My foray into plein air painting began with sketching and then oil paints. As a boy I used to love sitting in the woods with my sketch book. My favorite subject was birds. Little did I know that many years later (in my forties) I would return to the great outdoors to create art.
My father was a weekend painter. I loved to watch him paint and smell the turpentine. I experimented a little with oil paints but didn't get serious with the medium until I encountered the Thomas Kinkade book "The Artist in Nature-Thomas Kinkade and the Plein Air Tradition."
Now, I know what you're thinking. Serious artists love to marginalize Thomas Kinkade. Too commercial. Saturated color palette. Sold out. Yep, I've seen all the criticism. And yet. The guy could draw and paint. Step away from his studio work and take a gander at some of his plein air paintings.
Someone had given me Kinkade's "The Artist in Nature" book and I enjoyed all the photos and paintings. There were many shots of Kinkade on location with his specially designed pochade box. The countless plein air paintings in the book were loose and sketchy. Some were stronger than others, but I liked the blocky, quickly rendered style. It motivated me to look at other artists and explore the whole plein air world more closely. So love him or hate him, I have Thomas Kinkade to thank for inspiring me to paint outdoors. Of course, it didn't take long before I discovered Scott L. Christensen. Soon I was off for an Intermediate workshop, followed by an advanced workshop. That led to a personal invitation to study for a week directly with Scott. A kind of "artist salon" for me and one other painter. What a week that was. But I'm getting off track.
I fell in love with oil paints and painting on location. But along the way, I started taking notice of watercolors. As a professional cartoonist, I used watercolors on my ink cartoons. But I never really experimented with watercolors for landscape work. That started to change because of an artist named Edward Norton Ward and an illustrator named James Gurney. And because of the TSA (Transportation Security Administration).
One day in a used bookstore I found Edward Norton Ward's book "First Impressions-Sketching Nature in Watercolor."
I immediately bought the book. Ward's sketchy, loose and nearly abstract watercolors appealed to me. Unlike many of the more realistic painters I fancied, Ward had a sort of shorthand for the landscape. Some may find his work too spotty but I like the energy, calligraphy and simple expression. They look like they were fun to paint. And shouldn't painting be fun? Here are some examples of Ward's plein air watercolors.
As you can see, Ward has a pleasant, loose style. What I took away from this is that watercolors can be a portable and quick way to do studies in the field. Unlike oil paints, you can squirrel away a small painting kit and sketchbook in a fanny pack. You can also travel with watercolors on planes, without having to worry about solvents for oil paints. That's why I mentioned the TSA earlier. Dealing with TSA security staff when you're carting around oil painting gear can be a chore. Watercolor is the perfect medium for quick sketches. And you can do a lot of them affordably in a watercolor sketch book or journal. With oil paints you have to use panels and canvases, which can be expensive.
One guy who is an amazing artist, illustrator and innovator is James Gurney. His popular blog "Gurney Journey" is chalk full of terrific information and tips about art. Check it out HERE. Gurney has a new downloadable video called "Watercolor in the Wild." I have not bought it yet but plan to, because he covers everything you need and does some amazing demos. He clearly shows you how cool plein air watercolor can be.
Interestingly, James Gurney and Thomas Kinkade used to work together painting cells for Ralph Bakshi's and Frank Frazetta's "Fire and Ice" animation. They also traveled the country sketching and painting and produced a book entitled "The Artist's Guide to Sketching."
I think there's value in experimenting with different mediums. Watercolors will be a challenging change from oils, but if you dive in you'll find many rewards. It's an inexpensive and convenient way to get outside, create some field studies and broaden your artistic skill set. So check out James Gurney's affordable video, get yourself a watercolor kit and give it a try!