Advanced Watercolor Techniques (Part 3): Plein-air Techniques

Advanced Watercolor Techniques (Part 3): Plein-air Techniques

“When doing plein-air, I recommend you plan your scene. Most people either don’t plan at all or they plan too much.” - Erwin Lian

Watercolor is a world in itself. There are a lot of specific terms, techniques, and opinions about what you can and can’t do. Just getting started feels overwhelming sometimes.

In part 1 of this series, Erwin and I discussed the difference between student and artist grade materials, the anatomy of good watercolor paper, and when (and why) skills aren’t everything.

In part 2, we focused the conversation on terms, tips and techniques best suited for in-studio painting.

Today, for the third and final part of this series, join us as we discuss:

  • Tips on planning a scene,
  • How to leave whites,
  • Painting with extreme weather conditions!

… are you ready?

- Ânia Marcos, artist and Branding & Marketing Manager for Etchr Lab who also paints <3

How do you decide where to leave whites?

Knowing where to leave whites takes a lot of planning. It’s hard - it takes practice.

I recommend you plan your scene. Most people either don’t plan at all or they plan too much. By that I mean - either you start painting right away with no idea where you will be leaving your whites, or you just draw every little detail you see, and can’t decide where to simplify.

...and that’s a problem when painting on site. You end up realizing you don’t have enough time.

Usually, leaving more white than less white is better. There’s no going back after you lose the white.

Sure, you can still paint some white on it with gouache, but the effect won’t be the same. It just looks cleaner without any additional paint on top, but it’s entirely up to you and your preferences!

Masking fluid and tape is an option, but I personally recommend that for in-studio painting only. It’s not as easy to handle so many tools outside and dealing with the changing light.

How do you plan and simplify a scene?

When I am doing plein-air studies, I will consider lighting and the value structure. With changing light, it’s crucial to have a clear vision of what I want to accomplish.

If you’re painting a cityscape, there’s no way to count every single door, window, and paint them all. You need to have the courage to simplify the entire building shape and make that one shape interesting!

For example, sometimes, when I have difficulty with complex scenes, I will first resolve them with thumbnail studies. A Notan study (binary study) works wonders when you need to simplify a complex scene. Then, I decide which composition works before I approach it. It’s the way that works best for me.

Some people prefer to do an under drawing in pencil, and that’s ok too. It’s ultimately what works with you. Some artists say that’s a weakness, but that’s not true. It’s part of the process.

How do you properly use masking tape so it doesn’t kill your paper?

I use a brand of masking tape that has a weaker adhesive and it works wonders. However, I have heard of folks weakening their tape by taping and removing it on a surface before using it. Some people also adopted this practise of loosening the adhesive with a hair dryer before they remove it from their paper.

I messed up the initial pass! How can I fix it?

There are ways to fix things. The problem with transparent watercolours is that there is this bizarre expectation that watercolor layers must be transparent. This is why many often think that it’s the toughest medium since you weren't 'supposed' to cover mistakes on underlying layers.

The truth is, you can always mix white gouache with your watercolour pigment to give it more body and make it opaque. Personally, I am not a watercolour purist, and I love paintings with both opaque and transparent layers.

Watercolor is very translucent while gouache is opaque. You mix it and you have both! Nathan Fowkes always mixes white with any watercolor, and his work is beautiful!

Technically, even when mixed with gouache, it’s called a watercolor painting. That’s because the composite is pretty much the same: gouache has chalk or calcium carbonate added to make it flat and opaque.

#watercoloronsteroids (the painting below is a mix of watercolors and gouache)

How do you paint with extreme weather?

If it’s freezing cold, you can mix alcohol with the water. The alcohol stops the water from freezing.

...but if you’re painting with extreme heat, water will evaporate really fast. In this scenario, you can coat the back of the paper with clean water, so the paper will stay moist for a longer time.

To sum it up, if you know how water operates, you can overcome many obstacles created by extreme weather conditions!

What about fun techniques?

There are a lot of fun techniques you can create with watercolor. Using salt is one of many ways to create interesting textures!

Salt absorbs the water around it but leaves the pigment behind. If you sprinkle salt after adding the wash and leave it for a few minutes, it will create very interesting effects - just give it a go and try!

Another fun technique is to, instead of leaving whites, painting the area with wax. It will always stay white!

Basically, as long as you know the properties, you can make lots of fun stuff!

What about you, do you know any fun watercolor techniques?

We’d love to read about them! Please share them in the after-party (the comment section below)! :D

Did this spark an interest for Plein Air painting? If the answer is yes, check out our Introduction to Plein Air Painting blog!

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