Distinguishing Layers In Watercolor.

Most watercolors are painted in layers; not all in one go. But how do you decide how many layers you need to paint? How do you break down or separate the layers ? How many layers will you need to ‘tell the story’ of your painting? How can you add ‘enough’ layers to suggest shape and detail without losing the light and luminosity you strive for? How many layers are too many?

Seeing in layers.

While there is probably an infinite number of layers possible, the great artists of the past generally show only the essential aspects of a subject with nothing extra added. Their art is deceptively simple. Many of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors, for example, are created with only three layers. Arguably, Sargent’s AWARENESS of what is essential in an image, his vision, is just as impressive as his brushwork.

My Swamp

Simplify and plan.

Just as reducing the number of colors in a painting can improve your work (see Choosing Colors For a Painting…Less Is More!, 9/11/2019, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/09/11/choosing-colors-for-a-painting-less-is-more/ ),  limiting the number of layers (even brushstrokes) you paint is an effective way to simplify your image and create a strong painting. Avoid adding layer upon layer and overworking! Rarely are more than four or five layers necessary.

When planning your painting, IMAGINE a series of layers. This selective vision may take some practice. Strive to peel back each layer of paint to analyze how layers below might be painted.

Full Moon

Work backward – reverse the order in which the paint will be applied. You must mentally remove the darker layers (which will be painted later) from the image. Try to recognize the dark patterns as separate from the lighter shapes. Once you picture the darkest darks and mentally remove them from the picture, you can then analyze and separate light- and middle- value shapes in the same way.

Method.

Usually, you will strive to reserve some whites of the paper in a painting. With that in mind, the first paint layer will then be created by painting your light valued colors, a second layer will contain middle values, and a third layer will be made up of dark values.

More specifically, block in each of the major shapes with its lightest tone, avoiding any areas within the big shapes that should remain lighter and be reserved. The care you must take in painting each layer is dependent on the story to be told by the picture itself. You must decide early on which value layers will tell more of the important information in your specific picture.

Fall Queen Ann

For instance, in a high contrast picture with strong, bright light, the later dark values tell the story and pull the picture together. Therefore, the first layers of light and middle values might be applied with less attention, with the dark values painted more carefully. Details would be saved until the later layers. In contrast, in a more subtle image where light and middle values play a bigger role, more care must be taken in the first layers, with consideration of color and texture. Forms may need to be established early in such a painting.

In summary, when the lightest colors have been applied and dried, the second (mid-value) layer can be begun, shape by shape. Then, the third (dark) layer can be added. With each successive layer, less of the picture will be painted, until the final finishing touches (darkest darks) are complete!

Winter Ice

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Composition!?!

Composition is simply the study of the way things are arranged, whether in art, music, a plate of food, or the furniture in a room. Where we put things makes a statement about our point of view.

DO I HAVE TO FOLLOW ALL THESE RULES?

A lot has been written about composition and it may seem overwhelming to you. There have been many rules formulated about creating good paintings. Often, however, learning these formulas and rules can be dry and boring! It can be difficult to know HOW TO APPLY these rules to specific scenes. And it sometimes feels that the rules prevent you from being creative or being yourself.

First, let me assure you that you need not follow all composition rules slavishly in order to improve your picture. The formulas are guidelines that help you achieve dramatic, effective art that holds your audience’s attention. You can choose several rules that you feel are important to apply to a chosen image – use whichever rules you feel are most useful in getting across what you want to get across in each of your paintings.

WHY?

Composition (arrangement) is everywhere! Since a good composition need not reproduce reality exactly, you are free to use the composition guidelines to rearrange components of your painting. When non-artists look at art they don’t necessarily think about or understand composition. They merely like or dislike a painting. If the art appeals, then you can be confident that the artist used composition skillfully to reach the viewer at an emotional level. Beginning artists, too, can sometimes be surprised to learn about all that is involved in planning a good painting. Strong paintings don’t just happen! They need to be composed.

Winter Birches.jpg

To get a viewer to see what, as artists, we want them to see, we therefore arrange the elements at our disposal. The TOOLS we use are SHAPE, VALUE, COLOR, TEXTURE.

