Arroyo Seco Path
7″ x 5.5″ watercolor sketch
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One of the most frequent questions I get about my paintings is whether they are all done plein air style (no) and, if not, what I use for reference. Although I do use photos to catch specific details of trees and structures, especially when painting architecture, one of my most valuable tools is my sketchbook. Because my roots are in watercolor, I usually do plein air sketches using that medium. This is a quick way to get color notes and the general layout of a landscape subject without having to fuss with too much detail.
General color areas are indicated with a quick wash. The colors of the shadows can be added when those are dry (and outdoors, watercolor dries fast!)
Using watercolor as a plein air medium has a long history among 19th century painters, and noteworthy is John Constable. His field work formed the basis for his later oil paintings. Eugene Delacroix followed the same practice.
Watercolor painting has the benefit of being quick and portable, and it is a good way to capture the mood with few strokes. Although I love plein air oil painting and do it as often as I can, it’s not always easy to set up an easel. But a watercolor sketchbook can be opened and put to use in a few minutes. A portable watercolor palette, a spray bottle, a collapsible water bucket and a few brushes, some paper towels and I’m good to go. And I can carry a kit in the car so it’s handy at any opportunity.