The large and small of it

Big skies, sweeping vistas, far horizons. So much to see, too much to record. As an artist accustomed to rendering the details of small things—birds, butterflies, plants and such—I struggle when it comes to simplifying and capturing large landscapes or streetscapes in watercolor. So, I’m experimenting. My idea is to try working small on the premise that it will not allow me the space to get lost in detail. My goal is to get good in advance of an upcoming trip to Ireland, where I’ll have fantastic scenery and limited painting time. Here are my initial attempts, a few from the salt marshes of Westport, Massachusetts and two from Harbor Island and Franklin Light, Maine. (Click to view larger.)

Granite Cliffs, Harbor Island: 4″ x 2.5″, Franklin Light: 5″ x 2″, Egret: 4″ x 2.5″; Salt Marsh and Osprey Nest: 2.5″ x 1.25

Tips & Techniques– You tell me! What works for you in translating complex landscapes to paper? How do you decide what’s important and what to leave out? How do you scale from small to large without getting too fussy?

32 Comments on “The large and small of it

  1. I too struggle with working on complex images. It made me smile to see that this is not as easy for you as I would have imagined it to be. Making 5×7 quick watercolor value studies helps somewhat. Still, for me it is someting I must spend more time on, learning as I go, what works and what does not. I try to focus on one area of interest and use lighter values and detail in whatever is surrounding.
    I appreciate your question and willingness to share. Thank you.

  2. one of the ways I’ve done this (and I need to do more practice like you’re doing!) is to draw boxes on the page in which to work and paint — even if you have a large format sketch book then you will still have limited space for the landscape.

  3. I do so appreciate your comments about your own challenges. I GET IT! I have the same struggles…And I am ALSO hurrying to get better cuz I’m going on a year-long RV trip around the USA very soon. I do NOT want to get bogged down in detail that requires 1 1/2 – 2 hours!!
    ONE TIP I will add, is to use a big brush, one that your think is “too big” for the size you are working, like maybe with a 444×6 or 5×7, you might use a #10 or 12 round, or try a 1/2″ flat.

    • Great suggestion! I find that I can even get lost in details when working small because I have some very small brushes. Bigger brushes should keep the paint loose and flowing. Let’s keep at it!

    • Good luck! I’m hoping to be able to go from postage stamp to 3×5 to 5×7 to 8×10. I’ve done some larger pieces that I’m happy with, but not consistently or confidently. I know what I’m supposed to do, I just need to do it (and keep doing it.)

  4. I have the same struggles. Love your scenes! When are you going to Ireland? I will be there next month!!

  5. absolutely wonderful. Have a wonderful time in Ireland. Do you take pictures and paint from those?

    • Great suggestions Karen! I think doing a thumbnail value sketch to start might really help me identify the major shapes and values before doing a larger sketch.

  6. I come here because I love watercolor, and hope to play with it someday – one of these days – but meanwhile, as you know, I’m a photographer, with a similar problem, oddly enough. I too gravitate towards details, but I’ve just moved to a place with fabulous landscape and seascape views, and I’m trying to figure out how to photograph them in a fresh way. I don’t want picture postcard views. I see someone recommended a bigger brush than you think you’d need – great advice but I’m not sure I can translate that one into camera equipment. 😉 I’ll think of something. Have a great time in Ireland. When/if you find yourself thinking you’re not doing what you want with those Irish views, I hope you can just say, “Well, it’s all wonderful and I’m going to just soak it all in!” 🙂

  7. I love these little landscapes. Your “paint small” inspires me to think about giving landscapes a try. I, too, feel intimidated by all the complexity I see in landscapes, and I very much admire those who have learned to simplify them with success. Thanks for sharing.

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