Plein air watercolor painting in cold weather

Plein air watercolor painting in cold weather can present some unique challenges. If you are not aware of them your watercolor paintings could fail.

Recently I went plein air painting with one of my friends. We had planned to paint the Hawkesbury River on the plains looking down from Freemans Reach above. The temperature was around 7 degrees Celsius.  This may not be cold in some parts of the world but is quite cold for where I live. Our first view of what we were going to paint was just mist which you can see from the figure below.  A lovely view in its own right but not what we had come to paint.

Mist over hawkesbury plains from Freemans Reach prior to plein air watercolor painting
Mist over Hawkesbury plains, prior to plein air watercolor painting, a bit too early.

After a coffee and a chat for about 45 minutes the mist started to lift and we were able to get going with our watercolor painting.

Mist lifting scene for plein air watercolor painting. Time to get started.
Mist lifting scene for watercolor painting

As with all watercolor painting the important question is “What is the water doing on your brush, paper, and in your palette?” I have previously written about watercolor plein air painting but that article did not deal specifically about painting in cold weather. So, below are some of the key points to consider when plein air watercolor painting in the cold.

Plein air painting in cold weather

  • With lower temperatures the water on your paper will dry much slower. The temptation is to keep painting rather than letting the paper dry when it should. In some cases it may not dry at all in which case either try a different subject for the day or finish the painting off later in your studio. Remember if you keep painting into damp paper there is a very good chance you will create mud!
  • A good tip for drying your watercolor paper when out in cold weather is to use your car’s heater. Hop in turn the ignition on and turn on the heating with the setting at head height. If you hold your painting over the air vents the hot air will dry it very quickly. It will also warm you up.

Under painting for plein air Hawkesbury River scene

Sun fully out by time plein air watercolor painting is finished. Full sun on painting and shadow on palette make judging colors and tones difficult.
Sun fully out by time plein air watercolor painting is finished. Full sun on painting and shadow on palette make judging colors and tones difficult.

Finished plein air watercolor painting

Here is my finished watercolor painting. I am quite happy with it as I feel it has captured some of the feeling of cold and mist in the scene.

Hawkesbury River plein air watercolor painting
Hawkesbury River plein air watercolor painting

Simple watercolor painting subject

Here is a simple watercolor painting subject for beginners. It is also a good subject if you are sitting around your home and not feeling too inspired. It will get your creative juices flowing without a great deal of emotional investment on your part. I have a number of other similar simple watercolor paintings for beginners on this website which you may be interested in.

Simple watercolor painting subject – egg shells

This is a very good watercolor painting exercise which can also result in quite a nice work of art. I recently had my students paint egg shells as a class painting. While the subject can appear very basic it opens the eyes to such things as subtle reflected lights, cast shadows, form shadows, and composition.

Simple watercolor painting subject for beginners - egg shells
Simple watercolor painting subject for beginner watercolor artists – egg shells

A subject like this is very good when you are feeling stuck for a painting subject. It’s simplicity will mean you can get your drawing down quickly and get painting with your watercolors. It is a great subject for when you are feeling creatively blocked. You can treat it as an exercise rather than a full painting so you will not be so hesitant to start. After all, it only requires a little of your time and almost no cost. It generated a great deal of interest amongst my watercolor students. What at first just seemed a simple watercolor painting subject, turned out to be a lot more challenging. It is a watercolor painting for beginners but it can also be done by more experienced artists.

The first step in this painting, after collecting your egg shells, and finding a suitable bright spot light, is to arrange your composition in an interesting manner. Set up your spotlight to cast an interesting shadow pattern to aid your composition. I selected three pieces of egg shell with two touching and one a little apart from the others. The shells were placed so that there was a lot of variation in the spaces between and around them.

Simple watercolor paintings for beginners - eggs and their shadows
Simple watercolor painting  – eggs, under painting and shadows

After lightly drawing up my composition I painted the egg shells with a wash of burnt sienna and French ultramarine. I made the mixture quite watery so that some of the paint beaded at the bottom of each egg. After I quickly painted the two connected eggs I let the paint sit there for about thirty seconds to give it time to stain the paper but not fully evaporate. I then paint their cast shadows. I used French Ultramarine mixed with a little Alizarin Crimson, this violet mixture leans to the blue. Notice that some of the egg color has bled into the shadow area, this acts as reflected light which you should notice in real life. This bleeding into the shadow color was done on purpose and is the reason to keep a bead of paint at the bottom of the egg shapes.

