Plein air watercolor how-to

On plein air watercolor >

Baltimore painter and PleinAir Salon Grand Prize winner Stewart White tells us what he does in the winter to keep himself sharp and ready for the plein air season. It’s about an interesting twist on the exercise of copying the Masters.

Learn from Stewart White at the 2nd Annual Watercolor Live virtual art conference, and through his PaintTubeTV workshop, “Painting Architecture in Watercolor.”

Not Idle in Winter: Plein Air Watercolor


During the cold winter months it becomes a challenge to paint en plein air with watercolor. It’s not impossible, but it takes a little more effort than usual and water crystalizes very quickly in sub-freezing weather — not to mention that the fingers and toes aren’t too happy. I have found it very informative to copy from the Masters. Not the golf tournament — but Augusta, Georgia, is not a bad venue.

Joaquín Sorolla’s watercolor “Child in the Water,” and White’s copy

I will copy oil paintings in watercolor and watercolors in oil. For example, I love this work of Joaquín Sorolla called “Child in the Water.” It is a study in lost and found edges. I try not to spend more than 30 to 40 minutes per study. The point is to get the big impact of the work, not the colors or details. Sorolla was great at simplicity and focus. Lesson learned: See where “the big moves” are. In this case, it’s the white blouse catching the bright beach sun, echoed in the froth of the waves. These lights come forward and all else recedes. The trick is to spot these relationships in nature and express them in your own way.

John Singer Sargent’s watercolor “Fumee D’ambre Gris” and White’s copy

This iconic masterpiece by John Singer Sargent called “Fumee d’ambre Gris” is an excellent study in cool and warm. It’s a terrible copy on my part, but the main thing is the play of light throughout the composition to capture the sense of light coming through fabric. This will be a handy lesson to remember when it’s warm enough to paint sailboats. Lesson learned: This is actually quite colorful without using a broad spectrum of color. By keying everything down to a white family of values and temperatures, the viewer becomes more nuanced in his viewing. Subtle variations become more apparent. I want to look for this same problem. It is magical when a painter is able to suggest light bouncing off the opposite side of fabric as in a sail or sheets of laundry on a line.

Sargent’s oil painting “A Spanish Figure” and White’s watercolor copy

Continuing with John Singer Sargent’s studies, I experimented with a paintable watercolor ground from Daniel Smith on Masonite panels. It has an initial feel of painting on plaster but becomes more receptive as the layers dry. I like it for its color saturation. I chose a painting with a full range of tones, from very dark to white. I keep these studies very loose and small — no more than 6″-x-8″ panels. By copying work like this I become attuned to Sargent’s decision making.

I am aware of his attention to nuanced passages in the study and also where he quickly merely indicates a texture or shape. I learned from my copy that I have a tendency to use more chroma than I actually see. Not a bad thing, but just something to keep in mind. Also, I find that I may want to use the look of a sanded surface in a plein air piece at some time and will bring a few of these panels along just in case I see an old weathered wall with an angel standing nearby.

Sargent’s “Head of a Capri Girl” and White’s copy

Portraits do not rely on weather; only a model is required. Again, who better to copy than Sargent and his “Head of a Capri Girl” when it comes to portrait studies? Watercolor is particularly challenging in this regard as a good portrait demands a level of precision that is so elusive in watercolor.

The lesson gained for me here is to see where edges are hard or soft, to apply color wet-into-wet at the right time so as not to create disturbing “blooms” and to successfully hint at flesh and bone beneath the surface of the skin. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, it is important to create a believable head, where both eyes belong to the same face and then to add a believable expression. Again, my copy isn’t very accurate, but the point is to learn how to craft a volume with watercolor in a quick and gestural way. There is more power in the way the pupil of the eye disappears into the shadow of the eye socket than if I tried to paint every little eyelash and fold of skin.

Plein air watercolor

Sorolla’s “Beach in Biarritz” and White’s copy

I will do these every evening, painting maybe three or four of my favorites, and then choose a “not so favorite” and learn why the artist was interested in a particular play of light or composition. This small study by Sorolla called “Beach in Biarritz” is a lesson in connections. Detail and texture take a back seat to the interactive nature of cool grays. We see form, we see volume, we can almost sense texture, but in fact that is mostly taking place in our own heads. Careful inspection shows us that none of that is present. Sorolla has, in a sense, made us co-painters with him, and that to me is the most satisfying of aspect of his pictures. I am transported to a moment in time. My imagination comes alive, and I live in Spain a century or more ago. Miraculous when I consider it’s just a few spots of color artfully arranged.

Plein air watercolor

Sargent’s oil “Moroccan Street” and White’s watercolor copy

In this example by Sargent (yet again!), we have big, simple shapes and a play of cool and warm blues and whites. How can a few simple white walls become so beautiful? This example celebrates the abstract nature of light and shadow and of cool and warm planes of color. I like these because it goes to show you can make a compelling painting from just an arrangement of white walls. I ask myself while copying, what did Sargent see when he set up his easel? What did he learn while painting? Was he happy with the result? He seemed to be fascinated with the temperature changes in white objects — something Sorolla also worked on.

Sargent’s watercolor “Muddy Alligators” and White’s oil copy

Going from a watercolor to an oil copy is quite a different exercise altogether. I think I learned more about Sargent’s mastery of changing temperature inside of a shadow by trying to re-create them in oil. For my example, I used the iconic painting of “Muddy Alligators” sunning themselves on a bank. My first observation was the impossible white of the paper. White paint cannot come close. I became more aware of how the sharp edges create the baking hot atmosphere of the scene.

In the oil paint copy, I saw where I could drag paint over an area to give it the feel of rough paper, and I may use that when I take out the oil paints this winter. I am going to do a few more of these oil copies of great watercolors because on the one hand, I notice more subtleties in the watercolor, and on the other hand, I am intrigued by the richness of oil paint in layering, which I seldom do in watercolor. I also noticed how I could not bring myself to use that cobalt blue color in the shadows. They work wonderfully in the watercolor, but I couldn’t pull it off in oil. Something to strive for, I suppose.

By translating a work in another medium, I become conscious of the extraordinary ways that medium plays in the portrayal of mood. I try to celebrate the inherent qualities of each medium and exploit them for their strengths. If you are interested in doing these exercises in the warmth of your studio, I recommend the French Impressionists, as they are good for copying, especially Sisley and Pissarro. Pick your own favorites, and mix up the media a bit. Notice how easily blends happen in watercolor that take more care in oil. One of the main benefits you’ll find is that it forces you to not slip into autopilot.

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Related > Painting Architecture in Watercolor with Stewart White

In this PaintTubeTV workshop, you will learn:

  • Why it matters to paint what you find interesting (instead of painting what you think will “make a great painting”)
  • How to find simplicity in details (instead of getting lost in them)
  • A simple technique for painting architecture (that you can use for any subject matter)
  • How to break down buildings to make painting them easier
  • How to brim with confidence when painting architecture in watercolor
  • How to select and find effective compositions that draw in any viewer
  • How to create a believable sense of light and temperature
  • The simplest way to paint any building you like (because you know this one thing)

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  1. I really enjoyed this article and understanding how copying another’s work of art requires a conscious effort in decisions. Thank you very much, Stewart White, for this learning strategy.


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