Improve Plein Air Watercolor Landscapes: 8 Tips
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 8 min read


  1. Select the right equipment for plein air painting
  2. How to choose your painting location
  3. Focus on basic shapes and forms
  4. Use a limited color palette
  5. How to capture natural light
  6. Handle changing weather conditions
  7. How to apply perspective in landscape painting
  8. Practice speed painting

Let's say you've been bitten by the plein air painting bug. It's not hard to see why: painting in the great outdoors and capturing scenes as they unfold in real time is a rewarding challenge. One of the most popular subjects for plein air painting is landscapes, especially when rendered in delicate and expressive watercolors. However, getting better at watercolor landscapes in plein air can feel like a daunting task. But don't worry—you've got this. With the right guidance and a bit of practice, you can master the art of painting beautiful, evocative landscapes that truly capture the spirit of the scene. Here are eight practical tips to set you on the right path.

Select the right equipment for plein air painting

First things first: you need to gather your painting gear. When it comes to getting better at watercolor landscapes in plein air, the right equipment can make a significant difference. Here's what you'll need:

  • Watercolor Paints: Go for a selection of high-quality tube paints. Brands like Winsor & Newton or Daniel Smith offer great color payoff and are a favorite among many plein air painters.
  • Brushes: You'll need a mix of sizes, from a large mop for broad strokes to a small round for details. Synthetic brushes are a good choice—they're durable and hold a lot of water.
  • Palette: A folding palette with a lid is ideal. It keeps your paints from drying out and makes it easy to mix colors.
  • Paper: Watercolor paper comes in different textures and weights. Heavy, rough-textured paper can add an interesting dimension to your landscapes, but smooth paper is easier to work with if you're just starting out.
  • Portable Easel: A lightweight, adjustable easel is a must for painting on location. Look for one that's sturdy and easy to set up.
  • Water Container and Cloth: You'll need something to clean your brushes and a rag or sponge to control the amount of water you're using.

Remember, while it's important to have quality materials, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The goal is to get out there, enjoy the experience and improve your skills in watercolor landscapes in plein air. The more you paint, the more you'll discover what works best for you.

How to choose your painting location

One of the charms of plein air painting is the ability to set up your easel in the great outdoors and paint what you see. But, how do you choose the perfect landscape to paint? Here are a few pointers to consider when you're getting better at watercolor landscapes in plein air and deciding where to unpack your easel:

  • Accessibility: Choose a location that's easy to reach and where you can comfortably set up your painting gear. Remember, you'll be spending a good amount of time there, so comfort is key.
  • Light Conditions: Consider the time of day and the direction of the sun. Morning and late afternoon light often create dramatic shadows and warm colors that can make your landscape painting more interesting.
  • Variety: Look for a place that offers a good variety of shapes, textures, and colors. A mix of trees, water, hills, buildings, or fields can give you plenty to work with.
  • Interest: Most importantly, choose a location that speaks to you. If you're drawn to the scene, you'll be more invested in the painting process, and it will come through in your work.

Remember, part of the joy of plein air painting is the exploration, so don't be afraid to try different locations. Each place will offer new challenges and opportunities for learning and growth in your journey of getting better at watercolor landscapes in plein air.

Focus on basic shapes and forms

When you're just starting to get better at watercolor landscapes in plein air, it can be tempting to jump right in and try to capture every detail of the scene. But here's a pro tip: Start with the basics. Look at the landscape in front of you and try to break it down into its most basic shapes and forms.

  1. Circles and spheres: Do you see trees or bushes? Try to view them as circles or spheres. It's easier to start with a basic circle and then add in the details later.
  2. Squares and rectangles: Buildings and structures can often be simplified into squares and rectangles. Again, you can add in the details once you have the basic shape down.
  3. Triangles: Mountains, rooftops, and even some types of trees can be viewed as triangles. This simple shape can be a great starting point.

By starting with these basic shapes, you can create a solid foundation for your painting. Plus, it will help you better understand the composition and structure of the scene, which are critical steps in getting better at watercolor landscapes in plein air.

So, the next time you set up your easel, try to see the world in shapes. You might be surprised at how this simple approach can transform your painting!

Use a limited color palette

When it comes to getting better at watercolor landscapes in plein air, color plays a major role. But wait, before you bring out all the colors in your palette, consider this: using a limited color palette can actually make your painting more harmonious and visually appealing. Sounds counter-intuitive, doesn't it? Let's see how it works.

  1. Choose your colors wisely: Start with three to five colors. These should be versatile enough to mix and create a range of hues. A common choice for beginners is a basic palette of red, blue, and yellow — the primary colors. With these, you can mix almost any color you need.
  2. Understand color relationships: As you mix your colors, you'll start to understand how they relate to each other. This knowledge can help you create a more harmonious painting. For example, using a primarily blue and green palette can evoke a calming, serene atmosphere.
  3. Consistency is key: By using a limited palette, your painting will have a consistent tone throughout, making it look more cohesive and well put together. This consistency can make your painting more attractive to the viewer's eye.

