Arroyo Seco Path – California watercolor sketch

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.


  1. Greg
    January 6, 2009

    Your sketches are beautiful.

  2. Lyn
    January 7, 2009

    I love to have the time to do quick WC sketches,(dosn’t happen often enough) My favorite new tool for instant sketching is the Aquaflo brush with the water chamber in the handle.
    The new challange should be fun, I hope to do more of them this year!

  3. Marian Fortunati
    January 7, 2009

    I love the looseness of your watercolors…
    Someday I AM going to try to work at some for a bit…
    Be well!

  4. Bill
    January 8, 2009

    I am constantly impressed by not only your productivity and drive but also the quality of your output. this watercolor, as well as “Owens River – A good day for fishing” above are good examples. On “Arroyo Seco Path,” those muted colors are not only sufficiently realistic but also quite lovely, and of course work together. Plus you are a frequent reminder to me not to yield to the temptation so soften too many edges. On “Owens…” your usual good Autumn coloring. In this one I like especially the subtle but effective aerial perspective. And, I can “hear the water.”

  5. Kathleen Donaldson
    October 9, 2011

    I found your website by googling “watercolor landscape sketching” and your paintings are wonderfully beautiful. Living in Pasadena, they are particularly nice. I’m working on my own technique of sketching in watercolor to eventually paint in oil. I’m relatively new to landscapes (mostly studied figures) but want to explore this because I’d like to create some paintings for my home.

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