Choosing A Subject

Outdoor Watercolors - Choosing A Subject

First comes the question of choosing a subject. Much of your "success" in sketching depends on picking a subject that will "work" well in a small painting. But do not spend the whole morning or afternoon stalking the perfect subject. That animal does not exist! Find something that is representative of the area---something that makes your heart gain a beat---then be seated and make a start. I have painted famous buildings half a world away---and rundown shacks within a couple of miles of my home. Though there is an undeniable thrill in sitting before the Parthenon with brush poised for action, the challenge and joy in painting the nearby shack is every bit as great.
Since you are working at such a small scale, look for something large and bold. For me, this is often an architectural feature that dominates the composition, as my examples will readily reveal. Something small and distant probably will not work well. The sweeping panorama which appears so magnificent in person will probably look very puny on your little watercolor block. My little paintings of the Tetons, the Alps, and the Sierras never worked very well artistically, though they still remain a good memory of the day. The small boat two miles away will not thrill the eye in a small painting. A distant landscape with no prominent features is not likely to be awesome at seven inches by ten inches!
Try to find one dominant center of interest. Most beginners err by trying to include too much in their paintings. This confuses the eye and brain. Find a "focal point"---a blossom, a structure, a tree---whatever it might be---and make this your center of interest. My own work, alas, does not always prove the rule---but I try.
A great help in finding a subject is a simple cardboard "frame" through which to visualize your picture by blocking out the rest of the landscape. You can also do this by making a "frame" with the thumb and forefinger of each hand held together to make a rectangle viewing window. This is also very helpful in determining your "composition," which is the arrangement of the elements within the picture.
Above all---for the beginner---choose a subject that is relatively simple. For instance, don't cut your teeth on the Blue Mosque or the capitol building in Washington. Unless you are unusually accomplished in drawing, you are likely to be discouraged before you unpack your watercolor set. Pick something that will not overwhelm your skills.
Practice discovering subjects even when you are not painting. Ask yourself how this particular view would work in a small sketch. You will learn a great deal just by looking. And searching for subjects is such great fun! The first year I began painting in earnest, I started seeing the world around me in a whole new way. Tree shapes, cloud forms, colors within shadows---everything was seen as for the first time. This is the real joy of sketching and painting!


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