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Landscape Composition & Design Tips For Watercolor Beginners

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Step 5: Composing En Plein Air, Thumbnail Sketches, And Value Patterns


Steve recommends painting or composing en plein air (literally, “in plain air”) as often as possible. This means going outside and painting on location rather than from a photograph. The advantage of doing so is that you get to see nature fresh and live, and capturing a real experience will always lead to more impactful results. The next best option is to paint from an electronic device, as the backlighting helps brighten the overall effect of your subject matter.

For plein air painters, you can use a viewfinder to frame your scene, then make a thumbnail sketch. To do this, draw a small rectangle with the same proportions as the watercolor paper you’re using. Then, sketch in simplified designs of your subject matter and background while applying the principles of composition. If you’re not satisfied with the results, you can easily do another thumbnail sketch and reframe your subject matter.

Once you have a sketch you like, the next step is to decide on your value pattern. This means shading in the dark, middle, and light values to establish the structure of your painting or drawing. As this is still a draft, you can simplify value into 3 main tones: highlights (leave white), mid-tones (light shading), and shadows (heavy shading). In Steve’s example sketch, he leaves the clouds and waterfall white as his lightest values. The sky is mid-tone, while the rocky area is lighter than the sky but not white. The darkest tones include the crevices in the rocks, shadows behind the waterfall, and the trees.

In this way, plan your landscape composition and value pattern until you’re ready to start painting for real.