How to Fix Basic Composition Problems

I can hear you now, saying to yourself,

“Oh yeah, it’s all very well my learning to paint with watercolours ….but my first attempts turned out a flop! It looked like a jumble of colours. Why was that?”

That is a composition problem. Nothing to do with your articulate skills! The following advice will show you how to  create more effective paintings.

How three tonal areas creates impact.

A5 watercolour: “Muddy road ahead” was painted basically in three basic tonal areas: Sky- light toned; middle ground- dark toned; and foreground- medium toned. Also notice: to make pathways and roads show up, use contrast of tone.

First: Drawing attention to what’s important and giving your painting dimension.

Most beginners paint everything on one tone level, some intensity of colour and tone value, making their paintings look bland. There needs to be contrast of tone and colour somewhere in your painting, to make things to stand out and be recognizable.

 “How do we do that?”

  • It is important to give prominence to your main topic of interest, by giving it strong contrast of tone, colour and sharp edges, thus giving it a bold `bull’s eye target’ treatment.
  • But if everything has strong contrast of tone, colour and sharp-edges, your painting will look over busy and confusing too.
  • There needs to be variation of tone, colours and types of contour edges to make your painting interesting.
  • Why, because perspective and diminution is regulated by difference in tone intensity. That is, things in the distance have light tones and are blurred without fine detail, even misty. Whereas things nearer to you are in focus, depending of cause on their importance.
  • Things around the outer edges of your painting are generally out of focus, so as to draw more attention to the main point of interest. This is called tunnel vision.
  • Round curved things generally have blurred graduated contour edges, eg: balls and rolling hills.
  • Whereas detailed and sharp things generally have sharp-edges, along contours and outer-edges, eg: knives and sharp rocks.
  • Selecting detail and keeping detail to a minimum, keeps the eye on what’s important, thus reduces confusion.
Where and how to place your focal point.

You don’t have to use only the position depicted here. You can use any of the four overlapping lines junctions as your focal point.

Another shot at tone format: Three basic tonal areas.

If you divide your painting horizontally (or vertically) into three main tonal areas or planes, it makes the painting easier to `read. It also creates bold impact. For example:

How to compose with 3 tonal areas.

Three possible tonal areas.

  • These basic tonal areas don’t have to be in same order as this. Example if there is a storm the sky may be dark.
  • And there must be a contrast of tone on one of the tonal planes to emphasis the main point of interest. For example: if it’s a seascape the rocks are generally dark with white foam for contrast.
  • The tonal areas aren’t necessary `striped’ vertically or horizontally either. They can be subtly interlaced, but each area is distinguished by its overall tonal level.
  • The three different tone vary in size and shape, depending on the subject matter.

Second: Symbolic forms and colours.

First we will start with tree examples:

  • “Why does my tree look like a fan?” Trees have branches and leaves all around, not just on the sides.
  • “Why does my tree look like an ice-cream cone?” The brown tree trunk is too wide and solid-looking. There is no hint of branches. The out perimeter of the green foliage is confined to a neat ball shape. There are no loose leaves blowing in the wind. And there are no ‘pinhole’ openings in the foliage for birds to fly though with freedom.

 This proves things have symbolic shapes and colours.

  • Generally you don’t get bright red, blue or purple lollypop trees! Tree trunks are usually brown and the foliage different shades of green.
  • Grass is acceptable as grass when it is green in summer and earthy yellow or russet in winter.
  • Skies are generally depicted as been blue with white clouds. Skies been acceptable in the upper section of your painting and cloud shapes differ according to the weather.
  • Men and women’s body shapes differ, eg: as seen as toilet placards.

These are all things we learnt and observed since childhood. Anything different or foreign isn’t acceptable.

This is where artists can play with their imagination, creating moods and dimensions that evoke our attention. Even though you may add unusual colours to create mood, don’t push you luck too far that people reject what they see and become confused.

 Third basic problem: Been over-neat and precise.

