Watercolor Painting Class – Composition For Watercolor Painting

Series of Four Online Classes With Outside Class Work

Class Focuses On Strengthening Your Watercolor Paintings With Good Technique Combined With Basic Composition

Tuesdays, Sep 15 – Oct. 6, 2020 – Fee $175

This online class is for anyone who wants to learn watercolor  or improve their watercolor painting.  There are pre-class assignments and online group work. 

You’ll learn to use the best qualities of transparent watercolor to create strong compositions.

Pre-Class Assignments and Concepts 

September 22, 2020  –  6 to 8pm 

This week is focused-on ‘shape-making’ – a crucial aspect of ‘big picture’ composition.

It can be hard to grasp the idea that a painting, no matter how realistic, is only a collection of shapes with color and value.  With that in mind, a painting has a better chance of being a success if it is based on an underlying two-dimensional design. That design should consist of a small group of large, interesting shapes well-connected by interlocks on the edges.

The pre-class work this week is about practicing making interesting shapes built by combining separate objects and elements together.

What’s makes an interesting shape?  By definition, they are: shapes with at least two different dimensions, that have an oblique (diagonal direction) and interlocks at the edges.

Pre-class Assignment

We’ll be working with two different sketches.  One is a street scene and the other is “found” still life –  an un-posed set of common items and objects on a counter top.

Street Scene

Take a look at the original sketch of a street scene.  Keep it handy while you look at the quick explanation and examples of shapemaking. In the first thumbnail line drawing, two areas have been outlined in color and noted. Each represents an interesting shape because it conforms to the definition above. The bottom thumbnail has the same large shapes outlined with value applied.  Compare the bottom thumbnail to the original sketch.  At this very simplified stage, the value thumbnail sketch with simple shapes based on grouping numerous different elements looks very dynamic compared to the original sketch.

Next practice your own shape-making on the sheet of street scene thumbnails.  There are four thumbnails on the sheet. Create different sets of interesting shapes on each thumbnail. Aim to create three large shapes and apply a separate value to each in order to end up with four value composition thumbnails.

Optional:  copy your favorite two value composition thumbnails onto watercolor paper – at thumbnail size – and paint two color studies.

Counter-top Still Life

Now turn your attention to the counter-top still life.  Again, take a look at the original sketch. Now download the set of .  Just as with the street scene, you’ll practice shape-making on the thumbnails  of the counter-top scene. This time, there are no examples to start with, but you do have the experience with the street scene. The idea is the same – create three interesting shapes on each thumbnail by combining different elements/objects into one.  Also as before, apply a different value to each shape.  Do four of these as well.

Optional:  copy your favorite two value composition thumbnails onto watercolor paper – at thumbnail size – and paint two color studies.

Transfer the painting layout for the counter-top scene onto a piece of watercolor paper. Bring it to class.

In Class

We’ll review the homework, answer questions and then paint the counter-top still life during class.


September 15, 2020  –  6 to 8pm 

Our first class is really an introduction to value composition. It’s likely you have encountered this idea before, either through books or in other classes.  If you are like most folks – including me – it can take a while for the idea to sink in, and for you to begin including it in your process.   The reason, I think, is that the idea of value sketching means that you must begin to think of your painting as two-dimensional design rather than a re-creation of reality.

We will approach the ‘big picture’ by simplifying the composition.  It may seem extreme and un-realistic, but this particular method has been used by artists for centuries and forms the underlying structure for many great paintings.

First Things First

For this and all classes, you’ll need a value scale.  It’s likely you have one already.  If not, you can make an abbreviated five-step value scale by watching this video lesson.

Pre-class Assignment

We’ll be working with a scene I sketched some years ago. The subject is an old farm up on a hillside.  We’ll be using that sketch as the basis to explore the idea of simplification.   For the pre-class work, you’ll explore different arrangements of value in the simplified shapes and creating several color studies as well.

As mentioned, we will be using a tried and true method of composition that works very well for landscape and seascape  subjects.  You have seen many paintings based on this system without realizing it.

The process requires – at first – disregarding individual objects. Instead, we’ll think about our painting in terms of three areas of space/three interlocked shapes:  foreground, middle ground, background. For this week, the division of space has been done for you.

Pre-class work:

1) Download the Original Watercolor Sketch for reference.

2) Make six copies of the Simplified Thumbnail Line Drawing on drawing paper or in a pencil sketch book. Make three copies on watercolor paper.

