Picture it: a sunny January afternoon in 2019, 28 degrees Fahrenheit, three-ish feet of snow in the front yard, with mostly numb fingers, I decided it was time for my first watercolor plein air painting. Mistakes were made, to say the least!
So, to save you from all that trouble I went through as a clueless plein air newbie, here are some tips and nuggets of wisdom I learned the hard way a year in the making.
When planning a plein air trip, start by researching local parks, lakes, gardens, tourist stops, historical landmarks, or simply take a walk. Keeping it local can push you to discover unexpected places or see your front yard differently.
Once a place is chosen, bring something comfortable to sit on. A thick blanket or towel for the ground, an outdoor pillow for concrete, or an upright lawn chair and small table. If the spot is perfect, you can make it work to camp out.
Don’t forget to bring snacks, drinking water, or a hot beverage depending on temperature. There is nothing worse than getting settled and working on a painting while hungry or thirsty. The same thing goes for not scheduling bathroom breaks. It can ruin not only the experience, but you’ll end up rushing your piece. This also can happen if you ignore or not plan around the weather. When in doubt bring that light jacket, umbrella, sneakers, or sunscreen!
As for painting supplies, gravitate towards the reliable materials you already use and will be comfortable with outside. I typically use one to two watercolor journals of different sizes (a small one for quick sketches, and a larger for longer paintings), an artboard to clip my larger books onto (easier to hold), binder clips, a recycled bottle filled with water (different than your drinking water bottle), a reusable paint water-only cup (as some paints can be toxic), paper towels, a filled and dried watercolor palette (load the palette the day before so paint isn’t runny while transporting), pens, and 1-4 brushes of basic sizes and shapes (round, bright, wash, line, etc.).
Other suggested materials: watercolor blocks, sheets of heavy watercolor paper, painter’s tape, a sponge, different brushes, watercolor colored pencils, watercolor pens or markers, pencils, eraser, etc.
Remember, you are going to be carrying your tools, maybe further than expected, so keep your bag a comfortable weight. You can bring a few experimental tools but be prepared if they don’t react like they would at home or in-studio. I’ve had new pens bleed into a piece because I didn’t let the paper dry long enough as it was too humid, much different from the controlled conditions at home.
You picked a location and are all packed, so finally get out there! But notice while selecting a spot if the ground is wet from previous rain or too close to a lake, if the sun is bothering you, insect activity, wind, etc. It may not seem like a big deal but it will be after two hours of sitting on wet grass with muddy shoes and mosquito bites.
After you sit down, spread out and prepare your supplies so you can start! Sketch the scene with either a pencil, waterproof pen, or a brush loaded with slightly colored wash. Keep in mind how much time you want to spend on the piece.
If you want a loose style painting or no sketch lines to show, use the pencil or very diluted paint -- if you want more detail, use the pencil, while the brush is for faster, lighter, loose sketching. You can use them as a combination, too!
Adding ink is still an option for the final piece, but you must be more selective in doing so. You can always add ink, but you can’t take it away - keep that in mind!
Painting the background:
Begin painting the background of your sketch first with a colored or uncolored wash, depending on how strong the paper is. The more water added, the longer it’ll take to dry or add layers. Humidity can fight you on this, too.
If you're in the sun, keeping the paper semi-wet can make for easier blending of background colors. Remember, clouds and sunlight will change the colors depending on which is overhead! Look out for paper too wet while adding a different color, it can blend together in a puddle!
Keeping the background light in color and transparent (diluted the watercolor), continue to add highlights and shadows of a few colors you see. Adding too many colors or layers in the background can overwhelm the piece and the transparency will be lost.
Try to maintain a “far away effect” in the background via blending, wet paint on wet paper, and painting with loose brush strokes. Alternatively, if your subject is closer to the background, make that detailed and darker with the foreground “fuzzy” and light.
Painting the details:
Progressively paint darker and less blurry “far way effect” the closer you are to your subject. Your eyes can see more detail the closer you are, so start adding texture, shapes, more colors, and decrease transparency while increasing opacity. This results in adding less water to the paint and making it appear more “solid” instead of see-through.
Towards the end of the process, you can add color straight from the paint source (wet on dry paper) for optimal opacity and texture. After the paper is dry, add ink for hard edges and extra definition if you want!
One last thing to remember before leaving -- make sure your painting is totally dry before closing the book and packing up.
If you're a new or an experienced plein air watercolorist and have tips for us, drop a comment!