Monday, March 20th, 2023

16 Must-Know Painting En Plein Air With Watercolors Tips & Tricks

En Plein Air Watercolors Tips Tricks

Those who understand the sheer joy and happiness of using watercolors, know that perhaps the most delightful moment in painting comes with doing it out in the open air.

En Plein Air watercolor painting or painting on-site is one of the most beautiful ways of capturing the essence of nature’s magnificent with brushes.

Not only does it present every small detail of the natural scapes in their most unfiltered, raw and unadulterated form, but being in the lap of nature while painting it, brings the kind euphoria that is but rare to find in anything else.

However, painting with watercolors is undeniably the toughest thing when it comes to art media. And the only challenging feat about En Plein Air painting is knowing how to manage all of the elements of watercolors outside of the comfort of your home!

And, if you’re looking for some help regarding your next En Plein Air painting project, then we’re going to bare it all to you!

Cause today we’re bringing you some of the most incredible tips and tricks for En Plein Air painting with watercolors that will make sure you end up with a picture as charming as its inspiration itself!

En Plein Air With Watercolors Tips & Tricks

En Plein Air artist little girl children painting abstract picture 79295 13410

  1. Know and understand your subject

The first thing that you have to do when beginning your En Plein Air artwork is to understand the subject of your painting. Knowing what exactly to paint is the first step to creating a masterpiece.

Start out by taking a single detail and putting it onto your canvas. Zoom in for understanding the features of a scape. One thing that you should do is give yourself the time to study and analyze these features. You can even take an entire day to do this, as then, you will have a clearer idea about how the elements of shifting shadows and lights work in relation with colors and textures. These will change every hour of the day, hence making it necessary for you to perceive the free play of these effects that compose the scene for the casual eye.

Doing this will make it easier for you to start out. This will also provide you with a foundation for your art so that you know how exactly to calculate the intricacies of shapes and patterns for your art.

For making edits to the form, think about what would work best and about adding further details to the painting. Do not put anything to the picture if you’re in doubt as you can’t reverse the changes.

  1. Analyze elements of lighting, time and the effect of different textures

Time is of utmost importance when it comes to painting en plein air. Also, do track how and when the lights change for you to ascertain the fundamental features of exposures and shades. It is crucial for you to first identify and locate the light source to analyze shadows and determine a “value pattern.”

These are vital elements that lays the foundation upon which you’ll be creating your art. Values and shapes are essential elements for any kind of painting work.

Segregate and categorize the basic elements of your subject into three major areas of gray values: light, medium, and dark. Each will have its individual effects. But what is the most important thing for you to understand is that these will work in close relation with each other to actually give the painting its overall individual identity.

Every color and tonal valuation that you might want to achieve in your art, especially while sitting outdoors will depend on how you manipulate these three dominant values to your favor.

Concentrate on the subject and decode the patterns of its shapes into these three values. Squint if you have to, for eliminating any extra detail. Carry out a brief value study using the white tone of the canvas to establish a fourth value if you want.

  1. Do track the time

Time is an essential aspect of any artwork. And when it comes to painting en plein, it will become doubly important for you to practice tracking the time for your session.

The shifting time will have a drastic impact on the tonal integrity of your outdoor scene. Shadows and lights will get affected changing your visual perception of the surroundings.

The changing hours of mornings, evening and nights will morph these scenes into different vistas. This could make you lose track of your tonal and textural consistency if you failed to capture the desired effects before the shift in time causing them to change.

Utilize the benefits of time constraints such as that offered by painting events, contests, and plein air workshops. These help you develop your skills by helping you to take quick decisions. These could also help you develop your very own signature techniques which will further help you complete in an even shorter time-frame.

You could begin using a timer-controlled painting set to a specific time-frame. Start off with larger time spans and narrow it down as you increase your speed and your strokes.

Avoid overthinking your strategies and techniques. Opt for the kind of size dimension and format that will help you finish your work within the allotted time limit.

woman painting outdoors En Plein Air watercolor painting23 2148014106

  1. Analyze and understand your materials

Develop your personal techniques when it comes to managing your painting materials and supplies for an outdoor painting spree. A few artists may stretch their canvases for oil paintings which keeps it flat and tightly spread. This also prevents warps of any sort.

A real problem with watercolors is that they can get all dried up before you know it and if you haven’t checked upon them well before taking them out on an outdoor painting session, then you might just be in for an annoying and disappointing discovery.

Always check on your supplies before packing them up. Also, you should always ensure that your brushes are in working condition. These should be absolutely clean, dry and the bristles should be intact in every way.

Think about what could make your work easier. A blotting material such as tissues, color blotting papers or cotton papers or self-cleaning brush pen would be a pretty efficient and handy tool while painting outdoors. Do not forget the pencils and erasers, as they’re the absolute basic and essential tools for any artwork.

