As I was painting yesterday, I realized how I was thinking of the painting in terms of "here is this building, here is a tree, here is the street winding away and disappearing". I wanted to think in terms of big value shapes and design, but it was not intuitive to me. It didn't help that I only had about an hour to finish my painting. (I also wonder if the fact that I was working on a small surface (7.5x11) is a factor, because there is hardly any real estate for me to think in big shapes? I am not sure about this one because James Gurney seems to be able to do such wonderful realistic paintings on his 5.5x8 moleskine.)
Anyway, I got thinking about this some more after I returned home and picked a few books off the shelf to flip through for ideas. Funnily, my previous bookmark in Tom Hoffmann's Watercolor Painting book led me to the exact thing I needed. In order to clarify the big shapes, Tom suggests breaking the picture down into large shapes (10 or less), and doing a five value watercolor sketch to understand the value relationships in the composition.
This is the sort of exercise I would always resist doing because I am always in a hurry to do a full painting, that is a final product that can stand on its own. I realize now, though, that to take my painting to the next level I need to step back, evaluate the areas in my painting that need work, design exercises to fix these areas and execute.
In that spirit, I did a bunch of these value exercises from some reference photos on Wet Canvas. Here is an example. I picked reference photos that already had good design in terms of shapes, so that I was only focusing on understanding the values and not worried about creating a composition.
I drew a very simple sketch with big shapes.
My first wash of payne's gray covered everything but the lightest lights.
Progressively I added another layer of Payne's gray to areas that are darker. Note that I added the boat on the left for interest. That area looked empty and static to me, and the boat in the reference seemed like it was useful.
And then the darkest darks. Here is the final sketch.