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”

Watercolor painting demonstration – Pughs Lagoon

The subject of this scene is really the early morning light on the grassed hillside. Pughs Lagoon is about 30 minutes from my home and a popular site for local artists. This painting was done en plein air and, as I was quite happy with the result, I thought I would go through the steps I took to complete it.

Because of the rapidly changing light, these situations require quite fast painting and a clear idea of the steps you need to take to capture the subject – in this case it was the light. I was at this same location the week before so I already had a good idea of the painting I wanted to create before I arrived.

Photo of Pughs Lagoon, Richmond, NSW, Australia
Pughs Lagoon, Richmond, NSW, Australia


  • Paper: Arches 300gsm Cold Pressed watercolor paper, quarter sheet (approx. 15″ x 11″ (38cm x 28cm)).
  • Brushes: Round, sizes 24 and 16 for larger washes, and 12, 10 and 8 for smaller areas and detail.
  • Watercolor paints: All Winsor and Newton artist’s quality, Cobalt Blue, French Ultramarine, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Cobalt Turquoise, Aureolin and Cad Orange.
  • Other items are: 0.7mm HB clutch pencil, fine mist spray bottle, stiff backing board, masking tape, old towel to control wetness of your brushes, tissues and simple watercolor easel. Collapsible water container.
  • Lightweight plein air painting easel

Drawing and watercolor under painting

Image of Simple drawing and watercolor under painting
Simple drawing and watercolor under painting

My sketch was kept light, focusing on the two buildings and the water line. I also indicated where the two major tree groupings would go. The trees were not drawn in any detail. As I was focusing on the light on the hill, I placed the waterline at about 20% up from the bottom of my watercolor paper.

Once the drawing was done, it was then time for the under painting. Notice that I kept the lagoon area dry. You cannot do this section until the rest of the painting is done, otherwise you would not know what to put in the reflections.

The watercolors I used for the under painting were Cobalt Blue and Cad Orange for the sky. Both were mixed with a lot of water as they would make up the lightest section of the painting. It is better for the sky to be too light than too dark. Winsor and Newton’s Cad Orange is a very yellow orange and is used with plenty of water or it will appear opaque. If your orange is too red, like with the fruit orange, it may be better to use Yellow Ochre instead.

The greens were mixed with various mixes of Cobalt Turquoise, Aureolin and Raw Umber for the lighter passages. A small amount of French Ultramarine was added for the darker ones. Here and there I also used a touch of Burnt Sienna.

As you can see, all the edges in the sky, tree and hill area, apart from a few left highlights, are all soft. This means they were painted wet on wet.

The paper was not pre-wet.

My plein air watercolour setup at Pughs Lagoon
My plein air watercolor setup at Pugh’s Lagoon

The sky was painted all the way down to the water’s edge, though with a lot more water in the mix in the hill area. I then immediately went in with the tree and grass under painting. It was the wet sky wash that gave me all the lovely soft wet on wet edges for the trees and grass.

The angle of my easel was at about 40 degrees. When I paint outdoors I keep my board at a steeper angle to allow me to paint with less water. The steeper board angle lets the watercolors flow as they would with more water but at a lower angle. This allows me to keep my paper a littler drier while still creating the same effects I can produce in my studio work. As I don’t have access to a hair dryer when painting outdoors, the drier I can keep my paper the faster it will dry fully so I can move on to the various stages of my painting. It still has to be wet enough for the watercolors to flow however.

I let this stage dry totally – both the paint and paper.

Painting the trees and shrubs

Painting trees and buildings with watercolor
Painting trees and buildings

With the under painting totally dry it was time to paint the trees, shrubs and buildings. Starting on the left with the trees, I moved from left to right also painting the buildings as I moved along. The trees and shrubs were painted with the same colors as those used for the underpainting, though with varying mixtures of paint. Less water was used, creating thicker mixes to strengthen the tones, which allowed the trees to be contrasted from the grass on the hill.

The sides of the buildings were painted with a very weak mix of Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, and Cobalt Blue. The building in the distance had a little more blue in the mix as it was further away. The chimneys were painted with Burnt Sienna and Permanent Alizarin Crimson. The colors for the roof were French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna. The distant roof has more water in the mix to push is further away in the picture plain.

Picture of how to paint the shadows after trees and building were completed
The shadows painted after trees and building completed

As I continued to work from left to right ­­- right to left if you are right handed – I kept varying the colors and tones used, to create an interesting composition. I took inspiration from the view in front of me but I was not constrained to place everything where I saw it. My main intention was to create an engaging work of art, not a replacement for a photograph.

Painting the Shadows

Once the trees and the building were completed I quickly added the shadow shapes. These not only anchored the objects to the ground but were critical to giving the painting its feeling of bright morning light. My shadows were painted with a mixture of French Ultramarine and Permanent Alizarin Crimson; the mix has to lean towards the blue not the red however.