With the above-mentioned tools, we can create EFFECTS in our composition or arrangement. We consider UNITY and DOMINANCE, try to achieve BALANCE (of value, color, type of line, e.g. diagonal), use PERSPECTIVE, create CONTRAST (of color, value), MOOD, RHYTHM and MOVEMENT, PATTERN, and any other visual effect we might be able to think of.

Simple Red Barn.jpg

To better understand these concepts, take a look at three of my related blog posts:

Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition!, 10/16/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/16/designing-a-strong-painting/ ,

Formats For Effective Compositions (Volume I)…, 10/30/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/30/formats-for-effective-compositions/ ,

Formats For Effective Compositions (Volume II)…, 11/6/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/11/06/formats-for-effective-compositions-volume-ii/ .

SPECIFIC SUGGESTIONS.

More specific suggestions for a good composition include choosing only ONE center of interest. This center of interest should be the reason you are painting the picture. Strive to concentrate the most DETAIL and the greatest CONTRAST (light vs. dark) here.

Nasturtium.jpg

Further, decide on COLOR DOMINANCE during the initial planning stages of a picture. To avoid confusion, try not to bombard the viewer with every color on your palette in the same picture. Choose early on what the MOOD (feeling) will be for your project. Mood is achieved through the quality of colors chosen for use. Will your painting be cheerful, mysterious, forboding, perhaps subtle? Will you use dark, cool colors and strong contrasts to paint a dramatic, somber, or intense scene? Will you choose lighter, soft colors for a calm serenity? Or you could focus on warm, dulled colors to suggest, for example, a hot, hazy summer day. Both color TEMPERATURE and the INTENSITY (quality) OF LIGHT contribute to mood.

Snowy Rockies.jpg

Also, for a successful painting, attempt to include interesting SHAPES (two-dimensions), then creating FORM (the suggestion of three dimensions) by adding patterns of LIGHT and SHADOW. When form has been established, the artist can establish TEXTURE (after careful observation of relationships between shape, form, light, and shadow).

GO-TO REFERENCES.

Many good beginner painting books include a section about composition. Some are incomplete or confusing, and some are better than others. My recommendations for resources on composition include:

The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook: Keep Painting, (2017),  by Gordon MacKenzie.

Watercolor Composition Made Easy, (1999), by David R. Becker.

Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles To Dramatically Improve Your Painting, (2008), by Ian Roberts.

Watercolor Success!, (2005), by Chuck Long.

Wonderful World of Watercolor: Learning and Loving Transparent Watercolor, (2008), by Mary Baumgartner.

Wren's Hen.jpg

SUMMARY.

Composition, the way things are arranged, has to do with balance, and many factors can be considered. Watercolor artist Zoltan Szabo, in Artist At Work, (p.30-31), (1979), describes good composition as a “balance of shapes, value, color, and texture”. He has said, “I keep the mood (I see), but rearrange the details to emphasize what I consider important, and play down or leave out the trivia. I like to pick a strong center of interest and subordinate everything else to complement it. I feel that composition is a personal thing, and I like my composition to be the way I decide, not the way it really is. I use the elements I find, but rearrange them in a new, more personalized balance.”

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Can’t I Just Paint?

Before I paint, do I really have to plan? It’ll spoil the mood. Can’t I just paint?

So many factors seem to be pushing an artist to just get started quickly on a painting. We may feel inspired, excited, or the colors in the sky may be changing fast, or the weather may be cold or threatening rain. While there’s no reason we can’t occasionally jump right into painting without preliminary thought, doing so will almost always make failure more likely.

Time spent in thoughtful preparation, on the other hand, is usually well spent. Planning ahead and thinking about your goals for the painting do NOT in any way stifle creativity! You will still evaluate your work as you go along, as well as react and adjust to what is happening on your paper. Only when you have clearly defined your objectives will you be able to exploit developments as they take place during the painting process.

Simple white building.jpg

 

Take the time to DESIGN your picture. Don’t jump the gun. Study your subject for a while before starting to paint. Think about what it is that attracted you – that should be the primary statement or BIG IDEA in your painting. Everything else should be subordinate.

Ask yourself what is your focal point? What is your painting about? Think about what you want to say before you start! WHAT do you hope to achieve and HOW are you going to achieve it? Without some clear objectives, you probably will have difficulty creating something extraordinary. 

