Plein Air Watercolor Survival Guide

When plein air painting, one of the most enjoyable and facile medias I've found to work with has to be watercolors. Hands down. The supplies are minimal, you can paint quickly and move from place to place making sketches of what catches your interest, and the paintings dry so quickly that there's no stress involved when it comes to packing up and moving out.

A Break in the Weather by Jim McFarlane, watercolor painting.
A Break in the Weather by Jim McFarlane, watercolor painting.

But there are a few learning curves that artists can hit along the way when painting outdoors. That's why I want to share a few tips straight from the brightest plein air artists in the biz so we can all paint with confidence when we are painting outside.

Opportunistic Landscape Painting

Jim McFarlane focuses on using a limited number of values when he wears his plein air painting hat. It requires you to link areas of similar values together, resulting in larger shapes and sounder compositions.

McFarlane also encourages painters to be opportunistic–look what is around you and take it as a visual gift. If there are unexpected views or situations, make the most of them. Don't get bogged down in preconceived ideas about how you want the painting session to go before you even leave the studio.

The first question McFarlane always asks himself is, "Where's the sunlight?" That becomes the white of his paper, and from there he knows that anything that isn't sunlight at least gets a light value, which is especially helpful with shadows that move so quickly when you are painting en plein air.

China Camp Village by David Savellano, watercolor painting, 14 x 21.
China Camp Village by David Savellano,
watercolor painting, 14 x 21.

It can be a jungle out there, and one way San Francisco artist David Savellano stays focused when plein air painting is to write down the title of the piece before he starts painting to maintain a sense of purpose and continuity throughout the process.

Savellano also cautions artists to forego multiple layers when painting outdoors. Instead, he encourages focus on painting with the fewest expressive brushstrokes that you can manage, and trying to get values and colors right the first time. It may not happen that way all the time, but it is a goal worth striving for.

For more survival tips for watercolor landscape painting–especially for depictions of the sea and the vessels that float on its surface–I recommend Painting Boats & Harbors in Watercolor. You'll find watercolor paintings that give coastal landscape painting a modern makeover, and how to paint water with water. What could be more appropriate? Enjoy!


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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.