Tips for painting en plein air

‘Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood’, John Singer Sargent, 1885, © Tate

What is plein air painting?

En plein air is a French expression which translates as ‘in the open air’.  First popularised in the mid-nineteenth century by the Impressionists, the technique allows an artist to observe, experience and record the way that natural light plays upon their subject, instilling both an immediacy and a sense of impermanence into their painting.

Tips as to how to improve your plein air painting technique:

Do not fall into the trap of assuming that because you are painting the scene in front of you, you have to paint absolutely everything that you see.  Whilst you should not imagine or intellectualise about the scene, as this will prevent you from observing and recording, you are free to be selective, ensuring that your painting will be a personal rendering, or impression of the scene, rather than an objective record.

Natural light, which is what gives paintings created en plein air their distinctive atmosphere, is also what provides the greatest challenge to their successful rendering.  When you are outside, the light changes constantly, especially if you are painting on a cloudy or windy day.  If you find that the light and shadows change too quickly for you to record them adequately, create a series of paintings (or drawings/sketches) to record the scene as it appears at different times of the day.  Return the next day, and perhaps the day after that too, and continue working on your different paintings at the relevant times.  Once you have spent a few days at work you’ll probably find that there is a particular painting which emerges as your favourite.  You will also begin to develop a sensitive understanding of the way in which the light changes, and you may even be able to capture this transitional moment in one of your paintings.

‘Woodland Autumn Morning’, © Ceri Jones

An easy mistake to make is to make your palette far too complex.  On a sunny day, confronted with all the vibrant colours of the natural world, it is all too tempting to give in to a busy, powerful palette.  Should you do this, your painting will lose all of its subtlety and the predominance of bold, deep colours will make it much more difficult to capture the soft nuances and movement of natural light.

Do not feel that you have to remain completely true to the Impressionist model and paint without the aid of modern technology.  Whilst you should not rely overly on photographs, they can be invaluable as visual aids, especially if you are struggling to capture a particular moment – the way that light hits the water, for example.

If this piece has inspired you to pack up your brushes and head out into the wild outdoors, we’d love to see your plein air sketches, drawings and paintings!  Feel free to email images of your work to, and we’ll give you a mention!

Artist Q+A with Margie Andrew-Reichelt

Margie Andrew-Reichelt, Sunday Times Watercolour Competition exhibitor in 2015, has witnessed a significant evolution in her practice, moving from working primarily with clay to becoming interested in drawing and painting, with watercolour now holding a particular fascination for her.  In fact, evolution lies at the heart of her artistic style, which is defined by a determination not to be constrained by any one medium or technique.  In the following Q+A, Margie talks to us about a particular watercolour effect which she refers to as ‘scarring’ and the technique that she uses to prompt the viewer to question and delve deeper into a painting’s story.

Tell us a little about Being Rosa, the painting selected for the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2015 exhibition.

‘Being Rosa’, Margie Andrew-Reichelt

The painting Being Rosa is a ‘portrait of conversations’ I had with my 13 year old daughter about identity and how she felt she was being perceived by society. I realised that sadly her experience was not unlike mine 40 years before her! I wanted to show a strong and thoughtful young woman, but also the sadness and vulnerability coming through the eyes: watercolour paint was exactly the right medium to convey these emotions.

In your Artist Statement you say that your work is constantly evolving. What is it that prompts this evolution and how important do you think it is to sustaining a dynamic practice?

Experimenting with the medium, building on techniques and visiting exhibitions is essential to me,  and being interested in the things that interest my now 15 and 21 year old children keeps me buzzing. I’m easily sidetracked with new ideas, so I always have several pieces on the go!

‘Monochrome’, Margie Andrew-Reichelt

Your watercolours tend to be very dense, dark and atmospheric. How do you achieve this effect?

This effect is achieved by layering thin washes of watercolour paint until I have an almost matt covering, letting each layer dry before painting the next. I could use gouache to achieve a more dense covering but I wouldn’t achieve the ghostly marks that are created when the drips or puddles dry between the layers almost scarring the final painting.

