How to Create a Large Connected Shape: A Watercolor Tutorial

Jan 03, 2024

If you've followed me for anytime at all, you know that a foundational lesson I go back to time and time again is finding the large, connected shape of your scene when you're painting a watercolor. It's something I continue to mention because it can be the difference between a disjointed, awkward painting and a cohesive, harmonious one.

Today's blog and video takes this lesson and expands on it. In the video, I show you an example of how I created the connected shape in this photo, and in the blog I lay out some of this lessons in short, easy to digest segments. 

How to Paint a Unified Watercolor

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The idea that you should have a connected shape in your paintings is not something that is easy to immediately grasp. It can really help to have some examples of what I mean. 

Here are some pictures of unfinished paintings that might help you see what I mean when I say "large, connected shape." This collage is made up of paintings that are waiting for the darks and details that provide depth and separation between objects. 

Notice how the middle values connect and create a unified shape in your painting. This is the goal in your second wash.

3 Strategies to Help you See the Connected Shape in Your Reference

Before you even start your watercolor, there are three things you can do that will help that connected shape emerge in your imagination:

  • Squint. This sounds so simple (and it is), but it can make a huge difference. Whether you're looking at a reference photo or a landscape in the wild, squinting can mute some of the details that can distract us from seeing how your middle values can connect. 
  • Turn your reference photo black and white. Sometimes color information can confuse the way we see shapes. When you take this information out of a painting, it can clear things up for you. The connected shape pops out at you a little more obviously.  

  • Complete a Value Study. Value studies can force you to really study your watercolor scene before you pick up a brush. It allows you to map out that connected shape right away and have a plan as you start your painting.

What is the Main Focus in Each of the Three Watercolor Washes?

When we're addressing this topic of the connected shape, I would be remiss to not review the goal of each wash in my watercolor painting process. I paint from light to dark in three washes, and in each wash I have a predominant and unique goal:

First Wash

My goal in the first wash is to lay down all the lightest parts of my painting, sometimes preserving the white of the paper in the lightest areas.

Second Wash

In the second wash, my focus is - like we've been talking about throughout this entire blog - the large, connected middle value shape. Taking advantage of wet-into-wet painting, following "the bead," I connect those middle values in my painting and strive toward a unified effect. 

Third Wash

The third wash is where you get to watch it all come together. It can be the most satisfying part of the whole watercolor painting process. The goal here is to add darks and details that differentiate objects and provide depth in your painting. It can also bring forward the beautiful light you've set the stage for in the previous stages of your painting. 

Why It's Important to Take Artistic Liberties When Rendering a Scene from a Reference Photo

But what if your middle values don't actually connect in your reference photo? 

I run into this all the time, and in these moments, I remind myself that my job is not to render a scene with exactitude and precision, but to create an atmosphere that conveys the scene in front of me. I must consider whether a watercolor scene looks realistic, but not whether it could serve as a blueprint of the actual subject of the painting. 

Take artistic liberties that serve the painting. 

This is the job of the artist. If the middle values don't actually connect, change something. Often, the change is slight, but it can make a huge difference in the overall effect of your final watercolor painting. 

How to Create the Large Connected Middle Value Shape in Watercolor Paintings

I hope that this tutorial helps you to be able to take this lesson and put it into practice. It can take time to internalize some of these more complicated lessons, and we're going to make mistakes along the way. Give yourself some grace, keep working hard at your craft, and you'll see the fruits of your labor. 

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