plein air watercolour

Plein Air Watercolour Painting: 5 Tips for Painting Outdoors

On a sunny day, there’s nothing better than packing up your paints and finding the perfect spot to set up your easel for some plein air watercolour painting.

Plein air painting (outdoors) comes with as many joys as it does obstacles. Having the light and colours of the scene in front you will give you the opportunity to study the landscape more accurately than if you were painting from a photograph. However, you will have to contend with a few things. Like the weather, finding the right location, setting up your easel on various terrains and adapting your painting process to capture the changing light. These tips will help you prepare for the days that you just can’t resist getting out there to paint.

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Start with a sketchbook

If you’re completely new to plein air watercolour painting, it could help to familiarise yourself with painting on the field by first creating studies in a sketchbook. Study firsthand how weather and light affects a scene. It’s as much an exercise of observation as it is a painting exercise. Sketchbooks are smaller and easier to transport. So you can carry one with you and take it out whenever inspiration strikes.

The best watercolour sketchbook is this Visual Journal by Strathmore. It has 22 thick, cold pressed 300gsm sheets. For a more detailed look at the best sketchbooks for watercolour painting, check out our guide.

Plein air watercolour setup

best plein air watercolour easel

Get a sturdy aluminium frame easel—tilting aluminium easels are lightweight, easy to carry and even easier to set up. These easels can be positioned at a horizontal and vertical angle, which is perfect for adjusting for watercolour.

This foldable water cup by Faber Castell is a great space saving solution when in transit. It also has a brush rest and is easy to clean.

Watercolour pan sets often come with their own palette. Check out the travel sets by Sennelier, Daniel Smith and Schmincke. The quality of these three paint brands is high, their paints are a joy to use.

To support your watercolour paper, take a block pad or stretch your watercolour paper first to a board. Aquabord panels are cradled wooden panel boards that absorb watercolour like fine art paper. They are also a great option for taking plein air watercolour painting.

Travel light: the best supplies for plein air watercolour painting

You don’t need too many supplies to start painting with watercolour. If you’re planning on hiking out to find a painting spot, you may want to think about the supplies that aren’t necessary and that you could leave behind. 

For example, if you have pans or tubes of watercolour paint in a travel set, take those instead of individual tubes. There are many different brands of watercolour travel brushes available, a good quality brand like Da Vinci Casaneo makes travel brushes in multiple sizes. 

Plein air watercolour palette

Travel sets of panned watercolour are perhaps the best choice for taking plein air painting, but which colours do you choose? 

If you’re confident with colour mixing, you could take a limited palette of primaries out with you. The set of 12 half pans by Schmincke contains the primary colours needed to create a wide range of tones and mixes. 

The primaries are cool and warm versions of red, yellow and blue. Ultramarine, phthalo blue, cadmium red, quinacridone rose, cadmium yellow or hansa yellow works as a primary palette.

For painting landscapes, if you want a broader palette, choose one with a mix of earth tones and greens. You’ll also need the essential primaries and colours you will see in the scenes that you want to paint. It might be that you want to paint summer wildflowers, if so choose a palette with magenta, yellow and ultramarine to capture the variety of vivid flower hues. If you paint seascapes, Phthalo blue and a cool yellow like lemon yellow will make brilliant turquoise blues.

Study your scene

Once you’ve found a subject you want to paint, look at the scene as a whole. Determine how you will translate the elements you see in front of you to create a pleasing composition. Think about what the focal point of the painting will be. The focal point could be a subject in the foreground that the eye is naturally drawn to. 

Create a sketch on your piece of paper first before laying down colour. This way, you can establish the composition and structure of the piece before committing to applying paint.

When outdoors, painters often struggle with isolating their subject. As elements from the scene surrounding the subject can obscure how it appears. Get a view catcher tool to help with singling out the area you want to use as your reference.

Practice spontaneity and speed

By simplifying your process, you will become much faster at painting the scene before the light changes. Be intentional with how you apply paint, the more you practice painting faster, the faster you’ll become.

How detailed you choose to paint depends on your style. If you enjoy painting realism, of course, stick with it. But a good tip if you’re trying to speed up for plein air painting is to omit detail in areas that are less important. The focal point of the painting should be the area you spend most of your time detailing. Another way of simplifying a painting is by removing unessential objects and subjects from the scene.

Of course, if you don’t think you’ll finish the painting before sunset, take a picture. I’d recommend taking the photo when the light is just how you want to paint it, so you can refer back to it when you get back to your home or studio. The most important thing is that you experience painting outside and get a feel for the landscape when you’re there.

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