're good at art, but I didn’t really believe them because they loved me. They'll like anything I make.

How she felt about that botanical floral painting, Angela tells me, was different, pivotal. It was the first time she formed her own opinion of her work.

I needed that turning point where I decided.

Angela knew, without a doubt, that she wanted to present her paintings professionally; following the feeling that her work could be good enough to share, she looked up her town’s local arts society. The week after she created her first full painting she applied for a membership and asked to show her painting in one of their art shows that happened twice a year.

They accepted, and once she built a collection from those two years of evening practice, they asked her if she’d like to have her very own art show.

Angela Fehr at art gallery
Angela at her town's local art gallery.
Angela Fehr waterfall painting
Another early watercolor painting by Angela.

To Angela, showing her art in her small town was everything: “I'm a big fan of the way a small community can bring people together to create.”

Angela Fehr art

She loved showing her art to others, and it further encouraged her to treat herself like a professional artist, and her art like a business, even though she knew it would be “very difficult to sell enough paintings to make a living” in a small farming community.

For Angela, even painting on the side was a huge win, a triumph over her biggest fear of being someone who used to paint.

Soon after that first art show she got married and had three kids in three years.

She left her job to homeschool her kids full-time, and hoped that her painting time wouldn’t disappear completely.

“I made nap time creativity time.”

Angela remembers having three young kids as “a very busy time,” and while she let the seasons change her artistic life as needed, she never let it stop her or make her feel less than: “I decided that I would feel good about my art if I could just get in 15 minutes a few times a week.”

Angela Fehr painting at table

She did her own painting while her kids napped – “I made nap time creativity time” – and made sure she and her kids always had plenty of art supplies.

Artist watercolor notebook

Her new target was to make three paintings a year, “and I usually met that target. So that felt good. It wasn't fading away.”

Angela also stayed involved in her town’s art community. She started reaching out to nearby towns that also had shows, and started entering local juried art competitions.

She didn’t win any.

But that was really freeing for me, because I think if I'd gotten some success, I would have been really obsessed with, ‘What do other people want to see?’

It gave her relief to keep creating from her heart.

But there was also “a little secret part” of Angela's heart that thought, I want to be a world-class artist.

I knew some of the most famous watercolor artists in the world. I'd seen them in magazines and I dreamed of having that life, traveling the world and teaching and painting and having books published and all of those things, and yet I knew that was ridiculous. I was just a girl from a small town in the middle of nowhere.

Watercolor PaintingAngela directed all her energy toward continuing to master the craft of watercolor. Even decades later, she was still finding there was so much to learn.

She noticed many artists were posting tutorials on YouTube, and in 2013, she grabbed a video camera for the first time and made a video of her own to share some of her watercolor learnings.

The camera angle was terrible and I didn't have a clue what I was doing. The kids were actually jumping on the trampoline outside the window, screaming.

Painting workshopBut even with the imperfections, people connected with Angela’s teaching, likely because, while she had at this point been studying watercolor for two decades, she still approached it as if it was the first day of her community center class – full of excitement, a hunger to learn, humility, and a deep love for art.

People were drawn to her approachability and the way she made watercolor feel so accessible. She started to brainstorm how else she might be able to help.

I wonder if there's a way to be more intentional about this and not just share random videos on YouTube? Maybe I could share in a more structured way and do a course or some kind of online class? At the time, I didn't know anybody who was painting or teaching online in any field. Online instruction was kind of just getting started.

So she started searching the internet and found a site that would allow her to host a course and she thought, What do I have to lose?

Angela Fehr painting in studio
Angela filming.

“I send my quarterly email once a year.”

Because Angela had already built a small audience with her YouTube videos, people signed up for her course; she was thrilled.

It was really, really powerful to see that I was now actually monetizing my time and going from that stay-at-home mom to someone who was contributing.

Angela Fehr working on laptopAngela also had an email list back then – she started collecting email addresses in 2002.

It started slow.

She had intentions to send a quarterly email but would often joke that “I send my quarterly email once a year.”

But then she’d sit down to write that annual email and panic, “I've got to pack all my year's news into one email. And then everybody who's on your emailing list forgets about you for the rest of the year.”

Once her first course started selling, she decided she would start emailing her list every week.

I think that really really helped my business. It was so freeing because I didn't have to cram. I could give a little quick tip or like ‘This is something to encourage you about watercolor today.’ I didn't have to sell anything. I could just share and build community. And it felt so nice that I just committed. I have almost never missed a week.

Angela’s unwavering commitment stems from the joy she’s found.

