Plein air painting lesson – Changing light

I recently went on a 5-day plein air painting trip to the town of Tumut in NSW. The weather was perfect, with the main challenge being the changing light. Unlike most other places in New South Wales, where evergreen trees predominate, around the Tumut region, there are plenty of deciduous trees which add lots of Autumn colors – hence the reason for my visit. Continue reading “Plein air painting lesson – Changing light”

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:

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

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.