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 paintings – studio organization

Like other artists I spend a great deal of time in my studio. It is a space I generally feel very comfortable in. It includes not just all my art materials and equipment but also my computer, camera gear, completed paintings, etc. I have over 300 books on art and watercolor painting and these get squeezed in as well. Sometimes however it gets so disorganized that I begin to feel less comfortable in it. At this stage my productivity begins to wane. If it gets any worse my creativity drops as well, which is a real shame. For this reason I regularly review how everything is laid out and try to improve the organization of my studio space. I also tidy things up!

Organizing my studio

My aim is to have everything easily accessible. I don’t want to feel I could easily trip over a pile of books or that things are difficult to find.

As it is the start of the new year I thought it was time for another cleanout and rearrangement of my studio to make it easier to create watercolor paintings. I had lost some enthusiasm for painting which was brought on in part by my messy work space.  I found that I was often spending a lot of time looking for things or having to clean objects off my easel before I could start painting. This was slowing my productivity and dampening my creativity. I would like to create some special painting this year and one of the steps towards achieving this is to remove any impediments.

My first step was to go through my stack of watercolor paintings of which I had a few hundred.

Watercolor paintings collection

I went through all of my watercolor paintings to sort them into various categories. After the paintings were sorted they were in turn stored in individual drawers. I find plastic stackable drawers ideal for this function. Full sheet watercolor paintings are stored in a special cabinet I had made which is similar to a map cabinet. I store all of my blank watercolor papers in this same unit.

Watercolor paintings storage system
Watercolor paintings storage system

Some of my older artworks which I had kept over the years were over 15 years old. They were kept for various reason. Some paintings because I wasn’t sure if they were good enough to frame, others because I thought they were milestone works but not worth framing, some were kept as reference for when I would have another go at them. Other paintings had special memories for me so I could not let go of them.

It was interesting to see that while I had been producing some nice work quite early on I was also producing some very poor ones. The nice artworks were for subjects I felt comfortable with and had already mastered. The not so good paintings usually resulted because I was trying something new and had confusions about how to proceed. Some artworks were not worthy of framing but had sections I particularly liked. These I had kept to highlight my improvements and to remind me of what I had learned through the painting. I threw out about a one foot I stack of old watercolor paintings and found the exercise quite invigorating.

Watercolor paintings no longer worthy of a frame will be recycled
Watercolor paintings for recycling

In amongst these old watercolor paintings I found some overlooked gems. They probably got covered by other paintings during one of my prolific periods and got forgotten about. These have now been added to my pile of paintings waiting to be framed. I do not frame any of my work until I’m ready to exhibit them unless it’s a piece that I particularly like and will probably keep for myself. In this way they take up less space in my studio and permit me to make any changes I may discover are needed right until framing time.

In addition to the work that was worthy of being in a frame I also found about half a dozen pieces that had sections that could be cropped out to make very nice watercolor paintings in their own right. These I will keep for more price sensitive exhibitions, for instance, I exhibit a couple of times a year in a local shopping center with one of my art groups, we have found these exhibitions demand lower prices and these smaller works are ideal.

A few works were just incomplete or their failings could be fixed and the painting salvaged. These went to another pile.

If you are like me and work best in a fairly ordered environment then it is important to keep your workspace organized. I’m generally very busy not just with my artwork so it is easy for me to wander off doing other things. If I find it is too difficult to get my material ready to start painting I can easily get involved in another non-painting project. I try to keep my studio in a state where I can start a watercolor painting as soon as the urge hits me.

All of my work is now relegated various categories. These stacks of watercolor paintings include the following:

  • Paintings which I no longer consider worthy of being in a frame or if I have progressed sufficiently as a watercolor artist that I now do much better work of the same subject. These works will be used as scrap paper for testing my water colors while painting. A few I may paint on the back of – though I rarely do this. I will also use some for experimental purposes e.g. washing off most of the water colors and painting over the top, working over sections with pastels or inks, etc. Some sections of your failed paintings can also be cut up and used a book marks.
  • Watercolor paintings ready to be framed, stored by size. They range from small 16th sheet paintings (7” x 5” or 18 cm x 13 cm) up to full sheet watercolors.
  • Watercolor paintings still not completed
  • Pen and wash works.
  • Pen and ink works.
  • Drawings.
  • Special watercolor paintings used for teaching and reference purposes

Below are some works I was able to crop from works that did not work as larger works of art  but were quite good watercolor paintings in the cropped form.

