Posts Tagged ‘watercolor sketches’

En Plein Air – Quick-Sketch Tips for Watercolor

Sunday, July 1st, 2018

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.

A Transitional Period: It’s Not a Little Thing

Sunday, September 1st, 2013

After having created an abbreviated series of postcard-sized travel paintings, returning to larger-format work when I got back to the studio proved something of a psychological challenge. The quick sketches I’d gotten into the habit of making tended to be just that—quick, minimalistic, and intuitive. Any larger work suddenly seemed intimidating, requiring more careful preparation and more extensive consideration and planning.

I considered switching from watercolor to acrylics, thinking that perhaps the change of approach required by a different medium would help me make the transition. But deep down, I knew that what I really needed to do was to simply do it.

I grabbed a quarter-sheet sized watercolor block, a couple of large brushes, and riffled through a stack of photographs to find several potential subjects. From those I chose an iconic one from Brugge, Belgium, which had been the first stop on our itinerary. Brugge had proved a lovely location to recover from jetlag. Perhaps it would help me make this transition as well.

130701 Brugge Bridge

With a sketch of the scene on the paper, a color harmony in my head, and a brush in my hand, I found the subject leading me into the work. It took me several days to complete.

But, wonder of wonders, I was suddenly back in business!

Although I continue to do quick watercolor sketches on many of my morning excursions, I also spend studio time painting from my new stock of photos, with the intention of developing small series around specific themes. It’s a project that could keep me busy for months…if I can maintain momentum. If I can’t, I may still reconsider that more drastic transition from watercolor to acrylics, to approach it with a fresh mindset and to force a new approach.

What would you like to see? More watercolor? Or a change to acrylics? I’d love to hear from you.

Changing the Best-Laid Plans

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

Although we can plan a lot about our artwork, there are some elements over which we have little control. One of those is weather.

As I wrote in April, I had intended to keep a watercolor sketch journal throughout a month-long European sojourn this spring. It seemed like a great way to record some of the places we traveled and the scenes we passed during our cruise along the Rijn/Rhine/Rhein, Main, and Danube Rivers.

I began with the best of intentions.

Because standard brushes would have required a separate, (spillable) water container, I had chosen instead to use a single, reservoir brush, in which water flowed directly from the reservoir in the handle, through the bristles, and onto the paper. But it didn’t handle the way I was used to, and I needed time to learn to control the water flow and harness its capabilities, which meant that my earliest watercolor sketches appeared clumsy and amateurish.

Also, consistently overcast skies and chilling rain were not lending themselves to vibrant lighting contrasts or extensive plein air watercolor sketching.

Some paintings, like one I did of windmills along the Rijn, were essentially compilations of scenes we passed too quickly to record as they appeared; managing only to suggest typical images.

130503 Koln Shipyard

The more successful sketches, such as “Koln Shipyard,” above, and “Portside in Bamberg,” below, were painted over a the span of a half hour or more while the ship sat stationary in port. After the first few days, my increasing confidence with the brush became evident in the improving quality of the watercolor sketches.

130603 Portside in Bamberg

Unfortunately, the rains continued to fall, and the rivers continued to rise. So about the time I was learning to negotiate the new brush, the rivers rose beyond safe navigability. Our river cruise suddenly turned into a coach excursion, which didn’t lend itself so well to sketching the rapidly passing scenery.

I tried, with limited success, to paint on the coach. After only one attempt, I had to abandon the daily sketch plan. From that time on, I relied instead on my camera to quickly capture iconic and evocative images to paint from after returning to the studio.