Hold Your Horses!

As you know, many artists, including me, want to get on to their painting quickly. Unfortunately, jumping right into a painting without forethought often develops into rushing and inattentiveness to important details. It can be a disaster to encounter a problem with the arrangement of shapes, or discover something in your picture you want to change, while in the midst of painting. Don’t simply copy, without thinking, all the details you see before you while emphasizing them all equally! Instead, take the time to contemplate a plan before starting to paint! Rein in your excitement, for the moment, and harness your enthusiasm. As an artist, strive to simplify, interpret a scene, and make it your own. How?

Create thumbnails.

Use several THUMBNAIL sketches to structure the best possible composition for a painting. Thumbnails are not finished drawings, but quick, small, simplified sketches, 2X3 inches (or perhaps 4X5 inches) that help you explore where your painting might go.  Try to keep your thumbnail sketch proportions similar to what you plan for the finished work.  Experiment with the arrangement of shapes and values. Your first thumbnail is often not the best arrangement you can come up with, so draw several thumbnails, with pencil, before choosing a final composition.

Sketching out a few thumbnails is like brainstorming, investigating options or variations on possible arrangements. It need only take 3 to 5 minutes. By working small, there is no room to fuss with detail. It is one of the best ways to organize and simplify a composition, and to focus on important information, while eliminating the unnecessary.

Attention to your thumbnails will save you both time and creative energy. If performed with conscious attention and thought, you will discover the strengths and weaknesses of your composition. Does your image work best in a horizontal or vertical format? Should you crop out part of your image to emphasize a terrific grouping of shapes? What will the focal point be? Where is the light coming from? Does the picture need more contrast to emphasize the center of interest? Maybe it would be better to eliminate some of the more distracting elements. What about rearranging some shapes to lead the viewer more easily into the picture?

Template-Summer Field

Recent reference photo.

Look for the BIG SHAPES and VALUES.

Thumbnail  sunny clouds.jpg

Thumbnail 1 – sunny sky, remove corner vegetation, larger tree?

Shapes are the building blocks of composition. To create a thumbnail, sketch the LARGE SHAPES first, forget about small details. Group masses of similar value shapes together. Sketch lightly at first. Identify the most important objects or parts of the scene. Notice how the smaller shapes relate to the large shapes. Try to think of possible changes in the arrangement and STRUCTURE of elements that might produce a stronger composition. You may want to rearrange some of the major shapes or change their size or profile.

Thumbnail animals

Thumbnail 2 – add animals, remove corner vegetation?

 

Refine your shapes, then start to add VALUES to your sketch. Squint to identify the darks, mediums, and lights. Each mass of shapes needs to be lighter or darker than what is next to it in order for it to appear different. Consider changing the value of an area if it improves value contrast and the composition. Stick to dark, medium, and light values in each sketch to keep it simple.

Thumbnail more sky

Thumbnail 3 – More sky, less field?

Add or rearrange to explore variations in value or even subject arrangement or EMPHASIS. If you do change values, however, realize that you have changed the light source and must also remember to check that any shadows are consistent with this new light source. Add darker lines and middle values.

Thumbnail best.jpg

Thumbnail 4 – enlarge tree, minimize/lighten left corner vegetation, darken right side trees, darken clouds behind center tree, keep fields/road light – values exaggerated!

Finish by shading in the darkest values and adjusting CONTRASTS between shapes. Remember, the greatest contrast in values (and sometimes the lightest value) is centered on the focal point.

PAINTING-Summer Field.jpg

Finished watercolor painting.

In my latest painting (shown here), I WISH I had sketched thumbnails BEFORE I painted! I know I should, but I don’t always do it. This time, I didn’t, and I struggled. I couldn’t figure out why the painting initially wasn’t working. The subject was good, but eventually I realized I had to increase the value contrasts – a lot. Nothing stood out until I lightened some areas and darkened others! So, I wrote this post and created these thumbnails after I had trouble with getting the values right while painting. I ‘shut the barn door after the horse was gone’! Maybe this article can help you realize how drawing quick thumbnails (before you paint) will help you work out possible problems ( with composition, subject, color, etc.) before you start painting. The time you spend creating thumbnails can save you some headaches.

