Plein air watercolor painting

Plein air watercolor painting has many challenges however its benefits make any effort you make well worth it. Not only has my work improved dramatically through painting outdoors but I also find the experience very relaxing and beneficial mentally. Continue reading “Plein air watercolor painting”

Plein air watercolor painting problems

Sometimes plein air watercolor painting problems seem tougher than at others due to non-ideal conditions, if you are on holidays and are there to paint then you just have to try and make the best of your environment. I recently spent 4 days painting at a little New South Wales town called Glen Davis. The daytime temperatures got up to around 99 degrees (37 degrees Celsius), the wind was also quite strong. These conditions, in addition to annoying visits from flies and biting insects made plein air painting with my watercolors quite a challenge.

Glen Davis is situated in the Capertee Valley, from which the Capertee River flows. The valley forms a canyon that is the widest in the world (larger than the Grand Canyon). Glen Davis is located north of Lithgow, New South Wales, off the road to Mudgee.

Capertee Valley from Pearsons Lookout
Capertee Valley from Pearsons Lookout

The town and its surrounds are an artist’s paradise with magnificent views all around.

Glen Davis cliffs at sunset
Glen Davis cliffs at sunset

Plein air watercolor painting problems and solutions

My strategy was to try and get some painting done very early each day, while the temperature was still quite pleasant, even fresh for a little while, before it got too hot. So I would grab a quick cup of coffee and head off to do a painting before breakfast. With the cooler weather my main concerns were the slow drying time of my paper and the rapidly changing light. I did one half sheet watercolor painting and 9 quarter sheet over the four days.

A common mistake plein air watercolor artists make is to try and continue working on top of a damp under painting. It is critical to make sure your under painting is totally dry before you start working on your second wash. To speed up the drying I placed my painting in my car and used its air-conditioning system to help dry it.

Other problems to overcome early in the day was the rapidly changing light, and atmospheric effects. One painting I did which managed to capture the last of the early morning mist required me to keep in mind just what the mist looked like when I first started to paint as it was long gone by the time I had finished my painting.

Last Mist - Glen Davis watercolor painting
Last Mist – Glen Davis watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright

In another painting, with strong light and shadow shapes on the cliff faces I painted the shadow shapes at the same time I painted the sky, with a light version of the sky color. This allowed me to see just where the stronger shadows should go when I was ready to paint them. These shadows too had moved on by the time I was finishing the cliff face but having them recorded with the light sky color meant I had no problem.

Paint shadow areas with light sky color such as Cobalt Blue
Paint shadow areas with light sky color such as Cobalt Blue

Sometimes too, if I had my easel face on to the subject I was painting, it meant that the sun would be directly on my watercolor painting surface. This makes your work dry even faster, plus makes it harder to judge tones – to say nothing of it being hard on your eyes. This is where an umbrella is very useful but if you don’t have a suitable one then turn your easel around so that your board shades your work. You would then look at the subject and then look back down at your work and paint the next section.

Getting one painting done before breakfast usually meant I had at least one good painting for the day which made the rest of my efforts a lot more pleasurable.

Later in the day the problem was the reverse with my work drying too fast! Painting in the heat of the day requires a different technique.

As the heat and wind rose, I either stayed back at our camp or made some adjustments to my equipment and procedure to allow me to continue to paint.

I have a light umbrella which I use to shade my painting surface in those situations where there is no natural shade.

An umbrella can solve some plein air watercolor painting problems
An umbrella can solve some plein air watercolor painting problems

Also I would give my watercolor paper a light spray before starting my under painting. This spray of water was just to get the temperature of the paper down to give me a little more time before my wash would dry.

I also kept spraying my painted surface lightly with water to keep the shine on the paper as needed.

However despite this you will still find your watercolor washes will still dry very quickly. This is part of the plein air challenge. I use large brushes, e.g. a 24 round, for the initial under painting, after I have mixed much more paint than I needed. If you don’t mix enough you will run out part way through a passage and risk muddying up your watercolor wash as you try to mix more paint while your painting is rapidly drying.

