Planning a watercolor, part 1: Why I stopped doing thumbnails, value studies and color studies

We need better tools for planning watercolors

Do you do thumbnail drawings, value studies and color studies to help you plan your paintings? If you’re like a lot of watercolor painters, you often don’t, even though that nagging internal critic says you should.

But ugh, they are just so tedious!

You’re not just being lazy. That traditional planning process that so many of us were taught is often not helpful for planning a watercolor. We need to devise new planning tools better suited to the unique demands of watercolor. 

What’s wrong with the traditional planning process?

Wait, what do I mean by the “traditional” planning process?

It goes roughly like this: 

First, you make thumbnail drawings to figure out what large shapes you’ll include in your painting and how you want to arrange them in the picture plane. When you have one you like, you do a value study, where you simplify to 3 or 4 values and assign a value to each of your large shapes. Finally, you do a color study, where you figure out your color scheme and assign a sort of “average” color to each of your large shapes. And then you’re supposedly ready to transfer your drawing to a larger surface and start painting, using the value study and color study as a roadmap to guide you. 

Let’s look at an example of how this might play out for a watercolor painter who works mostly from photos, perhaps with a little editing. (Even if you no longer stick close to a photo (or actual scene), you’ve probably at least tried this way of working, so you’ll be able to relate.)

Let’s suppose I’m using the photo below as my reference. I want to keep the tree, hills, and grassy area pretty much as-is. I’m just going to remove some clutter by editing out the roads, the fence, the picnic table, the shrubs in the middle distance, and the stray leaves and branches peeking in at the top. 

Following the traditional routine, I would first make a thumbnail drawing, where I reduce everything to big, simple shapes, something like this:

Then I’d do a value study, using 3 or 4 values, and assigning one of those values to each of my big shapes.

Then a small color study, where I’d figure out my color scheme or mixtures, and assign a main color to each big shape. 

And then supposedly, you’re ready to transfer your drawing and use your studies as a road map to paint a successful painting. 

You don’t need much watercolor experience to realize that there are still plenty of unresolved questions. How will I suggest the speckly, broken pattern of the foliage and the complicated, raggedy outer edge of the tree’s crown? How will I preserve the light “sky holes” between the clumps of leaves? How can I preserve the light green outer clumps of leaves against the darker masses of leaves? How do I make my branches weave in and out of the foliage, instead of looking like a bunch of dowels tossed up in the tree?

Early in my watercolor career, I made a diligent effort to get the hang of this planning process, but it didn’t seem to help me solve many of the problems that tripped me up in planning my watercolors. It just felt like a whole lot of busywork, with very little payoff. Eventually, I quit doing them, but I felt a bit guilty and worried. Was I handicapping myself by not sticking with it? 

I knew a lot of other watercolor painters who had also abandoned this traditional planning process. But most of the painters I knew who worked in oil, pastel, heavy-body acrylics and gouache did use this process, and swore by it. What’s up with that? Are we watercolorists just lazier, or more rebellious, than other painters?

Well, I do like to think watercolorists are more free-spirited than other painters, but I don’t think that’s the reason so many of us ditch this traditional planning sequence. It’s just that the problem it’s designed to solve—figuring out the underlying design—is largely already determined if you are going to stay close to the photo. Sure, there’s value in training yourself to simplify the scene into the big shapes, a few values and the main colors. But it only takes you a small way towards figuring out a plan for executing a successful watercolor. 

So why does everybody talk about it as though it’s the planning process? Because it’s a carryover from oil painting, where these three little studies are really all the planning you have to do before you begin you larger painting. 

In opaque media, you can actually just make larger version of these three studies as the first three steps of your actual painting. Once I have a full-sized version of my color study, I can simply continue painting. 

In the next step, I could vary the edges a bit, to get rid of all those straight lines. I could add some sky holes and some dark green to suggest the sky and hills peeking through the leaves. I could introduce some color and value variations within the big shapes to add interest and bring the viewer’s attention more to the tree itself. All right on top of the color study! 

My tree is still pretty rough and impressionistic, but maybe that’s as far as I need to take it, especially if I’m planning to use this tree as one element in a bigger painting. 

If it’s still too rough for my tastes, I can continue to refine the edges, and add more varation in color and value within the big shapes, all without losing the underlying design.

If you like this level of detail, you can stop. Or, you can keep refining and adjusting as much as you like. (That’s a bit of an exaggeration; it is possible to overwork in opaque media, too, as you can see in my amateur-level example, but you get the idea.)

So, for opaque media, if you do these three studies, you’re ready to start the larger painting, and the studies can even serve as a sort of dress rehearsal for the first few steps of your larger painting. You don’t to worry that you’ll get partway along and oops!discover some problem you should have solved before starting. 