In a couple of areas I had splashed on (with my brush) some clean water. In this way, when the shadows were painted, they produced some nice soft edges as they hit the wet spot. Make sure your shadow color is already mixed before you splash on the water, or else it will dry before you start painting your shadow, thus defeating its purpose.

Image showing what happens if some clean water is splashed here just before the shadow was painted
Some clean water had been splashed here just before the shadow was painted

 Painting the water of the lagoon

The water was painted with the same green colors with a touch of Burnt Sienna to grey them off.  Reflections on water are always a little duller than the objects being reflected. I used this time to sharpen the shapes of some of the grasses on the water’s edge with mixes of Burnt Sienna, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, and French Ultramarine. Remember to make your reflections directly below the object being reflected, and towards the bottom of your paper.

Finishing my plein air watercolor painting

I let the lagoon area dry thoroughly, and then painted the final details. These included the birds and logs in the water along with their reflections. I also added a few clumps of grass on the hill and a small leafless tree near the buildings. I make sure not to overdo this however. Objects such as these are placed only with balance and composition in mind. Just because something is there doesn’t mean you have to include it or that you can’t move it.

Watercolor Painting of Pughs Lagoon by Joe Cartwright
Pughs Lagoon watercolor painting 14.5″ x 10.5″ (37cm x 27cm)

I hope this watercolor painting demonstration may inspire you to get your paints out and go plein air painting as well.

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 landscape painting

Here is today’s plein air watercolor landscape painting I did with my Thursday plein air group. The location is in Luddenham, a semi rural area just outside of Sydney, Australia. It was a lovely day to be painting outdoors. Warm but not too hot, few clouds so no moving shadows to contend with, and no wind – perfect!

I was immediately drawn to an old shed in the distance and the pattern made by the trees around it. The form of the hills would allow an interesting lead into the focal point – the shed. While the distant hill would add space to my painting.

Here is the scene I was confronted with.

Luddenham landscape reference photo for watercolor painting
Luddenham landscape reference photo for watercolor painting

The steps I took for this plein air watercolor landscape painting are as follows:

  1. Decide what attracts my attention in the vista along with any compositional changes I will make. Remember there are no rules that say you have to try and paint everything you see when painting outdoors. I try to work out what is the minimum I need to put into my painting while still achieving the message I want to present. Too much information can lead to a confusing message.

I set up my plein air watercolor painting kit which you see below. Because the sun was already quite high in the sky I used my umbrella to shade my watercolor paper and as much of my palette as I could.

watercolor painting set up for plein air
Watercolor painting set up for plein air

The umbrella is supported by a lightweight extendible pole and attached to my plein air easel with Velcro tape. I used my carry bag as a counterweight as my plein air easel is very light and the umbrella could have toppled it. The bag hangs on the other end of the aluminium arm that supports my little folding palette.

Now that I am all set up I do a loose drawing of the scene. I am mainly interested in the general layout of shapes when doing my drawing. I do not put in a lot of detail as I want to keep the whole watercolor painting free and loose.

Drawing for plein air landscape watercolor painting
Drawing for plein air landscape watercolor painting

Inital wash for plein air watercolor landscape painting

With the drawing done my next step is to paint the sky and the ground under painting. It is very important that you get your tones right for this stage. The sky is usually the lightest tone in the landscape. The ground should be lighter, cooler, and softer in the distance. It’s tone increases as it moves towards the foreground where warmer colors are used. At this stage of the watercolor painting it should already look like a landscape, with the sky and your ground almost finished.

The greens I used for the ground are made up of various mixes of Aureolin, Raw Umber, Cobalt Blue (only a little) and French Ultramarine. All these water colors a artist’s quality and made by Winsor and Newton.

Under painting for plein air watercolor landscape painting

Under painting for plein air watercolor landscape painting

I take this opportunity to have a coffee and a chat while waiting for this stage to dry thoroughly. If you try to keep painting without letting the watercolor under painting dry thoroughly you risk creating mud.

The painting is now well on the way. Next comes the trees and the shed. I made sure the distant tree line was lighter in tone to those around the shed.

The shed is painted with a mix of Cobalt Blue and some Burnt Sienna to create a grey.

The rust on the roof is created with Burnt Sienna and very little water. I used the side of my round brush and barely touched the paper. This creates a dry brush effect.

Painting the trees with watercolor
Painting the trees with watercolor

This plein air watercolor landscape painting was now nearly finished. All I had to do was put in the details, the pond, cows and fence lines. These objects are all placed to help the composition. Even the birds in the sky are placed to add interest and depth to the sky. They also help direct the viewer’s eyes to where I would like them to go.

The painting is finished and signed. The finished painting is below. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to let me know either through the comments section below or better yet through the forum pages.

Plein air watercolor landscape painting of Luddenham Farmland
Plein air watercolor landscape painting of Luddenham Farmland by Joe Cartwright

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