Double Vision: “Seeing Simply” with Russell Black (1 of 2)

Double Vision: “Seeing Simply” with Russell Black (1 of 2)


Seeing Simply is a joint effort by Daniel Novotny and Russell Black. The following post was written by Russell Black.

Original painting from the previous article; Painting by Russell Black
Subsequent painting; Painting by Russell Black

In my last article, I went through my process for designing a painting and then executing that design in watercolor (above). A part of that process was the simplification of the scene. What I would like to do in this article is discuss how to simplify a scene, and the decisions that I make along the way. For this example, I will use a photo (below), that was provided by my good friend and owner of this website, Daniel Novotny.

Reference Image; Photograph by Daniel Novotny

As you can see, it is a scene of a dock area. If we were to sit here on location and try to paint what we are seeing in this image, the painting would probably fail for any number of reasons. Let’s take a look at what I consider “problem” areas and how I might choose to deal with them.

Step 1: Learning to “see” with a painter’s eye

My first problem with the scene is the expansive area of useless parking lot (in red, marked “A”). Unless I want to make a painting entitled, “Parking Lot“, this massive area of gray blacktop needs to go. The first way to simplify down a scene is to get rid of anything and everything that does not support or add to the scene in general. A painting of a parking lot would be boring to look at, so let’s get rid of it.

I have the same problem with the buildings on the left (in blue, marked “B”). They do not have any real “character” to them, so they can be discarded as well. Again, unless I want my painting to be, “Parking Lot with Building“, we can get rid of the left hand side of the image.

Finally, I get rid of the right hand side of the parking lot (in green, marked “C”). There is nothing interesting there, so dump it. When you are looking at a scene, you have to be ruthless and eliminate anything that does not support one, clear idea. Let’s see what we have left.

The boat. Certainly the most interesting item in the scene and definitely worthy of a painting. By removing all of the surrounding, non-essential items, we can reduce and simplify the scene down to one idea. This boat happens to be in dry dock (hint: you can see the rudder and propeller), and is being repaired. The idea for the painting now becomes, “Under Repairs.”

Step 2: Learning to simplify the shapes that we see within the subject

Once we have a simple idea and subject, we can begin to deal with the individual shapes. How far we simplify the shapes will depend on the style of painting that we want to accomplish. If I want a representational painting, then I need to hold true to the subject, but I can reduce the amount of details down to the minimum necessary to “say” boat. If I go in the other direction, more to the abstract, I can then play around with the basic shapes a bit. Webster’s dictionary defines abstract as…

abstract: of abstrahere to draw from, separate. That which comprises or concentrates in itself the essential qualities of a larger thing or of several things.

So, abstraction then is not just a bunch of random paint splatters on paper or canvas. That would be a “non-objective” painting as it is clear from the definition that to “abstract” is to “draw from” a subject or “thing.” An abstract painting, therefore, has subject matter. In our case, the boat. What I want to do is to take the boat and simplify it down and abstract from it the essential shapes and values that will then say “boat” to the viewer.

If we ignore everything except for the boat, and we look at the outside shape of the boat (red line), then what we get is the following basic shape (below).

It is a fairly simple shape, not too complicated at all. What I want you to understand is that when you look at just the outer edge of something, and ignore all of the interior complications, then a basic, fundamental shape generally pops out at you. Within this shape are other shapes and values, but this is the basic shape of the boat as it sits right now. So, let’s break down the interior shapes one step at a time.


If I take my basic boat shape, and then place a light midtone around it, we get the image (above 1). Since I am painting in watercolor, I need to know how to leave a “white” shape when I paint my first layer of color. The reserved, white “boat” shape would be easy enough to deal with. My next consideration would be the darker midtone shapes that are within the boat shape, and these individual shapes are shown in the image (above 2). Again, I am combining smaller, individual areas into larger shapes that would be easy to paint quickly using a large brush.


When we combine the darker midtones with our background, we get the image (above 1). To show more of the form changes, I go back and add in the lighter midtones to the boat. What we now have is the basic tonal pattern as shown in image (above 2). Notice how with just a few values and a couple of layers, we can describe the boat without getting into the complexity of the subject itself. I have two more additions to make to this basic idea, the darker “darks” of the design and the final form adjustments.


