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.