Writing my emails is one of the most fun things that I do. It kind of brings me back to my days as a teenager in Papua New Guinea when I had to write letters because all my friends lived in Canada. That’s the way I write to my audience now, naturally, just the way I would speak.

“I didn't have to sell anything. I could just share and build community.”

She considers the people on her email list her friends.

If someone has taken the time to sign up for my mailing list, I know that they know I'm a watercolor person, that I advocate this fearless, heart-guided approach to watercolor, and they're drawn to it; so I know that I can speak directly, as though they know me, because they do.

And she doesn’t follow typical email jargon or formulas.

I really have a phobia of systems. There's a lot of stuff out there that says, Here's what every email should include, but what has worked the best is just sharing who I am and thinking about the people on the other end, making it relevant to where they're at in their creative journey.

Angela Fehr stats

She also writes for herself.

I come back to not just who my audience is, but who am I? What do I need to hear? And so actually, I'm thinking of my audience, but I'm also preaching to myself every day. Trying to stay heart-guided in my painting process means I have to give myself quite a few little pep talks and try to keep fear and doubt from crowding in.

Because, despite her early confidence, fear still found a way in.

“I didn't know what my heart on the paper would look like.”

Angela’s course community is called “Fearless Artist,” and her teaching is meant to help students reconcile with their fears so they can access the deepest places in their hearts, where beautiful art comes from. It’s a scary place to go alone.

When I first started trying to paint from my heart, I wasn't sure people would understand. I didn't know what my heart on the paper would look like.

Angela was terrified of being misunderstood, and every time she would try to paint from her deepest places, she’d hear a voice that said “Who do you think you are? You can't paint. Everything you do is derivative.”

“When I first started trying to paint from my heart, I wasn't sure people would understand.”

It was the internet and how it “brings more artists into your home” that helped Angela overcome those fears, which is why she’s so dedicated to doing the same for others with her courses.

Angela’s online teachers had a major impact on her artistic approach.

“[These online teachers] painted in a style that really connected with me,” she explains. “They had this level of trust in their audience that said, We don't have to spell every detail out in our paintings. We trust that you'll get it. And to me, that message was so powerful and I wanted that in my art too.”

Angela wanted to stop an old pattern; she used to reach a certain point with a painting and think, “Oh, I wish I could call this painting finished just the way it is, but no one would understand it. And then I’d just keep working on it and paint the life right out of it.”

She made a shift, perhaps imperceptible from the outside, but game-changing on the inside: “I'm going to paint from my heart even if no one gets it.”

Once she made that decision, her business really took off.

It's funny, people really connect with your work much more when you're painting from the heart and not trying to impress them with your technical skill.

Painting Quote

“Trust in the process.”

For a long time, Angela’s family was a one-income family. Her husband supported them with a construction job, often working brutal winters, while she raised and taught their three kids.

But two years ago, Angela started making a full-time living with her work, and now her husband no longer has to work winters.

We have a family life that's much more flexible because I'm able to bring in this income. And that's been really really good for our family and just something that was always a dream is now a reality.

Since their family is now home together in the winters, they always watch the weather for signs of a good snow day.

Angela in the pink jacket, sledding with her husband and three kids.

Angela is grateful for the time together. She tells me about an email reply she got once from a woman who’d recently lost her husband and her biggest fan.

Now every time she tried to pick up a paintbrush, all she could think of was this man who cheered for her and supported her.

She thought painting would help her grief, but the grief paralyzed her. She was terrified of becoming someone who used to paint and reached out to Angela for help.

Angela emailed her back: “Give it time. Art doesn't have to be your therapy. You have permission to not find it comforting right now.”

Angela is always encouraging her watercolor students to “trust in the process.”

The tiny steps we make today feel small, and they don't feel like they're taking us anywhere. But you climb the mountain one step at a time; nobody tries to run up Everest.

So we trust that even when we can't see the destination, that those little things we do, like those years I spent in graphic design and the letter-writing as a teenager, will take us where we want to go.

We can't manipulate the timeline, we can't choose when success comes to us, so there really does need to be that trust in the process, because worrying about it and trying to force it just doesn't make it happen any faster.

Angela and the widow emailed back and forth for a long time, becoming pen pals just like in her jungle days. And one day, when the time was right, when she was ready, the widow picked up a paintbrush again.

Angela Fehr painting in the snow

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Isa Adney

Isa is an author and writer and has profiled incredible creators and artists, including Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, and Tony winners. When she’s not writing or interviewing creators, she’s probably walking her dog Stanley, working on her next book, or listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for the 300th time.

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