Plein air painting of pond, hills and reflections

Recently I went plein air painting with my friends. We have a regular plein air day every Thursday. The group sometimes has eight or more people turn up and is a lot of fun. Most of the people who turn up to these plein air days are members of the Nepean Art Society, in Penrith. The location of my painting is about 20 minutes from my home.It is a small farm with a single pond, a few cows, and a mountain background. The scene had lots of information in it. Rather than trying to paint everything I saw I simplified the scene and concentrated on creating depth to my watercolor painting and capturing the reflections.

Pond on farm with reflections reference for watercolor plein air painting
Pond on farm with reflections – reference for watercolor plein air painting

I started my watercolor painting with a very weak wash of cobalt blue and cadmium orange in the sky. Both water colors are Winsor and Newton artists quality watercolors. I painted this mix of watercolors down to the horizon line.

I then added a mix of  cobalt turquoise mixed with aureolin and some raw umber from the the top of the hill to the distant shore on the pond. I left the pond as white paper for now as it would be painted after the trees and shrubs were put in. I used a similar mixture in the foreground but added some additional raw umber. This added raw umber increased the mixture’s tone and helped bring the foreground to the front. I added some additional splattered paint to break up the foreground to make its shape more interesting. I also left some untouched paper here and there in the foreground to add more life to that part of the watercolor painting.

Some of my Plein Air painting friends
Some of my Plein Air painting friends

I left this stage to dry. At this time I was still painting in the shade and I had to place my painting on a post in the sun as it was taking too long to dry. This was coffee break time!

Once the painting was totally dry I was ready to paint the distant hill and the foreground.

The distant hill was painted with the same green I had mixed previously with some french ultramarine added to the mix.

Plein air painting problems

The sun was now full on my watercolor paper and I had to paint much faster with a closer eye on what was happening on my paper. This is what makes plein air painting with watercolors such a challenge. When the atmosphere is cool and you have shade on your artwork you are always waiting for the paper to dry. Impatience at this stage will give you a muddy painting. Then when the sun and heat are on your work you have to speed things up and really keep and eye of how fast everything is drying. But hey, that is part of the fun and challenge of plein air painting with watercolor!

When I painted the distant hill I left some parts of the under painting showing through to represent fields without trees. I also quickly softened parts of the top edge of the hill to give it the feeling of trees. I brought this hill wash down to the horizon line. Using my watercolor brush I painted one or two quick horizontal lines near the bottom of the hill to give the impression of distant fields. While the hills was still wet I dropped in some darker water color to represent some distant trees. These trees were all painted with a wet on wet watercolor technique which produces soft edges.

I continued with the foreground trees while the distant hill was still a little wet. This acted as an under painting for the foreground trees. I let this stage dry fully. While this was drying I went around and chatted to my friends and to see how their work was progressing. Most were painting with oil paints so I was not causing them any anxiety by interrupting their work. I usually leave the watercolorists alone if they are painting as they need a little more concentration.

My next step was to paint the foreground trees with various mixtures of green. I made sure to drop darker tones into the shaded parts of my painting. I also ensured I did not totally block out the distant fields and hills. This helped create the feeling of depth to my painting.

I was now ready to paint the water and the reflections. The water was painted first with a mix of cobalt blue and a tiny bit of burnt sienna. While the water was still wet I dropped in the tree colors from the tree mixture I had saved. Notice how I have left parts of the water area as white paper to act as highlights.

After the watercolor paint in the pond area was fully dried I finished my painting off with the three cows and some fence posts. All in all this plein air painting took me about one and a half hours. Which is pretty typical for one of my plein air paintings. You can see the finished watercolor painting below. I was happy with the result.

Plein air painting with watercolors of Pond reflections cows hills and trees
Finished Plein air painting with watercolors of Pond reflections, cows, hills, and trees by Joe Cartwright

Plein air easel for watercolor painting

You can see a photo of my light weight plein air easel below. The whole thing, excluding my plastic palette weighs only 1.146KG (2.527 lb) which is less than a third of the weight of my original setup. The old metal palette weighed 495gm when filled with watercolor paint while my new, modified plastic palette only weighs 241 gm.

