There's always value in studying values and in the basics! In this demo, Alina Tulli breaks down some art basics into simple, bite-sized pieces and shows one of the best ways to practice and plan a painting.
Step 1: The Lowdown
Alina particularly likes sunny scenes, as the sun creates exciting shapes and shadow patterns. The extra contrast also means that a painting will look good, even in monochrome!
She gives a rundown of her process and what she looks for in a reference photo or an outdoor scene:
Contrasts. Sunny days are great, as they offer a good balance between sunlit parts and shadows. The best times to take pictures or paint are in the morning or evening, as the sun is low and creates more interesting shadows.
Alina does note that while she prefers sunny days, sometimes night scenes and rainy days work well.
Perspective. Finding a scene with a clear vanishing point creates a sense of movement and depth and adds dynamics to a composition. So try to aim for a composition with at least one vanishing point!
You need to keep it in mind when looking for something to paint! Once you've found a painting subject, you can plan out the composition next.
This means what idea you want to convey through your painting, i.e. think about what you're trying to show in your image.
For example, in today's reference photo of St. Andrew's Cathedral in Victoria, Canada, we want to highlight the cathedral as the main subject. We also want a sense of depth, so we'll need to create lines and forms that lead into the main subject.
Lastly, including some well-placed shadows will help set the atmosphere.
Tip: For a better idea, it's good to do a few thumbnail sketches of the shapes and contrasts in the cityscape. Watercolour doesn't allow too much room for mistakes, so having a plan of action is always a plus! We'll cover more of that later on.
Rule of Thirds:
A good composition is needed to express the idea sufficiently. The "Rule of Thirds" comes in here, which you might have heard of or seen before.
The concept is simple – divide your composition into nine equal shapes to get a 3x3 grid. Where the lines intersect should be where the focal points should be. It doesn't have to be precisely in these locations; a general approximation works.
This rule works well because having your subject off to the side or corner is often more interesting. It's also easier to direct the viewer's attention to where you want it to go, but the eye stops there if the focus is concentrated in the middle.
Such is why perspective works so well to create movement, as it naturally draws the eye towards the vanishing point. Another great thing about using the Rule of Thirds is setting the atmosphere depending on what kind of movement you're creating.
For example, bottom to top will feel more inspirational or uplifting, while top to bottom will feel more sad or contemplative.
"Values" are what artists refer to as lights and darks within a composition. Usually, 4-5 different tones are enough to create a good sense of depth – lightest (white) to darkest (shadow).
Usually, the top and bottom are darker in cityscapes, while the background is the lightest, which gives it more depth. However, this isn't a fixed rule, as you can also use value to have the highest contrast where your main focal point is. In this case, it would be the cathedral.
Last but not least is to plan out the edges. There are two types: soft vs hard edges. Hard edges are crisp and clean edges, which are great for painting the focal point(s). Soft edges blend smoothly into one another with a gradated effect, which is great for everywhere else.
Let's put these into practice with all that in mind, shall we?
Step 2: Thumbnail Sketches
Start with some thumbnail sketches of possible compositions for this cityscape. Alina says she always starts with the first thumbnail, similar to the reference photo, to see where it works and where it doesn't.
The following sketches will be to tweak specific details (or remove them altogether) to suit the idea she has in mind, which is to bring the focus to the cathedral. To do this means removing the cars covering the background and adjusting the large shadow on the road to make it less complicated.
It's also a good idea to shade in the dark areas of your sketches. Doing this adds an extra layer to your planning, so when you paint, you can refer back to your sketch and see where you need to adjust the contrast.
And keep in mind that these are supposed to be really quick sketches, so it's okay if certain elements look scribbly!
Step 3: Quick Pencil Sketch
Next, you can move on to doing a small value painting. A value painting is a quick monochromatic painting in one dark colour that helps you plan the shapes you'll paint and the tones for different parts of the painting.
You can prep for your painting by gathering some supplies: an A5 sheet of cold press watercolour paper, one large round brush, one paint colour (Alina goes with sepia, but a black or indigo works too), a 6B pencil, a container of water, and paper towels.
I recommend also taping the edges of your paper down with artist's tape.
Within the border, do a quick sketch in pencil of the general shapes of the buildings, trees, and road. These lines will show through your painting, so keep your lines light and loose. Alina doesn't erase them either, as she thinks they add some charm to her paintings!
Tip: If you find it hard to keep your lines loose, try holding your pencil loosely by grasping it near the end rather than the tip.
Step 4: Light Wash
Next, dilute your paint so it's pretty light, then paint a quick wash over the whole paper while leaving some white highlights on the walls of the buildings facing the sun. This area will be "high contrast" since the cathedral and its surrounding area should be the main focus of the painting.
You can drop in a more saturated version of your paint to the top part of the sky to give it more depth when you're done. Wait for the paint to dry before moving to the next paint layer when you're done.
Tip: If your paint starts to pool too much, clean and dry off your paintbrush on a paper towel before "lifting" the extra paint out with your brush.
Step 5: Dark Shadows
Work on the darkest shadows by using very saturated paint to paint in the tree and building on the left. Keep your brushstrokes loose, like you did when drawing the pencil sketch.
For some of the leaves and branches, you can try "fading" them by using a brush dipped in clean water to gently smooth out the hard edges or smudge some of the paint using your finger.
Extend the shadow to the road, and paint it, so its edge is angled towards the vanishing point you've established in your sketch. When painting the road, angle your brush, so it lies almost parallel to the paper, then quickly paint over the paper to create a "dry brush" effect.
You can also dilute the paint slightly as you paint towards the edge of the paper to give it a little more variation in tone. These tiny gaps in the paint add texture to the rough ground and add a "sparkly" feeling of light being filtered through the gaps in the trees.
Step 6: Building Tones
Use the same saturated paint to paint in the shadowed area of the cathedral, using some marks to give it a bit of contouring along with the spire. You can paint a little more loosely as you near the bottom before establishing the ground at the base.
Add the shadow to the right side of the cathedral, and make sure to leave some highlighted areas so it's not in complete darkness.
Dilute your paint slightly, then paint in the shadowed walls of the following two buildings to the left. Then, dilute your paint again, and paint the shadowed walls of the following two buildings, so that the shadows gradually get lighter as you approach the vanishing point.
You also don't need to paint in as many details as you get further into the background, as they're not as visible.
You can add some final touches to your painting when you're done, such as painting some darker strokes for windows on the cathedral or flicking water onto the trees. Note that the effect from flicking water only works if your paint is still damp!
Tip: If you find that your paint is drying too fast before working it while it's wet, I recommend using 100% cotton watercolour paper, as it retains water better. You can also try painting faster, but if that's not possible, you can gently rewet the area with clean water before painting on top.
Once you've captured all the essential values of this painting study, sign your painting if you'd like, and carefully remove the tape. And you're done!
This piece will be an excellent reference painting if you decide to create the full-colour version, but even if not, I hope you've learned some new techniques to include in your painting practice.
The breakdown of these basics is handy to learn, so I highly recommend watching the live demo with Alina! You can also check out her 90-minute art class when you're ready to take your art to the next level!
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