Once the underpainting stage is done you can work in smaller areas with smaller brushes making the effect of the heat less important. Remember to still mix more paint than you need however. It is surprising just how fast your watercolor paint will dry in hot and windy conditions.

If you don’t want to mix lots of paint then just paint smaller and leave the bigger paintings till your skill and speed of painting improves.

Despite the heat one morning it was rain that was the problem. In this case there is nothing you can do but take you painting and hop into your car. Never try to continue with a watercolor painting in the rain. It doesn’t work!

Here are the watercolor paintings I produced over the four days:

How to use color thumbnails to change mood

Recently one of my students painted a nice watercolor seascape. Her reference photo was of a coastal scene at Port Macquarie, NSW, Australia. It was of a bright day and her original painting reflected this. However she wanted to change the mood of her painting and was not sure how to go about it. So I suggested that she creates a series of watercolor thumbnails to find the color combination that would provide the mood she was after.

Obviously there is a lot more to changing mood than just changing color, such as varying edges, adjusting areal perspective, even textural effects. However this is a simple way to make “a change” in the mood of your painting. For example,changing a sky color from blue to red or vice versa immediately alters the mood and feeling of your painting. I will write more about painting mood and how to change it, with other techniques, in future articles.

Reference photo

Port Macquarie coast. Photo my Michael Ng
Port Macquarie coast. Photo my Michael Ng

Original watercolor painting by Margaret Ng

Original watercolor seascape painting by Margaret Ng
Original watercolor seascape painting by Margaret Ng

After producing this painting, Margaret now wanted to paint the same scene but with a different mood.

Painting mood, color selection

Because she tended to put in too much detail when doing this type of exercise in the past I had her paint her 2” x 3” swatches with a large brush (size 16 round). This stopped her from getting too detailed and let her free up and play with various color combinations. Students usually find this exercise quite fun as they can play with the colors rather than getting bogged down in detail.

Below is a photo of the various color combinations she produced. As you can see the swatches are all quite small so she was able to fit quite a few on a quarter sheet of watercolor paper ( 14.5” x 10.5”).

Painting mood can be changed with color, watercolor swatches about 2" x 3"
Watercolor swatches about 2″ x 3″ Painting mood can be easily changed with colors.

After picking the color combination that best represented the mood Margaret was after (second from the right, top row) she did a larger sketch of the scene using these selected colors.

The image below is the result. This time she included more details. The bulk of the painting was done with a size 16 round brush with a good point. However for some of the details she used a size 8 round watercolor brush.

Seascape small watercolor sketch
Seascape small watercolor sketch 6″ x 4″

She was now able to confidently move on to her final painting. The result is the watercolor painting below which was a very good result.

You can apply this technique yourself anytime you are unsure of how to proceed with the colors for your painting.

When doing this exercise, it is important not to allow yourself to tighten up by using too small a brush. You are not trying to create tiny works of art but just looking for color combinations you can use in a larger finished artwork.

So next time you are stuck with what colors to use for a particular mood you are trying to achieve with your painting why not give this a  go.

Coastal Seascape watercolor painting by Margaret Ng, new color scheme
Coastal Seascape watercolor painting by Margaret Ng, new color scheme

How to frame a watercolor painting

This article will show you how to frame a watercolor painting. There may be different ways but this is how I do it.

The first step is to ensure your watercolor painting is totally flat.

As I do not pre-stretch my watercolor paper it cockles or buckles a little so I flatten it before framing. I have posted a couple of YouTube videos on how to do this. For smaller works I use a steam iron and for larger paintings I use a different technique. Here are the links to the videos if you would like to look at them:

How to flatten a small watercolor painting with a steam iron.

How to flatten larger watercolor paintings.

