En Plein Air – Quick-Sketch Tips for Watercolor

When doing very quick watercolor sketches en plein air I find that it helps to keep the sketches small, use a limited palette, and lightly sketch out a simple composition in pencil before I ever begin painting.  This is particularly true when planning to do more than simple studies with pen and a loose wash.

"Sister Bay Marina Light" by Charlotte Mertz (4"x6" watercolor, #180605w)

“Sister Bay Marina Light” by Charlotte Mertz
(4″x6″ watercolor, #180605w)

In this simplified sketch of the marina light in Sister Bay, Wisconsin, I also simplified the palette, using only two blues (cobalt and indigo), two reds (scarlet lake and brown madder), burnt umber, lemon yellow, and permanent sap green.  It could have been simplified even further, but I like to work with warm and cool versions of the primaries.

Rather than using frisket to reserve white, when working this small, I often simply paint around areas I want reserved as white, such as the sunlit portions of the marina light and the masts on the far side of the harbor.

The quality of my sketches usually improves as I continue to paint more pieces in the same outing.  There are several reasons for this:

1) First, I am usually over-eager to begin actually painting, so don’t always take time for accurate drawing to undergird my initial watercolor sketch.  However, the longer I work, the more relaxed I become, the less pressure I put on myself to work fast, and the more accurate the drawing tends to be.

2) Working as quickly as I am inclined to (particularly at first), my wet colors often bleed and shadow areas have a tendency to lose definition,  If I can stay on location long enough to allow the paint to dry sufficiently, I can retouch the darker areas to compensate for the loss of definition or any value lost in the drying process.  But this is not always possible when working quickly on location due to legitimate time constraints, such as encroaching weather.

3) The earliest sketches help me determine how quickly (or slowly) the paint will dry in the pervading atmosphere, allowing me to judge and apply color values more accurately in subsequent sketches.

4) When pan paints (or tube paints that I have allowed to dry in the palette) are first used, they tend to release fewer pigments into the water, but as they soften with use,  they release their pigments more readily.  This affects the proportion of pigment to water, ensuring application of stronger colors in later paintings than in the initial efforts.

So for several reasons, it’s often advisable to take time to do a few warm-up sketches before tackling the more important scenes.

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