3) Take a look a the Value Sketch Example Sheet. Notice that there are three different arrangements of value – light, mid-value, dark. That is, each value sketch has one a value assigned to each of the three areas of space – foreground, middle ground, background.  Copy these arrangements on three of your pencil thumbnail drawings.

4) With this arrangement of space and value, there are actually six possible combinations.  On the remaining three thumbnails, try to create the other three arrangements.

5) Take a look at your six completed value arrangements. Choose two or three to turn into color studies.  Use any color scheme you like.  Use your value scale to make sure you have the same value in color as you do in the value sketch.

The Color Study Example is one of the six possible arrangements. In it, the background is the light value area, the middle ground is the mid-value area and the foreground is the dark value area. Notice that there is some variety in the color for that creates a range of value within each area.  The color complementary color scheme of yellow-orange/violet-blue suggests a winter scene.

6) Transfer the Class Paint Project Layout to a piece of watercolor paper. We’ll paint this together in class.

September 22, 2020  –  6 to 8pm  –  This week is focused-on ‘shape-making’ – a crucial aspect of ‘big picture’ composition. Pre-class assignments will show easy ways to create dynamic, eye-catching and meaningful shapes. In class we’ll expand our shape-making ability with a simple still life painting .

September 29, 2020  –  6 to 8pm  – Great compositions are supported by simple, well-placed value shapes.  Pre-class assignments focus on placement and arrangement of these simple shapes.  In class we’ll analyze arrangements from pre-class assignments and develop them into compositions for painting.

October 6, 2020  –  6 to 8pm  –  In the final class, we’ll work on the painting compositions from the previous week. Pre-class assignment will have you create working studies of the composition. In class, we’ll review your studies and work on finished paintings based on our studies.

What You’ll Learn

The simple secret to great composition is in simplification.  It’s hard to believe, but learning to see and plan your paintings as a group of simple, inter-connected shapes will do more than anything to improve your paintings. This class will show you how.

We’ll also emphasize good watercolor painting technique – another simple way to improve your paintings.

Each class week consists of an off-line pre-class assignment and a two-hour online session.

The pre-class assignment introduces the technique or skill for the week and includes a series of easy exercises to give you practice.  During the online class we’ll review a bit and then dive into a painting project to apply our newly learned skill.

Pre-class assignments are posted on the class web page and emailed to each student about a week before class.
Pre-class assignments include background info, complete instructions, useful examples, and drawing layouts.

The online portion of classes are held by Zoom video conference services. Complete info for connecting to the class through Zoom will be sent with pre-class assignments.


Suggested Materials: I recommend a basic set of watercolor materials for this class. Download from my website using the link below.

Click here to download a comprehensive list of basic watercolor materials and supplies

Questions About the Class?

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About The Instructor

Tony Conner is an accomplished watercolorist and and experienced instructor. His  energetic approach to teaching and enthusiasm for the watercolor medium are combined to create classes that are both fun and informative.  He excels at providing information and insights to individual students – meeting them where they are and helping them get to where they want to go.

Professional Memberships

  • Signature Member - New England Watercolor Society
  • Signature Member - Vermont Watercolor Societies
  • Artist Member - Salmagundi Club
  • Artist Member - North Shore Arts Association

Tony works from his studio in Bennington, Vermont.

What Other Students Say

I've take several workshops, some taught by prominent and well-known artists. Tony's was, by far, the best in it's quality, approach and teaching style. The small class formate facilitated learning.” - Jane C. , Setauket, NY

Of all the instructors I have seen, you are the most informative. Your method of teaching is so easy to follow and absorb. I wish I lived close enough to attend your classes. You are also a very patient, approachable person . All excellent, Tony!” - Catherine M. , Ontario, CN

I have learned more in this two-day workshop, than in all other watercolor classes I’ve taken” - Rita S. , MA

" Thought there was a perfect balance between theory & practice.  The points you wanted to stress were given clearly & concisely.  You are so passionate about your work.  I have come home energized & enthusiastic - which is exactly what I wanted from the workshop.  " - S. H., Saline, MI

"I've taken several watercolor workshops, some taught by prominent and well known artists. Tony's workshop was by far the best in its quality, approach, and teaching style. The small class format facilitated learning." - J. C., Setauket, NY

" Tony is a wonderful, knowledgeable teacher who shares with warmth and humor" - J. M, Astoria, NY

" Overall, the three days were amazing. I find myself looking at everything in terms of value. " - A. C., Bloomfield, NJ

"...but, Tony Conner has thought of it all, organized it perfectly, and made it fun and inspiring." - G. B., New York, NY