In the excitement of wanting to just paint, it's easy for artists to rush past the essential first steps which help establish a strong composition. Whether painting in the studio or on location one of these invaluable steps is doing thumbnail value studies.
Thumbnail value studies help design a compostion and make creative decisions so we have a clear vision of where we are going with our painting. To me it is a road map that navigates me through every new compositon.
Plein air painting has helped me see how helpful the value study is to painting.
It's was a tendency for me to do a pencil thumbnail study to establish my composition but I would do it too light in order to save time (see image below). It was really more of a gesture drawing not a value study. It may have shown me a composition but very weakly, the shapes and values aren't dark enough to move the viewers eye around. The Prismacolor markers have made a world of difference (Prismacolor cool grey, 20%, 40%, 60%, 80%).
The pencil drawing above may have helped eliminate unimportant objects and find what I want to look at, but it doesn't fully establish depth or a strong sense of design in the the composition.
Without establishing a more full range of values the painting (below) is not as strong and so the painting lacks depth and doesn't command the viewers attention.
I like using the Prismacolor markers because they...
Eliminate the process of so many pencil strokes, which causes you to think more detail, linear oriented.
Discipline you to use a more full range of values.
Encourage you to simplify, and think in terms of abstract shapes and impressionism.
By forcing yourself to use darker values, it will make more movement in the composition and lead the viewers eye around.
By using darker values (more contrast) our paintings will have more depth and things come forward and have more presence, demanding more attention.
Limiting ourselves to just a few solid values may seem awkward to work with at
first but it keeps us disciplined and gives us better results that will improve our paintings by not only giving confidence to go darker in values but also to unify objects together into larger shapes and let go of desribing every obect in detail.
With the bold, direct approach plein air painting requires, the value studies are so helpful, especially with watercolor where the consequences of mistakes are higher. Having studies to give you a vision of where you need to go with your watercolor painting will help give you confidence to paint more boldly without feeling like you're taking too many risks. Your paintings can command more attention and have more strength to them, showing more confidence behind them.