With the egg shell on the right I did not bleed any egg shell color into the shadow area as there was light shining through a gap in the egg shell on its left hand side. Sorry but you can’t see this in my image as it is out of the field of view.

After the egg shapes and shadows were totally dry I went back and painted each egg shape again with my previously mixed egg color. I also dropped in some soft edged form shadows with French Ultramarine and a little Alizarin Crimson.

I let this stage dry completely.

Next I re-wet the shadow areas and drop in some strong dark water color made up of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna. This goes just under each of the two egg shells on the left.

Simple watercolor painting of egg shells, initial under painting
Simple watercolor painting of egg shells,dark shadow under eggs

I used a weak wash of Yellow Ochre, Cobalt Blue, and some Burnt Sienna for the inside of each shell. I let this dry fully. The watercolor painting was finished with the addition of some shadow color to the inside of each egg shell. The one in the middle has a hard edged cast show which you can see in the finished painting above.

While this is a relatively simple watercolor painting subject it can be enhanced as much as you like to build it up to a full work of art.

Watercolor painting – Foggy morning Clarence River

Here is last week’s class watercolor painting. It is based on a photo I took one foggy morning of a couple of sail boats on the Clarence River, before a watercolor workshop I was running in Grafton, NSW. I especially liked the mist on the distant shore which is the subject I wanted to teach my students. Over a 30 minute period the scene went from full early morning sunlight to a misty landscape and back again. It was quite magical to behold. My class had recently done one painting of a misty scene of The Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains so I wanted them to do this one as reinforcement of what they had already learned.

Whenever I see a scene like this with lots of soft edges and muted colors I feel compelled to have a go at painting it. This a perfect watercolor painting for me. It is full of wet on wet passages with a small number of wet on dry hard edges. The key to this type of painting is getting the tones and edges right.

Foggy morning on Clarence River in Grafton watercolor painting
Foggy morning on Clarence River in Grafton watercolor painting

There is a hill in the distance with fog between it and the distant river bank. This meant that I had to have soft edges below the tree line on the distant hill to give the impression of low lying fog.

Watercolor painting steps

The basic steps for painting this foggy morning scene are as follows:

  1. Paint the sky down to the waterline with a very weak watercolor wash. This should be the lightest area of your painting. It is better to go too light rather than too strong with your sky tones. Notice how the soft could pattern leads the eye into the painting. Let it dry thoroughly.
  2. Paint the distant tree-line, soften the bottom edges to give impression of mist or fog.
  3. With stronger watercolors paint the distant shoreline.
  4. I then painted the trees on the left hand side. First was the lighter distant tree on the right of the left hand group of trees. Then the stronger toned foreground tree was added. While this tree was wet I painted the river bank below it. I scratched a few light  edges for posts and parts of the shoreline.
  5. I now painted the river, making sure to drop in the reflections of the distant bank in a wet on wet manner.
  6. The watercolor painting is finished off with the boats, their reflections as well as the reeds in the water and the close river bank reflection.

Remember to keep a close eye on the tones and edges of your watercolor painting. Objects in the distance will be lighter toned and softer edged than those closer. This is even more important with misty scenes like this.

Here is my original reference photo I took in case you would like to have a go at it.

Reference photo of foggy morning on river with sail boats

Foggy morning on river with sail boats at Grafton for watercolor demonstration
Foggy morning on river with sail boats at Grafton for watercolor demonstration

Painting mist

Last week’s Saturday class painting was about how to paint mist. In particular it was about painting mist around The Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney.

The reference photo was provided by my friend Rob Weaver, The Backard Watercolorist, who captured this image from the Scenic Railway at Katoomba. It caught my eye straight away, though I have only just recently gotten around to painting it with my students. Mist can be quite a challenge to an artist because it has so many soft edges. It is even more difficult for the watercolor artist as you cannot afford to lose the light areas in your painting.

Mist around The Three Sisters, Blue Mountains, Australia. Reference photo for watercolor painting of mist.
Mist around The Three Sisters, reference photo for watercolor painting of mist.