There should be a variety of blurring to that of fine detail.


You want to know how to put action in your paintings? Remember moving things are blurred, and live things breath:

  • Painting blurred feet is acceptable. It shows they are actually walking.
  • Car and bike wheels are blurred when the bike or car is moving.
  • Bird’s wings look blurred when they are flying.
  • Grass blowing in the wind is blurred.
  • Oblique angles depict action, and wavy lines and contours suggest motion in your composition.

 Style:  Sharp-edges verses soft-edges:

Active paintings are better than static painting!

  • Static things have sharp contour edges. So if all your objects in your painting have all sharp contour edges, your painting will look stiff and contrived.
  • Blurred and out of focus things create mood and mystery. It makes your painting forever fascinating. That is why people like to gossip, they like to use their imagination.
  • There is more emotional impact in a painting that has a greater amount of blurring and gradation (out of focus) to that of a painting which has an overdose of sharp-edges and strong contrasting tones (distinct focus).
  • Freedom of expression in your brushstrokes and freshness of your washes is more appealing, than small fussy brushstrokes.
How out of focus things have a romantic appeal.

A5 watercolour: “Deep in the forest there is a glade with a stream running through it” How out of focus paintings have a romantic appeal.

Concluding remarks:

After all that, it’s wise to prop you painting up a few feet away from you to see if it looks okay from a distance. When you working close up, you think all is well until you look at it from a distance.

Even turning your painting upside down is a good tip. It helps you to see how the composition holds together or not. It’s amazing how this trick shows up any flaws there may be in your painting. I sometimes double-check by looking at my painting sideways as well.

There are many more problems, but these are the most probable composition problems novices have to begin with. They are easily overcome with a little more observance and patience. And as people say, “Practice makes perfect!”

 Want to know more?

  • If this is the first blog you have read in the series, I suggest you go back in the archives and check out from the beginning of the “Watercolour Secrets” category.
  • And also download for free, the three watercolour books on the Free Art Books” page.

Five Stages: Wet in Wet Method

Watercolours wet-in-wet methods:

There is a misconception about the wet-in-wet method. It’s actually a process: from wet-to-dry. While the paint is wet you get very blurred edges, and as the paint dries you get sharper and shaper edges. At each stage of wet-to-dry, you can perform different types of techniques.

Watercolour using wet in wet method

A5 watercolour: Imaginary scene using wet-in-wet method.

First stage: WETTING both sides of YOUR PAPER.

“Why do you wet both sides of the paper?” With both sides of the paper equally wet, it equally counteracts and neutralizes the possibility of cockling.

Cockling is when your paper pucker and forms undulated valleys, where paint gathers in nasty pools.

Personally I lightly (fine) spray my drawing-board first with water. Then place my paper on the wet surface and lightly spray my paper as well. But you don’t have to wet your drawing board like I do, just hold up your paper and spray it both sides and then lay it down on your board.

You must paint immediately after spraying your paper. If you don’t, the water soaks into those speckled spots and the result is that your wash when you do paint over the paper, your painting will look spotty (unless of cause you require a starry night effect).

To prevent spottiness, make sure you are properly setup to paint before you start spraying. Perhaps it’s better to use a sponge if you are unsure or apprehensive.

“But I see other artists tape down their watercolour paper, why don’t you?”

I don’t tape mine down, because it adds to the cost of the commission and its time-consuming. Also I place a wet/damp cloth under my paper if I want to prolong the wet/damp state. Then if I want to hurry-up the drying process, I place my painting on a rumpled towel, this allows the air current to pass easily under and around the painting.

WATCH-OUT:   Whatever you do, don’t ever over wet your paper. The paper becomes soggy. And if you stir your paint into that, you will land up with mush. Better to quickly soak up the pool of liquid with a sponge before it’s absorbed. If it’s too bad, the situation is beyond repair, rather throw away the soggy paper and start over with a fresh piece of paper.

