Watercolor sketching - OutdoorPainter.com
Shuang Li, sketching with watercolor in Florence

By watercolor artist Shuang Li

A common question I get from students is, “How do you capture the perfect moment?”

It’s a good question. Many artists wait to paint until they have the perfect scene in front of them. When the scene doesn’t arrive, they don’t paint.

My secret? I don’t wait around for the perfect moment. I make it. I select and seize an “ordinary moment” in life, then manage to turn it into an artist’s “perfect moment” on paper.

Over the years, I’ve found that a watercolor sketch is perfect for this “capture the moment” purpose. So I’ve made small but lively watercolor sketches that captured those special moments in my life, and many of my large paintings came from those memorable sketches.

Here are a few tips to start creating your own perfect moments through watercolor sketching:

1. Observe it: When sketching, don’t look at something casually; OBSERVE it carefully.

2. Analyze it: Always seek for visual interests such as shapes, lights, colors, and movements in a scene

3. Seize it! Sketch quickly to capture only the uniqueness of a scene, not everything in it.

If you start capturing your very own “perfect moments” in your sketchbook, you may find these tips useful, but I am sure soon you’ll have your own set of tips too.

Watercolor sketching - OutdoorPainter.com
Park Day, Florence, Italy, by Shuang Li (watercolor)

My watercolor sketch “Park Day, Florence, Italy” was created while I was in Italy. Florence is a magnificent and “picture perfect” city for me. One day on my way back to the hotel, I saw a small local park along the Arno River. It was a quiet park, covered with warm golden fall foliage. Locals were walking or sitting in the park under those golden-leaved trees. There were a few huge Italian terracotta urns in the park that were bathing under the golden ray (I’ve seen these types of urns only in Italy).

Though it was an ordinary day for the local park visitors, I found the lightings were beautiful, the trees and urns were forming into interesting visual shapes with wonderful color and value contrasts, the atmosphere was “so Italy”! I sat on the bench and quickly sketched the scene, hoping to capture this lively atmosphere in the park. The 9 x 12-inch sketch was completed in less than half an hour.

Yes, this location probably could not even be considered the most significant part of Florence. However, just capturing an ordinary moment of Florence in my sketchbook gave me a strong sense of local flavor. The moment I captured was one of my special visual memories for the city, and it will always bring me back to that special day that I did the sketch there in Florence.

Watercolor sketching - OutdoorPainter.com
Watercolor sketch from Venice, Italy, by Shuang Li

Where is a special place you’ve sketched? Share it with us in the comment section below!

Additional Note: Painting water can feel like learning to speak a new language. It’s unnatural, confusing, and what seems simple just isn’t. You see, water has a language all its own, and if you don’t understand it, you’ll never be able to harness the beauty and the power of it in your paintings. Become fluent in the unique language of painting water when you study with Shuang Li in her new video workshop, Fearless Waterscapes (available here). With Shuang’s help, you’ll unlock the secrets of reflection: how different types of water react differently to the objects around them. You’ll explore the various ways to approach flat water and moving water. You’ll discover a way to capture the sparkle of moving water every single time. And you’ll uncover techniques for creating wet effects on rocks and the sense of water spilling over objects to create more energy and interest.

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  1. Curled up on the floor in the corner of a canal bridge, on my last day in Venice. I made several sketches of windows, balconies, supports, all from my corner out of the way of foot traffic.

  2. I was traveling in Spain and painted in a sketch book with acrylics, the interior of my rooms, tables, bed, mirror image, and views from the windows. The sketches take me back better than any photographs. I look at my photos and think “hum..” but the sketches transport me.
    Really appreciate this magazine.
    I just retired in China and am motivated to get back into painting and plein-air sounds like the cat’s meow.

  3. Painted the beach of my childhood in San Diego just sitting under a beach umbrella and enjoying all of the scene and 61 years of memories. The beach is also where my parents first met!

  4. 2 weeks in England doing plein air ink dwg then add watercolor at the hotel. 2/day. People enjoy watching and talking especially kids. If someone almost demands the sketch, I found them by doing a quick ink drawing of their hands. Its fun.


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