What to do if the temperatures reach 100F (38C) or more? Is it still possible to paint in watercolor? Well, as the old saying goes: ‘they paint watercolor in England and NOT in Egypt’, I’d say forget about it. It would be like trying to go for a run in a sauna. Something like that.
I went to the coast instead and painted in oils. We had a perfect 65F or 15C as a high and I actually had to wear a jacket while painting. I loved it. The good news is, Highway 1 has re-opened last week, so it is possible to drive up to Big Sur again. It will be a relief for business owners in our area, from Cambria all the way to Big Sur. The road closures have kept many people away for the past year and a half.
As you can see we found a nice spot and painted the beautiful California coast. Just another day at the office! It was of course foggy and overcast, muted colors everywhere, just the way I like it!
I am hopefully past my painting slump. This weekend I am teaching a workshop in Northern California near Eureka. Another beautiful place!
This painting is a studio version of the one attempted outside. The August heat makes it very hard, if not impossible, to watercolor paint outside. My work depends on bigger washes with loads of water and it can’t be done if there’s super dry heat and a breeze that acts like a hair dryer.
The rim fire at Yosemite is, unfortunately, still burning. This location usually doesn’t have as many horses in the pens, but they were all moved out of harms way. In my attempts to go paint on location, I went there quite early and was lucky to see them get fed. I tried capturing the intense light at sunrise and the dust created by the movements of the animals. It was wonderful to be right there and study their expressions and graceful movement.
Yosemite horse stables
Media: original watercolor on paper
Image size: approx. 14″x 21″
These are very traditional landscapes. Both works focus on the sky as a major element of the composition. A sure fire way to do this is to simply allocate less space for the foreground. Three quarters of the composition is sky. If we choose to divide our paper like this, we better make sure the sky is interesting! We have to deliver, so to speak!
I was trying to use the clouds as part of the design, arranging them in ways to lead the eyes into the painting. Notice how the size of the clouds also plays a role to invoke distance. Both linear and atmospheric perspective at work! A concept I speak about a length during my workshops.
Composition and perspective are often neglected in painting. Many passable painted works lack good design and therefore have little impact. Some of the key questions I always ask myself is: what am I actually painting? How do I arrange all the elements/ shapes? Where and what is my focal point? Is it all working?
Painting the sky is a two step process. I had to save the whites for the clouds where I planned them, therefore, the first washes can’t go over those areas. The initial warm grey for the clouds are part of the first wash. After all is dry, the second step is glazing in the darks of the clouds. I tried to make them look like they’re hanging over the mountain.
Overall, I am happy with the outcome. Sometimes, the most difficult thing is not to go back in, thinking I can improve this and instead ruin it!
When painting near Los Olivos, we came upon this horse farm tucked in a hidden valley far off the beaten path. I was so psyched to paint there, I just drove right in. My painting buddy went ‘you sure you want to just go on their property?’ Of course, you can’t do that so we asked if we could paint near the horses. Unfortunately, the owners were nowhere to be found and the horse handlers felt they couldn’t make that decision.
Plus, there was a bit of a language barrier, because the modern day cowboy is, not surprisingly, a Mexican man! The only person who spoke perfect English was someone’s 15 year old kid who helped out!
Horse farms are definitely a subject matter that I want to explore more. I did this piece from a value study of the horse shoe barn (if that’s what they call it) and a plethora of pictures.
Notice how there is a unifying color to the work. In reality, the sky was a solid ‘Walt Disney blue’ and there were patches of super green, artificially looking English meadow here and there. However, I went with the colors of California hillsides which are a wonderful golden hue that is very unique to our area.
I think it’s important to remember not to copy the place as it is, but paint it in ways that makes for a good painting. Even outside, it’s all too tempting to copy what’s there and end up with an area of bright blue, and a squeaky green foreground with little or no color harmony. That’s not to say that color is bad, but just like everything else in a good painting, it should play a supportive role and not create sections of different colors, completely unrelated. Cartoons look like that!