Options for how to frame a watercolor painting

Most people take their watercolor paintings to a professional framer, which is often the easiest way to go. At the other extreme some people make their own frame and finish the process off by adding their painting.

I prefer a third option. I purchase pre made frames which include the frame, double mat board, glass, foam core backing board, screws and nylon hanging cord. I purchase these frames from my local framing store, usually about 5 or 10 frames at a time. By doing this I always have frames at hand and can frame my own work at short notice. Otherwise I would have to wait for my framer to do the whole thing which could delay the framing for up to two weeks. I also save a significant amount of cost as the framer can give me an additional discount as they do not have to install my painting in the frame themselves.

I prefer to use a silvery gold frame, with a double mat which is white for the inner and pale beige for the main “outer” mat. I have found this frame and mat combination works well with my watercolor paintings weather or not the paintings are warm or cool colored. The frames seem to go with most modern decors which is another benefit. A third benefit is that if a painting does not sell after a period of time I can easily replace it with a new one and the frame should work with my new artwork. In rare cases, however, I will digress from this frame/mat combination if the painting really warrants it.

Materials and tools needed to frame your watercolor painting

  • Frame kit from your local framing store – should include, frame, mat board (I use a double mat), foam-core backing board, d-rings and self-tapping screws, nylon hanging string, glass front.
  • Screwdrivers, you will probably need both a flat and a Phillips head type.
  • Framing tape to seal the back of the frame – helps keep bugs out, strengthens frame, and covers the sharp metal “points” used to hold the backing board in place.
  • Hanging tape, I buy my from my framer but I am sure art supply stores should have some available or would get it for you.
  • Uncluttered work area.
  • Sheet to protect frame while you are working on it.
  • Pair of scissors.
  • All boards and tapes should be neutral ph so they do not damage your painting over time.

Here is the watercolor painting I am framing for this demonstration. It was painted by one of my students, Chrysovalantou Mavroudis, who is already becoming quite a proficient watercolor artist. She took the photographs while I was showing her how to frame her work. As I am often asked by students about how to frame a watercolor painting I thought I would produce this tutorial.

Reference watercolor painting by Chrysovalantour Mavroudis used for how to frame a watercolor painting
Watercolor painting by Chrysovalantou Mavroudis

Here is an example of what I order from my local framing store.

Watercolor painting kit frame purchased from framer
Watercolor painting kit frame purchased from framer

The glass, mat and backing board are held in place with flexible staples called “points”.

Acid free mat and backing boards held in place with flexible "points"
Acid free mat and backing boards held in place with flexible “points”

I start by first wiping the front of the glass clean. I then flip the frame over and bend the flexible “points” vertically so I can remove the backing board and mat. I then clean the back of the glass. Notice how I use an old sheet on which to lay my frame on so it is not so easily damaged.

Clean the front and back of the glass of the premade watercolor framing kit
Clean the front and back of the glass of the premade watercolor framing kit

Fix watercolor painting to back of matt with hanging tape

I set the frame aside and pick up the watercolor painting I am framing. I lay the painting upside down and attach a strip of hanging tape (purchased from my framer) along the top of the back of the artwork. Do not press too hard as you only want the tape to stick to the painting and not the table top. The length of tape I use is about two thirds the length of the painting, with about half of the tape on the painting, the other half will be affixed to the back of the mat board.

Lay watercolor painting down and fix hanging tape of top two thirds of painting
Lay watercolor painting down and fix hanging tape on top of  your painting for about two thirds its length

I now flip the painting over and then lay the mat board on top. Do this lightly so the tape does not stick while you are finding the correct positioning for your watercolor painting.

Fix watercolor painting to back of matt with hanging tape
Fix watercolor painting to back of mat with hanging tape

Once I am happy with the positioning of my artwork I use my clean lint free rag to press down on the mat over the taped area. This sticks the tape to the mat but only a little. I then gently flip the mat over and then with my fingernail rub all over the hanging tape to make sure it sticks firmly to both the watercolor painting and mat.