Though you were born in England, you have travelled widely, living in Germany, Hong Kong and Australia, 4 particularly contrasting cultures! How, if at all, have these experiences impacted upon your practice?

My experience of living in many different countries (courtesy of my dad being in the British Army) as a young girl of colour in the 70’s and 80’s had a huge effect on me which I indulge by making subtle references to the emotions I recall in my work, some of which were negative. Cultures may be different but disappointingly, similar emotions drive all of them!

Many of your watercolours feature subjects whose face is in some way hidden – behind a mask or behind [a mask of] paint. Even in Zero Hours Till Morning we do not see the face first hand; rather, merely a reflection of it. What is the message or idea behind this trope?

‘Shield’, Margie Andrew-Reichelt

There are hints about the initial ideas of the paintings but I enjoy hearing the viewers own interpretation of my work. The fact that the portraits are partially hidden gives them a sense of mystery and vulnerability, encouraging the viewer to look beyond the obvious – race, gender, age…what does this person actually look like, are they hiding something or protecting themselves?

Define watercolour, or describe what it means to you, in one word.


Artist Q+A with Camilla Dowse

Camilla Dowse was selected to exhibit through the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition in 2015.  In spite of being a country girl at heart, Camilla takes the urban landscape as her subject matter, and through the combination of a soft colour palette and the removal of all urban ‘clutter’ (people, litter etc.) she reveals the hidden and unique beauty of the urban environment.  In the following Q+A, Camilla tells us about the surfaces that she chooses to paint on and the immense importance of competitions like the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition as a means of generating crucial feedback for an artist.

‘Charles Street, Brighton’, Camilla Dowse

Tell us a little about Charles Street, Brighton, the painting selected for the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2015 exhibition.

For some time I painted with watercolour on paper. Painting on gesso has enabled me to work in an entirely new way and for a few years now I’ve been exploring the relationship between the two. But I wanted to see what would happen if I took what I’d learnt working on gesso and went back to painting on paper. Charles Street, Brighton is one of the results.

Charles Street is a great street to paint, it’s many bay windows reflect the sky, and the houses although painted in various greys were green in the afternoon light. The colour appealed to me. I love greens, and blues especially.

What is it that draws you to the urban landscape as subject matter?

I should own up to being a country girl at heart! I’m not a fan of the pace of life in towns and cities. They’re generally busy and overpopulated places. They’re somewhere many of us pass through and rarely stop to look at. Even those that live there. But many years ago I started to do just that. To stop and look at my surroundings, and what I saw surprised me. They’re invariably beautiful places, and in the right light and at the right time of day they transform completely. My paintings are an attempt to look beyond the fast pace of contemporary life and stop for a moment to contemplate the beauty of the built environment.

One of the defining features of your work is the palette of soft colours which gives your urban landscapes a quiet and contemplative quality. For many people, soft, muted colours are not what they would instinctively associate with urban life – with this in mind, why is it that you opt for this colour palette?

‘Apricot Terrace’, Camilla Dowse

Most of my painting is done using British towns for reference. The light here is soft and the period buildings which I’m attracted to are often weathered and worn. Those qualities have certainly influenced my palette, but also by removing the qualities that generally assault the senses in a town or city (including colour) I’m inviting people to relax and take a moment to see the urban environment in a new way.

You often paint on hand-mixed gesso, the porous quality and texture of which evoke the exterior surface of the buildings that you paint. Could you tell us a little more about the way in which watercolour reacts on different surfaces?

I’ve always been a fan of hot press paper. The paint seems to take that little bit longer to be absorbed, and I’ve always liked the crispness of line you can get from the smooth surface. But there’s a limit to how much you can work into a painting on paper. What drew me to working on gesso is that it’s an absorbent and robust surface. For the first time I could work into the painting in a way that I couldn’t on any other surface or with any other medium. The closest comparison I can think of is that it’s a little like drawing on heavy weight paper with charcoal, in the same way that you can work ‘into’ a charcoal drawing.

