Whenever you find yourself at a loss of what to paint, you could try making a set of timed paintings of the same subject. It’s a great exercise that focuses your attention on the subject and pushes out distractions. It’s also a helpful way to assess your own way of moving through watercolour. I also suggest reducing the time for each painting session by half. Here is a breakdown of a session of timed paintings I did recently with a strawberry as my subject:
One day during the middle of confinement this past April, I found myself frustrated not knowing what to paint. Hungry, I went to the fridge to grab a bowl of strawberries and mulled over what I could sketch. As I ate each strawberry, I marvelled at how they were so vibrantly red and shiny. Then I had a thought, why not paint a strawberry? That was enough for me to get my watercolour paints.
Because of the simple nature of the subject, I decided to spend no more than ten minutes on the watercolour. I set my timer watch to ten minutes. I hit the start button and dove right in, pencils first.
Drawing quickly, I started to note the overall form of the strawberry–its leaves, seeds and its cast shadow. Two minutes later, I was still drawing and realised I ought to start painting.
I quickly grabbed some yellow ochre for the warm golden undertone permeating throughout the strawberry. Five minutes down. Now that I had a wet wash I had to reckon with controlling my wet-in-wet as I laid over different hues. This completely threw me for a loop as reds were merging with greens and I had to carefully paint around where the seeds would be. I was getting stressed. Less than two minutes left and what I had was looking strawberry-ish, but pretty flat and not so much like the actual strawberry I was looking at.
With only one minute to go I thought, “Okay...if it doesn’t look like the actual strawberry, that’s fine, just make it work.” That’s when the timer went off and the ten minutes passed, just like that. My strawberry painting looked unfinished.
I did like how even with much of the painting made wet in wet, there were still clear distinctions between colours. I didn’t mind how some of the frenzied marks didn’t look like the leaves themselves, but still had the general shape down. I figured, hey, that was an intense ten minutes, I wonder what could be done in half that time?
I set my timer again, this time to five minutes. Understanding just how little time that was, I prepared all my colours on the palette before commencing (check out our porcelain mini palette).
I then started the timer and began to paint, this time opting against the pencil drawing and painting straight in with the yellow ochre. I moved quickly over the surface of the paper, painting around the brightest highlights of the paper in order to capture some of the shininess I saw on the fruit itself. Before even a minute was up I was moving into the red, painting wet in wet, leaving some room for where the green leaves would be. Painting the leaves was just a matter of colour dropping the greens into the yellow underpainting which was still wet. I looked at my watch–one minute to go. The strawberry was looking unfinished and a little funny, like a baby cuttlefish.
Not having a drawing underneath may have caused the contours and edges to appear too rounded and simplified. I did what I could to finish up, and as I was doing so the timer went off:
The five minute watercolour felt very rushed, but somehow less rushed than the ten minute one that preceded it. I felt like I was using my time better, moving more efficiently, and the colour combinations I was mixing felt less random and more streamlined.
At this point I figured, let’s try another strawberry and cut the time in half yet again.
I set the timer to 2:30 and skipped the pencils again. The one thing I tried differently this time was use less water in my brush so there would be a much shorter drying time once a stroke was laid down on the paper. I found this was effective in allowing for painting on top of this layer, and the wet-in-wet movement of colour was more controlled. Following the sequence I had already established from the first two paintings, I had a clear roadmap to move through the painting. With ten seconds to go, I had roughly reached the same point of where I was with the five minute painting. Those last ten seconds went by with some finishing marks:
The final 2:30 result was rough, with less range of colours in the leaves and cast shadow but the feeling and form of the strawberry were there. I liked the feel of this one the most so far. It said what it had to say and that was enough.
It was at this point that I realised I was growing less concerned with doing a painting of that particular strawberry in front of me, but rather what a strawberry looks like in general. It was starting to feel much like urban sketching, where you have to have a type of shorthand in order to capture all of the information on display in a typical street setting. Urban sketching requires one to sketch quickly, not get bogged down with too many details, let the brushstrokes speak for themselves, and allow the viewer to fill in the blanks if you can’t get all the details down.
With that in mind, I had to see what it would be like to reduce my time even further. I cut the time in half yet again to see what I could accomplish in one minute and fifteen seconds.
I set the timer and began. This was just a flurry of activity and all I could do was hope for the best. I barely even looked at the strawberry itself, just trying to move over the paper quick enough to hit all the markers I had already reached: red fruit, bright seeds, green leaves, cast shadow. The timer went off and it was over before I knew it. I took a deep breath and assessed the minute-plus painting:
It wasn’t so bad! Also, even though it was moving further away from the actual strawberry reference, It had the feeling as well as the sense of light and form. Colours creeped into one another and it actually felt natural in the way that colours and light reflect off of surfaces, and shadows are tinted with their complementary colours. By not thinking too hard about the execution, it felt like the strawberry painted itself.
I looked back at the first ten minute painting–by comparison it looked laboured and stiff. I recalled that I felt rushed and out of time as I was painting it. I had since painted three more, much shorter paintings and the results were on par with the longest one. What would it be like to paint it again with the full ten minutes using all the new approaches I had learned from each subsequent strawberry painting?
I set the timer at ten minutes and hit start. With the extra time I went through all of the steps, including the initial pencil drawing, but this time felt much more deliberate and sure about my colour blending–the paint on my brush, my brushstrokes, and the sequence in which I painted them. By the halfway point the painting was as developed as when I had run out of time during the first ten minute session. I used the last five minutes to further refine the image and give the strawberry a true sense of glow and brightness–mainly by reinforcing the darks. I also wanted to keep the painterly energy that was conveyed in the shorter paintings and not overdo it too much. I was pacing myself, moving deliberately and surely and only saying what I needed to.
When the timer went off I was already finished:
Painting these timed strawberry paintings turned out to be a very helpful exercise in multiple ways. Initially, it was stressful and I felt frustrated with the results, but the final ten minute painting was calming and relaxing. Plus the entire exercise took only about half an hour! I would highly recommend it to anyone.
If you are just looking for something to paint, pick something simple and don’t overthink it. You’ll find after the five paintings are over how much you’ll feel you’ve learned in that short period of time.