How to Simplify a Complex Scene in Watercolor

Apr 08, 2024

Have you ever had a reference photo of a scene you wanted to paint, but it just felt too difficult? Maybe you felt intimidated by the intricacy of the scene. Maybe you felt unsure of your ability to render the watercolor subject, given its complexities. 

This blog and video address this exact struggle. They will help you to simplify a complex scene into something paintable. Keep reading to learn more!

Making a Complicated Scene Paintable

Believe it or not, there are watercolor techniques you can use when the scene you want to paint feels out of your reach. You don’t have to abandon your inspiration, you just have to follow some simple strategies. 

This doesn’t mean the painting will necessarily be easy. But it will help you bridge the gap between a too complicated scene and a scene you’ll be able to render. 

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What Makes Watercolor Painting So Difficult?

Before we dive into how to paint a complex watercolor scene, let’s address the elephant in the room: watercolor painting is hard. And yes, in some ways, it is more difficult than other mediums. 

Why is that, exactly? 

Well, first of all, watercolor is not a very forgiving medium. In some other mediums, you can paint over mistakes or scrape things away. But watercolor is so immediate, and oftentimes when you try to correct something, you end up making it look worse. 

Secondly, the transparent nature of watercolor paint makes it so that each wash remains visible throughout the painting process. Its transparency is one of the qualities that makes watercolor so beautiful. It lends depth and dynamism to the the medium - but it can also be frustrating when painting.

Another aspect of watercolor painting that makes it challenging is the shift in values as the paints dry. When you mix and apply your paint, you have to do so knowing that the color will be more subdued when it dries on your paper. This is something that requires practice and familiarity with your watercolor pigments to learn.

5 Strategies for Painting a Complex Scene in Watercolor

Do you have your heart set on painting a scene with various competing elements, a busy background, or a unique vantage point? Here are some ways you can lend yourself a hand as you take on a complicated watercolor scene. 

1. Squint at the Scene as You Draw Your Watercolor.

Here’s a reference photo I used to paint a recent watercolor. This photo challenged my ability to simplify a complicated scene. Look at all the windows on all the buildings, all the detail in the foreground, all the many elements in the scene. 

If I tried to capture all this in my drawing, it would take me forever. And it would probably be too busy a watercolor.

So here’s where this first tip comes into play: as you draw your scene, squint at your reference and focus on the large shapes of the scene. When you squint, you’re able to drown out the less important details and see the main shapes better.

We want to minimize a lot of the detail and a lot of the texture. We want to simplify. And we want to see all these little shapes in more of a connected way. When we're looking at the background of this scene and we're squinting we can mass together a lot of these buildings.

2. Give Yourself Permission to Change a Scene.

One thing you might notice when you look at my drawing above is that I took some liberties with the scene. I omitted some things, I zoomed in, and I moved some elements around. Remember when you are rendering a scene, that you are the artist, and you get to make these kinds of decisions.

Some artists have a strong desire to depict a scene exactly how it is, and that is perfectly fine. For me, it depends on my goal with the painting. If it’s a commission where a client wants a certain meaningful scene rendered, I am more loyal to the details in front of me. 

But other times, I take more liberties. I am much more interested in capturing things like the feel of the locale or the particular way the light is falling. Remember that you decide what the focal point of the painting is. You determine what details to emphasize (or omit). And each of these choices must benefit the primary goal of the finished painting.

3. Complete a Value Study.

A value study is a drawing of your scene that lays out the composition and assigns each shape in your painting a value. The white of the paper represents the brightest part of the scene. I use a few tones that range from light to dark to achieve the other values in the scene.

Here are some examples of value studies. The first I used sepia tones, and the second I used shades of gray.

Value studies help you to see the values in your watercolor scene. From there, you can create a plan to achieve the results you want. Sometimes it is easier to see the values if you can convert your picture into a black and white photo. This way you see what shapes are connected and which might easily merge into a connected shape to simplify your scene.

4. Plan Your Painting Process Before You Start Painting.

Planning is as relevant when you’re painting a street scene as it is when you’re rendering a landscape. It’s important when you’re working in your studio and when you’re painting en plein air. 

Without a plan, a complicated scene will become incredibly overwhelming. So before you even pick up your brush, think through the scene and determine when you’ll address each element of the scene.

I paint from light to dark, and I think of my painting process in 3 steps. The simple explanation is as follows:

First wash - Lightest, brightest values


Second wash - middle value connected shape


Third wash - darks and details


For a more thorough explanation of this process, check out one of my full-length tutorials- or watch the video at the top of this blog all the way through. In it, I demonstrate each stage of the painting process and let you in on what I am focused on in each. 

5. Imply Detail Instead of Including it all.

My last piece of advice to simplify a scene is to get comfortable implying detail instead of getting caught up in every last detail of the scene. 

In the reference photo above, there is a lot going on in the skyline. So what I tried to do was simplify. A lot of it is going to be one connected middle value shape with a few little darks to kind of break up that area and imply a lot of detail. 

There is no need to overwork it. Sometimes a little goes a long way. 

One example of implying a shape that I want to highlight is in this process picture:

Notice that white vertical line on the left side of the skyline? This is where I have lifted some paint to imply the light side of a taller building behind the more proximate buildings. This soft edge will help it recede into the background and contrast a bit with the buildings in front.

You don’t have to define every shape for it to read well on the page. In fact, it makes for a better watercolor when shapes are not all articulated with the same level of detail.

Making a Complex Scene Paintable

When it comes down to it, my number one advice to the artist who wants to paint a complicated watercolor scene is to outline your watercolor process - to have a plan. While a reference photo might feel intimidating, don’t give up on using it as inspiration. 

Give yourself permission to change aspects of the scene, and decide which details are most important to the painting. Then study the painting and make a plan that supports your vision.

Related Blogs

Use Reference Photos to Create Beautiful Watercolors

How to Simplify Your Reference Photos (For Watercolor)

How to Simplify Your Watercolor Paintings - Three Steps

Stop Overworking Your Paintings!

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