 Stage two: UNDERCOAT STAGE is optional:

An undercoat doesn’t have to be an overall imprimatura wash. You can also block in a selected area or shape.

 “Why do an undercoat?”

  • An overall wash prevents white spots and contours occurring. It unites the composition components and radiates up through the topcoats, giving your painting an atmospheric appeal.
  • *Blocking in selected mass shapes with their local colour pronounces their shape’s And also it allows you to retain white areas in the rest of your painting, thus keeping those areas fresh, like the blue of clear day sky.

Stage three: SYNOPSIS STAGE is optional:

Synopsis is done when you want to assess the placement of objects within your composition. Only the dominant shapes (objects) are done with the synopsis. That is, a minimal symbolic rendition of the basic facts. It’s important that you don’t start with detail. Detail at the beginning complicates things. From experience I can tell you, you tend to fuss and your work turns out looking busy and contrived.

If you do a synopsis stage you don’t have to do stage two, unless of cause you want a coloured background.

 “What is a watercolour synopsis?”

A synopsis is a light coloured outline sketch, using a brush instead of a pencil. `Draw’ the basic outline shape of the object with soft free-flowing spontaneous brushstrokes. Use simple symbolic formations to identify the basic shapes, flow of gestures, planes and action lines. Don’t worry about neatness or precision.

The paint on your brush must be the same or similar colour to the background, or the object you intend to create, for example:

  • If you have a raw sienna background and blue vase: Use a mixture of the raw sienna and the blue you intend to use for the vase, for your synopsis.
  • White background and blue vase: use light blue synopsis paint.

 “Why is a synopsis generally done on a wet/damp surface!”

  • It gives you object atmospheric aura and perspective dimension, thus settling your object comfortably within your composition.
  • The blurred indistinct outline doesn’t fully define the shape at the start, thus giving you freedom to change it shape or position as you wish.

“Can we reiterate our synopsis?”

You can softly reiterate the shape of the synopsis while it is wet if you wish. Reiteration can suggest spiritual energy, a scherzo or animated movement. Reiteration also prevents a stiff rendition and in itself that generates emotion in the viewer.

Wet in wet synopsis

Watercolour synopsis examples.

Stage four: BLOCKING-IN the synopsis:

*Blocking-in is the filling-in of large prominent shapes or creating mass shapes with the local colour of the object(s). And the intensity of the colour depends on the result you require.

 “Where would you use blocking-in?”

  • When you want one flat colour, to create an open peaceful restful area in a busy painting.
  • And if you want to group small things together, you mass them together with one colour.

 “What if you want to add additional colours?”

  • Additional colours are added while the paint is still wet/damp, as more detail is required in the process of giving your painting description.
  • If you want an atmospheric effect, you mingle analogous colours. That is, blocking-in a warm colour and then dropping-in* a cool pigment while the first is still wet. For examples: French ultramarine blue and Winsor thalo blue to give you sky atmospheric dimension. Or add magenta or orange to alizarin crimson to give the red object more impact. Tip: add the cool colour around the edges and warm colour in the centre, to give the object smooth perspective form.

 “So which brush should we use?”

Usually blocking-in is done with a big brush. The brush must fit the size of the area: the bigger the shape, bigger the brush you use, so you don’t get uneven fussy messy washes.

*DROPPING-IN:    If you drop-in another colour it enhances or subdues the local colour depending on, if you use an analogous colour or an earth pigment. Or if you want a glow effect, drop-in an opaque pigment, eg: white or yellow.

 Stage five: RE-WETTING is optional:

Re-wetting is done when the previous washes are dry. You could call this glazing as well. Some people call it ‘subtractive colour mixing’, because the result of two colours (layers) makes a `third-party’ colour.

“Why should you re-wet an area?”

  • When you are layering colours, you can achieve a particular colour you wouldn’t naturally get in pre-mixing. In this case try to use fresh analogous translucent pigments. If you layer complement colours you will get grey results.
  • Or if you want to remove paint to create a special effect, like light coloured stones or white tree trunks.

