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.

Yosemite Painting – Autumn, Merced River Fall Color

“Yosemite Autumn”
15″ x 22″ watercolor on paper

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The colors of fall dazzle when caught, reflected in the serene waters of the Merced River. This large (half-sheet) watercolor takes advantage of the range of Yosemite’s beauty and is a preview of some new work I’ll be showing this year, both in watercolor and in oil.

When I’m exhibiting at a public show, one of the questions that people ask me most frequently is “which do you prefer painting, watercolor or oil?” It’s a hard question because the two media are so different in some ways, yet so similar in fundamental ways. For the sheer excitement of painting with all the unpredictability and opportunity for “happy accidents” you just can’t beat watercolor. Take a look at the luminous reflections in the water, for example, they were created with a wet into wet technique. You can certainly paint water in oil (and I do it all the time) but you can’t get a look exactly like that. Oil allows you the luxury of correcting mistakes more easily. Watercolor (especially when working with staining colors) can be very unforgiving. The short answer is, I love them both, for different reasons and I find that what I learn in one medium can often be applied to the other even though paint handling is different. The basics … color, line, shape, value, feeling, interpretation, composition … these things do not change and translate easily from medium to medium.

Here’s a closeup of just a detail of one of the trees. This would actually make a nice painting, enlarged, all on its own. Hmmmm, wheels turning … stay tuned.