And some may also carry an “all-weather” umbrella for sheltering their work from the rain. This can also protect the painting from the extreme glare of sunlight.

  1. Check out the weather forecast!

This is one thing that you cannot just afford to miss out on! Do check with the weather conditions before you go for an outdoor painting session. Apart from getting absolutely destroyed by rain, it can get visibly affected by extreme hot, cold, humidity or snowy situations.

Although you can’t control inclement weather conditions, you do get the options of safeguarding your painting from it, such as using as isopropyl alcohol solution for keeping the washes from freezing on your palette if it’s very cold. You could also carry canvas and color guards to protect your materials from melting in extremely hot situations.

Also, fluctuating weather situations can impair the visual perception of the shapes and patterns that constitute the scene. An open scape that may have previously seemed to possess different tonal qualities due to a certain balance of lights and shadows may appear oddly drained off of its natural colors due to weather fluctuations.

This is especially noticed when there is an upcoming spell of rain or thunder in the distance that cast long shadows over a significant area. You have to be alert of all such situations before you set out to paint.

Or, best, you could simply cancel your plans if there’s rain or storm on the bulletin.

scenery watercolor by young920 d6fa0rm fullview

Painting by by young920

  1. Make your own composition of shape patterns and texture

Try connecting and linking various forms and shapes together to create beautiful complex patterns. Start by selecting a center or focal point of interest. After that, try to develop a strategy to direct the viewer’s eye through the entire painting by accentuating and developing the intricacies of the overall work.

A complex network of shapes and patterns can create a balanced composition in art. Do not hesitate or be scared to eliminate any detail to achieve the desired effect. Always remember that every painting no matter how similar it might look to another piece will always differ in its composition of shape patterns and texture. This is because such a formation in every painting is unique and no two pieces of art can ever be the same.

The fundamental point of studying your compositions is to develop your techniques to create these intricacies. These will undoubtedly be one of a kind in every way and reflect the special and unique skills of the painter.

In order to find the center point of interest, do refer to the ways that you could employ to detect and identify complementary shapes in work to begin linking these with one another determining their relations with each other.

  1. Assort, simplify and organize your supplies

Always try to simplify and organize your art supplies to maintain a clean kit and working area. You actually don’t need a lot of materials and supplies even if you think you do. So, instead of carrying a whole stash of different types of colors or brushes, narrow it down to a lesser quantity, because the chances are that you’ll require even less than what you might want to carry.

We often tend to go overboard with our supplies when going on an outdoor painting venture. This is understandable as it’s quite psychological to be anxious about what you may be forgetting behind at your place that could be really important for your painting.

Well, this may not always be the case, and it can simply be that you’re piling on a lot of things that you may not need.

Do schedule in advance to avoid any last-minute last rush or indecision. Also, decide what kind of media you’d be working with as soon as you conceive a plan. Do not overthink your techniques, procedures or subject for that matter.

A neat and clean arrangement will help you work faster and more importantly, better. Whereas, a cluttered scenario will stifle creativity and end up reflecting in your work of art.

world watercolor month 14 by rafacm dbhcmsq fullview

Painting by by RafaCM

  1. Make a color plan

Handling a color scheme especially with water-paints media is undeniably one of the most difficult feats to achieve in art. This is because apart from being incredibly finicky to put on paper, watercolors have a shifting tonal feature that makes it incredibly tough for the user to figure out the exact effect that particular shade might have.

So while getting down to work with watercolors en plein air, you have to be exceptionally careful about what and how a certain hue would behave in the natural lights (compared to indoor situations) and what kind of a tonal characteristic it will yield there.

Creating a color study can go a long way in creating complex shape patterns with regards to the color scheme. When it comes to assigning colors to these shape patterns, do stick by the value structure that you have established.

Your choice of colors or color scheme can be accurate and authentic to the scene that’s before you, or you could easily choose to interpret them as freely and creatively as you want.

Always remember that warm colors have the tendency to come ahead and forward, while cooler tones and colors tend to recede.

Also, warm lights will always create cool shadows, unlike cool lights that may give you warmer shadows.

world watercolor month 11 by rafacm dbgzzud fullview

Image via by RafaCM

  1. Journalize your art techniques and experiments

Try and maintain a journal for all your methods and experiments regarding your artwork. Not only will this help you to go back to your signature strokes and techniques easily, but this is also a great way of boosting creativity. As you keep entering your techniques, you come up with newer ones.

This is even a good way of keeping track of your creations and exercising artistic control. A journal will let you know what to and what not to go for or do when creating a watercolor piece. It also reminds you of the effects and reactions that a particular stroke or technique might have had in the past.