So, next time you're out in nature with your watercolors, try limiting your colors. It could be the key to unlocking a new level of skill in your plein air landscape paintings. Remember, sometimes less is more!

How to capture natural light

Natural light: it's the artist's best friend and sometimes, their greatest challenge. But, mastering the art of capturing natural light can be a game changer in getting better at watercolor landscapes in plein air. Let's discover how you can use light to your advantage.

  1. Study the light: Before you even touch your brush, take a moment to study the light. Observe how it interacts with the landscape. Does it cast long shadows or bring out vivid colors? The more you understand about light, the better you'll be able to capture it.
  2. Use value contrast: Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color. Use a range of values to show the effects of light and shadow in your painting. The sunlit areas should be lighter, while the shadowed areas should be darker. This will create depth and realism in your painting.
  3. Time it right: The time of day can significantly affect the light and color in a landscape. Sunrise and sunset, often referred to as the "golden hours", can provide beautiful, warm light that can add a magical touch to your painting.

Capturing natural light in your watercolor landscapes can truly make your painting come alive. So, don't shy away from the challenge. After all, light is what brings color to life!

Handle changing weather conditions

Ever been halfway through a painting and suddenly the weather decides to take a turn? Yep, it happens. But, becoming proficient at handling changing weather conditions is an important part of getting better at watercolor landscapes in plein air.

  1. Be prepared: Always have a backup plan. If the weather changes unexpectedly, what will you do? Carry a lightweight umbrella for sudden showers, and don't forget your sunscreen for those unexpectedly sunny days.
  2. Embrace the change: Instead of fighting the weather, try to incorporate it into your painting. A sudden rain shower can add a new layer of depth and emotion to your landscape. Remember, the best art often comes from unexpected places.
  3. Know when to pack up: Sometimes, it's best to call it a day. Extreme weather conditions are not just challenging for painting, but they can also pose risks to your health and safety. If the weather gets too rough, save your work and head indoors.

Weather changes are part and parcel of plein air painting. So, instead of fearing them, learn to adapt and make the most of them. Your flexibility and adaptability will reflect in your art, making it more dynamic and authentic.

How to apply perspective in landscape painting

Remember when you first learned about vanishing points and horizon lines in art class? It seemed tricky at first, but understanding perspective is key to getting better at watercolor landscapes in plein air. Let's break it down into three easy steps:

  1. Identify the horizon: The horizon line is the first thing you need to establish in your painting. It's the imaginary line where the sky meets the land or sea, and it's the anchor for the rest of your painting. High, low, or in the middle — you decide based on what you want to emphasize in your scene.
  2. Use vanishing points: Vanishing points are where parallel lines appear to converge in the distance. They help give your painting depth and dimension. Usually, these points fall on the horizon line, but not always. Experiment with different locations for your vanishing points to see what works best for your composition.
  3. Size matters: Objects closer to you appear larger, while those in the distance appear smaller. This basic rule of thumb can help you convey depth in your landscapes. It's simple but extremely effective.

Perspective might seem complex, but once you've mastered it, your plein air watercolor landscapes will reach new heights. And remember, practice makes perfect. So, don't be disheartened if your perspective isn't spot-on the first time around. Keep trying, keep painting, and you'll get there.

Practice speed painting

It's been a long day of capturing the great outdoors on your canvas. Your arms might be tired, and maybe you're even a little sunburned. But there's one more thing you can do to really push your plein air watercolor landscapes to the next level: speed painting.

Now, you might be thinking, "Speed painting? Isn't that for game show artists and street performers?" Well, yes—and no. Speed painting is a fantastic tool for any artist wanting to improve their skills, and here's why:

  1. Improves observation: When you only have 30 minutes to complete a painting, there's no time to get lost in the details. You're forced to really look at your subject and identify the most important elements. This can help you focus on the big picture (pun intended) and avoid getting bogged down in minutiae.
  2. Boosts confidence: There's something exhilarating about finishing a painting in record time. It's a bit like running a race: the adrenaline, the focus, the satisfaction of crossing the finish line. Plus, the more you practice, the better you'll get—and the more confident you'll become.
  3. Encourages experimentation: With speed painting, there's no time for second guessing. You have to trust your instincts and make bold choices. This can lead to some really exciting and unexpected results, helping you break out of your comfort zone and try new techniques.

So, next time you're out in nature with your watercolors, set a timer and give speed painting a try. It might just be the missing piece in your journey to getting better at watercolor landscapes in plein air. And who knows, you might even surprise yourself with what you can achieve when the clock is ticking!

If you enjoyed this blog post on improving plein air watercolor landscapes and are looking for more ways to develop your painting skills, we recommend checking out Rachel Christopoulos' workshop, 'Improve Your Acrylic Painting Skills.' Although the workshop focuses on acrylics, many of the techniques and principles can also be applied to watercolor landscapes. Expand your artistic horizons and learn valuable tips from an experienced artist!