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

Watercolor Painting

What is watercolor painting? If you tackle the subject from the point of view of painting with colored water, rather than watercolor paint you may find it easier to understand.

By considering watercolor painting as dealing with colored water you are forced to give more thought to the water component. Water is the most important ingredient in watercolor painting but it is rarely given much attention. It is the water that lets watercolor paint do its magic.

I have found that most of the difficulties new watercolor artists run into are related to not keeping an eye on what the water is doing. On their painting surface or in their palette or on their brushes. Sure part of the problem is confusion about what steps to take with their painting, however as this confusion slows down their response to their work which allows the surface to dry too fast – hence water becomes a problem even here.

Watercolor painting Rising Mist boat painting by Joe Cartwright
Watercolor painting “Rising Mist” by Joe Cartwright

Why water is critical to a successful watercolor painting

It is the flowing of water and pigment on your paper that leaves behind a nice clean layer of paint called a “watercolor wash”. If you do not use enough water in your paint mix it will not flow down or over your watercolor paper and you will have a rough looking paint layer. In fact this is often what people refer to as a muddy watercolor painting. It is muddy not because it is the color of mud but because the layer of watercolor paint on the surface of your painting is actually quite rough instead of smooth which is what happens when enough water is used in the mix. This rough surface seems to inhibit the transfer of light through the watercolor layer. If you run your fingertips over a muddy passage in your painting you will find that it feels rougher, than when compared to a nice clean passage of your watercolor painting.

Think of sand on a beach. If the sand is roughed up by people walking, digging, or otherwise playing on it while it is damp, it will remain roughed up. However if a wave rolls over the sand as it washes back out to sea it leaves behind a nice smooth surface. This is similar to what happens on the surface of your watercolor paper. A definition of watercolor mud was given by a famous Australian watercolor artist, Norman Lindsay, who compared the process to that of a muddy puddle. If you leave a muddy puddle undisturbed, as it dries, it will leave a nice smooth finish. If however you disturb the mud while it is still damp, for example by digging into it with a stick, it will dry with a rough surface. This again is very similar to what happens on the surface of a watercolor painting if you keep trying to paint with thicker paint on a barely damp surface.

How much water to mix with watercolor paint

So just how much water should be in a watercolor mix? Well this depends on a number of factors:

  1. The angle of your supporting board. The steeper the angle the less water is needed to allow the paint to flow.
  2. How fast you paint. This is connected to your skill and experience level. The slower you paint the wetter your watercolor paint mix should be so it doesn’t dry too fast and stop flowing.
  3. How wet your watercolor painting is from a previous wash. Painting with thick paint into an already wet surface will still give you a soft edge but it will be more controlled than when you paint in a wet surface with a very wet mixture.
  4. The tone (relative lightness or darkness) you are trying to create with a particular mix requires more (lighter tone) or less (darker tone) water.
  5. The type of edge effect you are trying to create. A very soft effect where it is not possible to tell when one color finishes and another starts needs more water than an edge which is more definite. The other extreme is where you want hard, definite, edges. In this case you would paint on dry paper – though the mix still has to be wet enough that it will flow.
  6. The size of the shape you are painting. A bigger shape requires more water in your mix so it does not dry between each successive horizontal brush stroke as you paint down your sheet of watercolor paper.
  7. Atmospheric factors need to be taken into account as well. If you are painting in a hot room or environment you will need more water than when painting in a cold one. Outdoors you have to make similar allowances for the wind, which can be really tricky – so much so I rarely try and paint plein air if the wind is too strong.
  8. Finally all of the above are inter-related – this is where the skill comes in!