Often used to correct mistakes:

  • Sometimes you re-wet an area or spot because you want to blot and remove colour there. The size of the brush depends on the size of the area or spot.
  • Or you want to re-work the area or soften a sharp contour (outline) edge before the paint stains or dries completely.


From all that has been said so far in this ‘Watercolour Secrets’ blog series, I’m sure for those who have had misgivings about watercolours in the past and not been able to correct mistakes etc, will by now think otherwise.

It’s a great medium. You can create a painting faster than an oil painting. In fact the merger of colours is a boon. The colours mingle so beautifully, giving you such exquisite atmospheric ambiance, that you can’t achieve in any other medium.

Creative Secrets

Creativity of applying watercolours:

Painting isn’t just about applying paint. It’s how you go about it. How you get you act together, what attitude and mood you are in before you start to paint, how you mix your paints, etc. Whatever people may say, most dramas and mistakes are caused by been impatient.

Creative secrets for watercolours

A5 size watercolour: River scene.

Before beginning to paint:

Here are some creative tips:

  • Get yourself organized. Get all the necessary and possible resources, materials and pigments together, close to where you are working, so you can snatch up whatever you may need in a hurry, at any stage, at a moment’s notice to reduce any possible drama.
  • Get a big glass jar and fill it with clean fresh water. With a spray bottle, finely spray the pigments in paint box to soften the paints and make it easier to get your paints out of the pans in a hurry.
  • Play soft music to put you in the mood. Happy music helps to put freedom into your brushstrokes. Heavy beat music isn’t inspiring.
  • Prepare yourself and your creativity powers: If you haven’t painted for quite some time, get out some cheap paper (about 200 gsm) and doodle (see free art book download). Splash paint on it using free and easy brushstrokes to loosening up your brushstrokes and your hand. Don’t start with a pencil synopsis. And don’t take yourself or your painting seriously, have fun, do your thing: Tell yourself this is a tree and this is grass, or whatever that doesn’t require neat detail. This exercise prevents you from painting stiff precise neat parlour paintings (a sign of an amateur). Your want to encourage and put style into your commission or project for the day.
  • If you are still not in the mood, first peruse other artist’s work you admire. When you see the beautiful work they do, it inspires you, lifts your ego, etc. This requires collecting copies of their work, either from their art books or downloading them from the internet. Whatever you do, don’t copy every detail of their paintings.
  • Even though you plan your composition and procedures, don’t expect things to turn out just as you first envisioned it. Let the spirit of inspiration flow as you work.

Creative style:

  • Every brush stroke has a shape: The shape and size of your brush must suit the area your wish to cover. That is: Big brush for big areas. Square tipped brushes for square shapes. Round tipped filbert brushes for round shapes.
  • Brushstrokes are like shorthand. Word-for-word, squiggle, dot-and-dash! So every brush stroke talks for itself and tells a story.
  • Pronunciation: How you express yourself in speech, is the same in painting. Some things are said loudly (contrast of colours), bold statements (with darker tones). And other things are said softly (with lighter tones) and mysteries are whispered (eg: blurred misty scenes), etc.
  • Different combinations of colour express different moods. `Dead pan’ boring paintings are painted in similar tones and cold colours.
  • Assess each situation and go with the flow of things. You maybe the producer (like a stage production) but the character’s personalities take over and you must know how to monitor their performance and the production to its success.
  • Painting with watercolours requires patience. Basically you work in stages. Apply, watch and wait: timing each application according to conditions. You can’t force the `actors’, you need to thoughtfully `persuade’ them. Only assist and tilt paper when necessary. And sometimes the ‘actors’ show you a better way of doing it!

 Always keep your washes fresh and transparent as possible:

  • If you want professional results, buy and use only artist’s quality watercolour pigments. Cheap opaque paints don’t give you the same special effects.
  • The less coats you have, and the less pigments (primary colours) involved in your mixtures, the more translucent your painting.
  • Generally speaking, use warm undercoats and reserve cool colours for your topcoats.
  • Where possible use analogous colours if more than one coat of paint is required.
  • Check the hue, tone and intensity strength of your colour against the white of your palette before applying your brush to your paper.

