Connect to Your Subject for More Powerful Paintings

“Choosing a subject is paramount in my painting process,” says Barbara Tapp. “I see a title in a scene. It can be any topic but it has to speak to me. I edit to support my argument.”

watercolor painting

Planning a Painting

“I use my sketchbook to help me plan and resolve design issues before I begin painting. This is the place where I freeze shadows for later reference, establish values, and write down my thoughts. Sometimes during the painting process, I lose track of my original intention and words like startling, serene, dappled, and worn help me to refocus.”

Painting Values

“I think of values as contrast. I ask, where are my darkest darks and lightest lights? Mid-tones are everything that happens after the start and before the finish. I will paint around my whites and will put the darkest shadows in after the first initial washes. These dark shadows bring out the forms. I then work backwards.

“Watercolor dries lighter so at the end I strengthen all my darks, bringing valuable contrast to the paintings. This makes them sing.”

watercolor painting

Translating the Scene

“I love to record life and objects as they randomly appear, presented in combinations in front of me. I have a sense of humor and often see a harmony of subject, pattern, color, and light that amuses me.

“I do edit non-important or unnecessary stuff that does not support my conversation, but do this as I draw through each stage. I omit things at the end if they’re going to clutter my painting. Squinting at this stage helps me see what is needed. In the case of SS Red Oak Victory Dockside, I omitted the barbwire that was between me and the ship as an obstruction even though it was there.”

Composing a Painting

“When choosing a composition while painting outdoors, I often take many hours to find the exact scene or subject to paint. It can be very frustrating to not be able to settle.

“I must have a gut reaction. I don’t paint anything just because I’m there. I have to feel it and have a reaction or desire and want to paint what I see.

“I say I am painting Barbara’s world.”

photo of artist on location

Barbara Tapp is a watercolorist who was born in Australia and graduated in interior design. She worked as an architectural illustrator for over 35 years and today lives near Berkeley, California where she paints primarily en plein air. 


  1. I have taken a few art courses at community college but grew up with a very creative father who was self taught in oils, water colors and metal sculptures. My problem with watercolors is capturing a scene or item with perfection in details. I have been trying to let myself relax and interpret the picture in a more creative mood. Any suggestions?


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