Painting light with watercolors

Recently I produced a couple of plein air paintings which I felt really captured the light. Painting light or how to represent light always fascinates me. So when I get it to work I am really happy.

Both of these watercolor paintings were done at Yarramundi Reserve. The reserve is situated at the junction of the Grose and Hawkesbury Rivers. You can find a brochure on the reserve here: Yarramundi Reserve.

Here are the reference photos I took of the scene which you might like to look at.

Early morning light through the trees on the Grose River, Yarramundi
Early morning light through the trees on the Grose River, Yarramundi
Hawkesbury River at Yarramundi painting light
Hawkesbury River at Yarramundi location of plein aire painting – painting light

Here is a picture of my light weight plein air watercolor easel. It has made it very easy for me to paint out doors as I don’t have to lug around too much heavy gear.

I was drawn to both scenes by the light shining through the trees. I also loved the shadow patterns on the ground. Unfortunately the photographs do not fully capture these effects. Hopefully they are good enough to give you an idea of what caught my attention.

When I am painting plein air I usually walk around the area to get a feel for it. Then when I find something that makes me go “Wow look at that!” I paint it. As I am primarily an into the light artist so I am always attracted by light and shadow patterns.

Painting light with watercolor

The trick to painting light with watercolor is to make sure you have a strong contrast between your lightest and darkest tones. Of course this is for scenes with bright lights. If the scene is full of fog or mist then the contrast would be much less.

Another point I keep in mind when painting watercolors is to stay focused on what I want to say with my artwork. In both of these cases it was the contrasting light and the play of shadows on the ground. Everything else was subordinate.

So I kept the background quite light. I then made the forward watercolors very strong. Some of my students even thought I had used ink. No ink, just French Ultramarine, Burnt Sienna and a little Permanent Alizarin Crimson. A lot less water was used in the foreground darks relative to the background.

Below are the finished paintings. Oh, the weather being wonderful was a big help!

Watercolor plein air painting light through trees beside Grose River by Joe Cartwright
Watercolor plein air – painting light through trees beside Grose River
Hawkesbury River at Yarramundi plein air watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright
Hawkesbury River at Yarramundi plein air watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright

If you have any questions about the above or painting light or shadows please let me know.

Plein air painting of pond, hills and reflections

Recently I went plein air painting with my friends. We have a regular plein air day every Thursday. The group sometimes has eight or more people turn up and is a lot of fun. Most of the people who turn up to these plein air days are members of the Nepean Art Society, in Penrith. The location of my painting is about 20 minutes from my home.It is a small farm with a single pond, a few cows, and a mountain background. The scene had lots of information in it. Rather than trying to paint everything I saw I simplified the scene and concentrated on creating depth to my watercolor painting and capturing the reflections.

Pond on farm with reflections reference for watercolor plein air painting
Pond on farm with reflections – reference for watercolor plein air painting

I started my watercolor painting with a very weak wash of cobalt blue and cadmium orange in the sky. Both water colors are Winsor and Newton artists quality watercolors. I painted this mix of watercolors down to the horizon line.

I then added a mix of  cobalt turquoise mixed with aureolin and some raw umber from the the top of the hill to the distant shore on the pond. I left the pond as white paper for now as it would be painted after the trees and shrubs were put in. I used a similar mixture in the foreground but added some additional raw umber. This added raw umber increased the mixture’s tone and helped bring the foreground to the front. I added some additional splattered paint to break up the foreground to make its shape more interesting. I also left some untouched paper here and there in the foreground to add more life to that part of the watercolor painting.

Some of my Plein Air painting friends
Some of my Plein Air painting friends

I left this stage to dry. At this time I was still painting in the shade and I had to place my painting on a post in the sun as it was taking too long to dry. This was coffee break time!

Once the painting was totally dry I was ready to paint the distant hill and the foreground.

The distant hill was painted with the same green I had mixed previously with some french ultramarine added to the mix.

Plein air painting problems

The sun was now full on my watercolor paper and I had to paint much faster with a closer eye on what was happening on my paper. This is what makes plein air painting with watercolors such a challenge. When the atmosphere is cool and you have shade on your artwork you are always waiting for the paper to dry. Impatience at this stage will give you a muddy painting. Then when the sun and heat are on your work you have to speed things up and really keep and eye of how fast everything is drying. But hey, that is part of the fun and challenge of plein air painting with watercolor!

