How to Watercolor “En Plein Air”

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First of all, and I would argue, most importantly, decide what you are going to wear. You are basically going to be sitting for a couple of hours by the water, so there are not hard fast rules, but you do want to cultivate a certain vibe.

My feeling is that if you want to cultivate an intentional and artistic life, and today, have a lovely time painting by the water, you need a long (preferably white) skirt on, or if skirts are not your thing, some white linen palazzo pants. You may want a giant hat with a scarf on it (as I do) that the wind will periodically toss about, or if you really feel up to carrying some extra stuff, a huge piece of colorful fabric or parasol that you can take little dance and twirl breaks with.

Art history would suggest, that if you choose not to go this route, and instead wear no hat, and carry no parasol, you may end up as the protagonist in a darker more depressing painting than you were planning on (painted by the artist who set up their easel right behind you).

Once you have the outfit down, your next goal is to select your location. You notice there is nothing in this post about being “good enough” to paint outside. Here is how you get good at painting outside: you paint outside. That is the million dollar secret. You do not have to be good already in order to want to become a better artist. We cultivate the life we want, and if you want to be an artist, guess what, you just stepped onto that path.

Back to location, I live in Richmond, which is sometimes called the River City, because the James river moves right through the middle of it. Where I live, the Riverside makes the most sense, but ponds, lakes, and oceans will all work just as beautifully. Might I suggest any of these locations to residents here in Richmond?

Pony Pasture, Belle Isle, the Blue Heron Rookery, Tredegar Island, Texas Beach, the Mausoleum at Hollywood Cemetery, or any of the bridges that offer a pedestrian walkway and cross the James.

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After you have your location decided on, the next rule is: don’t forget your paint. This may seem like a no brainer but when you arrive at the shore in your outfit, set up your folding chair and get all your brushes ready, you will be pretty mad if you don’t have your paint. Not that I would know. This has certainly never happened to me. Ever :). If it ever happens to you, however, I would advocate leaving your spot, getting some lunch and coming back in the afternoon . If you are one of those people who needs a packing list, here it is:

Plein Air Watercolor packing List (in a great big bag)

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  1. 2 skinny watercolor paint brushes (one round, one flat)
  2. 2 medium sized watercolor paint brushes (one round, one flat)
  3. 2 fat watercolor paint brushes (one round, one flat) don’t overthink it, you don’t need every brush you own
  4. a set of watercolors (either dry, or from the tube and dried the evening before in a pallette or, in a pinch, in an ice cube tray or styrofoam egg tray)*
  5. Watercolor paper (either in a glued book, or accompanied by 1/2 inch masking tape)*
  6. An empty clear jar
  7. A bottle of water
  8. Your giant drink (you will be out here at least 2 hours)
  9. A folding chair with at least 1 if not 2 cup holders in the arms
  10. your giant hat or parasol or dancing fabric 🙂

I have been joking a bit in this post, but on a serious note, I have a lot of very strong opinions on both watercolor paper, and watercolor, so the next section is very important and is a little bit like the choose your own adventure books from middle school.

Watercolor Paper Choices*

Lets talk about what best describes you in your pursuit of the arts. Are you in it to win it, you want the best? Are you someone who doesn’t want to break the bank, they just want to get outside and be creative? Are you somewhere in the middle, you want something nice but not anything that will make you nervous if you make a mistake on it?

The “I want the Best Watercolor Paper Available” Artist:

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You want an arches 140 lb watercolor pad that is sealed with black glue around the sides. It has a hard backing so you don’t even need anything to lean on, and you don’t have to tape the paper down since its been glues. This paper holds up to all you can give it in terms of wet media.

The Sensible but decent Watercolor Paper Enthusiast:

IMG_2786A.C. Moore or Michaels will have any number of inexpensive watercolor paper tablets. You will need to apply tape along the edges to keep the paper from buckling when you paint, but its not bad, and I would take that over a mixed media sketchbook in a heartbeat for this enterprise.

I do not want to invest in this hobby until I am very good, let me see if I have something already:

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In a pinch the following papers will hold up pretty well to wet media like watercolor and ink: card stock, and the non-shiny side (that’s a technical term) of poster board, but this may speckle if you use a lot of water

***Please do not use computer paper, construction paper or regular sketch paper. Not only will it buckle and wrinkle, but it will not give you any of the magic that watercolor is capable of.

Watercolor Paint Choices

Unlike watercolor paper that you will burn through and feel you never have enough of, watercolor paint can last for years, even using it constantly. This is because you add so much water to it in order to use it. If you find you are running out of it within a week or a month, you are not using it as intended. I have been using the same wet and dry watercolors for years, and they are really nice so I am going to recommend them to you.

If you want some really nice stuff, however, here are some solid choices.

Grumbacher in a pan: For the Practical, but fancy painter. I love this for Plein Air because it travels well, seals nicely and I have been using the same pan for over 10 years.

Da Vinci in a Tube: for the perfect colors every time. I had to buy these for a class that I took and they were expensive but I love them and they have lasted me forever.

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Dr. Ph Martin’s in a Glass Vial: For the wild one who wants all of their work to be super vibrant and dazzle the eye. These are fantastic for watercolor if you want  your work to have a funky fun quality. Super bright. They do run out more quickly and they would be harder to travel with for Plein Air but I love Dr Martin’s.

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Windsor Newton: For the college student who wants something nice but doesn’t want to pay too much for it. A solid choice.

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If you want cheap watercolor to practice with, by all means, run to Target or Wal-mart, or dig through your bottom drawer, and get some Crayola in a pan. It is perfect for kids, and for crafts, and you can make it do fancier stuff if you want it to, but once you get a little bit better you are going to want something nicer.

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Okayyyyyyyy! Now that you have your paint and your paper, you probably want some steps for the actual painting process! Tune in tomorrow for your steps to actually begin painting! To Be Continued!!!!

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