Painting watercolour landscapes en plein air

Argenteuil 1875 Claude Monet (1840-1926) WikiArt (Fragment)

Part one of two

As the promise of Spring and warmer weather approaches we need to dust off our brushes and watercolour paints and prepare to embrace the outdoors again! If you have never tried painting outside, or if you want to learn watercolour painting outdoors, then this is the year for new beginnings! 

Painting outside gets you moving, walking, taking in vitamin D and breathing in the fresh air.  Surrounded by plants, trees and nature is good for the soul, even if it is your nearest local park, or  back garden. You don’t have to go far at all, small steps lead to big adventures!

This is a two part blog discussing firstly which artists inspired painting in the open air, which we know to be Impressionists, and what we can learn from their paintings. We have also listed what first time 'plein air' watercolour painters may consider before embarking on their first painting adventure. 

The second blog will guide you through some of the materials and equipment you may need such as water container, paint, brushes, sketchbooks, with a downloadable checklist so you will never forget anything. Plus some painting tips, which will help you develop your landscape painting skills.

There are a few programmes currently running that have been inspiring us through this grey and dark Winter period regarding Watercolour Challenge ‘en plein air’ painting and Sky Arts Landscape Painter of the Year, and if you have ever wanted to have a go of outdoor painting then hopefully this article will help you begin this creative journey.

Think like an Impressionist, for plein air painting.

Let's begin by discussing Impressionism, and how they chose to paint outdoors. This will hopefully inform your working process and make it easier for you to get started. 

The Impressionists wanted to document their ‘experience’ of a time and a place, they didn’t necessarily want to make a visual comment or document everything they saw in fine detail with fine brush strokes and labour intensive rendering. Artists like Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet went outdoors to capture real life, nature and its ever changing light conditions and shadows. These painters were inspired by the naturally changing colours of the day, live events, human emotions and interaction. Love, music, laughter, and gaiety. Their location was very important to them, especially illustrated in the painting below. Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette 1876.

 Pierre-Auguste August Renoir; Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette 1876.

Artist Claude Monet was interested in seascapes, landscapes, buildings, capturing the changing light conditions and its effect on nature, especially the light at dusk or dawn. A great example of this can be seen in one of his most famous Paintings: Impression, Sunrise 1872. Other atmospheric influences can be seen in Monet's Haystack series where, he beautifully captures the transience of light. Each painting capturing a sense of place and mood.  

Impressionistic Style of painting outdoors.

Claude Monet Impression, Sunrise 1872.

Working outside meant rejecting the ultra fine detail of a subject achieved in the usual studio environment, no outlining of a subject first then working in layers to model the subject's form.

The Impressionists developed a style and technique of rapid, bold brush strokes to illustrate and capture moments in time, the mood, weather, light, the sun and rain. They used unmixed bolder colours and gestural marks. Smaller strokes and dabs of brightly coloured paint illustrated reflections on water, dappled light and shadows through trees, creating a tapestry of coloured paint, unifying the whole canvas with these expressive marks. Working outside meant starting and finishing a painting in one sitting, these expressive painterly qualities provided a real sense of  action, a sense of real life being played out in front of them. Capturing the image of transitory moments of both man and nature.

Many artists adopted this style of painting in spite of the negative comments and critiques of their early plein air painting and works exhibited in the Salon des Refuses. This became very much the style of artists in the late 19th and into the 20th century.

Claude Monet - Stacks of Wheat (End of Summer) - 1985.1103 - Art Institute of Chicago

Notable Impressionists

Below is a list of notable landscape and scene artists whose paintings and palette and even their chosen location will inspire your creative journey; 

Alfred Sisley (1839-99), Regatta at Moseley (1874) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France/ WikiArt

Alfred Sisley (1839-99), Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Berthe Morisot (1841-95), Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Edouard Manet (1832-83), Frederic Bazille 1841-1870,
Mary Cassatt 1844-1926.  

Artists inspired by the Impressionists

Many artists were inspired by the French Impressionists such as watercolour Artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). This is a beautiful example of his watercolour painting below, his style of working with watercolour paints, illustrating the heat and brightness of the day using vibrant colours and reflective light and shadows, multiple daubs and dashes of colour unifying the composition and letting the white of the paper shine through, illuminating the central focus of the boat. Another of Sargent's plein air paintings shows how he has used a wax resist to create foliage texture within his watercolour image. 

