Sneaking Up on a Painting

Sometimes, we talk as if there are only two options for how to come up with paintings 

  • paint from an actual scene or photo (perhaps with a few edits, or combining multiple photos), or
  • invent a painting (often abstract) entirely from imagination or free play 

But what about the huge range of possibilities in between? 

For example, suppose you want to paint a scene that looks realistic to the viewer, but doesn’t actually exist (so you can’t just take a photo of it). 

Or, suppose you want your painting to express how a memory of a place really feels to you, and your available reference(s) don’t capture that feeling. 

What if you want to paint a subject that’s far away or from your past? What if you’re inspired to paint this subject, but the reference is a blurry or poorly-exposed photo, or only a quick sketch. 

In all these situations, you need to do some invention, but how do you know what to invent or change to get the feeling you want to convey? How do you make your changes so that the end product still looks real to the viewer? How do you know what to change?

I used to try to reason it out ahead of time, but the truth is, I usually guess wrong when I try to use reason to figure out what to change to make a painting have a particular feel

I might think, “I want this painting to feel peaceful and serene, so I’ll use a color palette of soft blues and greens.” But when I see it on the page, then I realize that those colors with this scene just look dull and boring, instead of serene.

I tried to solve this problem by being more diligent about planning, doing lots of drawings, journaling, mini-paintings and sub-paintings. That did help me choose and practice the techniques I was going to use, and figure out what order to do things. But when it came to getting more emotional impact in my paintings, it turned out I couldn’t reason my way through. I need to actually see things on the page, full size, to really know if my plan is going to work. 

A plan, and a willingness to change the plan

In the photos below, you can see the edited reference photo from our earlier series on planning, and the final outcome when I decided to take a stab at painting from that plan. (You can find the four articles in that series hereherehere and here. )

I’m going to outline the process I used, of working in drafts and using intuition to make adjustments to the plan within each draft. At the end of the article, there’s a video case study where I’ll get into the specifics of how that process played out for this particular painting. 

The plan, and the painting I wound up with. (You might like the original concept better, because it might have different associations for you. Perhaps the final version looks dreary or drab to you. But for me, it evokes the feeling of one of the most peaceful mornings I had paddling on this river, so it’s a more satisfying outcome for me.)

These days I do less advance planning, and more adjusting my plan once the painting is in progress. I do usually start with a general plan for composition, color palette, what order to do things, and what techniques I think I’ll use. But once I start painting, I keep asking myself if I want to change my mind about anything. I have a plan, but I stay open to changing the plan, based on how I feel about what I’m seeing on the page so far. 

Of course, in watercolor, sometimes there are things that are hard to change once you have a wash or brushstroke down on the page. So this eventually led me to start doing multiple drafts of a painting to get closer to the look I want. 

Whenever I mention working in drafts, most people’s reaction is something like, “I would never have the interest or energy to attempt the same painting over and over.” 

I don’t do that! 

I’m not talking about attempting the same painting over and over, hoping to do a better job. My drafts are also not dress rehearsals or “just for practice”. They’re just like drafts you make when you’re writing something emotionally meaningful to you.

The painting is not the piece of paper

If you sat down with a legal pad to write a toast for your nephew’s wedding, you probably wouldn’t just sit down and write it out start to finish. You’d need to try different ways to say things, move things around, add and delete. 

You might make some changes by crossing things out and writing in the margins, but eventually that might get hard to read. At that point, you’d have no qualms about flipping to a fresh page and writing out a clean draft. How would you decide when to do that? Probably when the hassle of trying to decipher what you were reading outweighed the hassle of copying out a clean draft. 

This is the approach I take to painting in drafts. 

When I start a new draft, it’s always my intention to bring this painting to completion on this piece of paper. I don’t lower the stakes by telling myself this is “just for practice”, but I do allow myself the option of continuing my work on a fresh sheet of paper, if that would be the quickest, easiest, or most effective way to get this painting to a satisfying finish. 

The painting is not the piece of paper. You do not have to finish a watercolor on the same piece of paper you started on. 

I’m not one of those people who says you can’t change a watercolor. (In fact, I have a whole bag of tricks for “rescuing” a watercolor—perhaps a topic for some future post). But sometimes the smartest way to make a change is to begin again on a fresh sheet of paper using what you just learned from the previous draft. 

Of course, you don’t want to abandon a draft just because it’s in the ick stage

At the beginning of a watercolor, you have a few lovely fresh washes against the crisp white of the paper. At the end, things are (hopefully) coming together and you can see the shape of the finished piece. Somewhere in between, much of the white paper is gone, but few of the final darks or details have been added, and often you are facing some of the more tedious or challenging bits. That’s the ick stage. It’s normal, and the best thing to do at that point is keep painting. 

Sometimes, you only need to adjust or refine a few small things, or just figure out how to handle the next step. I’m not suggesting you start a new draft just because you’ve run into a small snag. 

So when should you start a new draft? It is a bit of a judgment call. Practice and experience will make it easier to make a good decision, but here are some questions you can ask yourself that will help you decide. 

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Would you lose something you’re unlikely to get again?

Are there any really wonderful watercolor effects or happy accidents in the current draft that you’d really hate to lose? Is there something you usually struggle with that went especially well in this draft?

If so, it may be worth investing more time and effort in at least attempting to fix any problems with this draft before deciding to start another draft. 

Is your main motivation for finishing this draft “not wasting paper”?

On the other hand, if there are non-fixable problems with this draft that would mean you’ll always dislike this version of the painting, no matter how well you execute the remaining steps, then why invest your precious painting time to “finish” it? 

Starting a new draft doesn’t mean you wasted the paper you used for the previous draft. You used that paper to develop the painting to this point, and to learn some things that set you up to continue on a new piece of paper with a better chance of making the best painting you can. You can always choose to continue your work on a fresh sheet of paper if that is going to be quicker, easier or more successful in the long run. 

Not every piece of paper that goes through your studio needs to end up as a finished painting.

Why are you dissatisfied?

Sometimes, you’re dissatisfied with the current state of a painting because:

  • you’re not sure how you want to handle a particular area 
  • the next step is tedious and you’re not excited about doing it
  • the next step is challenging and you don’t feel confident about doing it
  • it’s just in the ick stage
  • you’re tired, stressed, rushed, worried, etc.
  • you were never all that excited about this painting in the first place

Starting another draft would not necessarily help in these situations. It might just be time to take a nap, have a cup of tea or work on something else while you let your subconscious chew on a problem. 

What’s less work/more likely to be successful?

Is it less work to try to fix or change something on this piece of paper or take what you have learned and get to this same point in a fresh draft? 

For example, suppose your sky wash is a bit streaky, but you decide to go ahead and add a tree line, hoping that the streaky sky won’t be so noticeable when there’s more to look at. Then, later, you realize that the streaky sky still really bugs you, and adding the tree line doesn’t do enough to direct attention away from the streaks. If I know I’ll always be bugged by something I can probably fix with a fresh start, why invest more time in this particular piece of paper? Watercolors are not your vegetables. There is no inherent virtue in “finishing” them. 

A case study—The river with the boat (and then, without the boat again)

In this video, I’ll try to describe as much as I can of my thinking process at the points where I decided to make changes to my original plan, and ultimately to start a new draft. Hopefully, this little “case study” will help make some of these ideas more concrete. 

You can learn about how to work on saturated paper here. 

The “spritzed paper” technique for trees is covered in Watercolor Jumpstart here

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