Painless Planning for Watercolor, Part 1: Exploratory Drawing

This article is the fourth in a series about creating paintings with more emotion, power and personal meaning. Here are links to the first three: Is My Painting Done? Are You a “Photocopier”? There’s a Better Way The Lazy Way to Build Painting Confidence I know that taking the time to do some planning would […]

This article is the fourth in a series about creating paintings with more emotion, power and personal meaning. Here are links to the first three:

I know that taking the time to do some planning would result in fewer failed paintings, less waste and a lot less frustration. But, just like many of you, I struggle to actually get myself to plan.

Everything you read about how to plan a watercolor just sounds soooooo tedious! Thumbnail drawings, value studies, color studies, careful underdrawings.

It feels like I’ve been assigned to write 1000 times, “I will carefully consider all aspects of my painting BEFORE I pick up a brush.”

I just want to get in there and start painting!

So, over the years, I’ve developed an alternate “planning” process. I hesitate to even call it “planning”. It’s more like a conversation with myself about what I want my painting to be. Maybe you can steal some ideas that work for you, too.

What’s a “thumbnail drawing”?

Let’s say I’m looking at this scene, trying to decide on a composition for a painting.

The view from my campsite when I was at Salton Sea State Recreation area in southern California.

One common way to begin planning is to do a series (10, 20, 30 . . . ) of “thumbnail drawings”.

A thumbnail drawing exploring the idea of “zooming in” to emphasize the mountains and fan palms, using a suggestion of the trees in the foreground to help frame the composition.

These are small pencil, pen or marker sketches—2×3”, say—that you use to figure out the overall structure of your painting. What elements of the scene will you include? What are the big shapes? How will you arrange them? Will you include or edit out that telephone pole? What will the main value pattern look like? And so on.

The idea is to keep them very simple, just showing the big shapes and main values.

What’s wrong with thumbnail sketches?

And now, a confession: No matter how hard I try to simplify, whenever I do thumbnail sketches, some part of my brain keeps saying “no one will be able to tell what that is!” I find myself adding more and more detail (and hunching lower and lower over my paper).

I get lost in “fixing” things and adding tiny details and it takes forever! About the time I feel like I need a magnifying glass, I finally wake up and realize I got sucked in again! It’s a huge waste of time. Worse, I’ve totally lost sight of the big picture questions I was supposed to be figuring out.

Drawbacks (for me, at least!) of starting with thumbnail drawings:

  • encourages deciding format in advance
  • worries about accuracy and “making a good drawing” short-circuit creative brainstorming
  • easy to get caught up in details and spend waaaay too much time and effort

My alternative to thumbnails: exploratory drawing

How to do exploratory drawing:

Feel free to change this to suit yourself, but I recommend you try it a few times as described. It might take a little practice to shift gears from “making a drawing” to “drawing as an aid to brainstorming”. You have to let go of old habits. Tell your inner critic to go have a nice cup of tea and leave you alone for a while.

Work on “expendable” paper.

I use ordinary copy paper, folded in quarters, so I can easily hold it in my hand to draw without needing any additional support.

Exploratory drawing on a sheet of copy paper folded in quarters.

Don’t start by drawing a box.

At the brainstorming stage, why make yourself feel cramped or “box yourself in” to a particular format or size?

Without a box, you can draw at whatever scale feels natural and comfortable.

You can always add a box (or boxes) later. Even if you know the format of the painting (a postcard, say), it’s easier to experiment with drawing various boxes around the sketch than to redraw the sketch repeatedly inside different boxes.

One sketch with multiple boxes to consider format is a lot easier than multiple boxes where you have to redraw the sketch!

Let the pen (or pencil) follow what captures your interest and how your eyes move around. Use a relaxed “scribble” drawing style. Add written notes freely.

Try to allow your pen or pencil to simply “follow the eye”. Don’t worry about what is going on the page. Just use the act of drawing to help you start to notice what captures your interest. Where do your eyes go? Where do they linger and return? What are you noticing and learning about the subject as you start to draw?

As in the example above, feel free to add written notes to record anything that’s hard to capture quickly in a sketch—color ideas, aspects of the scene you find interesting but don’t know how to sketch quickly, questions or reminders for yourself, etc.

Don’t worry about accuracy—draw to supply a framework for your imagination and to make “visual notes”.

This is not drawing practice!

I’m all for practicing your drawing skills, but that’s a separate activity. If you try to practice drawing skills while you’re doing exploratory drawing, you’ll just do a bad job of both. Practice them separately!

In exploratory drawing, most of the work takes place in your mind’s eye. You are starting to imagine how paintings based on this scene might look. Not just composition, but size, colors, style, brush marks, washes, wet-in wet effects. Feel free to imagine anything with no worries at this point about whether you think you have the skills to pull it off—that’s for later!

Move on as soon as you get the least bit bored, frustrated or feel like you’ve got enough down to remind you of the idea you’ve been exploring.

There’s no need to “finish” a drawing!

Exploratory drawing is not about recording information you’ll need for the painting—that comes later. (And after you do some exploratory drawing, you’ll have a LOT better idea of what photos or sketches you might actually need as reference for your painting.)

You only need enough on the page to remind you of the ideas you’ve considered. No one else needs to be able to recognize what you are drawing—it’s shorthand visual note-taking for YOU.

Plenty of time later to flesh out your ideas. At this stage, focus on pushing yourself to generate lots of ideas and imagine freely. The goal is to identify a few ideas that really excite you. It’s a lot easier to get yourself to dive deeper into planning when you are working on an idea you’re really excited about.

Generate lots of ideas, quickly.

I try to keep each little drawing to less than a minute (many take only a few seconds) and generate 10 to 30 quick sketches. There will be time later to delve deeper into a few ideas you like best.

Keep asking yourself: what’s another way I might like to create a painting based on this scene?

The radial pattern formed by the stalks of the fronds echoes the fan shape of the fronds themselves.

The more ideas you can generate, the more likely it is you’ll arrive at one that really interests you. And the more exciting the idea is, the more you’ll want to invest the work to make it a really special painting.

Zoom in, zoom out. Turn around, move and change your perspective. Be bold; be subtle. Notice color and texture. Notice the big picture. Notice interesting details. Notice how you feel.

Maybe I’d like to zoom in and crop so I can emphasize the fan patterns of a few fronds.
Or maybe I want to show the desert setting, and the distant mountains, with the fan palms as a focal area.

Notice non-visual things that influence your response to the scene and might affect how you interpret it in a painting: it is hot and dry? do you hear children playing or birds calling or people working or a train rumbling by? does the scene call up emotions, memories or associations that are meaningful for you? Write them down!

I remember when I was out hiking that morning, the main impression was distant hazy mountains and then everything closer being flat, flat, flat, with the fan palms sticking up as small dark vertical accents in all the pale horizontal shapes.
Then I remember how they stood out in silhouette against the landscape at sunset last night. Small dark shapes in a world of soft oranges and golds.

Remind yourself: exploratory drawing is something you DO, not something you make.

You are not drawing to “make a drawing”; you are drawing because having pen (or pencil) on paper helps you think like an artist, instead of just admiring the view.

I hope you find this an enjoyable and painless way to start brainstorming ideas for paintings! In later articles, I’ll talk about how I use the results of my exploratory drawing in the rest of my “painless” planning process. Until then, happy painting!

Exploratory drawing demo on video.

For those who prefer to see it in action, I made a short video demonstration, which you can watch here:

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