Watercolor: Palatine Hill, Rome (& Painting Plein Air in Watercolor)

House Near Palatine Hill, Rome 8×10 watercolor (Sold)

When you return from an excursion to a new place – like for instance, France – you get to pour over your photos and re-live the experience, or even better, make art from your photos and completely submerge in that recall. Painting, sketching and carving imagery from the photos I took in France last month lets me extend the relish of that beautiful country for longer than the time I actually spent there, and that’s just one more reason to love the gift of painting.

My lovely, and sorely missed Aunt Shirley, painting with pastels in her garden.

If you’re contemplating a painting trip that includes some plein air – and you’re not sure what to expect, you might experiment at home, either in your own yard, at a fellow artist’s house, or a park nearby, so you can get a feel for chasing moving shadows & light, wind and weather, and onlookers & bugs. You’ll also get to do a supply check to confirm what you’ll need to pack before your trip.

Painting plein air in watercolor, circa 2002 (Photo: Nick Smirnhoff)

I’m going out on a limb to make a statement based on my personal experiences; if you’ve never painted watercolors plein air – your 1st journey may not lead to instantly masterful results. If you’re new to painting, and accustomed to practicing in the quiet solitude of a studio, or your dining room table, uninterrupted, with access to a refrigerator and a bathroom, and you work from photos, where scenery is flattened to a simplified geometry, your first plein air painting excursion might be a challenge.

Masterful painter Julie Snyder, painting plein air with watercolors & onlookers at the Saint-Paul Asylum, in Saint-RĂ©my France

But here’s the thing: go any way. Really. Even if you aren’t planning to take a painting trip somewhere.  Assemble your gear, and paint watercolors outside. It’s not brain surgery, it doesn’t require herculean strength, and you can accomplish the adventure in an afternoon – less time than it would take to binge on social media.  Don’t tell yourself you’re there to make a masterpiece. And don’t set your sights on capturing every single element that makes the scene in front of you spectacular.  The only way to get better at understanding light & color in landscapes is to get out doors and paint it.

My friend KMC painting lavender fields plein air in watercolor near Bonnieux, France.

If you’re new to watercolor, and new to plein air, tell yourself to just harvest the essence of the place. Not the leaves, or the knobby texture of tree trunks, or every-single-shrub. Harvest the general shapes of the scene, and collect the atmosphere and scents and sounds with scribbled notes in the margins. Snap reference photos with your phone or camera, and do a series of at least 4-6 pencil thumbnails of the big shapes first, before you break out your paints.


Arrange your adventure with a friend so you can encourage each other. Even if you just sit on a blanket on the lawn with watercolor pads on your laps, a shared bowl of rinse water, and a platter of grapes, cheese and bread, you’ll see more color in shadows, and more variety in shades of green than you ever knew existed if you’ve only painted from photos. At the very least, you will have breathed fresh air for a few hours, collected a little sunshine on your nose, spent time with a friend, and played with your art supplies. Put it on your calendar.

John Singer Sargent, Simplon Pass – The Tease, 1911, transparent watercolor, opaque watercolor and wax over graphite pencil on paper

Take your rippled watercolor studies, your sunscreen-smeared sketches, blocky thumbnails, bug-encrusted notes and reference photos back to the studio,  and paint your masterpiece. Transfer all of your experiences, rejuvenated in your mind with everything harvested on site, and pour it all into your final painting back in your studio or art table in the corner of the dining room. Really, it’ll be fun – I promise.

Have you ever painted outside? Was it a good experience, or did the challenge prohibit a repeat of the adventure? Let us know in the comments if it worked for you, and what gifts you gleaned from the experience.

Thanks for visiting, and I’ll see you in the next post!
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Art Quote

In a sense, one could speak of the secret life of colour. Despite its outward beckoning, like true beauty, colour is immensely hesitant in giving away its secrets. Painters learn to respect the hesitancy of colour and endeavour to refine their skill to become worthy of its revelations. A painter learns the language of colour slowly.

As with any language, you struggle for a long time outside the language. There is a willed deliberateness to how you sequence the strange words to make a sentence.Then one day the language lets you in to where the words dance to your thoughts with ease and fluency. Perhaps for the painter there is a day when colour lets him in, when his palette sings with synergy and delight.
~John O’Donohue

3 thoughts on “Watercolor: Palatine Hill, Rome (& Painting Plein Air in Watercolor)”

  1. Pingback: Watercolor - Italian Door - and encouragement to photograph your life - Belinda Del Pesco

  2. I’ve been plein air painting in watercolor for several years. This year I bought a new sketchbook and try to capture the essence of the place loosely with paint after a pencil sketch and then tightenen it up with ink. I hope to have the year captured in one book. In the past, I used the Canson pads and tried to do a painting and found it frustrating since I am a tight painter. Yupo is good for a quick painting since the pigment stays dark when dry. The best part is being outdoors, learning to edit and capture values, and a bag lunch with artist friends.

    1. Hi Donna,
      I applaud your goal of capturing a year in your sketchbook with ink and watercolor. One of the women I met at the workshop in France started in January, and she’s done a watercolor & ink sketch every day since. https://www.facebook.com/brenda.sleightholme I like the canson pads, and I love working on yupo, though I’ve never tried it in the field. Thanks for the suggestion. You’re so write about the bag lunch with friends, out doors, making art: what a fabulous way to spend the day! Thanks for visiting. 🙂

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