Monday Morning Art School: basic protocol for painting in watercolor

An efficient plan for fast plein air painting in watercolors.

Surf at Marshall Point, by Carol L. Douglas

Last week I gave you a basic primer for oil painting in the field. This week, I’ve done the same for watercolor.

1. Set up your paint box/palette with pigments arranged in a rainbow pattern.
You don’t need as many colors as you think you do. But be sure to replace a color when you run out, not when you think you’ll next need it.
2. Do a value drawing of the scene in question, in your sketchbook.
Identifying a value structure at the beginning is the single most important thing a watercolor artist can do to make a strong painting.

Blueberry Barrens, by Carol L. Douglas
3. Crop your drawing, and identify and strengthen big shapes and movements.
If you start by filling in a little box, you only allow yourself one way to look at the composition. Instead, draw what interests you first, and then contemplate how it might best be boxed into a painting.
A watercolor value study. I sometimes do this in oils as well, when I’m a little concerned about my composition.
4. Do a monochrome value study, using a combination of burnt sienna and ultramarine to make a dark neutral.
This is where you solidify your choices of lights and darks. It’s a ‘practice swing’ for the final painting. I took a watercolor workshop from the incomparable Poppy Balser a few years ago and was chuffed to see that she teaches the same thing.
5. Transfer contour drawing to watercolor paper.
The more thinking you’ve done about placement and composition before you start, the less likely you are to obliterate your light passages.
Glade, by Carol L. Douglas
6. Apply Initial Washes
Using a large brush, start with the sky and work down. Allow lighter washes to bleed across spaces for darker objects and let the sky bleed into the sea, if applicable.
7. Add darks and definition
Work down from medium to smaller brushes, remembering to leave some white space showing.
8. Paint the Cast Shadows
The cast shadows should be transparent and colorful, not gray.