Stormy sky.jpg

 

So, to create a better painting , consider what you will emphasize in the picture. Eliminate anything that might compete with or distract from the ONE focal point and main idea. You shouldn’t try to include every daunting detail in a scene. Instead, it pays to NARROW your vision and SIMPLIFY your subject.

The key to simplifying the image you’re painting is doing CAREFUL PLANNING as well as understanding GOOD COMPOSITION. See these blog posts for more information about composition.  Read Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition!, 10/16/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/16/designing-a-strong-painting/. Also, check out Simplify Your Watercolors By Focusing On Shapes!, 7/16/19, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/07/16/simplify-your-watercolors-by-focusing-on-shapes/ .

MTS.jpg

 

Generally, good design includes foreground or a ‘lead-in’ to draw your viewer into the picture, a strong focus, and framing or supporting details. But sometimes surrounding details can be reduced, contrast around the center of interest can be increased, or features can be rearranged or eliminated completely to simplify and improve the picture. Cropping an image can be extremely helpful.

The SIMPLER your shapes, the more POWER your picture can have. It actually takes more effort to create a bold simple painting than to jump right into putting paint to paper, struggling to work out any problems as you go along.

Forsythia.jpg

 

Artist Bill Vrscak believes “the simplest statements mean the most.” He also says “A bold, simple statement respects the viewer’s intelligence. Do your viewers a favor: Don’t bore them with extraneous detail. Make your point and get out.” Further, he suggests LEAVING OUT tiny shapes that can cause confusion, large dark areas, insignificant details, and too much surface detail.

To improve you painting, forget about ‘reproducing’ nature. Start to REARRANGE it! Simplify to make your subject more interesting and effective than you found it.

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How Do You Know When a Painting is Finished?

Knowing when a painting is ‘finished’ depends on the goals you establish before beginning to paint. There is no obvious point at which you know a picture is complete. But there are tips to help you decide; choosing your goals and being aware of your painting approach will help to insure that you meet those goals by recognizing when you’ve achieved them.

Some painters may start to paint before they have a goal, instead seeing where the painting process leads them. Other painters are moved by a vision of where they want to go in a painting and they plan ahead to get there. At some point in the process, all good artists connect with their painting in an emotional way and become aware of why they chose to paint what they did.

By clarifying for yourself why you want to paint a subject, you begin to know what is important for you to get across in the painting. You can better develop a composition that effectively creates a center of interest that moves the viewer’s eye to focus on your emphasis. Decide what to include in your picture and what to leave out! A painting should have only one center of interest to avoid confusion. Surrounding areas in a picture will be made less important by using different values, less detail, fewer hard edges, etc.

Be clear in your own mind why you want to do a painting. What am I painting this picture for? What do I find most interesting about the scene? Is it the subject itself that I like, the weather, colors or contrasts, the effect of the light and shadows?

Having a plan before beginning to paint does not mean you can’t experiment or change your mind as you proceed. Painting should be a process of trying out your ideas and evaluating as you go along how well your techniques are achieving your goals. If something doesn’t work as well as expected, by all means, try something else. Improvise!

The following two paintings were well planned, yet as painting proceeded, changes were necessary to achieve goals. In the yard of ‘Pepperell Relic’, the fading rays of sun were not bright enough initially, and a glaze had to be added. The background for ‘Apple Blossoms’ was too strident and intrusive at first, requiring toning down with a blue glaze.

Pepperell Relic painting.jpg

Pepperell Relic.

Apple Blossoms LAMH.jpg

Apple Blossoms.

By choosing a center of interest, you can easily make decisions as you paint. You’ll have some idea of what you’re trying to accomplish. You’ll know where your focus is. Knowing your focus will help you judge when your painting is finished. Usually you will reach a point in painting when you realize that you have got down on paper the main things that you wanted to include. If you find yourself starting to be fussy with small details, then you should probably stop painting. Take a break, step back, and evaluate your work. Return the next day when you may be quite satisfied that your work is complete. Try not to risk overworking in an effort to achieve perfection.

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Simplify Your Watercolors By Focusing On Shapes!