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), In a Levantine Port (1905-6), watercolour and graphite on paper, 30.6 x 46 cm, Brooklyn Museum, New York. WikiArt.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Simplon Pass. The Tease (1911), watercolour on paper, 40 x 52.4 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. WikiArt.

What tips can we take from the Impressionists and outdoor painting?

  • Choose a composition that creates interest with a few elements to start off with. A dramatic sky, sunset or sunrise, a large iconic tree, fields, fields of poppies, large areas of water, boats, flags, buildings or an iconic building such as a clock tower. Use people or animals in the distance and/or in the foreground, consider painting washing on a line blowing in the wind in the back garden, bunting stretched across the garden with border shrubs and flowers.
  • Use quick daubs and dabs of colour, work in small and large strokes to create variety in your marks. You can imply movement and the transience of the moment and the scene with your directional brush strokes, make quick decisions to work quickly.
  • Think about the direction of your mark making, let it accentuate your motif, not work against it, the flow of the water, the branches and leaves of the trees, clouds drifting across the sky, flags blowing in the same direction, the direction of the rays of the sun or the fall of rain, tall plants leaning in the strong wind etc…
  • Working quickly and loosely will help you to capture the moment, the weather conditions can change in the blink of an eye. Especially when working with your watercolour painting outdoors. 
  • Use bold colours, if you see different coloured reflections in the water, put them in, look how the same colour changes in and out of the direct sunlight, cool shades in the shadows and warm shades in the sunlight. You could start painting outdoors with a limited palette to begin with, maybe just the primary pigments; a warm and cool red, warm and cool blue, and warm and cool yellow, plus white, this will help you to develop your colour mixing skills.
  • Consider making several smaller studies of the same subject throughout the day in your watercolour sketchbook, using the changing light to create different palettes. Take reference photos to remind you of place and time.
  • Lay colours side by side rather than mixing or blending colours together for an Impressionistic effect. This is quite easy to achieve with acrylics and a glazing medium. Watercolours will naturally bleed beautifully together, wet on wet paper, but you could try this technique laying semi dry colours next to each other on dry paper. Other watercolour techniques can be used to achieve Impressionistic results, dabbing paper towels to create texture, pulling out colour with a wet brush to create directional marks in the water. Using a wax resist to create texture. Using a spray bottle filled with water will help keep your watercolour pans wet and will also create some organic textures and blooms on your artwork.
  •  The Impressionists rarely used pure black in their paintings, opting instead to let their primary colours and complementary palettes mix optically on the canvas. They did work predominantly in oil paint which must have been even harder for them to take out of the studio. Watercolours and acrylic paint will allow much more flexibility and are easier to carry to your location.

What to consider before you start painting outside.

  • Go for a little or long walk first without your materials and equipment. This will mean you can cover more ground without the weight.
  • Take a reference photo so you can remember where you have been. Places of interest, iconic buildings or natural wonders. Taking a photo of everything will help you to see important details and create a visual album of shapes, textures and colours, as well helping you work out some interesting compositions. 
  • Check to see if you have some good vantage points, where you can sit for a while with your painting materials and equipment.
  • Decide on a place that inspires you and re-visit with your materials and equipment (and refreshments!) You may need additional equipment like warm clothes, fingerless gloves, camping stool/chair/cushion, an umbrella or bug spray! 
  • If you are struggling with finding the right composition, because your vista is too big, look through your phone camera again and put a frame around an area. You can take a few reference photos for later if you need to add any important detail back in the studio, or to use if the weather becomes inclement and you need to dash for shelter! Or you can use two cut out L shapes made out of mount card or card board held together with bulldog clips, this will create a viewfinder frame, or use an old small picture frame (without glass). The aim is to really look at your surroundings for inspiration, and connect with it. Look for horizon lines, horizontals, verticals, diagonals, large and small shapes, colours, textures, etc…
  • Don’t be too ambitious to begin with. Use a sketchbook about A4 size or smaller, these can come in landscape or portrait dimensions. Or you can use several small canvas boards, which are light to carry. You could even start off by painting on watercolour postcards, sketch then paint.
  • For your first outing, and if you are taking a hardbacked sketchbook you will not need an easel, you can think about this later on down the road when you want to start to work on a larger scale or on canvases .

In our next blog we will help you choose your equipment from our amazing range of products on our website. We will also provide watercolour painting tips and provide you with a downloadable check list of everything you need for your outdoors adventures!