An art-journal is especially necessary for en plein air painting as this helps you complete your work within a limited period of time. An outdoor painting session will demand an incredible control on all of your techniques and strategies while handling watercolors. A journal will be the ultimate guide that will continuously keep you on the right track with managing your moves on the paper.

Also, a journal is a good way even to help others if they’re starting out with en plein air watercolor art, as you’d yourself would be experienced enough with your watercolor ways to help others develop their own skills.  

  1. Be a good judge of locations

This is one of the vital aspects of painting en plein air. Choose the location for your painting session wisely and carefully.

The location for your outdoor watercolor paintwork should make you fall in love with the sights and scenes and then further inspire you to capture what you’re loving, onto the canvas.

If you’re not inspired by what you see, then it is probably not what you should be painting, to begin with. Heighten your senses to take in the impact of the beautiful natural surrounding that you’re in at the moment and feel what it inspires in you. Take your time to know it better. Do not rush. Study the details carefully. Form a mental picture in watercolors that you’d be pursuing. Then begin your work in a calm and relaxed state of mind.

A smart way of doing this is to walk around a bit in order to get accustomed to the location. Take in the sights and scenes and try to feel the sensations each of it produces to connect to the surroundings better.

Try and analyze the different aspects of the place and know what these make you feel. All of the different elements of the natural locations such as the light, shadows, views, and colors should come together in stunning form to you which should inspire you to begin your work without delay.

rock coast by rafacm db9cdi0 pre

Painting by RafaCM

  1. Watercolor paper, pads, sheets and blocks

While working with watercolors, you have to completely make sure that whatever paper your using is watercolor grade. These sketching papers are made to be very thick so that they can hold the water content and paints without getting damaged. The texture on these is made to be pretty different than your regular sketchbooks. Watercolor sketchbooks in particular are especially grainy and course to hold the effects of the color saturation.

So the quality of the watercolor paper is calculated in GSM which is “grams per square meter.” The higher the measure of gsm, the thicker your paper is and the more water it would be able to hold.

Usually, the preferred gsm for papers for watercolors are 200-300 gsm. However, more is not always correct. Do check out requirements for the kind of paints you are going to be using. If you’re not going to use a higher content of water in your paintings and keep it mostly a dry-on-dry painting, then you can easily opt for lesser gsm.

But if you are looking to use a lot of washes and wet-on-wet techniques involving multiple layers and tonal variations, then ensure you have a higher gsm measure on your paper.

Watercolor blocks

So the papers for your watercolor paintings do come in many forms. You could get sheets, regular framed-canvases, rolls, or pads of all kinds for your painting purpose.

A really nice alternative are watercolor blocks that are readily available in almost every local stationery shop near you. These are ideal for en plein air painting as the edges on these come glue-down and the surface is pre-stretched for easy and hassle-free usage outdoors. These mean that you do not have to worry about masking tapes or having to gum down your paper while setting up. Also, this prevents your paper from flying away if you’re working at a very windy location such as seasides or open fields.

world watercolor month 24 by rafacm dbikdkd fullview

Painting by RafaCM

  1. All about the brushes

So, after selecting the appropriate paper for painting en plein air using watercolors, let’s talk about the kind of brushes for this purpose. You do get a ton of options in brushes to suit every requirement. From traditional to hi-tech, specialized and even self-cleaning brush pens that hack down on the amount of effort you have to put in with conventional supplies- you get it all.

So, when painting outdoors, you could either opt for these awesome brush-pens, or you could go for your usual brushes and glass-jars.

Brush-pens could be pretty easy to work with if you’ve gotten used to their overall mechanism and does not require for you to dip your brush frequently in the water. Some are even designed to regulate color and tonal consistency that would eliminate the need for mixing up or searching the right amount of saturation, time and again, for that matter.

However, the disadvantage of these are that they come with a particular pen tip that may not hold up under regular use and constant pressure. These are pretty delicate to work with and can in fact cause you to miss certain steps in the basic procedure of paintings that if you hold in incorrectly or aren’t accustomed to the techniques.

On the other hand…

…the simple brushes and glass jars can be really comfortable to work with. Although they have no special mechanism to bring to the canvas, they do provide you with the ease of learning and mastering the fundamental strokes and techniques as well as develop your own in the process.

These could provide you with a steady supply of clean water, which might not be the case with brush-pens all the time. Also, the basic glass jars are pretty inexpensive that brush-pens. And if you can, pack two while preparing your outdoor paint kit: one for dipping the brushes and the other for rinsing them well.

However, if you think that all the extra jars are going to weigh you down, then do go for fine brush-pens that are easily available at the market or online.

world watercolor month 9 by rafacm dbgrgts fullview

Painting by RafaCM

  1. The easel for en plein air painting

While hunting for the perfect easel for your outdoor painting session, you will definitely come across a wide variety of the same. Do consider going for something that will be immensely portable, yet very durable, matching up to every standard that ensures its strength.

