Artists often have trouble painting plein air with watercolor. The reasons for this are many so I have written this article to offer some help.
My first attempt at painting outdoors was a total disaster leaving me quite depressed about the whole subject. However I figured there were many successful artists that did paint outdoors so there had to be a way.
After doing some research I found that I had done just above everything you should not do if you want to paint successfully outdoors with watercolor.
I was trying to paint in the middle of the day, in 40+ Celsius heat, with a strong wind blowing, the sun streaming directly onto my paper, on quite a large sheet! No wonder my first attempt produced an overworked flat rendition of what I had set out to achieve. There was no way I could produce a clean flat wash as I kept running out of paint due to the heat drying my paint mix in my pallet too fast. I had a very small pallet at the time.
So now we have seen what not to do, let us know look at how to do it right.
What to paint
When you first start painting plein air the temptation is to try and include everything you see. However it is much better to pick as small section of the scene and focus on that rather than trying to paint the whole panorama. Also paint small at first until you are more comfortable with the problems associated with painting plein air.
By all means take notes during a workshop, especially if something the tutor says really strikes a chord with you, but don’t do it at the expense of really looking at “how” the tutor is painting. Otherwise you will miss important information which you’ll regret.
Tutors usually will give some critiques of your work as you go along. If you are lucky the tutor will be happy to critique work you’ve done prior to the workshop. I have found this to be very beneficial but before you go and start taking paintings out of frames so you can take them to your workshop, first make sure your tutor will be happy to provide you with a critique!
After the workshop
In my early days of painting with watercolor I once attended a workshop, that I did very well at, but found after I got home, my work actually went backwards for a couple of months. It was only after I realized that I had tried too hard to change my style to that of my tutors rather than just taking the bits I learned that suited me and left the rest. When I realized this my work immediately took off. I went back to my core style but added the bits from the workshop that worked for me and I never looked back. I haven’t run into this problem again since spotting it.
Don’t take it too seriously!
You should have fun at these workshops.
Remember if you concentrate on learning then your skill will continue to improve after the workshop is long over. Why not enjoy your time during the course and if something goes wrong don’t get too fussed but just go on with the rest of the workshop. If you are doing a full week workshop, there will be highs and lows. You can’t help this, just take this extra knowledge and move on. The more you paint the more success you’ll have, you will however have a lot of failures along the way, that is life, but these failures are also beneficial, if you make sure you learn from them!
A positive attitude is vital if you are going to enjoy your time at a watercolor workshop!
So enjoy the watercolor painting you do at the workshop. Don’t dwell on paintings that didn’t work out and acknowledge what went right and what you have learnt. Enjoy your new friendships with fellow students. With this attitude you should get the most out of your course and be happy to attend more workshops in the future.
Every now and then you will be sent out a workshop required materials list only to discover when you get there that it is very out of date to what the tutor is currently using. This happens when a tutor has been with the same organization for many years and has forgotten to give them an updated list to distribute to new attendees. For this reason, try to check with recent past students of this tutor if they found the list they received was up to date.
For watercolor painting it is very important to have the right paper, paints and good brushes. Quite often you will have the colors the tutor has or one that can be a useful substitute e.g. if the tutor recommends Winsor and Newton Aureolin (a cool yellow) then you could replace it with another cool yellow if you have one. If you tutor paints with very big brushes and you have tiny ones you will have trouble painting his work, if your watercolor paper is of poor quality (some I have seen acts just like blotting paper because they had so little sizing) you’ll have a great deal of difficulty.
Check whether or not you are supposed to bring some of your own reference material or if the tutor is going to supply everything. If the tutor wants you to bring some of your own it’s well worth your while to do so. Again past students may be able to help with this.
When working on your workshop paintings keep an eye on how your own work is going. You should not get concerned if other students work is better than yours. Attendees at watercolor workshops have very different experience levels and usually there are always some people better at watercolor painting than you and some that are worse – if not for all the paintings done, then at least for some.
Remember, it’s not the quality of the work you produce during the workshop that counts but the amount you learn that will allow you to produce improved work after it’s over.
When you get to your workshop try to find out where in the room your tutor will be working and try to get a location as close to him as possible. At one workshop I spent so much time chatting with old friends that by the time I set up my gear I ended up at the very end of quite a long room – needless to say at the opposite end to where the tutor was working. I had to keep walking backwards and forwards if I had a query about a section of his painting. Not a useful handicap when painting with watercolors!
Throughout the course keep in mind why you’re doing it. I have found that spending a few minutes each night writing down what I learnt from the day really gave me a sense of progress and this may be of use to you as well.
Don’t be scared to ask questions. I can’t recall having a tutor that wasn’t willing to answer questions, and even though they must exist, you would have found this out in your preliminary research. It would not hurt for you to prepare a list of questions you’ve had on your mind before starting the workshop and then you can get these answered. You don’t want to be on your way home when you realize there was a question you had forgotten to ask your tutor. I suggest you don’t hit your tutor immediately with a string of these listed questions but instead ask them one or two at a time as you work through the week. It’s quite likely that a number will be answered anyway through the course of the class.
Don’t ever hesitate to ask a question because you think everyone will wonder if you are just too inexperienced, or some other self depreciatory thought. Just go ahead and ask your question. That is why you’re there and why you paid your money. The tutors expect it – unless you are a rank beginner but still went ahead and booked into a workshop for advanced students, it’s not a good idea to do this by the way!
Quite often when you ask one of your “silly” questions someone else will come up to you later and say: “Gee I’m glad you asked that question, I was wondering the same thing myself!”
Keep your mind on learning. If you produce some good paintings along the way then that is a bonus. It’s the extra knowledge that you want to take away with you, that is important first and for most.
Attending watercolor workshops can be a lot of fun and also very positive for your watercolor painting development. However sometimes people don’t get as much out of a workshop as they would could or would like.
I have attended quite a number of workshops mostly for watercolor but also for different media and I also run my own workshops so I hope this information may be of some benefit to you. However, in the end one has to make up one’s own mind about a particular course as no one can give individual advice without knowing all of one’s circumstances. Hopefully the topics I list here can help you with your choices.
If you want to do a workshop to improve your current skills with a particular medium, which is probably the main reason most people decide to do a workshop then the topics I’ll cover should help you get the most out of your course.
Your first step would be to look for a tutor whose work you like and want to know more about. You should ask around to find out just how he or she runs their workshops, do they demonstrate a whole painting all the way through and then you go off to have a go at it yourself; do they do it step by step with you doing each step before they move on to the next one, is reference material provided, how do they handle questions, critiques, etc. Do they advertise their workshops as being for beginners, intermediate or advanced?
By collecting this information you will able to make an informed decision as to whether or not this tutor is for you.