Here are some examples of two pigment mixtures:

Have fun experimenting with your own stock of paints. You don’t know what you can create until you try things out for yourself.

Creative mixtures of two pigments

Swatches of two pigment mixtures.

Last word on the topic creative secrets:

Secrets are no longer secret, when researched on facts. Experiment with what you have learnt, until you have mastered the techniques. Then the technique secret becomes yours to expand on and magnify as you wish. Inventors create new inventions by mingling and using old facts!

How to Retain White Paper

Why is my painting looking so dull and lifeless?”

There are several reasons why:

  • Watercolour paintings must have a certain amount of white and light hued areas or spots to freshen it.
  • Sparkling highlights in your painting bring your painting to life.
  • Contrast of tone and colour makes highlights stand out and gives your painting a fresh appeal.
Retain white paper.

A5 watercolour: The highlight spots on the roses were reserved with liquid masking.

Fact one: Fresh clean white areas:

Some artists believe that a certain amount of your watercolour painting must be left white, untouched and unblemished.

Here you have to be careful. If white spots are left willy-nilly all over your painting, it will make your painting look spotty and confusing.

Why is that? White is a dominant eye-catching `colour’, especially if surrounded by dark colours. Therefore it is wise to plan your compositions format. Where possible:

  • Leave large white areas: For example all around the outer edge, as in a vignette.
  • Group highlights, eg: shimmers and sparkles on water, highlights on a bunch of grapes or within flower florets.
  • Link the white spots and allowed them to flow smoothly through the composition. Somewhat like the flow of vine tentacles or out reaching appendages of flower stamen.

Fact two:  Tonal format:

A good painting is divided up into three basic areas:

  1. A light toned area.
  2. A medium toned area
  3. And a dark toned area.

This makes it easier for viewers to assess what is happening in a painting. Naturally these areas will be interlaced according to the subject matter’s composition layout. If you haven’t noticed this before, it’s because the artist has done it subtly.

Fact three:  Highlights:

  • Highlights (bright spots) attract attention. Because they are read like shorthand, they must be placed strategically.
  • Select which highlights you want to use and which you need to illuminate.

 Fact four: Description:

Certain white areas in your subject matter are reserved for special effects, for example:

  • Leaving white contour edges between washes, for example silhouettes: For silver-lining of clouds when painting skies, and aura rim-lights (caused by back lighting) that you can fill in later with the desired colour effects.
  • Reserving shapes with liquid masking for houses, flowers, etc, so you can work and paint freely over them, over your whole painting, without messing or eliminating those objects or things we want to fill-in and work on later.
  • Sometimes I use liquid masking to reserve white or light coloured tree trunks, and fill-in later with desired colours. For example to create smooth tree trunks or knarred knotted tree bark (see illustration). It makes the tree trunks standout in 3D manner, perspectively.
  • Even splatter liquid masking to make speckled effects, like tiny flower buds, underwater seaweed effects, etc.

Notice the following image captions, have more explanations on how to do it and the effects you can create.

White cosmos flowers

First draw-in the cosmos flowers with an eye dropper, splatter liquid masking to make speckled effects for tiny buds, draw-in stalks and scribble in a few leaf shapes with liquid masking. When the masking is dry: paint freely all over the whole composition, working wet-in-wet (such fun) to create a beautiful atmospheric background ambiance for the flowers. When the paint is fully dried, rub off the masking and fill-in your colours. Play warm colour against cool colours. Walla, it’s easy as that!

Retain white paper.

Size 23×20.8cm, thick watercolour paper: This fascinating knobbly tree stands in the Mabalingwe game reserve, nestled in the Waterberg mountain range, Transvaal. It was late afternoon when we came across it. Note: Close-up the tree trunks seem to merge and make the painting look busy and confusing. But when seen from a distance, you can see the 3D effect of the tree trunks.