You should get something that can really tough out the onslaughts of the weather for a substantial amount of time. One other thing that you should really make sure is that the entire structure is compact and sleek. Avoid getting anything elaborate that needs a ton of effort and procedures to set up.

The traditional French Easel is an incredible choice for this purpose that gives you all benefit of being an amazingly lightweight and compact easel for outdoor painting.

This could be folded right up like a briefcase and allows you to sit or stand up while painting comfortably. This makes it especially ideal for all of those planning to paint for hours or over a considerable span of time.

A French easel also comes with the added benefit of having all the essential compartments such as paint-mixing palette slots, troughs and holders for all your painting tools and even a slot to fix your umbrella. This dispenses the need for you to pack any separate kit or bag for your requirements.

But the best part of this is that you can actually store all of these in the easel itself before you head outdoors to paint, with your canvas, or watercolor block right into the canvas holder.

world watercolor month 22 by rafacm dbibeap fullview

Painting by by RafaCM

  1. A handy sketch-book

Keeping a “handy-dandy nobbook” or a sketchbook is a brilliant thing to have by your side while you set out to work en plein air. An art sketchbook or one that’s specially made for watercolor work can efficiently serve two very important functions.

First, it comes in really handy as a journal for entries regarding tips and techniques. This can be your safe-place to test out color schemes and tonal or textural variations. Work out your own techniques or develop an individual style even while painting to see what you can apply to your main work. This is especially helpful as it allows you to make all the mistakes you need to make on it rather than messing up your main artwork.

This is exceedingly helpful when…

…you have to ascertain the tones and textures of your subject as it changes with shifting the time-period. You can even come up with your very own way of handling tonal shifts and develop a way to achieve the right balance of the values and elements of painting.

A sketchbook is a great way to practice and perfect the art of art itself.

The other advantage of having a sketchbook is that it is a less expensive alternative to costly watercolor papers, watercolor blocks or even a French easel.

A sketchbook would also be a lot more handy, compact and portable than every other sketching media.

You could easily get a beautiful watercolor sketchbook rather than getting a full-size canvas itself. It is just a perfect thing for beginners in every way. You could get yourself one in soft bounds or hardbounds or even in an attractive moleskin one.

These could also help you complete your paintings a lot quicker, especially when you have to do it a congested place or somewhere with a lot of traffic.

world watercolor month 18 by rafacm dbhu9bf fullview

Painting by RafaCM

  1. Taking pictures

Because, when in doubt, always take pictures! Take quick snaps and several ones for that matter, if you’re doubtful or not very confident about achieving a particular effect for your painting. This works especially well for beginners who might want to study the different aspects of the scape.

Also, you might need to take several pictures of your subject during the entire course of your painting for studying the shifts of lights, clouds, and shadows at different points of time or hours in the day.

Since the quality or the basic overall effect of your watercolor painting doesn’t have to “hyperrealistic” in any way, you need not take a professional camera or a ton of photographic arrangements with yourself to the location.

However, do ensure that your camera does have proper zooming to a considerable extent and captures reasonably clear details, if not crystal-clear, for you to work on comfortably and confidently.

  1. Mandatory seating arrangement

A seating arrangement for all outdoor artwork, in our opinion, is an absolute must. And it has got nothing to do with your age or fitness!

Wanting to sit, especially after a considerable amount of time, is a completely normal bodily requirement and impulse. And it is, in fact, important to be absolutely comfortable when you’re outdoors painting and studying and analyzing your surroundings because you’re feeling the environment with all of your senses at the same time. This is something that you can’t do if your body is tensed up all the time and is pressurized without given the time to rest to function properly.

This is why a portable stool or compact, lightweight, foldable chair is always good to have around while painting plein air.

You could get a travel stool for the purpose or even the ones that are specifically designed for painters and students for school projects. These are very lightweight and are constructed in a way that makes them slide right into most travel-gear bags or backpacks. This makes them perfect for every plein air art project.

world watercolor month 3 by rafacm dbexqnd fullview

Painting by RafaCM


Painting en plein air could be one of the most brilliant experiences ever. And for those who are starting out with their first ever outdoor painting sessions, it’s greatly advisable for you to be confident and have ample fun while at it. Make all the mistakes you want as long as you learn from it and master the art of it!

And for all other tips, do check out the space above!

Thanks for reading!

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Sudarshan Kar

Sudarshan Kar

As Lead Editor of Homesthetics for almost a decade now, Sudarshan knows the website inside-out. His journalistic experience shaped the editorial and integrity guidelines that define the platform today.

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