In 2014 you were named Artist of the Year by Artists & Illustrators Magazine and in 2015 you were selected to show work in the Sunday Times Watercolour exhibition, the largest and most prestigious prize for contemporary watercolour painting in the UK. How important would you say that accolades like these are to the development of an artist’s practice?

Painting for me is an almost entirely solitary process, and yet feedback is one of the most important things for an artist. In almost every other artistic discipline there’s a process of feedback, such as editors for writers or directors for actors. Painting prizes are a much needed peer review process for artists. They can help an artist determine so much about their work. Prizes are also an opportunity to have your work seen by a much larger audience. We only get better at any craft skill by doing it often, and I’m now very lucky to be able to paint full time. That I can is entirely down to my work being selected for high profile art prizes and exhibitions.

Define watercolour, or describe what it means to you, in one word.


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For information on events and exhibitions that Camilla is involved with, as well as the artist’s contact details, visit

Artist Q+A with Gethin Evans

Gethin Evans is a familiar face in the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition, having exhibited work in 2013, 2015 and 2016.  Gethin says that drawing is at the core of everything he does, feeding his ideas and allowing him to construct images.  His drawings are the place in which his ideas take form, both in an intended and analytical as well as accidental way; it is from here that his paintings evolve, the drawings having opened up possibilities and giving him a space in which to explore the specificities that shape the final painting.

What would say is the value of competitions like the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition to artists like yourself?

Seeing the range of different approaches within the watercolour medium from the traditional to the experimental.

How do the particular qualities of watercolour enable you to define your own unique style?

The transparency of watercolour offers a way of layering the colour to achieve an intensity of light and this carries forward to the way in which I think about constructing the larger oil and acrylic paintings.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Numerous sources – the paintings always begin from an image and spaces observed but I also have in mind cinematic, photographic and literary references as well as the history of the figurative painting tradition.

‘November’, acrylic on linen, Gethin Evans

It is often said that watercolour is a particularly unforgiving medium as it is difficult to reinterpret mistakes as ‘happy accidents’. Would you agree?

While it is true that watercolour encourages a lightness of touch that lends itself well to an intuitive approach I also find that reworking areas, by wiping away with sponges, adds to the sense of surface that I am trying to achieve.

One of the defining features of your work is the bold and bright palette that you use. What is your favourite colour, or colour combination, and why?

Like most people I do have favourite colours but they don’t dictate the colour decisions in the paintings – these decisions are based very much on the idea and the image. Light is the overriding force in the paintings and one of the main aims is to achieve a quality of light that reinforces the mood of the image.

Tell us a little about Galeteria, the painting selected for the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2016 exhibition.

‘Galeteria’, watercolour on paper, Gethin Evans

Galeteria came out of two recent visits to Florence. The Galeteria is in fact more of a café bar in reality and exists on the corner of via de’ Fossi. As soon as I saw the interior I was bowled over by the synthetic colouration of the warm and cool yellows and the way in which the light bounced off these colours. With this, plus all the highly-coloured fruit salads, ice creams and pastries, it seemed to me to represent contemporary or ‘new’ Florence co-existing with the historical or ‘old’ Florence of shuttered stone buildings and narrow winding streets. My main aim in the painting was to find a way of locking the figures in to the space via the colour and the architecture.

You have a huge amount of teaching experience under your belt and are currently teaching Drawing and Painting at the Royal Drawing School. Would you say that teaching art (in particular watercolour painting) has impacted the way that you practice it?

I think it works both ways – certainly aspects of teaching have had a positive impact on my own practice but equally my own experience as a painter feeds back into my studio teaching. I also encourage students to continually extend their technical capabilities and this can prompt fresh approaches and risk-taking with the medium that is extremely valuable for the student.

Define watercolour, or describe what it means to you, in one word.


