Simplifying is a good thing in life and painting, and often easier said than done. But when painting with watercolor, it is so important to be able to pare down and edit effectively so that you are able to convey exactly what you want visually.
After teaching middle school through adults for several years, one thing I have seen that is universal is the desire to include everything in the reference photo, usually exactly as it is. But doing this is not generally the best way to compose a painting. So lets talk about some ways to make the most out of painting from a reference photo.
Discover what you love!
First of all, whatever it was that drew you to the photo you want to paint is not in the mechanics of the photograph. What I mean by that is most of the time, it is the mood, a color, an interesting shape, strong contrast, or the subject of the photo that interests you. So for all intents and purposes, your first job is to define what it is in the photo that makes you want to paint it. This is the most important, but maybe the most overlooked part of beginning a painting, so don't skip it. Sometimes if you're having trouble figuring out exactly what it is that you love about it, try naming it, or giving it a title. It could be anything that describes what it holds for you when you look at it-an emotion, a color, the subject of the photo, a part of the landscape. The painting above is titled "Jewel box houses", simply because it was the transparent use of luminous color I was after in this painting. You get the idea. The process of naming your reference photo can help you get to the heart of what is drawing you to the photo you want to paint.
Start with Shapes
Once you have decided what it is you love about it, look at the shapes in your photo, combining and simplifying the smaller shapes to create fewer, but more interesting shapes. If you have more than 12-15 shapes, you probably need to continue to simplify by merging and editing. Look for sky shapes, land shapes, shadow shapes, water shapes, and tree shapes if you are working with a landscape. Edit out what doesn't do anything for your composition. Combine shapes when and where you can .
By simplifying the values of your painting, you will instantly support your interesting composition. So the next step in simplifying your photograph into a strong compositional painting is by doing a value sketch. You have identified what it is that you are going to try to get across in your painting, you have simplified shapes in the composition, now you will simplify values into 3 categories: light, medium and dark.
By eliminating lots of detail, especially in the beginning stages, and focusing on shapes and light and dark areas, your compositional "bones" will begin to form. You will start to see the "whole" painting instead of bits and pieces.This is the way to begin an effective painting.
Using just a few paints you get to know and depend on is a good way to create a strong watercolor painting for a couple of reasons. One, with a few well chosen transparent pigments, you will not get the dreaded "mud" happening in your watercolors.
Secondly, watercolor paints have "personalities" depending on the pigment and the specific binder different brands use. They DO NOT all work the same. Some are transparent, some opaque, some apply rather thickly, some of them granulate, some lift off and others will stain. When you have a fewer number of paints on your palett, you begin to notice these differences , which will enable you to make better choices and improve your work.
Here are the paints I use most:
Windsor blue and green
So as you begin your next painting, remember, it's really not about the details, especially at first. It's all about simplifying , teaching yourself to look at your subject as you would the pieces of a puzzle, and putting them together as you edit the extraneous to form the basis of good composition, which will translate into a strong painting. Good luck!
I was able to be a part of the Augusta Missouri Plein Air event at the end of April this year and had an amazing experience. I got to meet so many artists that were willing to share their experiences and advice on plein air painting, got to become a part of the landscape in an absolutely beautiful setting, and enjoyed every minute! Augusta Missouri is known as having the oldest vineyard in America! Older than the Napa Valley. There are vineyards, hills, ancient trees, quaint old village- like streets, ponds, idyllic country scenes, barns and old stone fences.
If you have never ventured out with your watercolors to do plein air painting, and admittedly- I was one of a very few of the watercolor "gang" - It is worth giving it a try. At the very least, you will gain spontaneity in you work and get over some of your obsessive hang ups with perfectionism. There isn't time to be a perfectionist out in the sun and wind! The demands of painting with water and paint out in nature require that you must condense everything you know about painting into a small window of time. Which is intimidating, but so incredibly valuable. You are forced to find the essential. Some tips before you go out
1. Do your homework on site and prepare thoroughly before ever picking up your paintbrush.
2. Use a viewfinder, and follow the instructions it gives, matching it up proportionately to your paper, dividing it into quarters, so that the composition you choose remains constant on your paper stays on track throughout your painting. I got mine at Art Mart.
**I found this incredibly helpful, instead of "eyeballing" everything, you have a guide right there on your paper of the center, top and bottom of the scene you want to paint.
3. Do several value sketches and compositional thumbnails, and then begin your painting. This is a very important step. Do not skip it.
4.Do not go at this unprepared. You need STUFF!
1. A good portable easle and chair if you choose.
2.Tape, scissors, a head light( for night painting),
3.Clamps for windy days, an umbrella for sunny and rainy days. Glare is a killer!
4. A small, portable palette and a couple of paintbrushes
5. A few basic, transparent paints.
6. A can for water, small spray bottle and extra water bottles.
You need to choose solid , even ground for your easle. It took me a couple of times to realize this doesn't have to be a comedy routine, chasing after papers, dropping water cups, easles falling over, you get the idea. So don't worry if you have a hard time at first, everyone does.
5. If you find you don't have another more experienced plain air watercolor pal, watch a few YouTube videos just to see the rhythm and approach of artists who do this kind of painting often.
If you are used to studio painting, be ready for a faster, looser technique. For instance, have an idea of how you want to lay down the sky and clouds quickly, deal with shifting light and shadows, and leave out extraneous details.
The main thing is to go out and enjoy the experience. What a gift to be able to go meet other artists, all learning and teaching and sharing, and do it in beautiful surroundings. Plein air painting will stretch you artistically, and although it can be intimidating, it is well worth the challenge. It is all about valuing and enjoying the process, getting over perfectionism in our work, and pushing ourselves to embrace the essential in our painting.