Tutorials Workshops

How to Simplify the approach to Watercolor Painting

When looking at a complex subject, the easiest thing to do is to break it down into the least amount of information to convey the message ~ Al Kline

I was pleased to give a demo and lecture entitled ‘How to Simplify the process and approach to watercolor painting.’ It was a great turnout and we covered some aspects of painting such as composition, sketching and arrangement before painting.

I have broken down my process into some simple steps.   I always start with composition, sketching and then painting (always in that order).

 I. Composition

In my class examples, I took some simple photos and showed how you can take information from a scene and break it down into some simple elements. In most scenes and photos, there is a lot of information to take in. Most photos can be overloaded with too much information. The easiest thing to do is to ‘simplify’ the information.

When looking at a complex subject, the easiest thing to do is to break it down into the least amount of information to convey the message

In the following examples , I showed the class how to ‘segment’ photos. Once segmented into something interesting, you can move elements of your subject around and even add backgrounds and change foregrounds.


Many times, when we take photographs, they are overloaded with information. This could be painted as it, but it would be very busy . I used the subject matter on the right to create a portrait or vertical work. I also liked the back ground to the left, so I used this in my painting.
Here I used a crop section from my reference photo to compose a painting. I really liked how the light was juxtaposed against the dark shadow on the boat on the right. It had nice vertical elements. I also liked the boat in the background. I would enlarge it to bring it out more against the other boats. Notice how there is not much of a background.
Here is my final painting on a quarter sheet taking some of the elements from the larger photos. Here I used some elements from 2 photos to create this painting including adding background and enlarging some elements such as the background boat to enhance the painting.

In Example #1, you have artistic license to change and enhance a composition. One of the first things that will limit you as a painter is to paint everything that you see. Sometimes it may work, but often, it will only confuse someone looking at your painting. You must consider composition over trying to paint everything in.

Use the rule of thirds to improve your composition and identify the focal points, if there is more than one. Think of what is pulling you into the subject and why you are inspired to paint it. What was the message that inspired you to pick this subject in the first place. If the inspiration is not there, don’t paint it!

Again, you can move subjects around and use artistic license to improve the quality of your work and vision.  Don’t be a slave to what you see in front of you or a photo. Leave in critical ingredients of your subject that will enhance the composition and take out things that clutter or distract the viewer.

One of the simplest things to do is to identify the light once you have the composition in mind so you know where to save the whites. Remember that every composition should have a message or story to tell. This will make your painting stronger.


Again, from the initial photograph, I took elements of the 2 boats on the left to create another painting.
Again, in this painting, I took elements from other photos to enhance the background and also adding figures to give it scale.

II. Sketching and Tonal Study

I always try and sketch before committing my work to paper.  Always try and sketch before committing the work to watercolor paper.  This allows you to compose the work in it’s proper dimensions and proportions.  Think of this as your ‘practice run.’ It also allows you to place lights, mid-tones and darks in your work and preferably ‘juxtapose’ light and darks.

III. Painting

The first wash should be just about color and preserving your lightest lights. Also , consider where your edges will be before starting.

I start my paintings from the top , at about a 30-45 degrees angle so the watercolors and pigments run downward. This allows for mixing colors sometimes directly on the paper and letting watercolor ‘paint itself’. This is the one property that attracted me to watercolor painting; the ability to have water mix with different pigments and mix down the paper. Watercolor has the unique property to do somethings you can never reproduce with a brush alone in other mediums.

When I start a watercolor, I think of sky and earth and a small seperation between the two. Having already identified my background, mid-ground, focal points and foreground, I begin by painting from top to bottom in the first wash. As I work more forward and downward, I increase pigments to water ratios to add depth. If you don’t do this, the painting will look flat.


In my class demo, I took this photo and used some elements to create another harbor scene.
Before committing my vision of the elements to watercolor paper, it is always good to do a sketch. In this sketch I changed the perspective from the original photograph and also added background elements. The arrows at the top of the sketchbook indicates the direction of light.
In the final version of the painting, I have taken a number of elements from the original scene, condensed the scene to fit the 3 boats on the paper and added elements to the background. I even took the sailboat on the left and turned it into a speed boat. Again, I added figures for scale and interest.

Some final thoughts: Watercolor is not an easy medium to master. Use artistic license to enhance your paintings. Don’t be a slave to what you see and move elements around to enhance your painting. Emphasize only the important elements and remove things that can clutter your painting.

You must place emphasis on planning your painting from start to finish. You can’t cover up mistakes and never try to resolve a painting and it’s process while you paint. Use big brushes for the big washes, and then progress to smaller brushes and detail the end of our painting.  Save your darkest darks for detailing and to bring your painting to life!

I hope this helps you and happy painting!


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