Study for ‘Borderlands’, watercolour on paper, Gethin Evans

Artist Q+A with Jayne Stokes

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Jayne Stokes has exhibited in the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition for two years running (2015 and 2016).  She sees herself as an explorer who documents the world around her in paint.  She is fascinated by our relationship with images, to which we often attach great emotional value, and which she frequently takes as a starting point for a painting.  In a world in which photography reigns supreme, Jayne champions the belief that ‘the medium of painting affords the opportunity to add something more than a photograph can provide, such as a heightened sense of place, an atmosphere or insight.’

You say that ‘painting can express profound insights denied by photography or the digital image’. Firstly, can you explain what these insights are and how they are expressed; and secondly, in a world that is becoming increasingly digital, what do you think the future of painting, in particular watercolour painting, looks like?

I think we have an increasingly transient relationship with the landscape around us and the places we visit. Like many other people, I take endless snapshots on my digital camera of the journeys I make and the places I visit. I think that sometimes from behind the digital lens of the camera or phone we lose the connection that we have with nature when we experience it hands on.

Painting is a tool which enables me to study the landscape in more depth. When I take a photograph it is a fleeting moment over in less than a second; a single miniature watercolour painting can take me hours or sometimes days to create. In a painting I can capture textures and colours that cannot be experienced in the photograph. It has more physical and emotional depth assisted by the magic that paint provides as layer upon layer of watercolour is added and manipulated.


‘Round and About’, Jayne Stokes, Watercolour and Collage

I believe that no matter how many digital advancements are made, we will never stop humans painting. It is the physical act of painting that is important. The emotion that is involved in creating an artwork cannot be achieved when creating an image on a flat computer screen. In watercolour painting it is often the tiny mistakes that I make when I can’t control the paint that end up being the most interesting aspects of the work.

However, I think the use of digital images and technology can be useful tools for the artist and they play an important role in informing my own work and providing valuable source material.

I think that watercolour has a future. How can landscape painting be finished as a genre when the world around us is constantly changing? It is the job of an artist to reflect these changes.

One of the techniques that you use involves a combination of collaging and water- based paint. Tell us a little more about this.

In some of my paintings I combine the use of collage and watercolour. I sometimes cut or tear a fragment from a photograph and use this as the starting point. I also like the effect that layering watercolour paint and paper can achieve.

Tell us a little about Wanderlust, the painting selected for the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2016 Exhibition.

'Wanderlust', Jayne Stokes, Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2016 Exhibitor

‘Wanderlust’, Jayne Stokes, Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2016 Exhibitor

Wanderlust is my largest watercolour painting to date. In February 2016 I began a project to create 100 paintings in 100 days, documenting a series of journeys I made throughout Scotland and abroad. This would be a visual map to show the variations in colour, form and texture experienced in a changing landscape.

Each individual painting was subsequently shaped by burning the edges of the paper and then float mounted in a sequence, showing the transition from one scene to the next. My aim was to present the pieces as if they were artefacts or relics showing the passage of time.

What would say is the value of competitions like the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition to artists like yourself?

Competitions like the Sunday Times Watercolour Prize offer artists the chance to have their work exhibited in a central London gallery and to be judged by esteemed artists, collectors and critics. This gave me a sense of real achievement, when you realise that your work has been selected from hundreds and that someone has seen the merit in what you do. You have communicated something worthwhile.

What advice would you give to an artist who is just beginning to experiment with watercolour?

  • Don’t feel afraid to take risks with the medium.
  • Be brave and bold.
  • Use good quality watercolour paints as they will make all the difference.

Edinburgh to Perth, Jayne Stokes, Watercolour and Collage

Which watercolourists (past or present) do you admire and why?

Turner never fails to inspire me –  I look at his watercolour paintings every few weeks. His work never ages with time; they still seem so exciting and contemporary even today.  Also the work of John Sell Cotman, particularly his piece A Ploughed Field: this must be one of my all time favourite watercolour paintings.

Define watercolour, or describe what it means to you, in one word.


