Watercolor Plein Air Tips

We have compiled a few suggestions for artists who might not have tried painting on site outdoors before. Here are some suggestions from Dawn Yoshimura, Curator of the show and signature member of International Plein Air Painters (IPAP). She has years of experience working on site.

The following are tips for those wanting to try plein air painting with watercolors.

Take plenty of water for both yourself to drink and to paint with. Or be sure to take 2 refillable bottles and park near a facility with a bathroom and water.

You will need a water container, I like to use empty cottage cheese containers because I can close the lid, and when I am done, I put my used paper towels and other trash in it so it doesn’t soak my bag.

Carry a bag that you can see easily into to get at your supplies or carry a toolbox.

Paper towels, range of brushes, pencil, eraser, sketchbook, other markmaking tools such as pencils, salt, feathers, scrubbers, etc.  Resist tools such as liquid latex, wax, tape, stencils.

Watercolor paints—I prefer pans to tubes, but if you have a sealable palette, you can prepare the palette before you leave and take your tubes in a ziplock baggie if you need to refill.  My basic palette is a set of 8: warm and cool each of blue, red, green, and yellow but I will add colors from my box depending on the scene.

Take more paper than you think you need, in different sizes. Unless you know exactly what you plan to paint before you get there, it is nice to have the freedom to choose the format and size when you are there. It is also handy because you can work on several pieces during the same session or day by switching between different blocks while one is drying. I suggest taking at least 2 sheets per session and a sketchbook. But I often have my 7x9in sketchbook, 9x12in 12x16in or 16x20in and sometimes a full sheet.

Use a plywood board large enough to hold your paper, water container and paints, not just your paper. You can sit with it across your lap if you sit while painting or on your easel.  Even if you use it standing at an easel, this is preferable to just the watercolor block or stretched piece of paper on a board, because you have a work area while you are working.  Another setup is your cooler and stool. You can set the board on the cooler and sit on a stool and paint.

I usually do a thumbnail sketch to get the major focal point and value design down. I will sometimes do color thumbnails as well to note what I like about the scene.

Decide if you are doing a study or a painting. If it is a study, what is your goal with it? If you want to study the light on a certain form, or record the colors so it will be a more faithful memory aid than a photograph.  If a painting, what is the feeling you are trying to capture? Do you have a plan to get there? This is important to me, because then I know if I intend to finish the painting on site and how much time I have to do it. I can plan the painting so I know what I can leave to finish at home or coming to another session at the site and concentrate on the parts I want to capture while there.

Don’t rush your painting, if it is too wet to move on to the next stage, set it out in the sun and start another one. Especially with larger pieces, I sometimes have to wait a bit before moving on to the next layer, so I use the opportunity to take a break, walk about to stretch my legs, start another painting or sketch. You can take the time to write and post your reflection.

If you know where you want to paint, I highly suggest you go out to scout the place before you get there. To know where you want to be and at what time of day. Take your sketchbook and larger sheets. You may feel inspired to do a sketch there, or to block in the shapes you want on your larger sheet so when you come to the site on the day you want to paint…you will have made the major decisions of what and why you want to paint just there with just that view. But if you don’t have time, don’t worry, do your best and you can follow in the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh who often did 2 versions of a painting. Wahi pana is one point in time, a snapshot, and you can always return to explore your wahi pana site in the future.

The following are tips in general when going out on site to sketch or paint.

Take food and water to keep your blood sugar and concentration up.

Take sunscreen, mosquito repellant, wind, rain and sun protection.  For me, this means I put SPF 50 or higher on my face and exposed areas like my legs and I prefer to wear a long sleeved SPF shirt for golf, surf, etc to avoid getting too greasy on my arms and hands which can transfer to my paper. I keep a rain jacket/wind breaker in my bag or car if I am parked nearby.

Think about how you will paint—standing or sitting? Even if you plan to stand while painting, take a foldable chair or take a blanket to spread out under some shade to rest often.

If you take a break, use pebbles or sticks lying about to mark your spot, so when you return you can set up in the same place. You can pack up for lunch and return or often even come back the next day and the stones will be undisturbed. Some people drive stakes into the ground with some small wooden pegs to mark their tripod feet.

Take business cards and print out the flyer for wahi pana to hand out to interested passers by. Tell them about the event, what you are doing and invite them to come to the show.

Always tell people where you plan to be and when you plan to be back.  Take a fully loaded cell phone in case you need to call or people can reach you.

Be aware of your surroundings and if you feel uncomfortable, pack up and move to another location.

If you are new to plein air painting or it is a new unfamiliar location—it is a LOT to take in, so I like to walk around the spot and even when I find one I like, I will walk at it from different directions noting the light, etc. before I decide where to set up.

The chair and blanket suggestion is also because I need to rest from concentrating and taking a break, eating something, reading a magazine, watching some youtube videos, etc. is a nice break instead of painting for 5 hours straight.

If you feel the light is getting away from you, take a quick picture of the lighting you like or a quick color study. Then you can return to the site at around the same time and weather on another day or complete it in your studio.