Image (above 1), is the addition of the darker “darks” and image (above 2), is the final form additions. Small changes, but they are necessary to show the changes in forms as they wrap around the subject. I have not dealt with all of the small, nit picky items like portholes, railings, etc., as I am only interested in the basic shapes that would be a part of my “block-in” procedure. Although it took a number of steps to get to this point, we can reduce the entire process down to three, simple stages.

Stage 1 – the initial, light midtone wash
Stage 2 – the midtones
Stage 3 – the darks

If we look back at the actual scene along with our intended “simplification”, we can see that we now only need to address the minor aspects of the location. Ask the question, “…how much of the surroundings do I need to make this a completed idea?” Are any of the vehicles that are still visible necessary to the idea of “Under Repairs“? What about that background hillside? Is it necessary? I took out the temporary barrier and those figures, but are either of them necessary? The blue barrier can be discarded, but the figures might come in handy, or rather, some type of workers might be a nice addition to the painting. I do not see any type of support for the boat in dry dock, but there must be something. It is usually a “cradle” of some sort, which keeps the boat’s keel off of the ground. I might need to add that object(s) into the scene in order to tell the viewer that this boat is on land rather than in the water. If I want to add in the cradle, then I might need to shift the boat up a tad within the picture’s frame in order to set the cradle in place.

You may be wondering how much time all of these decisions take? Do I really go through this process on location? The answers depend on the situation. If I am out and actually painting on site, then yes, I go through all of this while I am there. It might take me anywhere from fifteen minutes to a half hour to deal with the problems, but it can be done. This is where experience comes in. If this is your first time out, then you might take longer to deal with the situation, and it might even be better to do a few quick sketches, take a photo or two, and then deal with these issues back home. Just remember, do not try to bite off more than you can chew. If the scene is too complex and you are having trouble finding a way to simplify the shapes, then leave the problems for when you get back home and can take the time to deal with the individual issues one at a time. Any scene can be broken down and simplified. It just takes time, knowledge, and practice.

When I arrive at a location, I usually take some time to just sit and look, and think. Seeing and thinking are your most valuable tools when it comes time to design the painting. Merely copying and duplicating the scene at hand requires only a minimum level of drafting skills. Anyone can do that with a bit of practice. However, if you want to create a powerful statement with your work, then you need to spend the time to design and organize your painting. At this point, I am ready to make several sketches to see if I can incorporate my mental and visual decisions into a viable design which can then be painted.

Step 3: Learning to make the preliminary pencil sketch of the simplified shapes and values

Once I have had an opportunity to make these decisions, I am ready to sketch a few things out. I cannot stress how important it is to do a little pre-sketch planning before you pick up a pencil or pen and dive into the drawing. Too many students are in a rush to get to the painting part and fail to do the really important part of the operation, which is to plan out where you want to go with your statement.

Taking out my 11″ x 14″ sketch pad (note: it is easier to work large), I draw an outer frame on the paper (A), using a #2 yellow pencil (HB). Do not use the edges of the paper as your frame. Always draw a frame within the confines of the paper. That way, you can take elements out of the frame should you need to, and you can also think about casting shadows into the frame from an outside object. Since the boat, as a whole, will fit into a “box”, I sketch in a rectangle that the boat “shape” will fit into (B). I can now sketch the large, basic shape of the boat. This outer edge of the boat is fairly simple to draw, however, I had to add in the keel of the boat which originally was not visible in the photo.

My next step is to sketch in the placement of the shapes of the value changes that we discussed earlier. This sets up the value structure of the boat. I will refer to these shapes later on in the process.

Once the major shapes of the boat and the value changes are in place, I can begin to think about a few of the other ideas like the cradle and workers. I am toying around with the possibility of a small work shed over on the right hand side and maybe some type of fencing over on the left. One issue that I need to address is the proportions of the outer frame. A typical sheet of watercolor paper is cut on a ratio of 2:3, or if this is a half sheet, then the mat “window” (the frame), is 14″ x 21″ (2×7 : 3×7). If I crop my current sketch to these proportions, then something has to go, in this case the top of the mast. You can see my rough measurement calculations above and the possible crop lines. Doing this would leave me with the possible outcome of the following (below). Note: it is handy to carry a few scrap mats with you.

