Planning a Watercolor, Part 4: Adding an Element from Another Reference

Okay, let’s get to it!

For those who are just joining us, you can find the first three articles in this serieshere, and here, and here.)

Note: These are tools, not “shoulds”

Before we talk about adding the boat, I want to repeat something really important: The four articles in this series are NOT a step-by-step routine for planning every watercolor. (So far as I know, there isn’t such a thing.)

To save time and avoid confusion, I’ve used the same example to talk about several planning tools. But I wouldn’t necessarily go through all these steps with every painting. Please don’t put any expectations on yourself to do all these steps for your next painting! All theseplanning tools are “as needed”. Put them in your toolkit and pull them out if and when you think they might help. 

Adding something that’s not in your reference photo

In the last article in this series, we made a number of edits to our reference photo, one of which was adding a boat. I wanted to add a boat heading downstream to help the viewer understand that this is a river, not a lake, and maybe even start them off on an imagined boat ride down the river. This isn’t the “right” way to edit the photo; it’s just how I wanted to interpret the scene. You might take it in a completely different direction. 

But for the sake of our example, I’m going to continue on with my plan. So now I have to face the issue of actually adding the boat, which isn’t in my original reference photo. It’s the process that matters, though, so if boats aren’t your thing, please mentally substitute some other thing that you might want to add (in a small or distant version) to a painting of yours.

Finding References

Do I even need a reference?

For a tiny boat in the distance, I think I can probably just sketch a reasonable shape for the boat using imagination and memory. I know that some of you are probably saying, “Not me! I’m no good at drawing!” That’s what I used to think, too, but stay with me a moment. 

I used to be worried that if I didn’t have a good photo reference for something, I wouldn’t be able to draw it “right”. But it turns out I was dramatically overestimating how much information I needed to give the viewer, especially for small or distant elements of the painting. 

Our brains are absolutely fabulous at constructing scenes from a few small cues. For a little boat in the distance, we don’t really need to get it right, we just need to not get it too weirdly wrong. And we have a lot of leeway for a little boat in the distance. 

The boat below looks pretty reasonable, right? This would work as a reference. 

Boat in the distance. (Image generated by DALL-E-2.)

But look at it close up!

Same boat image, closer. (Image generated by DALL-E-2.)

How is this boat not sinking with that giant hole cut out of the stern? And what kind of weird life vest is that? Is that even a person? There are all sorts of strange things going on in this image but the overall silhouette and the main shapes are right enough that we can interpret the small version correctly. That’s really all we need. As long as it’s small, we can’t really see the weird parts, so they don’t ruin the illusion.

Draw and morph

One of the main reasons I used to think I couldn’t draw was because I couldn’t get things right on the first try. Eventually, I realized that most drawings are not right on the first try. (Or ever.) But if you are able to see that something is off about the drawing, you can make adjustments until you get something that is right enough. You only need to give the viewer enough cues to interpret what they’re seeing. Their imagination will do the rest of the work for you. 

Some tips for drawing your boat:

A short, but important digression: If you’re using an iPad or iPhone with an older printer like mine, you may have run into a problem when you try to print your photos smaller. For some printers, there’s no option from the iPad or iPhone to scale the photo you’re printing. Here’s an easy workaround. (This workaround will also work for a laptop or desktop computer, or an Android tablet or phone, if you’ve encountered the same problem elsewhere.)

If you haven’t spent a lot of time looking at boats, you might feel you need at least some general references. Here are some sources to consider:

Free stock image sites

Those of you who use photo references a lot probably know a lot more about this than I do, so please add a comment if you have useful intel on sites to seek out or avoid. UnSplash, Pixabay, Pikwizard, and Pexels are a few that come to mind. You can undoubtedly find many more by searching online for “free stock photos”. 

These sites gather together images that you can use without needing to pay the copyright holder or seek additional permission. (Most allow both personal and commercial use, but check the license terms if you plan to sell the painting or use it for other commercial purposes such as marketing or promotional activities.)

Other online images

Of course, just because an image is online somewhere, that does not mean you can just use it however you like. (Looking at you, Pinterest users who started the chain of unattributed sharing that ended up with one of my paintings being printed on underpants of all things!)

However, it is not a copyright violation to look, so you can use online images to help train your eye to pick out the common characteristics of boats (or whatever). 

A good way to use online images to train your eye while avoiding copyright issues is to use your finger to trace on your screen. It might feel silly, but it does help you see the actual shape.

Purchased stock images

In addition to the free photo sites, there are many sites with stock photos for which you can purchase a license (e.g.,,, or Some of the “free” sites also have “premium” images that require a paid license. Typically, the license will allow you to use the image for pretty much any personal and commercial use (with some obvious restrictions against nefarious activities). Again, search for the license terms for the site. 

The pricing for these sites emphasizes subscriptions for people who use a lot of stock photography, but most have an option to buy a small number of “credits” which you can use to purchase one image license at a time. A typical price for a single image might be in the $10-20 range. Not something I’d do often, but it’s an option.

Models or toys

For some things, models or toys can be great references. The tough thing about boats is getting the curved shapes of the hull at different angles. A toy or model boat might give you the information you need. Ask your kids, grandkids, niblings or neighbors. Or take some photos in the toy aisle. 

Go on an art outing!

Instead of seeing missing reference material as a limitation, why not see it as a great excuse for an outing? Make a little day trip to to a local lake or river, do some sketching or take some photos, have lunch or coffee or ice cream, play tourist, take a grandchild, friend or spouse. (I’m already scheming.) 

You don’t need the boat (or whatever reference you’re seeking) to be in a picturesque setting. You only need the shape of the boat, so you might be able to get some photos or sketches at boat dealer or museum. Maybe a friend or neighbor has a boat in their garage or backyard. There are wealth of real-world references for our art, and often they can be combined with other activities. 

Ask a friend

Maybe someone you know (like me!) has a photo of a boat you can use. (You have my permission to use this photo however you please.)

Change the boat to something else that does the same job

If it’s going to be really tough to get a good reference for the boat (or whatever it is you want to include), maybe you can find something else that would do the same job in the painting. 

The main purpose of the boat for me was to direct the viewer’s gaze down the river. So maybe another light-colored object that points in that direction would work. 

I could move the dead snag from the other bank and flip it around. Or maybe add a heron or egret wading in the shallows, facing downstream. Or perhaps someone fishing from the bank, with a light-colored fishing pole and line extending downstream. At this distance, I really only need a silhouette, so that gives me a number of other options for references I might be able to find or draw from my imagination. 

Reserving or recovering the light boat against a darker background

For the most part, a painting based on this photo can follow the “default” painting sequence described in this video: From Design to Plan: The Painting Sequence

The only place where we can’t follow that “default” sequence is the boat. We need to either reserve the light shape of the boat (with a resist or by painting around it), or we need to recover the light shape after we paint the darker wash (e.g. by using opaque media or lifting). 

If you need more details on the method I used to transfer the drawing, see this video: Watercolor Jumpstart: How to Transfer a Drawing to Watercolor Paper

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