To summarize,

With the knowledge learned from thumbnails, you can begin painting with much more confidence. It’ll be a cinch! You will have considered the main STRUCTURE, EMPHASIS, SHAPES, and CONTRASTS for the composition. You will have already worked out most of the possible issues and problems within your thumbnail sketches. You will have developed a ‘plan’ for your composition, since you understand that it is the strength of the composition NOT the subject matter that makes a painting effective. The plan may even include possible color choices. Don’t forget, however, when transferring your image to the watercolor paper, to refer back to your thumbnail, not necessarily your reference.  This would insure any changes made when creating your thumbnails are included when transferring the drawing onto paper. Save your reference for later, when you start to build up detail in the final painting.

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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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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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Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees! (Part I.)

Artists new to watercolor find painting trees an endless source of frustration and difficulty.  They may have been told to look closely and study their subjects carefully before attempting to paint, but the more they look, the more details they see, and the more confused they become!

If you want to become an effective and talented painter, you have to make up your mind to simplify and see your subject in terms that watercolor can accommodate.  This simplification is especially necessary when you are trying to paint trees and foliage.  Try to look at the trees through squinted eyes: look for shapes, and disregard many of the details.  Observe groups of trees, and pick out areas of light and dark.  In other words, focus on creating the shape and character, the color and texture of trees, not on producing botanically correct or precise illustrations.

river shoes copy.jpg

Individual trees are often irregular, but you can describe most of the individuals by their general shapes.  If the shape is wrong, the tree will be a confusing blob that detracts from your picture.  Countless varieties of trees exist, each type with its own characteristics.  You need to exercise thought and care when considering how to paint your trees.  They often have a more complicated shape than other elements in a painting.  Nevertheless, you can simplify a tree (or group of trees) and suggest the shape as round-topped, thin and tall, conical (conifer), or even flat-topped.

Part of the difficulty with painting trees is each person’s tendency to take visual information and categorize it to fit with prior experiences.  The conscious mind likes to generalize, identify, and name, then move on; thus, you end up painting what you THINK a tree looks like, the generality.  Instead, to be a good artist, you need to rely on your unconscious, visual brain to actually observe and register what is before you.  You can train yourself to gather the information that is normally unconscious and to then make it conscious.  “Paint what you see, not what you think you see.”  That is, paint what you observe, not a generalized idea of what your mind tells you a tree ought to look like.  Don’t let your intellect take over the painting process if you want to avoid lollipop trees.  A young child may paint a tree as a simple green circle atop a stick, but capturing a convincing image of real trees requires a bit more sophistication.  (See my 12/18/2018 blog, “Painting Begins with Looking and Seeing.”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/.)

Once you have noted the overall silhouette of the subject, look at the angle of the limbs (if the tree is close enough) and the character of the foliage.  Making trees look believable has a lot to do with understanding that the primary function of the trunk and limbs is to reach up and out far enough to hold their leaves in sunlight.  Each species does so in its own way, but trunk, branches, and twigs graduate in size as they get farther from the base.

Observe that the trunk grows out of the ground usually in one piece and is therefore the thickest part of the tree.  It also looks more solid and stable if you curve it out at the base.  From the trunk grow the limbs, which are thinner than the trunk but still need to be substantial since they bear the main weight of the tree.  Try to avoid making them leave the trunk directly opposite one another.  The trunk itself keeps the same thickness until a limb comes off it, whereupon it becomes less thick.  The same thing happens as each limb leaves the trunk, until finally the trunk itself splits into the last two limbs.  Limbs themselves split into branches, and the same reducing process goes on until branches split into twigs, which run out from the branch ends.