When I painted the distant hill I left some parts of the under painting showing through to represent fields without trees. I also quickly softened parts of the top edge of the hill to give it the feeling of trees. I brought this hill wash down to the horizon line. Using my watercolor brush I painted one or two quick horizontal lines near the bottom of the hill to give the impression of distant fields. While the hills was still wet I dropped in some darker water color to represent some distant trees. These trees were all painted with a wet on wet watercolor technique which produces soft edges.

I continued with the foreground trees while the distant hill was still a little wet. This acted as an under painting for the foreground trees. I let this stage dry fully. While this was drying I went around and chatted to my friends and to see how their work was progressing. Most were painting with oil paints so I was not causing them any anxiety by interrupting their work. I usually leave the watercolorists alone if they are painting as they need a little more concentration.

My next step was to paint the foreground trees with various mixtures of green. I made sure to drop darker tones into the shaded parts of my painting. I also ensured I did not totally block out the distant fields and hills. This helped create the feeling of depth to my painting.

I was now ready to paint the water and the reflections. The water was painted first with a mix of cobalt blue and a tiny bit of burnt sienna. While the water was still wet I dropped in the tree colors from the tree mixture I had saved. Notice how I have left parts of the water area as white paper to act as highlights.

After the watercolor paint in the pond area was fully dried I finished my painting off with the three cows and some fence posts. All in all this plein air painting took me about one and a half hours. Which is pretty typical for one of my plein air paintings. You can see the finished watercolor painting below. I was happy with the result.

Plein air painting with watercolors of Pond reflections cows hills and trees
Finished Plein air painting with watercolors of Pond reflections, cows, hills, and trees by Joe Cartwright

Watercolor painting of sheep on Australian farm

This watercolor painting of sheep was completed recently by my class. The week before I had conducted a workshop in the country and brought back some good reference photos. I was staying on a farm with loads of excellent painting subjects.

As we hadn’t painted sheep before I thought this would be a good topic for a class watercolor painting.

Often we take photos which appear to be uninteresting or have just too much information to be inspiring. This was certainly a problem I used to have when I first starting watercolor painting. Now days I see paintings in almost every scene. In part this is because I have no concerns with editing a photo or scene by moving things around or adjusting the time of the day or other light conditions. One of my regular quotes is “Never let reality get in the way of a good painting!” I have also found that if you take a large image and crop it smaller you can often find a number of interesting paintings within the original.

Cropping your photos for watercolor painting

Below is the original reference photo I took.

Sheep on Australian farm reference photo for watercolor painting
Sheep on Australian farm reference photo

While not a bad photo there is a lot of information in it which could cause some difficulty for a beginner artist. I usually simplify this type of scene by asking myself just what message do I want to get across in my watercolor painting.

As I wanted to cover how to draw and paint sheep this was easy. I still however wanted to keep the feel of being on a farm as part of my painting.

The next photo is my cropped version which needed very little adjustment prior to painting.

Sheep detail 2 cropped from original photo for watercolor painting
Sheep detail 2 cropped from original photo

I could now focus on the sheep and I have given the scene better balance. Other than moving the tree a little to the right the painting can proceed pretty much as you see it in the photo.

The finished painting can be seen below. I am currently producing a proper step by step demonstration article on this which will be posted in a little while. Once completed I will come back and edit this post to direct you to the demonstration watercolor painting.

Completed painting of sheep

Watercolor painting of sheep grazing
Watercolor painting of sheep grazing


Watercolor painting of shed with strong shadows

This watercolor painting of a shed with strong morning shadows was a painting I had my students do recently. The reason I selected this for the class painting was because it gave my students a chance to practice how to capture the early morning light and the shadows that result from it. It was based on a photo I took of a friend’s old shearing shed. I had previously painted this exact scene in Pen and Ink and Brush and thought it would also work well with watercolor. I think watercolor is a wonderful medium for capturing light.

Reference photo for this watercolor painting

Old sheep shearing shed Quirindi NSW
Reference photo for watercolor painting “Old sheep shearing shed Quirindi NSW”

The basic steps for this watercolor painting are as follows: 1. Find a suitable subject that captures your interest. 2. Decide what you want your message to be. In my case it was the beautiful shadows falling on the foreground. 3. Make any needed design decisions. As I wanted my watercolor painting to focus on the shadows I increased the foreground area. I also decided to add some sheep as it is a painting of a shearing shed. 4. Paint the sky and ground under painting in one go. It is important to get the tones right with the lightest in the sky and those in the ground getting stronger towards the foreground. It is very important to let this stage of your watercolor painting fully dry before you continue.