I no longer need to lean over my palette as it now sits at the side, similar to how it is in my studio.

Light weight plein air easel

plein aire painting easel for watercolor light weight
Figure 3: My light weight plein air easel for watercolor painting.

Instead of using a watercolor block I use a piece of Gator Board onto which I glued a tripod head (or quick release) that is used to connect a camera to a tripod. You can see a picture of it in figures 4 and 5. This allows the Gator Board to be very easily clipped onto the tripod. The gator board dimensions are 13″ x 17″, just a little bit bigger than a quarter of a full watercolor sheet. Note that I had already removed the screw which is normally used to connect a camera to the tripod head.

Tripod head glued to a piece of gator board
Figure 4: Tripod head attached to gator board (17″ x 13″) with epoxy glue.
Detail of tripod head glued to gator board after removing connecting screw.
Figure 5: Detail of tripod head glued to gator board after removing connecting screw.

When I go out for a morning’s watercolor painting I usually only do on work so I now pre-fix my watercolor paper to the board with masking tape before I leave home. In this way I don’t even have to carry extra masking tape. The Gator Board is very light but very strong, making it an ideal backing board support for my watercolor painting. A plein air easel should not be required to carry every conceivable item you “may” need. It should just have the key items that are needed to produce a watercolor painting with a minimum of weight. Remember you may need to carry it quite some distance before you start painting as I learnt when visiting Venice, Italy, a few years ago.

Watercolor palette

I used one of the legs from an old small camera tripod (you could use something similar) to support my lightweight plastic palette on the side of the tripod (brand and model of tripod I use is SILK SDV-550). I did this by drilling and filing a rectangular hole in part of the top of the tripod (figure 6). This part used to hold a lever that you wound to move the central core of the tripod up and down. In my case I did not need that function so I even removed most of the internal bits to lower the weight further.

Hole made in side of tripod to fix support arm for plastic watercolor palette.
Figure 6: Hole made in side of tripod to fix support arm for plastic watercolor palette.

The arm that supports my palette has a little piece of flat timber beading which is used to keep my palette quite flat. It is surprising how well this works.

The palette is fixed to the arm with a little wing nut through the locking mechanism of the palette. I glued the screw to which this wing nut is connected to the aluminum arm so it would not get lost.

Figures  7 to 10 show the details of these parts.

Parts of the side up which supports my watercolor palette
Figure 7: Components of side arm which support my plastic palette.
Assembled side arm ready to attach plastic watercolor palette.
Figure 8: Assembled side arm ready to attach plastic watercolor palette.
Hole drilled though palette locking clip to fix it to support arm
Figure 9: Hole drilled though palette locking clip to fix it to support arm
Plastic watercolor palette attached to its support arm before insertion into plein air easel tripod
Figure 10: Plastic watercolor palette attached to its support arm before insertion into plein air easel tripod.

The palette originally only had quite shallow mixing areas (two small and one larger one).  I solved this by gluing some pieces of aluminum into place to raise the height of each mixing well, of which there are now four.  You can see on the right hand side that I used a piece of aluminum channel instead of just a flat piece of aluminum. My idea is that if the grey locking tab on the palette breaks I can drill a hole in the channel and use that to connect the palette to its support arm.

Stips of aluminium glued into palette to create deeper and additional mixing well
Figure 11: Aluminium strips glued in the mixing wells with epoxy to create more depth.

As I replaced my heavy box with lightweight Gator Board I was able to use an even lighter tripod than I had been using, saving additional weight. Obviously this setup would not work for larger sheets of watercolor paper but if you mainly work on quarter sheets or smaller I have found this tripod to handle the load easily – just don’t go leaning on it or try to use it as a walking support!

My watercolor brushes are placed on a little aluminium tray with serrated edges to stop my brushes from rolling around. One of the serrations near the middle of this tray is bent out so that my water container can be hung from it. The tray was made from a small piece of light weight aluminium plate bought from my local art and craft  store.

Aluminium tray used to support watercolor brushes, water container and spray bottle on my plein air easel
Figure 12: Aluminium tray used to support watercolor brushes, water container and spray bottle on my plein air easel.

