Lesson 6 - Planning the Journey

If you think of making a painting as being like a journey and the finished work as the destination, then clearly it makes sense to do some initial planning. And planning tends to work best before setting off, not after you find yourself on the wrong train heading in the wrong direction.

I have led countless workshops at Art Societies and the big mistake that most beginners make is that they are in too much of a hurry, they want to get-on-with-the-painting and they want to get it finished. The problem with this approach is that very often the end result is a catalogue of regrets. ‘I wish I’d used a different green for those trees’. ‘I wish I’d moved that boat an inch or two to the left’. ‘I wish I’d used a different blue for the sky’. In short ‘I wish I’d painted a different picture’.

With acrylics, oil and pastel you might be able to paint over or scrape back and make the changes you want but watercolour is an extremely demanding medium and generally there is no going back once you have laid down the paint, you can make areas darker in tone but rarely can you get back to a crisp light, especially if the colour you want to remove is one that stains the paper. What usually happens is that in the attempt to correct the tones, you usually just make the painting more and more ‘muddy’.

The solution, or at least a good part of it, is to breakdown the job of making the painting into smaller and more manageable chunks.

At its most basic level a watercolour is a collection of coloured patches made on paper, so the obvious thee big questions that need answering are:

1      What shape do I want the patches to be?

2      How do I want to arrange the patches?

3      What colours do I want to use in the painting?

The good news is that these three questions can be answered before setting out to make the painting.

Question 1 has another question hidden within it, which is ‘what shape or format do I want the paper itself to be?’ You don’t have to use the shape of the paper on the pad; you can change the shape by simply cropping out the area you want to work on.

The reason it’s helpful to think of the painting in this way is because you can explore several different options before committing yourself to the actual painting.

Begin by making at least half a dozen small thumb-nail sketches just a few inches across using a soft (4B) pencil so that you can explore the tonal values of each patch. Work quickly without paying too much attention to the actual drawing, I am not suggesting you make 6 miniatures, just 6 rough outs.  

Use different formats to see which works best for what you have in mind and try different compositions or layouts.

For example suppose you were exploring a simple marine painting, with just a few simple elements; a sailing boat, some land/cliffs in the background, perhaps a figure or two in the foreground that kind of thing, you might end up with something like this:

six quick sketches

In this set I like A least, it looks very boring with very little to recommend it. I like D with its high sky and the long format of E appeals. I quite like the addition of the quayside with its interesting structure in the foreground of F too.  There is no right answer and if you don’t really like any of your thumbnails you have made then keep exploring until you find/invent a composition that excites you. It is a certainty that if you don’t like the tiny image then the full sized painting will be a disappointment too.

Exploring Colour

You can make choices about the colours you want to use well before doing any kind of final painting. Just make up several small colour roughs from 4 or 5 tubes of paint. They need be no bigger than a few inches across. Be careful to use the same kind of proportions of colour as you would use in the final painting, so at this point it would be good to know which layout you want to use, so that you have a good idea of the proportions of each colour you’ll need.

If you like things neat and tidy then by all means make up some formal swatches or you can just bung the colours down roughly as they would be in the finished painting. The whole point of this is to look for colours that you like and that work well together. The beauty of exploring colour in this way is you can concentrate on the colours themselves without being distracted by any other consideration. There is no real drawing as such to be done.  All you have to ask yourself is ‘do I like these colours in these proportions?’ If your memory for colour mixtures is not well developed then by all means write things down to keep a record. 

The simple rule is that if you don’t like the colours you’ve chosen for your colour roughs then you are not going to like them in your painting either, so don’t use them! Keep exploring until you have found a set of colours you are happy with.

four colour compositions

Each of the small images have quite a different mood, which is set almost entirely by the colours. 

In the best of all possible worlds you will end up with a collection of colours that you really like and a composition what you are happy with. With a firm idea of the colours you want to use and the composition you like, you can get on with your painting with a really clear sense of direction and a much improved likelihood that you will get to the destination you want.

The end result will seldom be exactly what you planned but you are at a great advantage starting with a clear sense of colour and composition. It takes more time to paint when you plan but I can tell you from experience that it is time well spent. Good Luck.