Essential Tips For Watercoloring Outside

My watercolor painting in the Springfield Museum of Art, in the Ohio Plein Air Society’s exhibit in 2017 has reminded me that “plein air” is a bit of a fancy pants phrase for most people.

Jane M. Mason by her painting, Springfield Art Museum, Ohio.
Jane M. Mason by her painting, Springfield Art Museum, Ohio.

What the heck is “plein air”?

It describes the process of painting outside in the open air. Anywhere outside. En plein air can be in an urban cityscape, or the view from the deck of a yacht, the top of a mountain, or under a bridge—anywhere outside.

American watercolorist, John Singer Sargent frequently painted en plein air from a gondola in the water rising and falling in the canals of Venice. Monet painted lilies in his ponds at Giverny. Yet, it doesn’t have to be far away or exotic. I’ve painted stepping only a step or two out my backdoor, or from a wonderful second floor fire escape I had in Boston.

Jane’s set-up from her balcony in Boston. Note the Stephen Quiller palette.
Jane’s set-up from her balcony in Boston.
Note the Stephen Quiller palette.

Plein air artists use oil or acrylic, watercolor, and sketching materials. It all counts as plein air.

What tools do you need? As a watercolor artist, it can be minimal. Paper, water, and a pigment is all you absolutely need. The tool you use can be a brush, watercolor pencil, or watercolor crayon. You can take supplies from your studio or have separate more portable materials for your plein air adventures.

Paint and Palettes

Field Boxes

Several major art manufacturers have wonderful small (3” x 5”) field boxes that fold open with paints in “pans”. The field box provides you with the lid as a palette. Some have multiple plastic surfaces that fold out to act as palettes. Tucked in the box there may be a teeny brush, and ingeniously, a small vessel for water. These field boxes are great. I own a few of them. They are handy, but can be expensive.

A simple Winsor & Newton field box with pan paint.
A simple Winsor & Newton field box with pan paint.

You can “MacGyver” your own by using a metal pencil case and add little dollops of paint squeezed from the tubes. Or for paint, you could buy the paints configured for the pans, and glue them to the metal box.

A huge advantage of creating your own field box is that you can pick the paint. When I get a new ready-to-go field box, I pop a few of the pan colors out and replace them with squeezes of paint from the tubes that I prefer.

A drawback of your homemade field box is that it may rust. This can be irritating, but it hasn’t deterred me. It is especially fun to use travel mementoes for field boxes. I made a field box from a metal candy box I bought in Paris.

If you make your own field box, you can use the lid for your palette. I frequently use a scrap piece of watercolor paper as a palette. It’s crazy. But it works.

You can’t mix puddles on a scrap of paper. But, it works very well for access to fresh pigment.

Larger Palettes

I love the Stephen Quiller travel palette. It is a plastic palette with plenty of wells for paint, and it has a side compartment that is convenient for my brushes, watercolor pencils, and a few other tools. By using a regular studio palette, I am most familiar with the pigments I have set up in the wells. It makes the process a bit more intuitive.

To see my Quiller palette in use, watch Watercolor Set-up for Plein Air:

When ready to pack up, I tuck a paper towel in the mixing area of the palette. It absorbs some of the remaining paint water.

I use artist tape (similar to painters’ tape) to tape the palette shut. It has a dual purpose. I’m surprised how often I need a few inches of tape, and it’s there ready to go on my palette. I write on my palettes: “Please Carry Flat.” But as an additional precaution, I tuck my palette in a durable plastic bag to prevent leaking until the paint dries.


I usually don’t bring many paint tubes outside, but I may bring a couple. I select ones to augment colors that seem to get grubby in my palette—like yellow or orange.

As for brands, I use a wide variety of professional brands, such as: Stephen Quiller, Daniel Smith, Winsor & Newton, American Journey, Graham, Maimeri, and few less well-known brands. I have found these to be consistent from tube to tube, and they offer the right pigment/filler ratio to accommodate my style. Other brands, or “student grades”, sometimes are not as lightfast and have more filler, which means I can’t get the intensity of color that I crave.

Go online to the manufacturer or major art supply companies such as Cheap Joe’s, Dick Blick, Utrecht, or Jerry’s Artarama, for listings of paints with information about light-fastness, transparency, staining qualities, and chemical compositions. Compare brands. Or, just look at the chart and pick the colors you like. (I have supply lists available on this site!)

Contrary to the array in the photo, please don’t buy too many paints.

I have taught many of my classes with only four to six different pigments. (A blue, yellow, red that “leans” to orange, and a red that “leans” to blue). This technique necessitates mixing colors–an important skill for watercolorists. If you start with too many pigments, it’s a longer learning curve to understand how pigments mix.

I was talking to another artist at the exhibit at the Springfield Museum of Art, and he said to me privately–as if we needed to keep a secret, “Can you believe we get to do this? Paint outside? It is such a joy.” That’s so true. It is so much fun. Painting en plein air makes me feel like a five-year-old. I love that.

Don’t fuss too much with the gear. Just get outside and paint.

Read my post with Stephen Quiller, another water media artist, as we discuss the joy of plein air painting.

FYI: This is an extensive—and fun—topic. We’ll continue this topic the next few posts. Stay tuned!

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