Before you paint a scene, decide what interests you most. What first caught your eye? What part of the scene will be difficult to paint or will detract from the overall composition? Skip that part if possible, or find a way to de-emphasize it. If there’s an object you’d like to move, check the values and colors around it first. Avoid moving objects to areas where the background values would be too similar. Remember that light-valued objects, in particular, need to be surrounded by darker values that will help define their forms.
Andrew Wyeth was a master of simplification. I looked at a book of his paintings of Maine and realized that he usually painted only one subject, using just two contrasting values. Sometimes the large light shapes dominate; sometimes the large dark shapes dominate. When you look at a Wyeth painting upside down, you can see a wonderful abstract design of two simple shapes with contrasting values.
With Wyeth in mind, I’ve taken a student’s well-painted but complicated painting (at right) and sketched one of its subjects separately (below).
I never make pencil compositions when planning a picture. Instead, I create small color sketches like the one shown. They help me plan my colors and values more effectively than pencil.
In this painting by one of my students, we can see a bridge and rocks, a shed and truck, and a house on a hill. These smaller groups would have worked better as separate paintings.
Remember that details get lost and colors fade with distance. In this reworking of the house on the hill, I’ve either lightened or lost details such as the shutters to create a sense of distance and to avoid cluttering the mostly white building.
I’ve darkened the ground on the horizon at the right, the chimneys and the cupola, and the cast shadow next to the house to stress its whiteness.
I made this value sketch for a morning demonstration at Mirror Pond in Bend, Oregon. Value can make or break a composition. Painting a thumbnail sketch using one color—capturing the “big idea” of the composition—helps establish the most obvious contrasts of lights and darks, and keeps you from getting confused by smaller, subtler variations within the values. Try to keep all the darks connected.
Your color version need not be an exact copy of the monochromatic value sketch (at left, above). Once you’ve found the values, you can paint what you want to see and include more subtleties (at right, above). Think of the land and its reflection as a combined shape as you paint wet-into-wet. After it dries, find a subtle separation between the land and its reflection.
cerulean blue, warming toward the horizon with alizarin crimson and cadmium orange
cerulean blue, cadmium yellow pale or cadmium lemon
raw sienna, viridian, new gamboge and cobalt blue
ultramarine blue or viridian with raw sienna and/or raw umber
carmine or alizarin crimson, cerulean blue or cobalt blue, and raw sienna or yellow ochre
I never make preliminary drawings in pencil since the object placement isn’t as important as the placement of color and value shapes. It sometimes happens that my preliminary color sketches turn out better than the final product. We artists sometimes try too hard in our finished paintings.
The bright sunlight created strong cast shadow shapes. On an overcast day, you wouldn’t see shadows like these, so you may end up painting windows and small details.
Compare this sketch to the finished painting (below). I like the warmer spots of color behind the buildings and the warmth under the roofline in this version, but the water is too confused and busy. I wish I’d had a larger, darker, simpler shape for the water, and more of the light-value walkway.
Catalina Yacht Club looks too cool, but aside from that, I’m satisfied. I simplified the water into an overall middle value. The light shape of the walkway and the dark shadow and cast shadow shapes in the buildings almost meet my goal of 75 percent large simple shapes.
Minimize the number of times you change values in a painting. If you see four or more values, squint to see if you can combine some of them so that your composition will be more unified.
Color isn’t as important as value in Log—Greens Farms. This is one of my early paintings in which I concentrated on values, and on losing and finding edges. There’s almost no color variation, but it’s a striking painting.
The white paper gives such a wonderful contrast to the mid-darks in the log, the trees and the house in the background, as well as the dark value of the patch of grass revealed by the melted snow.
I used simple values to support the “story” of Missouri River Boat. I wanted the riverboat, the cow, the rough men manning the boat and the elderly lady in the cabin to contrast with the young woman gazing toward the future and her new life in Oregon. The young woman is a large shape, and the only figure with a light value. She becomes the center of interest because she’s unique.
Wyeth’s wonderful compositions offer so much inspiration. He divided them in half, making the bottom part dark and the upper part light. I followed this rule here, but concentrated mainly on the relative sizes of the two shapes of light and dark in relation to the entire picture space.
Establish the big, simple shapes first; they’ll grab the eye. Then add the interesting smaller happenings within the big shapes to tell your painting story.
So many students separate elements in their paintings according to the subject. In reality, yes, a boat is one thing and water is another thing, but painting isn’t about reality; it’s about perception. Distinct objects may be perceived as one shape when their values are similar.
One of my “usually true” rules is that a painting with 75-percent large shapes and 25-percent small shapes will be more effective than a painting with 25-percent large shapes and 75-percent small shapes. Busier, fussier paintings tend to be less effective. A good way to make larger shapes is to connect areas of equal value.
In this initial sketch, I concentrated on the white boats and their white reflections. There were obvious connections between the shapes, regardless of the different subjects.
We all want too much when painting a finished piece. I was intrigued by the water ripples in The Center for Wooden Boats—Seattle, but I wish I’d left the water as simple as I’d made it in my sketch. The shapes here are more separate, each object more distinct. Because the shapes are broken into smaller pieces, the scene is busier.
This article is based on an excerpt from Charles Reid’s Watercolor Basics, a new North Light Classic Editions 10th Anniversary book, to be released in December.