What about watercolor?

Of course, it doesn’t work this way for watercolor. There are a whole host of other problems you might need to solve before you start painting. Where and how will you reserve whites and lights? What order will you lay your washes? How will you handle the edges between shapes: with that one be hard? soft? some kind of spattering or sponging? smudging or drybrushing? What kinds of color and value variations (i.e., patterns and textures) will you have within your big shapes? 

The thumbnail/value study/color study process doesn’t help with any of that. If you don’t plan to make any signicant changes to your photo, you already have the design. So these three little studies aren’t solving any problems for you. It really is just busywork! 

There are situations where this traditional planning process is useful for us as watercolorists, for example, if you’re doing building a scene from your imagination or multiple references. They’ll also come in handy for a planning strategy where we use a study in opaque media to help determine the painting sequence for a watercolor. I’ll talk more about those uses in later articles. 

But if you’re working from a photo with only minor edits, I hope you will feel justified in giving yourself permission to stop doing them, guilt-free. 

So, what about all those other problems we still need to solve?

So far as I know, there’s not a simple step-by-step process like the thumbnail/value sudy/color study routine that always works identify and solve all the problems you need to figure out before you start a watercolor. 

In watercolor, many of the problems we need to solve are specific to the actual scene or subject you plan to paint. Some have solutions that are fairly easy to share and learn. If I’m wondering how to make marks that suggest masses of leaves on trees, I can go online and find plenty of ideas. 

But I may still need to test whether there are other things going on in the painting that might force me to adapt the technique. If I’m going to use spattering to make the foliage of the tree in my example, how will I contain my spattering so I keep the interesting overall shape of the tree? How will I make sure I still get some larger “sky holes” in the upper part of the crown? Will different techniques for foliage affect the order I need to do things in the painting? 

But even though there isn’t a simple three-study process that will solve all our watercolor planning problems, there are studies you can do to help plan a watercolor. 

Along with collecting techniques for things like trees, fur, clouds and whatnot, I think it’s worth collecting planning strategies that help solve different kinds of problems we encounter in planning a watercolor. 

Over the next several months, I’ll be sharing how I would go about the planning process for some specific examples that are a bit more complex than the simple postcard-style planning examples I’ve been able to share in the past (where everything had to fit inside one short video). I’ll share how I might go about planning a watercolor based on an example photo (including bringing in some other references) and show you a few different kinds of studies that I find useful for solving the kinds of problems we face in planning watercolors. 

[Edit: I meant to add a link to this video that you may find helpful for tackling the problem of figuring out a manageable painting sequence for a watercolor: From Design to Plan—The Painting Sequence in Watercolor There isn’t a formula that works all the time, but there are some rules of thumb that will get you most of the way to planning what order to do things. If you haven’t seen this video (or it’s been a while), check it out for some help with this part of the planning process.]

But I don’t wanna do studies; I just want to paint paintings!

I get it. You may not have a lot of painting time, and you just want to paint the painting, not do a whole bunch of practicing and problem-solving. Don’t worry! You’ll still be able to use these ideas. 

I’ve been talking about “studies” because that’s the usual artist-speak for a painting that you use to figure something out. But they’re just little paintings. So why not design them so they’re actually satisfying, complete little paintings that you could actually frame (or send as a postcard)? 

Instead of just doing a bunch of boring practice exercises, I like to instead find smaller, simpler paintings that are stepping stones to the painting I ultimately want to paint. I use them to solve problems or try out alternatives, but I try to make sure they’ll also have a good chance of being nice little frameable, giftable paintings, or at least a half-decent postcard. 

And even if you don’t want to do any kind of “study” before you work on a larger painting, you can still use the same strategies to pull a quick and easy postcard or small gift painting from a more complicated scene.


Get ready for next time—

Next time, we’re going to start looking at planning a painting based on the photo at the bottom of this post (but let’s add a boat!). We’ll identify some of the problems we might need to solve, and see if we can design some simple, but satisfying, little paintings that will do double-duty to help us solve problems for the larger painting we ultimately want to paint. 

Your assignment: Identify some problems you’d need to solve, or things you’d need to figure out, in order to feel ready to paint a your version of a painting based on this photo (adding a boat).

(Yes, I know that not everyone will be excited about the idea of a painting based on this photo. But I don’t know how to share these ideas without an example to hang them on, so I’m rooting through my own photos for things to use as examples. Since I don’t typically work from photos, or take many photos, period, the choices are limited. It is what it is, I’m afraid.)

Scene for next time:

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