More Tips for Painting Water En Plein Air

27 Apr 2011

Jennifer King's plein air painting, River Reflections.
The water in River Reflections is quite smooth, but the colors give a sense of the
play of shadow and light. All works by Jennifer King.
John and Ann’s recent post about painting water en plein air was so inspiring and right on target. I love painting water elements, too, because they always make plein air landscape paintings more interesting. John and Ann’s tips were great, and I have two more to add:

1. Use your brushstrokes to suggest movement in the water of your outdoor paintings. It’s rare to find absolutely still water—it’s usually either moving or the air is moving across it, causing a slight disturbance on the surface. Even when you do find still water, the edges of objects reflected on the surface are usually a little softer and fuzzier. So let your brushstrokes do a bit of the work and reveal the condition of the water’s surface.

In my plein air painting, River Reflections, the water is fairly smooth. Yet, because it occupies so much of the canvas, I wanted to give it texture to hint at the morning breeze that rippled across the surface. I started by laying down the paint in fairly heavy, thick, short brushstrokes; painting wet-into-wet to ensure nice soft transitions between tonal values and colors. But almost immediately, I went over the entire surface of the water with a very large, soft, clean brush to soften and unify the big mass of water. I used a very light touch, leaving some sense of the individual strokes to indicate the gently moving surface (see the detail).

In Little Brook, on the other hand, I wanted to suggest a fast-moving stream, especially where the water tumbled over some low rocks. I laid down substantial, wet-into-wet strokes, leaving them to stand on their own so they’d be more forceful and distinct.

Detail of Jennifer King's plein air painting, River Reflections.
In this detail of River Reflections, you can see how the
brushstrokes lend themselves to capturing the minute
movements of the water's surface.
2. Play with colors when painting outside. You'll be fine as long as you retain your values. This rule applies to virtually every subject, but it can be especially fun to play with color as you paint the surface of water. As John and Ann mentioned in their post, the colors reflected on the surface of water are typically slightly darker than the objects themselves, so use that as your cue for determining the right values. And, as they said, the colors reflected in the surface should relate to the surrounding objects and sky color. I would add to their tips that you don’t have to be exact, and in my opinion, pushing the envelope a little with color can make a plein air painting a lot more interesting and better balanced.

Jennifer King's plein air painting, Little Brook.
Color choices don't have to make realistic sense. They can
be used to move the viewer's eye through a painting, as in
Little Brook, or balance a composition.
For example, in Little Brook, I added touches of duller pink to the surface of the water on the far right so that your eye would continue to follow those bright pink notes around the canvas. I did the same thing in River Reflections. I realized I’d placed deep red notes in an arc across the big sycamore and down to the base of the trees on the far right, so a few more deep red accents within the cast shadows on the water’s surface completed that circle.

These color choices don’t make scientific or “realistic” sense, but from a painterly point of view, they help to keep your eye moving around the painting and give viewers a wonderful surprise when they start to study the painting up close. Why do unexpected colors work without looking like a mistake? Because the values are right.

So tell us about your experiences. What are your biggest challenges and/or tips when painting water en plein air?

—Jennifer


Related Posts
+ Add a comment