Reserving highlight spots:

The aim is to keep the paper white where you intend to place highlights in your composition, either by working around the spots while painting or retaining them with liquid masking.

Working around them:

As you may have already found out, it’s so easy to unintentionally obliterate your proposed white spots as you are painting.

Funny enough it is easier to work round them with a big round brush (that has a fine point) than it is to use a small fiddly brush. Why is that?

  • The big body of the brush allows you to create smooth-blended unblemished atmospheric conditions surrounding and in between the highlights.
  • The fine point of the big brush allows you to create fine outlined detailed shapes, eg: tiny wild flowers waving in grass and weeds.

Liquid masking:

Sometimes liquid masking is called ‘rubber cement’, latex rubber adhesive or liquid frisket.

Some artists don’t like to use liquid masking. They say it gives your painting an artificial appearance. While other artists believe it gives your painting additional style.

Whatever your belief, you can control the artificial appearance by graduating your colours and tones between the masking marks and their surrounding areas.

  • What I like about masking, is that it brings things forward, thus giving objects like tree trunks a 3D effect and highlights more sparkle.
  • And also, the spray of an incoming sea wave is blurred by its fast-moving action, but just a few masked water droplets gives the crashing wave’s impact, forceful power as it pounds against the rocks and cliff faces.


  • Be careful when you rub and peel off masking liquid, it sometimes rips up the paper.
  • Don’t paint on damaged paper. The paint is easily absorbed in those areas and makes dark marks that you can’t remove.
  • If the paper is roughened burnish (smooth) it with the back of a spoon before painting over it again.
  • If you apply liquid masking to a previous wash, even if it’s dry, it’s inclined to lift the previous paint, especially if you have used non-staining, segmented pigments. It’s advisable therefore to use strong intense staining pigments in this technique.

 Masking application precaution:

Warning: Don’t use a brush to apply masking liquid. Because masking liquid is a rubber compound, it sticks to the hairs of your brush and your brush will be ruined. Liquid masking has ammonia in it. If the rubber has already stuck to your brush, try cleaning it with ammonia and rinse it well afterwards with soap and then fresh water.

TIP: If you are still determined to use a brush, dig your brush into a cake of soap beforehand to protect the hairs somewhat. When finished, rinse your brush in ammonia, then soapy water, and lastly fresh clean water.Warning: Never leave your brush standing in ammonia too long, the hairs will deteriorate.

There are other ways of applying liquid masking:

Applying liquid masking with an eye dropper:

If you have eye-droppers with different size nozzle holes, select one to suit the job in hand:

  • Big nozzle hole eye-droppers for covering large areas like houses, rocks, cosmos flowers, etc.
  • Medium holes: Use for tree trunks, fence posts, etc
  • And small holes for tiny dots and fine detail, for example: sparkles, grass, sticks, twigs, etc.

 Eye dropper maintenance:

Rinse your eye-dropper in fresh clean water in between use and after use. Clean with a pipe cleaner to prevent clogging of the tube.

Applying liquid masking with a pen:

Whatever you do don’t use a fountain pen or any pen with a reservoir. Liquid masking clogs up the pen’s channels.

It is better to use a dip-pen. You know; those old-fashioned pens which you push in the nib into the top of the handle. Nibs come in different size widths. You can draw fine thin white lines with dip-pens, like washing line and fence wire. Tip: in this case use diluted masking fluid. Dilute with a little ammonia.

Other possible tools:

You can use a match stick to create rough twigs. Some artists use nose-buds (cotton-wool on tiny sticks) to create fuzzy wide lines and dots.

Retaining white paper.

Size 56.5×37.5cm, watercolour on thick rough paper: This is a real scene, along a pathway behind houses in Hillcrest, Natal. Immediately to the left is a sudden drop, a steep hillside, down into the valley far below. Notice how the masked highlights present an impressionistic `third colour’ dimension.