Jayne is currently working towards a solo exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh, opening May 2018.  The exhibition will feature watercolour paintings that act as a documentation of all of the journeys that Jayne has made throughout the course of year.  For more information, visit

Artist Q+A with Janet Kenyon


Janet Kenyon won the Smith & Williamson Cityscape Prize through the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition in both 2009 and 2016.  She is a cityscape artist who is interested in capturing those hidden moments of tranquility or ‘pockets of space‘ ( that exist within the hustle and bustle of a modern-day city.  She is also fascinated by the interplay between natural and artificial light as well as the way in which both of these interact with the urban landscape and influence the urban drama.  As a highly successful artist who has many more cities on her Bucket List, Janet has a lot of exciting things waiting patiently in the pipeline.

Tell us a little about Gridlock (Manhattan), the painting selected for the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2016 Exhibition and winner of the Smith & Williamson Cityscape Prize.

'Gridlock (Manhattan)', Janet Kenyon, Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2016 Prizewinner

‘Gridlock (Manhattan)’, Janet Kenyon, Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2016 Prizewinner

I was inspired to paint Gridlock (Manhattan), after a trip I made in March 2016 to New York. Whilst viewing the City from The One World trade Centre, I was taken by the shear expanse of buildings all concentrated into a relatively small area. The way the light and shade played on the structures, all fighting for space, organised, yet chaotic.

One of the things that defines your work is your ability to capture both natural and artificial light. Can you describe how you do this and whether your technique differs depending upon the type of light that you are trying to capture?

In my paintings I love to explore the different qualities of light, and through much experimenting over the years, I’m still developing my technique. The method I use to capture light, in my paintings, is the same whether it’s natural or artificial and is made up of many watercolour layers. To achieve this I use clear wax to mask off certain areas and lots of water and repeat this many times over. The highlights in my daytime scenes and the artificial lights in my night time scenes are the first areas to be masked off, then the process of applying and removing the watercolour starts.

Much of your work takes a cityscape as it subject. What is it about the city that captures your imagination?

I enjoy painting both landscape and cityscapes as subjects  but I particularly love the challenge I get from painting cityscapes, the shapes, structures and the space between with each city presenting it’s own unique qualities of scale and layout.

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Is there a city that you have not yet painted but that is at the top of your Bucket List? What is it that attracts you to it?

There’s still so many cities I’d like to paint one of them being the city of Reykjavik, Iceland which I’m visiting at the end of February, for a few days: hopefully the light will be good as I’m looking to gather as much information as I can for future paintings.

You say that watercolour is not the easiest of mediums. What are the difficulties that it presents?

I enjoy painting in watercolour because it can be both transparent and opaque and, being fluid, be unpredictable meaning mistakes can be made but often these can turn into interesting effects that can sometimes be used in the next painting.

'Evening Light, Oxford Street, Manchester', Janet Kenyon

‘Evening Light, Oxford Street, Manchester’, Janet Kenyon

Over the course of your career you have received an impressive number of accolades including the Smith & Williamson Cityscape Prize through the Sunday Times Watercolour Exhibition (2009 and 2016) and the St Cuthbert’s Mill Award through the Royal Watercolour Society Open Competition (2010). How have these impacted your career?

It’s always great to win a competition and I feel lucky to have had a number of successes over the years. Winning The Sunday Times/Smith & Williamson Cityscape Prize in 2009 and 2016 has been particularly good, taking my work to a much wider audience.

Define watercolour, or describe what it means to you, in one word.

If I could describe watercolour in one word it would be: exciting.

Artist Q+A with Deborah Walker RI


Deborah Walker is a landscape painter with an emphasis on painting water.  She holds a First Class Honours Degree in Fine Art from De Montfort University and is a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours (RI) and an Associate Member of the Royal Society of Marine Artists (ARSMA).  Deborah exhibited in the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2016 and has been a regular exhibitor over the past five years, appearing in the 2011, 2013 and 2015 exhibitions.  Working mainly in watercolour, Deborah depicts landscapes in both broad expanse and close-up detail and aims to develop ‘a language of drawing and painting that can express feelings and emotional responses‘.

