Plein Air: Exploring Watercolors

I’ve been testing out watercolors in the past weeks around the area I work at in Columbus, TX as a new way to do outdoor sketches. I see it with “Urban sketchers”, in James Gurney videos, and many illustrators who use gouache, a opaque watercolor (ex. Mike Hernandez… awesome). Also, other bloggers in the WordPress art community are trying this as a challenge. Thanks for the inspiration, Martha! I thought I’d write down some thought I’d had while doing these studies, making all the mistakes I could as I went (which is a good thing).  As a rookie, now I have a HUGE appreciation for the works of master watercolorist like those seen in this article “Famous Watercolor Artists” (check out John Singer Sargent!).

Here are a few sketches I’ve done, each with a description and date.



What I’ve found so far is that watercolor isn’t as limiting as I thought. I had figured, less pigment in a watered down form… meh. However, the light colors such as yellows, green and light blues have a luminescent quality because they are transparent over the white page, making a glow effect seldom seem with acrylics or oils. As I adjusted to this painting style, I’ve found it follows all of the same rules in painting, just in a different way of applying the paint. Design, lighting effects, values, edges … all the things that are used to represent the scene, don’t change. Rather than laying down a dark shadow color, then layering light color over it in acrylics and oils, it goes light to dark, adding the shadows last. Either way, matching values (how light or dark it is) is key. For example, the wood pile was much darker than the brightly lit background grass. At first, I had made the wood pile much lighter and it seemed to look bland, but going back into it with a darker grey-brown really gave it a realistic punch. Edges, the line between two object, can be hard or softened by loosening it up with water to let it spread a bit. At the end, when all the lights are darks are painted, there is a white tube of watercolor paint in the kit. Even though it’s limited in power because it’s fairly transparent, it can help to give a little definition along an edge. For example, “Gray” the dog, had bright hair along his feet and hairs on his face. Going back in with the white really helped contrast the feet from the dark hair.

The best bonus I can see with watercolor is the small size of the painting kit. I’ve seen kits that can practically fit in your jeans pocket, perfect for a backpacking adventure where weight and size are crucial. It’s a great option to have!!


5 thoughts on “Plein Air: Exploring Watercolors”

  1. I am excited that you have been trying out watercolors! I especially love the fact that I can hike in further taking my watercolors than I can with my pastels. Are you using gouache rather than the transparent watercolors? I have yet to try gouache, I do love the white of the paper. I am looking forward to more posts! 🙂

    1. It’s the watercolor tube kit from Walmart. I wonder how different using the dried blocks of color in the micro-kit would be. I figured it’s better to start cheap. Lots of fun. Glad you did your challenge! Thanks.

      1. When you can, get some artist quality watercolors, big difference in the results, you’ll see, it is well worth the expense….watercolors are a lot of fun! I love them so much. 🙂

  2. Hi Stephen, wonderful blog and thanks for taking time to share your art and craft with us. I got hooked on a watercolor set by Greta with pan colors or “cakes”. There are several good travel kits out there, but a good pan set is not only easy to travel but the tactile experience of working a pan is the ultimate painting pleasure! You have to be a little nuts to understand this.

    1. Thanks Jim! I saw your gallery in flickr. Great work! I got a hold of James Gurney and told him about my wanting to go backpacking on the Appalachian. He recommended a gouache/watercolor mix. I haven’t had the pan pleasure experience yet, but in working with the perfect mix of acrylics that stay wet just long enough to not be fighting the paints while trying to compose a painting is solid gold! I’m looking into a good gouache brand now and saving up some $. Next I’ll be looking into the pan. Any recommendations? Thanks!

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