Meadow road tree.jpg

This tapering and meandering of the trunk branches is a little different in each species of tree, but most branches are not straight lines.  Young trees tend to have smoother bark surfaces, while older trees have bark that is more textured.  Try to avoid lollipop fans by painting trees with volume.  Branches should spread out in all directions and grow toward (and away from) the viewer.  Give branches coming toward the viewer stronger tone, tighter drawing, sharper marks, and foreshortened outlines to create more convincing trees.

To be continued…

Properly Using A Photograph As A Painting Reference.

Getting outdoors and painting directly from nature can be very enjoyable.  You get a feel for your surroundings – colors, smells, temperature, atmosphere, light, and so on.  Sometimes, however, you need more time to work on your painting than you have at the moment: the weather may not cooperate (it begins to rain, or the temperature dips below freezing), the light changes quickly (the sun goes down, or clouds emerge), or other circumstances change (the birds you are painting fly away, or ripples disturb the water).  For these reasons, painting with the aid of photographs is often much more convenient and can increase the amount of time you can spend painting a scene.

Christmas tree truck photo refence.jpg  image1.jpg

Christmas tree truck photo references.

Dangers do emerge, however, when you are working from photographs, particularly if you use pictures taken by someone else.  As an artist, you need to make sure that the photos on which you plan to base a painting are not copyrighted by the photographer.  Photos do belong to the picture-taker.  As a solution, you might ask the photographer for permission to use them.  Also, you might try a Google search (“Advanced Image Search”) and look in the “Usage Rights” section for content labeled either “Creative Commons” or “Public Domain.”  Alternatively, visit some internet sites that offer stock or copyright-free photos.  (I will include a list of some of these sites in next week’s blog.)

TAKE YOUR OWN PHOTOS.

Taking your own reference photos, however, is an even better approach.  You can think of your camera as a sketchbook, using it to compose pictures while you look through your viewfinder.  Each picture will belong to you, whether you combine it with a similar shot, crop and simplify the image, or make color changes as you paint.  Keep in mind, however, that photographs DO NOT reproduce an image in the same way that the eye sees it.  The camera tends to lose details in shadows and overexpose bright spots.  Photographs can also change actual colors in a scene and provide too much detail.  While your photograph can provide some excellent information (for example, architectural details, lighting conditions, and color references), the camera is simply a TOOL like any other tool (like a paintbrush or painting paper), and your eye and judgment as an artist must guide the use of any such tool.  Use photos not as ends in themselves but simply as sources of reference information.

Pepperell Relic jpg.jpg

Pepperell Relic.jpg

Watercolor “Pepperell Relic”, with photo reference.

Sometimes when you focus a lot of energy on taking photos, you may not take the time you need to study your subject and look at it with careful attention.  Sketching or drawing that subject, on the other hand, can force you to “see” what you are looking at, noticing the truly important information.

IMPROVE ON YOUR PHOTO REFERENCE.

Your goal should not be to paint an exact copy of any photograph; instead, you should simplify the scene.  Your job is to improve on a photo, adding your own personality and flair, expressing your excitement or the mystery you feel when viewing that scene.  What attracts you to the subject in the first place?  Take time before painting to look at your photo and think about what you might want to change in it.  Some elements in the photo might seem unnecessary or distracting.  You might be able to improve the composition or color.

If someone tells you that your painting looks like a photograph, don’t take that statement as a compliment.  The implication is that you have actually copied the photograph rather than using it for inspiration or information.  Do not attempt to include every detail from a photo in your painting.  Simplify; focus on your interpretation of the center of interest, and try to be creative.