Tell us a little about Tidal Rhythms, the painting selected for the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2016 Exhibition.

'Tidal Rhythms', Deborah Walker RI, Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2016 Exhibitor

‘Tidal Rhythms’, Deborah Walker RI, Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2016 Exhibitor

Tidal Rhythms is a study of the kelp beds in Stackhouse Bay, Cornwall. From the viewer’s standing position, you are separated from the sea and the rest of the world by a giant bank of rock with gullies running across it that have been eroded by the tide over thousands of years. You become aware of being both exposed to the elements and yet protected at the same time. There is a quiet solitude about the place. The painting is about the cyclical nature of the tide, the ebb and flow, the rise and fall; and the filling and emptying of the gullies. There is a microcosm of plant and animal species that rely on the tidal rhythm cleansing and nourishing their world.

A recurring theme in your work is the depiction of water. A notoriously tricky subject! How do you tackle it?

Water ‘is’ the recurring theme through all of my work and has been for about 30 years! It may be a notoriously tricky subject but I approach it like any other, to try to paint what I see without revision. After years of study I have, I hope, developed the technical language using watercolour to describe its transparency, movement, reflectivity, light, depth and colour. I have, perhaps, lost the fear of its complexity!

'Corners of the Evening', Deborah Walker RI

‘Corners of the Evening’, Deborah Walker RI

Though you work mainly in watercolour, occasionally you also work in oils. How would you respond to Doug Mays’ comment that ‘Where oils lumber…watercolours prance’?

Oh so true! Whilst there are subjects that are perhaps easier in oils, watercolour makes so many more things possible. For me, working in oils involves moving the paint around until you have it where you want it. Working in watercolour is far more exciting! You have so many more considerations to work with. Once liberated in water, colours have a life of their own. There is an alchemy working between pigments that you have to understand before you can predict. You can apply it in so many ways; lift it, layer it or wash it away again. There is always something new to discover or a new technique to develop, that continuously allows my work to progress. I suppose, simply put, it sustains me as an artist.

Of your painterly style you say that you ‘push the character of the paint to extremes’. Tell us a little more about this.

For me, watercolour is a medium with infinite possibilities. It throws up questions of ‘what if’ continuously. The only way to find out ‘what if’ is to try it, so I spend many hours playing with colour combinations, methods of application and removal, pushing my own boundaries of what I can make it do. The trick is remembering what you did!

'Reveal', Deborah Walker RI

‘Reveal’, Deborah Walker RI

To paint a successful watercolour it seems one must know what the finished result will look like before the first stroke of blossoming colour is applied to the paper.’ (Dianne Middleton) Do you agree?

Watercolour, to me, is a journey and a lot of people would agree that in order to begin a journey you need a destination at least in mind. I would certainly say this is true of my larger paintings that are subject specific, but the route taken can vary considerably. Whilst I may have a finished result in mind, the devil is in the detail; individual textures or patterns sometimes arrive spontaneously. Tonal values and colour hues may change in the painting process that subtly alters the final destination from the original inspiration, in order to convey a whole sense of place and not merely a description of it.

Tell us about what the process of creating a painting – from inspiration to finished piece – involves for you.

By far the biggest part of the process is ‘time’ and the ‘knowing’ of a subject. It’s the being there, seeing, feeling and referencing it with a sketchbook, notebook and camera, before returning to the studio to develop a language in paint to convey the experience. In the larger paintings I like to research a place for its geological and social history. I then write into the painting using watercolour, in a semi hidden fashion, only visible on close inspection. I’m aware that up close the large paintings can exceed the visual field, so I do this to give the viewer a glimpse of the ‘DNA’ of the place.

'View from the Shard', Deborah Walker RI

‘View from the Shard’, Deborah Walker RI

Define watercolour, or describe what it means to you, in one word.

This is the most difficult question of all, but I suppose watercolour is just my ‘way’.