For my color mixes, I use quite a bit of cadmiums (or the new equivalent of cadmiums, without the toxins). Cadmiums (yellow pale, med yellow, orange and red) are very strong, but when mixed with earthtones will give the punch that is necessary to make a statement. I try to avoid painting too wishy-washy.
Outdoor painting is definitely one of the pleasures of being an artist! Not many people do it nowadays, the comfort of the studio is just too much to resist. They are missing out!
There is no substitute for the direct interaction between you and the subject matter. Sure, it’s possible to do more elaborate, bigger and more involved work in the studio. But oftentimes it’s the small and spontaneous paintings that people like the most, especially when it comes to watercolor painting!
Unfortunately, going outside and setting up oftentimes comes with adversity. While painting at Davenport, we went to a cliff side (see third image) to get a good view onto the ocean and the Torey pines in the background. We did pass a ‘no trespassing’ sign, clearly there to prevent people from taking a 100ft fall onto the beach below. There was a guy in a fruit stand selling his wares at the side of the road and sure enough, he called us in! Minutes later, one of the two (!) employees of the decommissioned concrete factory came over and wanted us to leave. As it turns out, it is part of their property. It took quite a bit of persuading but eventually, he let us stay for another hour! Talking about pressure to finish your piece!! In the end they were cool, he never came back and we stayed on for much longer.
One of the best tips for painting outside is looking for something manageable. If everything looks too much or too intimidating, pick a detail view of something you like and just do that. It doesn’t always have to be an overview. It takes a bit of experience to pick the right subject matter, but if you persist I guarantee you the rewards are plenty!
Just coming back from a fabulous painting trip in and around Santa Cruz, California. Brilliant weather, great company and excellent food…what more can one possibly ask for?
It is one of the unwritten rules of plein air painting that as soon as you have finished your drawing and the first washes, the weather will completely change! When I started the painting at Wilder Ranch, it was foggy and sort of dull but a great atmosphere nonetheless. Just as I was getting ready to paint the hills, the fog disappeared and it got sunny within five minutes…
There must be a lesson in this somewhere…It is a great self-test if you can actually retain the memory of what the place was like a little while ago. That’s why I always snap pictures before I start and really take it all in. Very important. Light conditions will always change, there’s nothing we can do. I prefer to finish a painting in one go, as oppose to coming back at the same time the next day. You never know what you’ll get tomorrow! That’s also one of the reasons I prefer to work smaller outside, mostly quarter sheets.
Watercolor is the perfect medium to work with outside. It dries quickly and you don’t have to lug around heavy stuff.
Don’t make the mistake of walking around for an hour, searching for the perfect subject matter and/ or painting spot. It will never come! It’s better to just paint something you spot and like, even though it might not be perfect. With a bit of re arranging (mostly omitting) you might just walk home with a nice painting. A lot of time it is the most inconspicuous scenes that make the best painting. Do not look for the most photogenic or spectacular scene! Quite often, what works as a photograph never does as a painting!
I can’t stop painting the rolling hills! There is a special light; even on sunny days, there is this atmospheric haze which is quite hard to capture in a pathetic watercolor painting! I am getting close with this one, but didn’t quite nail it…maybe it is not possible! Who are we painters to think we can actually imitate nature? Preposterous!
The best we can accomplish is a likeness. I should be happy with this effort and move on, but that’s not who I am. I want to do better. Plus, it’s such a great subject matter!
There’s a nice color by Daniel Smith, called German Green umber that really helped me out on the distant hills. It is almost like a raw umber, but has more green in it. It works really well when mixed into the cobalt blue. The most important part, however, is the gradation into the stronger and much warmer foreground. It is easy to over compensate!
Sometimes I start to strong and have to go back and wash it down a bit before it dries. The key is to notice it before it’s too late. Sure, you can always glaze over it later, but it’s just not the same!
A maximum of three washes. Two is better. Anything over three and you run the risk of getting mud. There are very skilled painters out there who can do more than three, I am not one of them! Anything to preserve the luminosity of the work! Thanks for looking