2 Why watercolor artists should paint outdoors
3 Essential preparations for painting outdoors
4 Minimum art materials for outdoor watercolor painting
5 Where to paint outdoors
6 Considerations before painting an outdoor scene
7 When to paint outdoors
8 What makes a good scene for a painting
9 Paint a sketch not a masterpiece
9 Extra tips for beginners on painting outdoors
10 Psychological barriers to painting outdoors
11 Final word on painting outdoors
Perhaps one of the first images we have of an “artist” is a man out in nature with an easel painting. In reality very few artists paint outdoors and the image is so cliche that it even feels a little comical to actually do that. So why bother? After all, life often makes us look foolish enough without us actually helping. What is all the fuss about? Aren’t those days gone along with Van Gogh and romantic painting?
Definitely not. Here are seven reasons why for watercolor landscape artists painting outdoors is important.
Why watercolor artists should paint outdoors
Painting outdoors is the best ways to develop all your skills - which includes technique, composition and a feeling for atmosphere. It makes sense really that if you are a landscape artist to actually look at real landscapes is essential. To see a photograph of a scene and to actually experience the scene is totally different as a quality experience - and the quality of your experience will be reflected in the painting.
It will also develop your skills because it is super challenging. It will be at first an overwhelming experience. You’ll have the challenge of finding a scene to paint, then selecting the viewpoint, and then to look at a vast amount of sensory detail and massively simplify it. And you’ll have the challenge of the weather, passersby and more. Having to contend with all these challenges will make you a better artist.
2 Better paintings
Many artists will tell you that the paintings you do outside will just have some quality your studio ones don’t - they capture something of actually being there. One artist even said that his outdoor paintings always sell. That hasn’t been my experience but I have sold some of the outdoor ones and one person, who was also an artist, was very aware of which paintings I had done outdoors - so there does seem to be some qualitative difference. And although it’s true that you can do amazing things in the studio, really slick and experimental stuff, the paintings done outdoors just have a touch of life and magic you can’t get in the studio.
3 Enjoyment, healing and connection to nature
Okay, sometimes it’s really terrible - freezing, boiling hot, mosquitoes etc. But with some good thinking (e.g. let’s go painting on a nice sunny day) and planning (e.g. let’s take some insect repellent and find a place with some nearby shade or out of the wind), painting outdoors can be one of the most amazingly satisfying experiences you can have. That direct immersion in nature, the sun on your face, the wind in your hair, looking at a really beautiful landscape - it’s healing. There is a feeling of being connected to nature and a feeling of space and freedom that gives you a natural high.
4 Adventure and amazing experiences
Getting up early in the morning. Driving into the countryside. Not knowing what will happen. It’s an adventure and many of us in our boxed lives where we spend too much time in the same place, staring at screens, desperately need some outdoor adventures.
And I’ve had some amazing experiences. Seeing a beautiful sunset. Seeing a pigeon lay an egg right next to my foot. Receiving a jar of homemade honey from a farmer. I’ve even sold a painting on the spot twice. I’ve met one man who connected me with another man who now let’s me exhibit my paintings at his cafe. I met a man who (much) later bought a painting from me for $1000. Things happen when you go out into the world. Perhaps not as much as you would like, but they do happen.
You’ll see things you never expected that will lead to great paintings. For instance, I saw the sun come out after the rain and it was an amazing scene of dazzling light and mist that I would never have experienced if i had just been at home in the studio. I’ve seen beautiful layers of mist in the countryside early in the morning. I’ve seen the final glow of the evening sun across a bay.
Although you might be going to one place to paint one scene it’s very likely that you’ll see on the way there other scenes to paint or you’ll get other ideas - all of which can become resources for future paintings - and which you should find a way of collecting in a journal, photos or as sketches. For instance, I went to a tourist town to do sketches of rickshaws but during my trip I saw a beautiful river scene which led to a series of painting - below is one of them.
Finally, it is challenging and you will fail a lot. But then one of those paintings will work and the feeling of satisfaction is so incredible. You will feel like you did something worthwhile - and you did.
Essential preparations for painting outdoors
It is very important to be prepared when you paint outdoors especially if you are travelling into the countryside or remote places. Before you think about art materials you need to think about safety and comfort - otherwise you could have a hard time and even get into real trouble.