Use fingernail to press hanging tape to watercolor paper and mat board
Use fingernail to press hanging tape to watercolor paper and mat board

The mat board with the attached watercolor painting can now be placed in the frame. You may want to give the glass on the inside another quick clean in case any dust has settled on it.

Mat board with attached watercolor painting placed in frame
Mat board with attached watercolor painting placed in frame

On top of the mat you now place the foam core backing board.

Foam core backing board placed on top of artwork and mat
Foam core backing board placed on top of artwork and mat

Now carefully hold the frame from both sides so that you stop the sections coming apart, watch out that you do not cut yourself on the flexible “points” however as they are sharp. For bigger watercolor paintings you may need to bend some of these “points” down at this stage to help keep all the pieces in the frame. Then flip the frame over and have a look from the front to make sure there are no bits of dust or fluff that can be seen from the front. If so flip it over, lift up the painting, etc. and remove the offending particle. This can be quite annoying at times, it is best to make sure your work environment is relatively dust free.

Checking for dust -how to frame a watercolor painting
Flip frame over and check that no bits of dust or fluff are showing on the mat or painting. Careful not to cut yourself with the “points”

Once you are happy the surface of the mat and watercolor painting are dust free, flip the frame onto its front and bend down the “points”, I usually use a flat screwdriver as my finger cannot press the “points’ down firmly enough. Don’t press so hard that the points damage the backing board surface.

Press "Points" back down with a flat screwdriver
Press “Points” back down with a flat screwdriver

The next step for “How to frame a watercolor painting” is to seal the back of the frame with framing tape.

Often you will find that the frame and its backing board are at different levels. This causes a little problem as the framing tape may not seal the back of the frame properly. If the frame and backing board are at the same height then the tape can be just laid flat.

Frame and backing board not at the same level - how to frame a watercolour painting
Frame and backing board not at the same level

This is the process I use to properly seal the back of a frame which is higher than the matt board:

First run a piece of framing tape along one side of the frame with half of the tape over the backing board and the rest on the frame. Do not let the tape touch the backing board at this stage. Just fix it to the frame with a little pressure of your hand.

Run framing tape along one side of the frame but do not let it touch the backing board
Run framing tape along one side of the frame but do not let it touch the backing board

Then cut the tape along the adjoining frame length edge. It is easier to see what I mean by looking at the photo below.

Cut framing tape along both edges of the frame as in the picture above
Cut framing tape along both edges of the frame as in the picture above

Now press down on the tape along the edge of the frame and onto the backing board. Run you hand over the tape to make sure it is fixed to the frame and backing board firmly.

Press down on the tape along the edge of the frame and onto the backing board
Press down on the tape along the edge of the frame and onto the backing board

Repeat the process for the frame length on the opposite side of the frame.

Framer's tape on each end
Framer’s tape on each end

Now place tape along the other lengths. Again, first only fix the tape to the frame not the backing board.

Cut and fit tape to other length but only fix to frame not backing board first
Cut and fit tape to other length but only fix to frame not backing board first

Now make a diagonal cut from the corner of the frame at 45 degrees. Ensure you only cut through the top layer of tape not the one below it.

Cut diagonal from corner of frame at 45 degrees. Only cut through top tape layer.
Cut diagonal from corner of frame at 45 degrees. Only cut through top tape layer.

Once the diagonal cuts are made at both ends of the tape you can press the tape down onto the backing board to stick in down. Start from the middle of the tape along the edge of the frame, that way the tape will sit nicely on the backing board with no crinkles.

With diagonal cuts made, press tape down onto backing board
With diagonal cuts made, press tape down onto backing board

This process gives you a nice clean and professional looking finish on the back of your frame. Obviously if the backing board comes up level with the frame then these extra cuts are not required.

Notice the nice finish to the back of the frame’s inner corners
Notice the nice finish to the back of the frame’s inner corners

The final step of how to frame a watercolor painting is the fixing of the support string.