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As an artist, you have the opportunity to improve a composition before you paint it! Don’t be tempted to merely copy what you see before you. Instead, change an ordinary scene into an extraordinary painting. If you just paint what you see, without thinking, evaluating, or redesigning, you may end up with a painting that has no “WOW!”

But how do you go about improving the subject you want to paint? How can you make your image better and design stronger? What should you do to create a painting with impact? Wouldn’t it just be a lot of work, especially if I don’t know how to improve my image? How do some artists create an exciting painting about a mundane, everyday subject? Copying is NOT enough! But, the answer may be, at least in part, to use interesting SHAPES!

While you may think that most artists begin their paintings by drawing LINES that represent objects to be painted, this is often NOT the first thing that they do to prepare for painting. Instead, an artist usually looks for or tries to compile a strong composition. One of the best ways to plan a composition is to reduce a scene to its essential or most basic components, to cut out distracting details, to simplify.

To help you simplify and reduce distractions, squint your eyes. Then look for the dominant shapes in the scene. Some artists SIMPLIFY by limiting the number of dominant shapes that they focus on to three, seven, or twelve, no more than fifteen. Evaluate and think about what shapes you could rearrange or emphasize, which shapes are important and which provide support for the other shapes. For instance, should the house in your painting be moved closer to or even overlap the barn? Should you remove that distracting tree? Are there too many cars in the image – they don’t add any helpful information?

Contour sketch Forsythia House.jpg

Forsythia House copy.jpg

The relationships of the interlocking shapes in a picture will determine balance and interest. Good painters make more interesting shapes!

Contour sketch Primroses.jpg

Primroses small.jpg

 

Try to see the world around you as made of shapes, and you will find it easier to become an arranger of shapes. Make an effort to avoid focusing on drawing or painting ‘a tree’, ‘a boat’, ‘a dog’, ‘a car’, or ‘a streetlight’. Paint what you ’see’, not what you think you see. (Check out my related blogs “Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees – Part I, II, and III”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/03/13/avoid-painting-lollipop-trees/, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/03/19/avoid-painting-lollipop-trees-part-ii/, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/03/26/avoid-painting-lollipop-trees-part-iii/, published March 13, March 19, and March 26, 2019.) Beginning painters can get so preoccupied with NAMING details (“Is this a tail?”, “Are the feet crossed?”, or “I can’t tell what this is!”) that they forget to look at shapes and their relationships to each other. You need to paint SHAPES!

Contour sketch Dog.jpg

Dog small.jpg

One way to define shapes is to think about their geometric form. Are they circles, squares, rectangles, triangles? These are simple shapes, but very static and dull. They should be improved and made more dynamic by varying their size and shape contour, connecting two or more shapes together, overlapping shapes, avoiding symmetry. A building is much more interesting when viewed from an angle, as opposed to looking at it straight-on. Don’t forget that skies, shadows and reflections are also shapes. Interesting and unusual shapes are better than regular or precise shapes!

Contour sketch sunset River.jpg

Nashua River Glow.jpg

Once you have selected your scene to paint, simplified, rearranged and refined the dominant shapes, then choose one shape to be more important than the others. This shape will be your center of interest, what you want your viewers to notice. There can only be one center of interest in a painting. Plan how you will arrange your values (lights/darks) to highlight the most important shape for more emotional impact. More impact can also be created by the skillful use of color. White paper, for instance, can be a luminous and striking unpainted shape!

Contour sketch Floating Xmas tree.jpg

Floating Xmas tree small.jpg

Then, finally, having completed your planning for the best composition, by simplifying shapes and perhaps sketching out a couple of different arrangements of shapes in a black & white thumbnail sketch, it is time to carefully draw your shapes (not merely the outlines of specific objects) onto watercolor paper in preparation for painting.

In summary, everything has a shape! We tend to want to paint shapes just as they are, without changing them or making them more interesting. This can, however, lead to busy and confusing, static, or just perhaps even dull and boring paintings. It’s important to be able to conceptualize flat shapes for your flat watercolor paper, rather than just to think about three-dimensional objects (such as “mountain” or “boat”). When you can focus on shapes, it becomes easier to change shapes to suit your painting, move shapes to improve your composition, and remove clutter (get rid of boring or poor shapes), and add different colors to highlight certain shapes. So, strive to create simple but exciting paintings by making dynamic shape combinations.

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