1 Always tell somebody where you are going
If you are going to paint in the countryside and you are a city person then you have to realize you are out of your depth. Always let somebody know where you are going (even roughly if you don’t have a precise destination) just in case you have an accident (it really can happen! I got stuck on a mountain all night and nobody knew where I was). Here is a painting I did of myself walking down the mountain at evening time. I was totally unaware how quickly it would become pitch black.
2 Always take a cell phone and a flashlight
A cell phone can be used for emergency calls (if you have reception! In the countryside you have to remember you might have no reception) and also a cell phone is good as a light - in fact I would recommend taking a torch too. I got stuck on the mountain because it got pitch black and I couldn’t find the path down. It was pretty terrifying. Also the path was very rocky with sudden drops, so one fall and I could have broken a bone or worse.
3 Have the right clothes
Long pants are probably a good idea. There are things in the grass, which often you can't even see, that bite and it can be serious. Where I live, all the farmers cover every part of their skin and I think that it is always good to copy the natives as they know the environment better than me.
4 Protection from the elements.
In summer have a hat and wear a long-sleeved top. It’s so easy to get seriously sunburnt - especially if you spend a lot of time indoors. Sunglasses can also be useful as you can get glare from your white paper - but remember the glasses are tinted so your colors might be off. An alternative is to shade your paper using the cover of the pad (if you use a pad).
Have a light waterproof coat to protect you from wind chill and from rain and getting too cold.
And know that in spring or autumn it can start very cold and become super hot in the afternoon. The fewer layers you wear the better as the less you have to undress - so pick the right gear.
5 Water and food
Avoid dehydration especially in hot places and have some food. It’s hard to paint when your stomach feels tight with emptiness.
Minimum art materials for outdoor watercolor painting
The most important rule is to travel light. So have the minimum of everything e.g. just 3 brushes, just 1 or 2 smallish pads. And try to have everything fit in one bag.
At the bottom of this list is a downloadable PDF checklist so you can tick off these items.
Sometimes I use only 3 brushes. The Hake, the bamboo and the liner. But I also use a round brush and a mop. That’s 5 brushes in all and I think 5 will be nearly all you ever need. Here are some details about each brush:
This brush is great. It’s cheap, it’s tough and it will stop you fiddling and make you a bold painter - watercolor is all about painting boldly. This is my main man, he’s not very friendly at first but with time you’ll really get to like this brush. He’ll be good for you. I have done a course in which I painted 10 different scenes with this one brush. You can check it out here.
I rank these higher than a small round brush because their rough hair gives them much great expressiveness than a normal round brush. If you ever compare them you’ll see what I mean.
This is wonderful for power lines, ripples in the sea and so many other things. To really see the usefulness of this brush please take my 2 brush method course in which I focus on using the hake and a liner - click here for more details.
Small round brush
It’s better for details like figures rather than the bamboo brush because it gives neater edges.
Hold off buying this one. It’s a beautiful brush but you don’t really need it and they are expensive. To begin with you can use the hake instead of this.
I couldn’t find anything like what I use at Dickblick online art store.
So just use a plastic bag - it will be fine. Just don’t leave your brushes in the bag after painting as they need exposure to air so they can dry out and to stop them going moldy. I had one student whose Hake brush actually turned green with mold - this is in Japan where it gets very humid.
I use a minimum of paintings. I categorize them as browns, blues and brights (or colorfuls) and then white. Here are a list of the paints I personally use.
Phthalo Blue (Red shade)
Cerulean Blue (little expensive)
Alizarin Crimson Permanent
Please note that the last paint I include is white. Pure watercolor artists don't believe in using white. However, I don’t subscribe to the pure white paper only club - although I respect them.
I use Holbein because like many Japanese products they are great quality and very cheap compared to any other good brands. I will write a future post on paints and give a link.
I recommend a plastic one with a cover. It doesn’t need lots of spaces for paint but it needs several deep wells. The reason I like a palette with a lid is that I don’t have to clean it after I finish painting. I can put some damp tissue in there that keeps the paint moist so that I can use it again. I used to always use a folding metal palette but these get very hot on a sunny day and easily get dented.
