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.
Only working from photos, especially those you did not take yourself, can be very limiting as the colors and tones are rarely properly captured. Studio work, where you are in total control of your environment can tempt you to tighten up and focus on excessive detail. While painting outdoors, with the light and weather constantly changing, you are forced to work in a more loose fashion. You need to think quickly and work to capture the key elements of your painting fast. This all leads to better watercolor paintings both outdoors and later in your studio.
Benefits of plein air watercolor painting
It teaches you to paint fast
With the weather changing quickly you have to complete your painting within one to two hours. No compromise, as the light, wind, and temperature will all change. In your studio you can put down the brush and come back for a second go in an hour or two or even the next day, but you can’t do this when you are painting outdoors. The more plein are painting you do the better you will become at simplifying a scene and selecting the key components to include in your work. The skill in representational art is often what to leave out rather than what to put in.
Most important things first
With limited time, plein air paintings force you to concentrate on what is important in your work. You have to tackle the big shapes and tones first. Capturing the light pattern is very important so you need to keep that in mind from the start and try to record it in some way when you can.
Details can often be added at the end of the work and are not so dependent on the light. In any case a work without the big shapes and tones correct, will never look good.
You can see true colors
When painting from photographs you rarely see the true colors and tones of a scene. A camera tends to merge light tones with light tones and dark tones with dark ones. Mid tones tend to be relatively well recorded but not the light or dark tones. Colors are further modified when you produce a print of your photo and work from that. You can see this in work of artists who solely paint from photographs. In the real world (en plein air) you can see the colors and variations in the light tones and the dark tones – especially in the shadow areas which are often filled with beautiful reflected lights.
Reflected colors are not always well recorded in photographs. When painting outdoors they are much more obvious which makes it easier to include them in your paintings later – even when working from photographs.
Getting closer to your subject gives you a better connection
A few years ago I spent nearly two weeks in Venice painting my watercolors — and taking a lot of photographs. I can still recall every painting I did and what happened while I was painting it. Being there and experiencing the moment really made those paintings special.
When you are out in mother nature you can respond to what is happening in front of you. You can add that extra something that can be missing when you are just painting from photographs. Even when painting plein air I still use what I see in front of me as inspiration. I do not try to record everything I see — if I want that I will just take a photograph. I try to capture what I feel and the mood of the occasion.
In a photo you are limited by what you see in the photo, but when painting outside you can see many more objects which could be incorporated in your work. Within limits items can be moved or adjusted to give you a better composition. Examples are modern sheds made to look rustic, trees moved — who’s to say there wasn’t a tree there before, cows, animals and equipment, from one field moved to another, a distant cloud pattern could be included in your painting, etc.
It frees you up in the studio
The more plein air painting I do the freer and looser I find my studio work becoming. Plein air painting teaches you to quickly get to the essence of what you are trying to say or capture. Whereas if you only do studio work you will be tempted to concentrate on the detail and can miss the big picture message entirely.
If you want to know more about how to paint outdoors with watercolors you may like to read my book, Mastering Watercolors — a practical guide, which has a chapter dedicated to plein air watercolor painting and is available from Amazon.com.
Here is a small gallery of recent en plein air watercolor paintings I have produced: