I frequently start without a plan, especially when I'm making a sketch that is a glorified color thumbnail. So if you start without a plan at some point you really do need to stop and think where you are going or quit while you are ahead.
Today I posted this small rooster sketch to make this point. I started this sketch because I wanted to work on using pencil and watercolor. I almost always sketch in ink these days, so it is a different thought process for me—what do I want to do with the pencil? The barest of details? A complete grisaille?
I also have been doing a lot of gouache work these days as I get some new paintings ready for an upcoming show. Mentally I have to turn my brain around to work in transparent glazes or in washes.
Of course it would be nice to work on watercolor paper for these small studies, but the journal I'm in now is the old Daniel Smith Drawing and Framing paper they no longer sell (big sigh). So the paper isn't going to help me with the washes.
Add to that, I was working late in the evening and not very patient. This is where the quitting while you're ahead comes in. (The danger is to keep fussing.)
Ask yourself at least what you were interested in to begin with, because when everything else starts to fall apart you can maybe hold on to that one thing. Here I was interested in the eye, which is bulging and has a sort of inner lid on the front area of the eye (the light pink area).
After doing a quick pencil sketch which was haphazardly detailed (i.e., detailed in some places and not in others) I got out my Schmincke Pan Watercolors and laid in a background wash of cobalt blue. Huge mistake. What was I thinking? Well, while that sat there drying I worked on the red facial area, moved to the comb and beak when the background was ALMOST dry (so there is some bleeding into the background, and as those areas dried a bit I put in a magenta mix on the body, which didn't work, so I added Indigo and Burnt Sienna. (It was a black chicken.) I worked on the beak and by this time the paper is giving out, but that worked for me on the beak, helping achieve a mottled look.
By giving out I mean that the sizing on the paper, what little there was, was long gone and the paper looked like it might start to pill. I put Titanium Gold Ochre throughout the background which was still damp. I charged reds and blues into the comb for shading, but I couldn't get away from the fact that I'd missed the moment to build up the shadow side of the comb, just above the black feathers. That's the thing with watercolor, you really do need a plan. (One of the nice things with gouache is that you can go back in and cover stuff.)
From the detail of the image you can see how there are some jagged edges to the blue wash on the feathers and the red washes on the cheek. No way to smooth that out on this paper which is telling me it's through. And that blend into the comb, while it isn't the right value sure looks yummy to me.
(The comb was still wet when I put in the feathers and the water from the fresh wash is diluting things. You can see how water wicked up the side of the comb to the points at the top of the comb, where there is a ragged dark red line—you have to view that on the first full image.)
So I give up being lazy and walk across the room for a thin sable brush (I've been working with a Niji Waterbrush). I add the lid shadow to the eyeball which is dry now, make a couple strokes on the cheek and comb (also dry now too), and in the feathers (ditto on the dry state because I don't want these details to blend in)—and I quit while I am ahead.
Oh, and I took copious notes. Now when I attempt a larger version of this sketch I'll be able to work from a coherent plan.
Pushing through each of these misadventures allowed me to gather information I could use in a painting plan. It also focused my attention, which really wanted to sack the whole thing after the cobalt blue background! The push here was to get some sort of finish on most of the sketch, without losing the eye—to stop myself from fussing and still have that eye skin to remind me what it was that attracted me to this bird in the first place.