For outdoor painting I like the small folded art buckets that you can pull up to make them deeper. In the studio I use a big bucket (which I recommend - especially if you are standing up) but outdoors I want something smaller and lighter. If you are using an easel you’ll want a bucket with a handle so you can tie it to your easel with some string.
To hold your water for painting. You can use a 2 liter pet bottle.
I recommend a spiral bound watercolor pad. I will give my reasons in a future blog post. I would recommend a small F4 size pad (24 x 34 cm approx = 9.4” x 13”) Note: it doesn’t have to be exactly this size but just the nearest choice.
Why I don't use a big pad
It’s tiring to carry around and conspicuous. A small pad should easily be able to fit it into a backpack with all your other materials. If your pad is too big and the wind gets underneath it then your pad can whack you in the face. It’s happened to me and it really hurt - it was also pretty embarrassing.
I would also recommend a sketchbook for quick sketches. I use a multimedia pad which is super cheap compared to watercolor pads and I can even paint on it - and with pretty good results. It’s super useful. I use a spiral bound multimedia pad.
For holding down the watercolor paper whilst painting - if you are using a spiral bound pad.
For wiping your brush on. I buy cleaning cloths from a super cheap shop in Japan called Daiso.
They are so useful. Don’t skimp on them.
A bit of a luxury but sometimes you get paint on your brush handle and then on your fingers and then it gets everywhere. And I don’t enjoy eating my lunch seasoned with cobalt blue paint. I can’t taste a difference but it is just less appetizing. Or you can just spray the tissue with your water spray - which is what I would do.
A spray bottle is essential for stopping the paint on your paper drying out too quickly and thus becoming unworkable. It can also be used to create texture.
Pencil or pen
I use a technical pencil with a thick lead that doesn’t break easily. I only use a pencil for my watercolor paintings and I only make a few marks. I like to use a pen for sketches because it doesn’t smudge and I even use a pen with some of my watercolor sketches because I like the strong lines and think they add to the painting. If you want to get an eraser then I recommend the kneadable / putty erasers.
Easels are a little expensive and will make you stick out so perhaps hold off on buying one. Remember you can also use them in the studio so they are useful. I now have 3 so watch out you don’t develop an addiction for buying them. The alternative is to get a camping chair and just sit and paint - you’ll look less conspicuous and save some money - or just sit on the ground.
The best way to carry your materials is in a backpack. I use a fairly big backpack that is meant for camping. It has lots of pockets on the outside that can hold bottles, torches and so on - it’s super useful.
Where to paint outdoors
You might be wondering where you can paint. It’s not as difficult as you may think. The more you look for scenes to paint the more you will start to develop, albeit slowly perhaps, an eye for scenes that will likely lead to good paintings.
Look around your neighbourhood, you may well be surprised at what you find. For instance, I found this temple gate about 300 meters from my door. Okay I live in Japan so you might not have a temple, but it could be a church.
Even a cluster of ordinary buildings in the right light can look amazing. Such as in the scene below. This place is about 400 meters from my house. It’s quite an ugly scene in normal light. What you’re painting is not really the place but light and shapes.
And this is another local scene near my daughter’s kindergarten. Once again, nothing could be more ordinary that this picture but with the right light and composition ordinary can become extraordinary.
2 The City
Walking or cycling around the city (especially if you live in a city) is also a great source for scenes to paint. Cars, roads, signs, power lines, utility poles and so on as well as high rise buildings all make for really interesting scenes that can easily become dramatic paintings. I love painting urban scenes and I find them much easier than countryside scenes. This is because all the lines you see in a city scene help to connect your painting and nothing leads the eye into a painting better than a road or path going off into the distance. Below are a few of my city paintings.
3 Bicycle ventures
If you’ve got a bicycle then you now have access to many more places beyond your local area. I have a river about 500 meters from my house and the river path has allowed me easy access to the sea and the countryside. I’ve had many great adventures and gone deep into the Japanese countryside by using this path. I’ve also gone to the sea via this bicycle path where I was able to see and paint many lovely paintings of the sun setting over a bay. Below is one example.
4 Family trips
I have found many beautiful places from family trips. Yes, you might not be given the chance to paint but you can take a photo of the scene, do a quick sketch or come back another time. Below is a painting of a place called Sasebo in Nagasaki prefecture. We went there on a family trip and it was my wife who chose this place which I had never seen before and had known nothing about. It is now one of my most beloved places in Japan for painting.
5 Internet search and ask people
Use the internet to search for interesting or beautiful places in your region. Also ask friends if they know any interesting or beautiful places. My students often tell me of beautiful places they have visited.
6 Driving around
And finally just get in the car and drive into the countryside and take any route you fancy. Or decide on a place but be willing to change your route if you see anything interesting. On one trip I saw a sign for a waterfall and although I thought I would be disappointed it was amazing. Here is a painting of that waterfall.
And if you see a beautiful scene on the way to your intended destination I would always suggest that you stop and paint it. One year I intended to go to a picturesque tourist town called Yufuin but I always saw an interesting scene on the way that made me stop and get out and paint. This happened about 5 or 6 times. Below is one of the scenes that caught my eye and made me stop and paint.
Considerations before painting an outdoor scene
Viewpoint and quick sketches
So you think you’ve found your scene. But it’s a good idea to look all around. Is that the best view point. Try viewing your scene from slightly different positions just to make sure you’ve got the best view. It may be helpful just to make 2 or 3 super rough sketches to see what your painting looks like before you dive into doing a full painting. Ironically, these sketches can end up being better than the final painting. Consider the two examples below.
The reason for the difference in quality is that when I did the sketch I was thinking more about the result I wanted than simply copying the scene - so I made the dark contrast behind the boats an essential point and this made the sketch super powerful. Whereas in the final painting I got caught up in details and ended up with a weaker image. Also the use of those sketchy pen lines in the sketch really adds to the image, it gives it an energy that the more careful final painting didn’t have.
Note: despite giving you this advice, and even giving you evidence of how important sketches are, I still tend to go for the final painting. So I’m a bit of a hypocrite and I hope that I start taking my own advice!
Time and weather
You have to consider how easily you’ll be able to paint your subject e.g. time limits. If you are painting a sunset then you’ll only have a limited time to paint it before it’s gone.
And you have to consider the weather. Is there chance of rain and what will you do if it does rain? Will it get scorching hot and is there shade nearby or will you bear it out? Is it an exposed and windy place that will keep making your pad life up suddenly? You might need to attach your bag to your easel to stop it falling over.
What about other distractions. Are you going to get a lot of passersby and how will you deal with that. You might be painting on a country road with no traffic on it but if a vehicle comes can you get out of the way fairly quickly. It’s important to think about potential problems so you are prepared.
Don’t go to the top of a mountain with all your gear. Yes, I did - including my easel. It’s okay but it’s much easier to take a sketchbook and 3 colors and 3 brushes and no easel - you’ll still be able to paint a great picture. And, of course, take a camera or a cell phone for getting an image. Always take a photo of the scene you paint so you can improve your painting or have another go in the studio.
Also you don’t even have to go all the way up the mountain. This is a painting I did on the mountain slope.
And remember that if you stay too long on the mountain top to paint a sunset it can become pitch black and difficult to find your way down without a torch - be super careful. I got stuck on a mountain all night - it wasn’t fun.
Also do be super careful about standing on ledges to take some perfect shot. A famous animation artist in Japan died doing that.
If you are painting a sunset over the sea remember that there is that final glow that always comes later than you expect when the whole sky lights up. It’s probably too difficult to paint so a photo might be the best choice.
When it starts to get warm you can get swarms of flies by rivers that make it impossible to paint - unless it’s a cool mountain river - the painting below is of one such river. Even in the middle of a hot Japanese summer this place is wonderfully cool and without flies. Also watch out for snakes by rivers especially where you get reeds.
When you climb over a fence remember that there could be bulls around. I climbed over a fence to paint the scene below but I didn’t realize that there were bulls in this field.
They were quite far away but still it was a little alarming.
And sometimes you get angry farmers. I’ve only experienced this once but it can happen. Most farmers in Japan I’ve found to be friendly and even generous.
When to paint
Sunrises and sunsets
Sunrises and sunsets are often the best times to paint a picture because they can be so beautiful and dramatic. So it really is a good idea to get up super early and to return after the sun sets.