I measured about 6 inches from the top of the frame (about the length of the metal portion of my Phillips head screw driver which I use as a guide). I use a gimlet to start the holes for the screws which attach the d-rings. A gimlet is a tool of starting holes in timber in case you hadn’t guessed. The distance from the top of the frame to the screw holes varies depending on the frame size. This framed watercolor painting was about 23” x 19”.

As a guideline place the d-rings, and therefore the string a little less than a third of the way down the frame. If you come down too far the frame will lean forward too much when hung.

The d-ring should be screwed in the middle for  moulding for strength, unless for some strange reason your frame is very thin at that point.

Gimlet used to start screw holes with length of screwdriver used as a positioning guide
Gimlet used to start screw holes with length of screwdriver used as a positioning guide

I then screw on the d-rings to which the sturdy hanging string will be attached. If you look at the photo below you can see why they are called d-rings.

Various d-rings for used in framing. The ones on the left give it its name!
Various d-rings for used in framing. The ones on the left give it its name!

The d-rings are fixed to the frame with self-tapping screws.

D-rings are attached to the frame with self-tapping screws
D-rings are attached to the frame with self-tapping screws

You can now attached the nylon picture hanging cord to the d-rings. Make sure you use a good knot so that the cord does not come loose or your frame could fall down when hung. I also wrap a little piece of framing tape around the loose end of the cord for a neater finish as can be seen in the image below.

Securely attach nylon hanging cord to d-rings - How to frame a watercolor painting
Securely attach nylon hanging cord to d-rings

I also cover the d-rings with some framing tape to minimize the chance of damage to other paintings that may be placed against mine. This courtesy not only helps others but could also help your own work. I once delivered 5 paintings to a school art exhibition and the handler started stacking all my paintings on top of one another – she was quite inexperienced but if I had not noticed, and not had tape over my d-rings, the damage to my frames could have been extensive.

Cover d-rings with some framing tape
Cover d-rings with some framing tape

The framing is now complete. I hope you have found this brief tutorial on how to frame a watercolor painting useful.

Framed watercolor painting
Framed watercolor painting

Figure 26: Framed watercolor painting

Paint watercolors like a child

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up,” Picasso.

All too often artists seem to fall into the trap of taking their work too seriously. If their watercolor painting doesn’t work they feel let down, if they don’t win a prize they feel they are not progressing, or that the judge picked the wrong painting.

I was recently talking to one of my students about this problem when I realized that when I was a child, and when I have observed children play with their paints, they never sit there and say look how terrible this is, or that they are not progressing with their work. No, a child just has fun painting. They are happy with every one of their creations, weather each drawing or painting is the same or quite unique. My youngest son, when he was about 4 years old, started drawing a particular bird. He must have drawn the same one, with small changes in color, about 50 times. He loved everyone and would run in to show us each one. He was just enjoying drawing his birds.

I had one student who painted this way. He had a very highly stressful internet technology job but when he came to class he just had fun. He was not trying to create masterpieces, even though he did create some nice work, he just loved painting with watercolors. I don’t think I ever heard him complain about any of his works, even the ones which obviously didn’t work. This is a great state to be in as an artist.

The more serious things become the less we get out of it in the end. So enjoy your painting, have fun, and you will no doubt be surprised with what you create.

If you find yourself getting serious about your watercolor painting, just tell yourself you are going to spend a few sheets of watercolor paper just playing, then see how you feel. Just throw the paint around, see how the watercolor paints flow into one another on you wet paper, see how different colors mix, etc. You are just playing, with no end product in mind.

Enjoy yourself when you paint watercolors!

The very first time I tried watercolors I asked my teacher what should I do. He said just wet the paper and play with them. I did, and still have that little painting today.

Have fun when you paint watercolors. The first watercolor painting I ever - just playing!
Just playing -have fun when you paint watercolors.

I think this is what Picasso meant by his quote:

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”