No Plan, No Problem: Intuitive Watercolor Without Planning Ahead

When I was a kid, my brother and I had a game where each of us drew an abstract shape – it could be a scribble, a shape, any set of marks – and then traded papers. Our task was then to turn the other person’s abstract shape into something. You could add anything you wanted. Make a monster, a character, a scene… whatever the shape suggested to you. (This is a great game for two artistically-minded kids of vastly different ages and skill levels, because both pictures end up being collaborations, and you win either way – either the picture comes out cool, or it doesn’t and you successfully stumped them.) 

Cathy Johnson describes a similar game you can play alone with watercolor in First Steps Series: Painting Watercolour. As a “Fear Conquering Exercise,” she suggests:

1. Make an irregular shape – any shape or color + let it dry thoroughly.

2. Look at it until you see something there.

3. Now – make what you saw in your mind’s eye appear on paper! Go wild – add all the details you want! 

Cathy Johnson
Page 33 of First Steps Series: Painting Watercolour by Cathy Johnson, in which she turns a green blob into a dragon.

I love this idea (and it can be adapted to play with a friend, like me and my brother’s game.) In fact, I realized after reading it that it resembles the way I painted anything for the first few months I played around with watercolor. Too overwhelmed to contemplate planning when I was still figuring out the materials, but too easily bored to just “practice,” I would futz around with paint with no particular goal, then go away and do something else while it dried. Coming back to it later with fresh eyes, I would squint at it, perhaps turning the paper around, until I figured out what the resulting abstract shape already looked like to me, and add details to match. 

Hack #1: Add Silhouettes

You’d be surprised how easy it is to turn almost any gradient into a sky. Just add a silhouette in front of it to add context: maybe a mountain ridgeline, some trees, a city skyline, or a boat over a flat horizon to suggest a water scene. Maybe “V” a couple of birds into the sky.

This two-color gradient practice became an ocean sunset with the addition of some vague blue color and dolphin silhouettes. (April 2021)

Hack #2: Add Stars

Did you make a gradient with a dark color? Rotate the paper so the dark color is on top, and spatter stars on it with white gouache (or draw them on with a white gel pen), and you’ve got a night scene. Throw a silhouette on the bottom (the lightest part) to complete the illusion.

One-color gradient practice (French Ultramarine to plain white paper) that turned into a night scene with the addition of black trees and white gel pen stars. (March 2021)

Hack #3: Add Reflections

Did you make a “sandwich” with the same color on top and bottom? Perfect, add a horizon line right in the middle, and paint the same shapes mirrored on both sides – maybe the bottom ones a bit hazier and rippled – and you’ve got yourself a sunset reflected in water.

A “color sandwich” …
And the Provincetown skyline it became. (June 2021)

The great part about this method is that there is no way to fail. In step one, you’re not trying to make anything in particular. You don’t decide what it is until it already looks like that. It’s a happy accident generating machine. 

Do this long enough, and you find yourself beginning to creep toward thinking ahead. If I use these colors, it will be easier to turn it into a sunset. If I drop a splotch of water into the dark paint, I can turn it into a galaxy later. (And if your plans go astray, you can still change them mid-stream.)

There’s more than one way to plan

Many guides and books will tell you that planning is essential in watercolor. The typical process is something like this: 

  1. Decide what you want to paint
  2. Make thumbnail sketches to try out different compositions
  3. Make a value sketch to decide where you lights and darks will go
  4. Make a full-size version of your sketch (just the contours) as an underdrawing on your watercolor paper. Use a grid to make sure everything goes in the right spot.
  5. Referring to the value sketch, put down masking fluid/tape/resist etc. to preserve your whites. 
  6. Paint in an orderly series of layers light to dark / back to front / wet to dry.
  7. Remove masking and add final details.

There’s a place for that kind of detailed work. Masking, for example, is something you can only do if you plan ahead. You will never preserve the ideal perfectly white shape in the no-plan method because you don’t know yet what it should be. (But perhaps you can use gouache to add it in later.) Value sketches and thumbnails can help you quickly play with different compositions and contrasts until you find the one you like best before you commit paint to paper.

Gradient practice that became an ocean sunset with the addition of wavy black water shapes and white gouache mixed with yellow to add a lighter sun and highlights than I’d originally left in the painting. The use of gouache was perhaps not as successful at conveying luminosity as preserving the whites would have been, but it has a certain prog-rock-album-cover charm, and most importantly, it was possible for me in a way that planning ahead was not. Done is better than perfect. (April 2021)

Some people love the orderliness of a careful plan because it helps them to break down a large project into simple steps, and make the messy process of creating art feel more logical and straightforward. Me? I’m the opposite – plans make me itchy, and a process that’s too many steps makes me feel despair and give up before I start. I like to dive right in with paint and get messy, not work through a checklist before I even pick up a paintbrush.

I always assumed that was the “real” way that “real” artists paint and I’d have to shift over to that eventually, but then I read Nita Engle’s How to the Make a Watercolor Paint Itself. She describes a totally different approach, much closer to my intuitive method.

My method consists of two parts: a wild, spontaneous phase, in which I am to create the illusion of, say, water, a daisy field, trees, or whatever; and a realism phase, in which I select small areas, usually in the foreground, and add careful detail so the viewer’s eye will accept the rest as reality.

Nita Engle

This isn’t exactly the same method, because Engle is planning – she knows what “illusion” she wants to create in the spontaneous phase, she is just taking an abstract way to get there. But the idea that a real artist can spin this basic methodology into real paintings made me feel a lot better about it. You don’t need to carefully pencil, and mask, and use a ruler. Your methodology can be:

  1. Have fun with paint
  2. Go away and have a sandwich, play some Mini Metro, think about something else
  3. Okay, now see if you can’t turn your mess into something

If you’re like me, and the typical pre-pro is exhausting you or psyching you out before you even open your paints, give the bless-this-mess method a try. Play “stump the artist” with yourself or a friend, and painting may start to feel less like a checklist you have to work through and more like a game.

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