So next time you get out your watercolor painting gear give yourself some time to look at what the water is doing as you paint. It will certainly improve your results!

Hopefully the above will give you a new insight into watercolor painting which will help you gain more from your art. Watercolor painting is a wonderful medium and I wish you many years of pleasure from it if you are just starting out. Should you have any questions of comments please do not hesitate to leave them in the comments section below.

Stress management techniques for watercolor painting

So now we have talked about how stress can be detrimental to your watercolor painting progress We will look at some additional techniques that can help you reduce this stress (stress management)  so you can observe better and hence move your watercolor artwork along.

So now we have talked about how stress can be detrimental to your watercolor painting progress We will look at some additional techniques that can help you reduce this stress (stress management)  so you can observe better and hence move your watercolor artwork along.

Here are some techniques I have used in the past that I have found helpful in reducing stress which develops while painting in this medium:

  1. As already mentioned, set yourself realistic goals. It will take years to master this medium. Enjoy the journey rather than loading yourself with goals like having to produce masterpieces in your first few classes. I had a student who had a very senior job in IT (Information Technology). For him watercolor painting was his stress management. He didn’t care how his work turned out, he just enjoyed being in class  and playing with his watercolor paints. He ended up producing some quite nice watercolor paintings.
  2. Put it in perspective. Painting with watercolors is not a life threatening activity. You are talking about a few of dollars worth of paper and watercolor paint.  That is it!
  3. If you find your work getting too repetitive try something new for a while. This could be a different subject, painting  a smaller size, maybe force yourself to use a new color in a dominant manner.
  4. Before touching your paper think through the steps you are going to take for the whole painting. This will highlight any areas you are still unsure about which you should solve before you touch your watercolor paper. This is a key stress management point. If you know how you are going to proceed with your painting you will mostly be in control and hence your stress level will be lower.
  5. Look at a failed watercolor painting as a step towards success. Analyze your failed paintings to see what parts did work and what parts didn’t. Acknowledge success with the parts that worked and then look at ways to improve the bits that didn’t in future paintings.

What watercolor artists can and can’t control

To help with your feeling of lack of control look at your watercolor painting and see just what you can and can’t control.

So what can you control? Well firstly realize that you are in control of most things. For example you can control how fast he paint flows down your paper. By adjusting the angle of your easel from flat to quite steep you can stop any flow of paint down the page or speed it up. Also by using more water in your water- color paint mix it will flow faster, less water in the mix will reduce the flow rate. You can control the size of the paper you use. The smaller the watercolor paper size the more control you will have as it will not dry as fast and you can cover the watercolor paper with fewer brush strokes.  Using a spray bottle to keep the shine on your paper will give you a lot more time to keep working on those wet on wet passages in your painting. You get to choose the size of brush you can use, etc, etc. So you really are in control over most of your watercolor painting stages.

Now, what aren’t you in control over? Well while we can control the flow of paint down the watercolor paper to a large extent, it is very hard to come up with a totally predictable formula. So in this sense every time you touch the paper you are creating an unrepeatable brush stroke if it is wet on wet. How the water color paints flow into one another can be limited but not totally controlled – however this is an effect which gives watercolor paintings their originality. You can paint the same painting a dozen times but the wet on wet passages will always be different.

In the end you will probably find that you really do want a little bit of uncontrollability when painting with watercolors. This is what makes it an exciting medium, but it should not be allowed to get totally out of control or your stress goes up and observation goes out the window!

Play and stress management when watercolor painting

The first watercolor painting I ever did in class wet on wet - just playing!
The first watercolor painting I ever did in class – just playing!

Finally, give yourself some play time with your materials. The very first time I used watercolors I asked my tutor what should I do and he said just wet the paper and play with them. I have often given the same response to my students. The simple watercolor painting on this page is the very first painting I did. It was quite small and I was just playing to see what the colors did on my paper. I still have it today and is a constant reminder not to take it all too seriously. There is no need for “Stress Management” when you are playing and having fun. Tackle all your watercolor paintings in a spirit of play and you will always enjoy the experience.