Don’t always wait for the sunshine
Yes sunny days are best because of the shadows you get. But the weather can change in dramatic and beautiful ways. I was driving through a national park on a bleak cloudy day when suddenly the sun burst out. It was breathtaking. And led to the painting below.
On another occasion it had been raining all day when suddenly it stopped and the sun came out like a fire in the sky and suddenly the whole scene was transformed. That led to the painting below.
And cloudy skies - especially dramatic ones - can be beautiful to paint - such as the one below.
Walks in the rain
I’ve also done many paintings of rainy scenes. And although I don’t normally paint in the rain I sometimes walk around in the rain - especially at night - taking photos of roads or Japanese festivals. Below is one example of what I later did in the studio from these walks in the rain.
What makes a good scene for a painting e.g. is paint-worthy
The most essential quality for making a good painting when you go outdoors is having an “artist’s eye”. An “artist’s eye” means the ability to see scenes that will make good paintings.
Sadly, I have to say, from my own experience, that it takes years to develop “an artist’s eye” for paint-worthy scenes.
Initially, my outdoor painting ventures started with bicycle trips.
I spent whole days cycling into the countryside hoping the next scene around the bend would be that perfect scene - it almost never was!
And I probably did everything wrong in developing an artist’s eye.
Firstly, I didn’t do quick sketches of scenes or quick watercolor sketches in which I played with the angle, the arrangement of objects and simplified things. I just painted a finished painting.
It took me hours of practice in the studio to develop an artist’s eye.
But doing lots of quick watercolor sketches of real scenes, photos or just ideas in your head will make you better I believe in a shorter time than trying to do a complete painting every time.
Also, looking at the work of other watercolor artists will help you - especially if you like their work. Make a point of looking at their compositions and remembering them.
And, of course, buy books on the subject of watercolor - especially as a beginner you want to focus upon the subject of composition. I strongly recommend Edgar A. Whitney’s Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting.
The most important part of a painting is composition. At some point I will write an in depth article on composition. Here though is a super rough guide on the essentials of a good composition. Ironically, you can break all of these guidelines and still make a good painting. But I think having a knowledge of these guidelines will help you tremendously.
1 Horizon line
Have an idea where the horizon line is. Here’s a link I did about deciding on your horizon line. Basically a low horizon line means the emphasis is on the sky. A high horizon line means the emphasis is on the ground. Here are two examples. Before you paint make sure you’ve decided and it might be a good idea to put a pencil line where it is. I wouldn’t recommend a horizon line in the middle. It can work but it’s harder to pull off a good painting in my opinion.
2 Three layers of perspective and having tones
You can easily see a background, mid-ground and foreground. This is not essential but it will massively increase your chances of having an interesting scene. So here is an example.
But here is an example of quite a good painting with just a midground and a background - so it isn’t always necessary.
Along with this is the importance of tone. I see so many watercolor artists who want to use color and paint pretty pictures. But many of these paintings are limp because they don’t have strong tonal values.
Look at the painting below. It has almost no color in it but it is very powerful - that power comes from having the correct tonal values. It’s actually much easier to paint paintings with little color than a lot because once you add color you have to consider the tone of that color. That’s why in my one brush method we use just one color and focus on getting the tones right. Tone is massively more important than color.
3 Focal point.
There needs to be one spot in the painting that is the center of the whole painting. In the painting below for instance it was the cows. Having a focal point really makes a painting better.
Sometimes you can avoid it and still do a fairly good painting such as the one below - which I even sold.
This is related to the focal point. It is essential to have lines leading the eye to your focal point. This is one reason why man-made scenes are easier to paint that natural scenes. For instance, a road or a path in a picture naturally leads the eye along the road or path to an object such as a figure or a car which will become your focal point - such as in the picture below.
I will draw some arrows on some paintings so you can get an idea of how shapes can be used like arrows to lead the eye to the focal point.
5 Good contrast
You also need good contrast especially around the focal point. In the picture of the white boats for instance you can see I set a very dark background behind them. I exaggerated this to make those boats really pop out.
You need the shapes in the painting to join together through the use of power lines, shadows and so on. I often paint facing the sun because it allows me to merge all the colors into one dark shadow with just suggestions of color. Consider the image below for instance. It really works well. Why is this? In my opinion it is because all the buildings merge into one another and that unity creates a very strong painting.