Watercolor under painting for shed in morning light
Figure 1: Under painting for watercolor landscape painting of shed and shadows.

5. Next comes the distant hills. Remember to keep them light to add depth to your painting.  While these were a little wet I painted the distant foliage in the far right hand trees. I finished this foliage after the hill had dried so I could create some hard edges. 6. Next comes the main trees on the right hand side.  If you are interested you can find out how to paint gum trees by reading another article on this website here: How to paint Australian eucalyptus trees. 7. When the trees are completed I then painted the sheds with a mixture of Cobalt Blue and Burnt Sienna watercolors. I used a thicker mix of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna for the dark areas of the main building e.g. under the roof, under the large awning on the right had side of the building, above and below the door, etc. Some dropped in Burnt Sienna gave the shed walls a look of some rust. 8. The watercolor painting is nearly finished at this stage. However before the shadows are put in I painted the rocks, sheep, and fence on the left. 9. The shadows finished the watercolor painting.  For shadows I used a mix of French Ultramarine and Alizarin Crimson – this mix should lean towards the blue not the red.  I also make sure I have more than enough paint to finish all the shadow areas without having to mix more. The shadow watercolor mix was applied to the building and the ground in one go. 10. The shadows are laid down very quickly and while they are wet I drop in some various dark greens. 11. Once the shadows are dry I finish my watercolor painting with the addition of some grass to help lead the eye into the painting. The above is a very brief and not complete breakdown of the steps taken for this watercolor painting. Hopefully it will be of use to my students as a review. I will try to produce a full step by step demonstration painting of it sometime.

Finished watercolor painting of shed

Watercolor painting old shed in the morning with strong shadows
Watercolor painting of shed in the morning with strong shadows

You can see a pen and ink version of this watercolor painting in my Pen, Ink, and Watercolor Wash Gallery.

Plein air painting easel for watercolor

From time to time I wondered about the weight and functionality of my plein air painting easel. It took too long to set up and was heavy. This got me thinking about just what is important in an outdoor watercolor easel and how I could reduce the weight so that carrying it around is not a chore. As I like to paint on quarter sheet paper, and because I prefer to paint standing up, a tripod easel is a necessity. So I set about producing a lightweight plein air painting easel. Something that could be made with a minimum of materials but would still be very functional for my type of plein aire painting. This article gives all the details of my setup in case anyone would like to produce a similar easel for their own use.

Because of its length I have divided this article into two parts. The first talks about my old setup and what was wrong with it along with what I feel is needed in a good plein air painting easel for watercolor painting.

My old gear consisted of a wooden box easel used for oil painting which rested on a tripod. The box stored my pallet and even some spare paper along with a couple of trays that were attached to the tripod and on which I rested my pallet, water container and brushes. It worked well however it was not something you could easily carry while travelling abroad.

An additional problem with the old setup, apart from the weight (3.7 kg / 8.16 lb) was that I had to lean over the bottom tray to get to my painting surface. In time this was putting more strain on my back than I wanted. Figures 1 and 2 are of my old setup. As you can see I also used to paint on a watercolor block which meant carrying a lot more weight than I needed.

Because of the weight of the box on top it required a stronger and heavier tripod. It was also a bit awkward to fix to the tripod.

My original watercolor plein air easel
Figure 1: My original plein air painting easel
The problem with the original easel was I had to lean over too much, and the palette was too low.Bending over my old plein air easel hard on back
Figure 2: The problem with the original easel was I had to lean over too much, and the palette was too low.

I decided to see just what was really essential when I went out plein air painting and to discard the rest.

Plein air painting easel – essential features for watercolor

Here are the key requirements I wanted for my setup:

It had to be as light as possible while being sturdy enough to support my paper and palette without undue motion.

Everything had to be at a comfortable working height once I started my watercolor painting.

The palette should be close to the height of my watercolor paper so it could be accessed very easily.

The water container had to be convenient as well.

I required something to hold my brushes, and spray bottle, while painting without them rolling away and falling onto the ground.

The easel should be able to be set up very quickly with a minimum of parts that could go missing if they fell onto grass i.e. not too many extra nuts and bolts.

The mixing areas in my palette had to hold plenty of watercolor paint.

Continue to part two by clicking this link:  my current plein air painting easel.