Complete A Watercolor Composition Before You Paint It


At Blacklick Woods in Reynoldsburg, OH Good Friday Kick Off

So you’re all set up at your favorite spot. The sun is shining, there is a nice breeze, and you are just inspired by the surroundings. Now what?

In 2002 I took a trip with my fellow art majors to the Eastern States to do plein aire painting in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New York. Quite a fascinating trip. I had never painted outdoor before like that and I had never really used oil paints before that either. The only thing I knew was acrylic and the oval watercolors I had mentioned in my last post –Where Do Watercolor Painters Start?

On some level this was a militaristic approach. We arose early and were expected to do amazing paintings. At that point I had barely had a formal drawing course let alone learning how to paint with a foreign media. Of course I was bold and tried regardless. I learned one of my most valuable repeated lessons on that day in a museum. I learned it from my illustration professor and from NC Wyeth’s professor, Howard Pyle.

How your eye moves across a painting is perhaps the most important thing you can determine for a painting.

So you see before you a beautiful scene: The sun is high in the sky. The grass is vibrant green. The trees are tall and interesting, maybe even curved. There is so much information to take in. How do you get every limb of those trees in the background? How do get the detail of the trees in foreground when the sun is in your eyes? What about the moving clouds?

Take a deep breath and snap a picture with your digital device.

What you see on your camera’s view screen is all you need to know to make a watercolor painting.

Check these things off and you pretty much have a complete composition (before adding color):

  • An interesting primary subject (A tree, rock, person, road, etc…)
  • Repetition to lead your eye in to that primary subject
  • Dark and light values to emphasize that primary subject
  • Interesting shapes (obvious subject shapes and shapes that imply the movement of light)
  • Movement from one side of the picture to the other

Now, pick up your pencil and go to town. Hammer out these items and your watercolor will turn out great. 

A Method to sketch.

Trace the interior of the viewfinder, create a line drawing, and then add value.


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