This is a very reasonable organization of elements within the frame. By cropping the design I have also eliminated another problem, the big empty “sky” areas that were present in the original image. In most cases, try to get rid of as much sky as possible in a painting. Unless your idea is “Big Open Sky with Puffy Clouds,” ditch the sky in favor of ground (you have more options for textures there).

Step 4: Learning to make the final value pattern sketch for the painting

With the rough pencil idea in hand, it is now time to produce the final value pattern sketch. This will be the sketch that I will paint from, so it needs to be done properly as it is the blueprint for how to make the actual painting. I now switch to using a pen to produce the line drawing. The darker line will reproduce better when I add in my values and is more stable then pencil.

Taking the rough pencil sketch (above left), I make an overlay drawing with pencil (above right), to clean things up and work out some of the minor details of the dock area.

Using an ultra fine Sharpe marker (these are now archival quality), I make another copy of the sketch. The reason that I do multiple sketches on separate pieces of paper is simple, if I make an error or something happens (like a spilled cup of coffee), I can go back to the previous sketch without having to redraw everything from scratch. In other words, work smarter, not harder. The final pen drawing (above), will be used for the rest of the design work. If I am out in the field, I have several options at this point. I could use this pen sketch along with my gray markers to complete the value pattern sketch, and is generally what I do on site. If I have access to a Xerox copier, then I will make five copies to work from. Again, just in case something does not work out. If I am back at home, as I am now, I will scan this into my paint program and continue my work using the computer (as I am going to do).


I am going to repeat the steps that I took before (mentally), and my first step is to add a light midtone to everything except what I want to leave as reserved “white” paper (above 1). Remember, we do not have white paint in watercolor, so these shapes are important. There will be adjustments made to some areas later on in the process, but initially I want to make these shapes as easy to paint around as possible using a large brush. I have removed the line work (above 2), to show you what the painting would look like.


In step 2, I add in the shapes of the darker midtones (above 1). To see what the individual shapes look like, I have pulled them out for you (above 2). When combined with the light midtones, and with the line work again removed, we have the following (below).

The slight variations that you see in value correspond to the transparent nature of watercolor and approximate what you will see in the actual painting when one layer is painted over another.


In step 3, I add in the dark shapes (above 1), and the basic block-in of the painting is done. Again, the individual shapes are shown (above 2), along with the pen lines removed (below).

This is what the painting would look like at the end of the block-in phase of the painting process. When you create the value pattern sketch, you are creating the actual sequence for making the painting. Beginning painters all too often overlook this important point. They begin a painting with absolutely no plan whatsoever, and then get stuck somewhere in the middle of the painting process with no idea of how to finish the job. By creating this value pattern sketch, I now know how to take this painting all the way to the point where I would make my final value adjustments and add in the final calligraphic details. The painting, at this stage, would be 85% complete. This is the purpose of the value pattern sketch.

Adding the final bits and pieces of calligraphy and the darkest darks will bring us to the end of the design process (above). Some bits may be lifted back to white, but all that is left to do on the actual painting would be to lay in the thin lines of the ropes and texture marks using a rigger brush. Let us review the process for the painting.

Step 1 – The Light Midtone Wash
Step 2 – The Dark Midtone Wash
Step 3 – The Dark Wash
Step 4 – The Final Bits of Calligraphy
The Original Image
The Final Idea

When you go out on location, it is worth the time and effort to look the scene over and then make a plan for how you will approach the painting process. All that is left for us to do now is to make the painting, and we will do that in the next article. I hope that this has been helpful to you.

Russell Black

Please note this is an article repost.
Original publish date overwritten.
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1 Comment

  1. Emma

    This is a very interesting article, thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas! It is very useful for an amateur like myself to see the step-by-step thought process that goes in to a good watercolour painting. Looking forward to seeing the paintings

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