Unity leads to simplification. But it’s also essential to remove too many objects in your painting. So decide what you must include and what is superfluous.
As well as eliminating objects also modify the ones you do keep. For instance, if you are painting a tree put it where it will look best in the picture even if that means not accurately copying the scene before you. Also, make it smaller if it is too big. And if it is not such a nice looking tree then make it nicer by copying another tree that you can see that looks nicer or by using your imagination. Don’t be a slave to simply copying what is in front of you. Alter and modify things as it is the image that is the most important thing - at least that is my philosophical stance. Some artists believe that an accurate copy is the most important thing; if you believe that then you should accurately copy what you see. I have to admit I do try to be fairly faithful to the scene I paint but I will modify things to make a better looking painting and I will exaggerate and so on in order to express my feeling or vision about a particular place.
Finally, if you can it helps to visualize roughly how you would like the painting to look. It can be difficult to do and perhaps it just comes best naturally without premeditation but I’ve always found that those paintings that I’ve seen like a vision in my head before I begin painting tend to come out really well. The more you paint and look at scenes the more you’ll start to have a creative muse in your head that just sends you visual ideas - don’t ignore this muse; always be willing to go along with its ideas as this is where your creative genius and essence lies.
Paint a sketch not a masterpiece
Okay. Let’s paint the picture. But don't aim for a masterpiece or a nicely finished painting. Aim to capture the atmosphere. Consider the outdoor sketch below. What I loved about this scene was the light and the beautiful green of the rice fields. Back at the studio I made this much more finished painting below. But it was inspired by the first one.
And Relax. Often the more relaxed and easy going you are with your outdoor painting the better it will be - it will often beat your finished painting because it’s got something a bit untamed in it and flowing - and it really shows.
Extra tip for beginners
Easy painting technique
A pencil sketch with just a few simple washes is also okay. And can look very beautiful. It’s called a line and wash painting. You can use a pen or black ink and a bamboo brush to get some punchy darks.
Take a photo
Remember to take a photo as a reference so you can paint the picture again. I often paint the same scene again and again. I now have favorite haunts that I often return to - such as this river scene below.
There are some obvious reasons why people don’t paint outside.
Firstly you don’t want to stick out and get too much attention. The answer to this is to not use an easel but just a small sketchbook.
You can also sketch with a friend or group of people.
You can also paint in remote places in the countryside. But if you are a woman do be careful. Where I live a woman was murdered by a man in a remote place - she was going to a famous spa in the countryside. It’s a very rare thing but it can happen.
You can also draw or paint from your car with all the windows up.
Sooner or later you will have to get use to people looking at your work and commenting. This is especially true when you go outdoors. I have encountered all kinds of people while painting outside.
Some people are friendly. Some people are complimentary. Some people insult you but in a very indirect way - such as one woman who told me she could see the pencil lines in my picture. I didn’t know why she said this but then I think she was criticising - who knows.
Then there is the ghoul (they stand behind you and say nothing. You can feel there silent presence and you feel a kind of coldness and then after staying too long they go).
And one of my favorites is the life-story person. They just come and tell you about their life. I actually find these types very interesting. Oh, and there is the generous person who gives you something. And the buyer. Actually, there is wide variety of types as you will find out.
I recommend that you always treat such people politely and see it is as good training in being a polite, sociable person - which is an essential skill to have in life but difficult to master. But don’t allow people to distract you too much from painting unless you enjoy it.
You have no time to travel into the countryside or are often with the family
In that case take a small sketchbook with you when you go to a cafe, restaurant or are on a family trip. Be careful though. Train yourself not to stare at people. Instead get good at looking at a scene or a person in a short glance and then draw them from your visual memory. It’s good practice.
Also, sketch people who are really busy doing something or have their back to you as they are far less likely to be bothered by your activity. Develop your skills of discernment. There are some people who are hyper self-conscious and seem to think the whole world is watching them (and out to get them)!
And if that is too difficult for you then I also take my sketchbook and do drawings from my cell phone photos. If you are in a cafe you can take a quick photo of the scene (as if you were going to post it to Facebook and say what a great cafe it is) and then use this picture for your sketch.
Have fun and don’t take it too seriously.
And if you think I missed something then please let me know in the comments.