The first step in this watercolor painting after a light drawing was to paint the initial under painting. To help preserve the light areas of the mist I painted this stage with my work upside down. I started with a very weak warm wash of dirty Cad Orange. In my case I just used the dirty colors that settled in the bottom of my Cad Orange paint well. Basically this is just a warm pale grey color.

I painted all the way down to the top of the sky. This was let to dry fully.

I then turned the painting right way up and painted the distant hill. I made sure to soften the edges at the bottom that will represent the mist.

After the distant hill dried I painted the hill on the right hand side – more softening of mist edges.

This was followed by the painting of The Three Sisters in silhouette. Once more the edges that are to become part of the mist are kept soft. I soften these edges by using a damp brush and softening the leading edge of the paint above. The damp brush soaks up a lot of the excess water from the wet wash above and stops it from continuing to flow down the watercolor paper.

Each time I soften an edge that lead into the mist area I also made sure to drop in hints of other colors. This was so the mist would not look white and flat. Mist reflects colors surrounding it including the sky. Here and there it also lets a hint of the green foliage through.

After this stage is totally dry I go in and paint the green foliage. I aim to create an interesting foliage pattern. I make sure to leave plenty of bird holes to show through to the mist beyond.

Once I have the foliage completed the finishing touch, before it dries, is to spray parts of the top of some foliage area to soften their edges. This further enhances the impression of mist. This can be a very frightening step as if you spray too much you will wash all the foliage paint away. And if you don’t spray enough your watercolor paint does not flow at all. The trick is to spray in such a way that you create an interesting variety of hard and soft edges in the trees.

Mist around The Three Sisters, watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright
Mist around The Three Sisters, watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright

At some point I will do a full demonstration article on this painting but for now hopefully it may assist you in tackling your own painting of mist!

If you have any questions please feel free to leave a comment.

Wet weather street painting

Here is the wet weather street painting I did with my students last week. Actually the painting was completed over three classes. Here are the three main stages:

Drawing a street scene

The first week we covered how to draw a street scene. The key point is to start with eye level (horizon) and then draw your objects relative to that. What do I mean by this? Well, when drawing with proper perspective, objects above eye level will appear to move down to it the further away they are. While objects below eye level will appear to come up to it as they move away. Another point about eye level which is important is that it basically tells you how tall people are – hence eye level. You can then make all your other objects, cars, awnings, posts, fences, etc. , relative to that height.

Here is my reference photo for this watercolor painting. I took the photo a few years ago as I was leaving Bathurst after having completed a workshop at the Mitchell School of Arts. I have obviously made changes to aid my composition. The Church on the right is St Stephens Church.

Bathurst after the rain reference photo for watercolor painting
Bathurst after the rain reference photo for watercolor painting

Watercolor under painting and buildings

In the second class we did the watercolor under wash for this wet weather street painting. Other than the muted colors there was nothing to say it was a wet weather scene. The important part of this stage was to get our areal perspective right. Here are the key points:

  • Objects in the distance are lighter in tone. Because of the effects of the atmosphere things in the distance will look lighter than those which are closer to the viewer. You can observe this easily by going outside and looking at a distant object like a hill or mountain.
  • They are bluer and duller in color. Again the atmosphere causes colors to look duller the further away they are from you. They also move a little towards blue hence making them look cooler.
  • They are soft edged with less detail. When you look at a hill covered in trees, from a distance you see very little detail. The edges separating the different shapes tend to merge into fewer and fewer shapes.
  • The strongest tones will be in the foreground. In this wet weather street painting the trees on the left hand side are the strongest tones.

Finished wet weather street painting

The painting was finished in the third class with the details and reflections. The cars, poles, and people were painted. They had to be painted first as it was their reflections that would add the wet character to our wet weather street painting.

To paint the reflections I wet parts of the street area and then dropped the color of the reflections into the wet. If you don’t want such soft edges in the reflections you just need to leave parts of the street dry. I will be doing this painting as a full demonstration and will post a link to it here when it is completed.

Bathurst in the rain wet weather street painting by Joe Cartwright
“Bathurst in the rain” wet weather street painting by Joe Cartwright