How to paint plein air with watercolors

Plan your watercolor painting

I start by developing a good design and an idea of how I am going to progress with my painting.  This is achieved during the drawing stage.

Time of Day

Now I try and get my paintings done in the early hours of the day and late in the afternoon.  If I have to paint in the middle of the day I make sure I have some shade to work under either natural or by using an umbrella.

Crookhaven Heads, early morning plein air painting
Crookhaven Heads, early morning plein air painting

Minimise Atmospheric Problems

I try to stay out of the wind. This is not always possible however, especially if you have limited time at a location that you really want to paint. The two Venice paintings here were done in quite a stiff breeze but as it was very late in the day and not too warm I got away with it.

I may also spray my paper lightly with water to give me a little more time before it dries. I have to allow for this in my paint mixes however as the extra water on my paper will further dilute my paint.

Continue to: Watercolor Plein Air Step 3

Watercolor Plein Air

Problems painting plein air with watercolor

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.

Venice San Giorgio Maggiore Plein Air watercolor painting
Venice San Giorgio Maggiore Plein Air watercolor painting, May 2010

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.

Continue to next step: How to paint plein air with watercolors

Watercolor Painting Starting Kit

This is my recommended watercolor painting starting kit for my students. It may not suit everyone so please check with your teacher for his or her requirements.


Arches Rough, 300gsm, one full sheet 56cm x 76cm, cut into quarters.  Do not skimp on paper, poor quality paper will make it impossible to do good work.


They must come to a nice point when wet.

Round brushes sizes 10,16 and 24. I use NEEF 4750-LP squirrel mix brushes as they have a great point and are not too expensive.


White plastic one with large mixing areas and large paint wells to hold plenty of paint.  A pallet which has narrow small wells for paint will make it difficult for you to get the paint out.  It will also cause more wear and tear on your brushes and will make it harder to keep paint clean.


I use Winsor & Newton Artists quality paint.  It is better to buy a few tubes of artists’ quality paint than lots of student grade (cheaper) ones.  There are many reasons for this. One of the main ones is because your tutor/teacher will not be able to help much with colour mixes because pigments used in artist’s quality paints are almost always different than those in student grade paints.  So if you ask your tutor which colours he used in a particular mix it won’t do you any good as you will be using different paints.  Other reasons for going with artist’s quality paints include purer and more transparent colours, better archival qualities and better handling.

Ideal starting colours for beginners would be

French Ultramarine

Cobalt Blue

Alizarin Crimson

Cadmium Red

Cadmium Orange

Cadmium Yellow Pale


Yellow Ochre

Raw Umber

Burnt Sienna

Cobalt Turquoise

Initially you could make do with

French Ultramarine

Alizarin Crimson


Yellow Ochre

Raw Umber

Burnt Sienna

Miscellaneous Items

Piece of plywood about 5 cm all around wider than a quarter sheet of watercolour paper

Box of cheap plain white tissues

An old hand towel

Spray bottle with a fine mist

Roll of 2.5cm masking tape

Kneadable eraser

Water containers and watercolor desktop easels provided in class.

Happy painting,

Joe Cartwright

Watercolor and Gum Arabic

Here is a link to an interesting article on gum arabic. Its uses from food additives to watercolor along with its history: gum arabic history.

Happy painting,