After observing everyone in class yesterday, I can now say definitively that I am not the only one who wants to skip the preliminary study phase and jump right to the long overdue "lucky break" phase, where all my uncertainty magically disappears just as the brush touches the paper. This is a little like the guy who backs out of his driveway without looking because he's tired of always waiting for the traffic to clear. Sometimes we do get lucky, but the odds, as you know, are against it.
I really do want to replace the habit of recklessness with a more thoughtful approach. I am convinced that the spontaneity we all value in a great watercolor comes more from certainty than from fate. And it definitely won't come from mastery. Not yet, anyway. I am simply not a good enough painter to rely completely on my "chops". I have to do the work of finding the territory within which I can make my marks with the certainty that they will work just fine.
If this sounds too cerebral to you, remember that I'm not talking about taking total control of the movement of the paint or the brush. In fact, I want to give the paint as much room as possible to go its own way. When I don't have a clear idea of the guidelines that are really necessary for my brushwork, I am much more likely to be too careful.
In this Sargent watercolor the blue strokes on the right are not at all precise, but they are correct enough to tell us all we need to know. Once he had decided on the color and value, the artist only had to make sure that the strokes were roughly horizontal, and irregular in their distribution. Some of the marks are hard-edged, some are soft, but Sargent did not have to be in control of which, or how many. A little of each, however it turned out, would be fine.
OK, in Sargent's case the study turns out to be museum quality, but the important thing to remember is that, to him, it really was just a study. We have to be willing to produce lots of pieces of paper that we do not even hope will become "paintings".
Identify the aspects of your scene that fill you with uncertainty. Plan a study that will provide you with the answers to your questions. Is your confusion a wetness issue? Color? If you're not sure, try painting just the tricky part, not the whole scene. See which kind of trouble you get into. Then, practice until you see how much and what kind of control you need, and let the paint do the rest.