Hopefully the above descriptions and the photos give you enough information to produce a similar light weight watercolor plein air easel should you be so inclined. There would no doubt be some adjustments that need to be made depending on the tripod and easel that you use.

Obviously it goes without saying that you will need a certain level of technical expertise to make all these parts, should you wish to make something similar.  Take due care when using equipment such as cutters and electric drills as you could get hurt – for which I take no responsibility! This article is provided as a record of what I did and what you do with it is up to you. Ideally if you are in anyway hesitant about using these tools you should get someone to make any parts for you.

If you have any questions please contact me through the forum pages.

Here, again, is a photo of the full plein air easel set up:

plein aire painting easel for watercolor light weight
Figure 3: My light weight plein air easel for watercolor painting.

Connecting an umbrella to the Easel

I have been asked how I connect an umbrella to my plein air easel so here is a picture of it.

Umbrella and plein air watercolor easel side view
Umbrella and plein air watercolor easel side view

I use a light weight umbrella I purchased from Dick Blick art supplies to which I attached an extendible pole. The pole was made from another cheap easel I had no use for . It is connected to the easel with some Velcro. You may need to use more than one piece of Velcro depending on conditions.

Umbrella connected to watercolor easel with Velcro
Umbrella connected to watercolor easel with Velcro

Obviously this setup would not work if there was a lot of wind. However wind is not good for plein air watercolor painting in any case. You could however stableize you easel by adding some weight to the arms of the tripod with a bag filled with local rocks or water.


Plein air painting: Berowra Waters

Last weekend we had a very pleasant get together with some close friends who live on Berowra Waters, New South Wales. I have visited them many times and always found myself spending a lot of time looking out at the beautiful view from their deck and wanting to paint it. This time I took the opportunity to do some plein air painting and took my outdoor watercolor painting kit with me.

Berowra Waters is on the outskirts of Sydney less than an hour from the center of the city. There are very few houses on the water and there will never be any more due to limited space and planning restrictions. It is a wonderful location, very peaceful and beautiful and a great place for contemplation and creativity.

Berowra Waters Afternoon reference photo for watercolor painting
Figure 1: Berowra Waters in the afternoon on a bright sunny day

My plein air painting watercolor kit

I have put together a reasonably lightweight outdoor watercolor kit that I use for my plein air painting. It is basically constructed from and old cutlery box and a light photography tripod. At some point I will provide more details of my system as I had fun putting it together for a trip I was taking to Venice where weight was an issue. For now you can at least see a picture of my set up below.

Plein air watercolor painting equipment of Joe Cartwright
Figure 2: Plein air painting kit for watercolor

This painting was done on an Arches 300 gsm Cold Press watercolor block. I like to use a block when painting plein air as I don’t need any supporting board nor tape to keep the paper down. This all helps to keep weight down when plein air painting; this is especially important if you have to carry your gear for any length of time. However, I do sometimes tape around the edge anyway as I like to see what my painting looks like after the tape is removed – a bit like putting a mat over it.

As usual the painting was done from light to dark. Starting with the sky and painting the most distant hill while the sky was still wet to give it a soft edged look. I took my watercolor paint color across all the hills and let it dry.

After this dried completely I painted the stronger hills to the left and right. Again I let it dry. You must resist the urge to keep watercolor painting into damp paper or else you will end up with a muddy mess. This is particularly important with plein air painting as you are often at the mercy of the weather and your paper will often dry very slowly. You just have to be patient. It is better to finish off a watercolor painting back in your studio rather than ruin it by trying to get it done  by continuing to paint in damp paper.

My next step was the water at which time I dropped in the reflections of the hills.

This was followed by the tree branches and foliage on the right.

Finally I painted in the two boats along with their reflections.

Here is my finished plein air painting. I am quite happy with it as they don’t always turn out but this one did. In the future I will create a full watercolor painting demonstration article of this scene and painting. For now I hope you enjoy the painting.

Berowra Waters plein air watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright
Figure 3: Plein air painting of Berowra Waters done in watercolor paint by Joe Cartwright