Painless Watercolor Planning, Part 2: Choose & Refine Your Painting Concept

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

I’ve broken up my planning strategies into “parts” to make them easier to write about, but please don’t feel like you have to read everything!

Pick out ideas that you think might work well with your normal planning process. If you don’t have a planning process yet, pick one or two things to try. Getting better at planning your watercolors is an ongoing process. Start anywhere and incorporate the ideas that are most helpful for you and your painting goals.

Choosing Your Painting Concept

As I explained in the last article, exploratory drawing is a form of visual brainstorming. Not drawing practice! Not thumbnails! Not miniature drawings! Work quickly and don’t worry about what the drawings look like. At the exploratory drawing stage, you only need enough on the page to remind you of the ideas you’ve imagined.

At the end of 10 or 15 minutes of exploratory drawing, you’ll have a collection of 10-20 rough scribble drawings like this. Think of it as sort of a “visual bullet list” of possible ideas.

After 10-15 minutes, I might have a collection of exploratory drawings like this. And a much better sense of what appeals to me in this scene!

What’s next?

Pick one painting concept to develop further.

Develop one concept at a time!

Only one!

Not every good idea has to be developed today. Or by you.

Resist the (powerful!) temptation to combine two or more ideas in the same painting. You don’t have to let go of all those other great ideas. Just give each one it’s own painting!

That’s not to say you can’t include many different “things” in a painting. But your painting will have more impact if it has a central theme or concept.

Consider available time, materials, mood and energy level.

Are you going to paint a postcard on location, or a full-sheet watercolor back in your studio? Are you new to watercolor, or quite experienced in the skills you’ll need for this painting? Do you aspire to paint fast-and-loose or do you love to design and paint intricate patterns? Are you in the mood to challenge yourself, or do you need something to boost your confidence? Is this a dedicated painting outing to practice certain skills, or are you sketching to enhance your enjoyment of a trip?

Think about available time, energy, supplies, etc. Not every great idea has to be painted today! (Or by you.)

Design for your current skill level.

You’ll learn faster and have more fun if you design a painting that requires the skills you already have, plus maybe one new skill or technique.

If the painting you aspire to create is a really big stretch requiring lots of new skills, work up to it. See if you can design and paint some simpler paintings that will allow you to build those skills one at a time. Then take what you have learned and tackle the bigger challenge. That way, you’ll have several successful paintings and some new skills, instead of one sorta-maybe okay painting and a lot of frustration.

“Cast” your painting.

Ask yourself:

  • Who/what is the star of the show? (main theme of the painting)
  • Who/what is supporting cast? (helps to showcase the main theme, or enhance it by providing contrast)
  • Who/what is extras, set and lighting, etc.? (helps to set the mood, establish the location, provide context)

Knowing the relative importance and roles of various aspects of the painting helps a great deal when it’s time to make decisions like, “How much detail do I need over here? How bright should these colors be?” and so on.

Keep in mind the “characters” in your painting don’t have to be “things”. The main theme could be something like “the intense orange glow of the sunset”. Supporting cast could be “the bluish-purple of the the distant mountains” and “the small dark silhouettes of the palms, providing some contrast to bring out the light in the sky, and a small vertical element to break up all the horizontal shapes”.

Extras, sets, lighting might be the suggestion of other vegetation on the desert floor, a tree at the edge of the foreground framing the scene, or even the choice of sedimentary pigments to give a slight suggestion of sand in the foreground wash.

Gather on-location references, as needed.

After I’ve done some exploratory drawing, I usually have several promising ideas for paintings. Ultimately, I’m going to pick one idea to develop into a painting. But while I’m still in the same spot (and the same light, etc), I go ahead and take photos and make sketches and notes for several of my favorite ideas. Who knows, maybe I’ll wind up with a series?

Take multiple photos.

Why be limited to “painting from” one photograph?

Even though I haven’t fleshed out any of my ideas yet, exploratory drawing usually helps me do a better job of guessing what information I will need to have lots of options for paintings.

Instead of just snapping a few tourist-y, Instagram-y pics, now I’ll think about capturing that interesting tree over there to help frame this vista, or a variety of people in different poses to populate my market scene. Or I’ll realize I need to capture a variety of angles, or some closeups, or different exposures, to give me more options to work with when I get back to the studio.

Instead of trying to take the “perfect photo to paint from”, take lots of photos. Exploratory drawing helps you move past the obvious first impulse and find more creative possibilities—and actually take the photos you need to develop those ideas!

Sketch (even if you’re terrible at it).

Do some sketching, even time is tight and you think you’re terrible. Every time you attempt to sketch something, you learn more about how it really looks. No matter how “bad” the sketch turns out, you will learn things that will help when it comes time to paint.

If you feel really self-critical, let your sketches simply be more exploratory drawings on cheap copy paper. Sketch to see and understand better, without being concerned about what goes on the page. It will save you time and effort once you start painting.

If you have time for more detailed drawings and enjoy doing them, now is the perfect time.

Make written notes.

Not everything meaningful about a scene is visible in a photo. Often, what makes a painting most appealing and powerful is capturing how the scene feels to you, not how it looks. Make notes about what you notice with other senses, memories and associations, emotions, events or people that connect to the scene.

If you want to paint powerful, expressive, personally meaningful paintings, you need to pay at least as much attention to sensation, emotion, memory and experience as you do to the visual “facts” of the scene.

Or, explore the “inner landscape”.

I’m writing this as though I were painting on location, because that tends to be where a lot of beginners start—with a photo they took somewhere outside the studio.

But what if you work more abstractly? It’s still worth doing some exploratory drawing (visual brainstorming),and gathering potential reference material for the ideas that capture your interest.

You’ll just be exploring an “inner landscape” instead. Your exploratory drawings might be more like doodling shapes, patterns or arrangements, or images from your imagination or dreams. You might gather photo references that have interesting colors, textures, or shapes you want to incorporate. Your notes might be bits of poetry, notes about a piece of music that inspired the painting idea, a fragment of a dream, a journal entry.

Exploring imaginary and inner landscapes.

Remember, this isn’t a rigid step-by-step process or a bunch of “rules”. Pick and choose. Try one or two things. Experiment.

When you’re not excited about a finished painting, it’s easy to start looking for “stuff you need to fix”. And then go off to look up “how to paint trees”, or whatever. Sometimes that is exactly what you need. But if you’ve done a lot of that and your paintings still aren’t really exciting you, it’s a good bet that you’re just not clear on what effect you wanted the painting to have, or what feeling you wanted it to capture.

Anything you can do to help yourself hone in on what you really want to express in a painting will give you a better chance at ending up with something that makes you really happy.

P.S. I know there are some of you out there thinking, “Just tell us how to decide what order to paint things, dang it! That’s what we need to know!”

Patience, grasshopp . . . ummm, dragonflies! After years of struggling to figure out how to paint stuff that didn’t even belong in the painting in the first place, I’ve learned that I’ll save myself a lot of headaches if I spend a little time exploring what I really want the painting to express. It’s worth it—really!

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