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 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

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 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