You will get more out of your photographs if you use them as a starting point for your painting rather than as the desired end result.  You will often need to make some changes from the photo to turn it into a good painting.  The first type of editing of a photo is to make SIMPLE COSMETIC CHANGES while keeping the essential image intact, and many types of these cosmetic changes can improve your picture.  For instance, your photo may show dull, boring clouds that need some added drama.  You could also decide to reinterpret and brighten colors to produce an exciting or ominous mood.  You could tilt or angle your image for a somewhat different point of view.  Some artists who flip the image in the photo (as in a mirror) find that that change improves the way the viewer’s eye moves through the picture. One of the simplest changes to make is a change in season.  Another cosmetic change you could make is altering the time of day (and thus the mood) by changing the light and altering shadows.

By manipulating values, detail, and the quality of colors, you could create a warm, sunny picture or a soft, foggy image . . . or anything in between.  Similarly, you could add more shadows to add interest and visual pattern.  If a photograph does not show enough value contrast, you can create that contrast; sometimes, by simply changing the light direction, you can lighten some areas and darken others.  You can highlight important areas by making them light and by surrounding these light areas with dark colors (thereby increasing contrast around your center of interest).  You don’t have to use the colors you see in a photograph; you can increase color harmony in your painting by limiting the number of colors you use.  Alternatively, emphasize both warm and cool colors for contrast and interest.  You could make some exciting variations of color in an area that is basically one color by mingling other colors to add life.

Maine coast.jpg

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Watercolor “Maine coastline”, with photo reference.

Another type of edit to improve a photograph for painting is making a STRUCTURAL CHANGE to improve the composition and to build a picture that is more your own creation.  You can make changes to what is in the photo and to where things are in your picture.  First, evaluate your image to identify the most important object or the focus of attention.  Notice the big SHAPES, major LINES, and VALUES.  You’ll want to decide what to keep and what to eliminate from the photo.  Don’t keep anything that is irrelevant.  Keep in mind your knowledge of good composition (see my blog “Making a Strong Painting with Good Composition” from October 16, 2018, or review your favorite art books on the subject of composition and design).

Cropping a photo and zooming in for close-ups allow you to relocate the center of interest to a more dynamic position, thus improving your composition.  You could also highlight your center of interest by changing your format or the orientation of your paper.  For example, a landscape orientation may be appropriate for focusing on a farmstead with surrounding fields whereas a portrait orientation could highlight the magnificent tree in front of a farmhouse; on the other hand, a square format could work well with a flock of sheep grazing in a field, while an elongated format could effectively fit a vista of the mountains that provides the backdrop for the farmstead.  Exaggerating some details or colors can also improve a composition.  Similarly, you could change your point of view; try changing the level or angle from which you are viewing the subject, imagining, for instance, that you are looking down at the same scene from a plane flying overhead.  If your photo has been taken from the shore of a lake, would the painting be more majestic if you imagined the lake viewed from the edge of a cliff above it?  Use your imagination!

A third way of editing photographs for painting is making CREATIVE CHANGES; this technique can be quite dramatic.  You can add elements that are not in the photo or combine parts of several photographs to create a new image.  Birds from several photos can be put into one.  Flowers can be rearranged.  To a wintry field you can add skaters on an icy pond.  You can paint two different types of images together, combining an image of a wilderness lake with the image of a map showing how to get there.  The sizes of elements within a picture you can also alter; if the photo shows five trees of the same size, try making one the focus of attention by making it bigger while also varying the size and spacing of the others to support the dominance of the larger tree.  You can overlap images, fading one out as it joins another, and, of course, you can even produce an image that is pure fantasy.

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Watercolor “Mulpus”, with photo reference.

While you can paint from a photograph, painting on site is preferable because that way, you can view, experience, and even sketch the scene for yourself.  Using other people’s photographs involves some dangers, particularly if you don’t have permission to use them.  Furthermore, photos tend to distort and change some of the information they capture, in addition to including too much detail for a good composition.  If you take your own photo, you can use it for lighting conditions, architectural details, and further inspiration.  However, photographs can never tell you the full story, even though they can be helpful references.  You can (and should) edit a photo to improve and simplify its image.  Crop your photos, and combine them as needed to create effective, powerful paintings.

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Photo reference for future watercolor.