Category Archives: Watercolor painting

More Plein Aire


Watercolor on site demonstration.  9″ x 12″ on 140lb. cold press.  Blue Ridge Farm

There is a lot to be said for painting on location, especially when there is an abundance of magnificent subject matter.  Wonderful views can be breath taking but even more importantly one should seek out the subjects that excite YOUR passion.  In this series I will be exhibiting on-site watercolors that were done in the Blue Ridge Parkway area in North Carolina.

Blue Ridge Farm

This piece was done fairly quickly and has a spontaneous feeling to it. It was accomplished in under an hour, more like about 40 minutes.  While there was no rush, the sunlight and the breeze speeded up the drying time.  The palette was simple.  I used thalo blue for the sky, Indian yellow and thalo blue for the green and a hint of violet for the distant mountain and the house. The stand of pine trees was added after the paper was dry.  The initial wash for the sky was applied over a wet surface, taking care to avoid wetting the house. With a bit of practice you can paint right up to the edge of an area with a great deal of precision. The trick is that the watercolor wash will migrate freely over the dampened area but with care it will not venture onto the dried sheet.

When I use the word care I mean to say it is best to allow the wash to migrate on its own. If you have too much water it may be difficult to keep it from wandering into a dry portion of the paper.  With a little practice you can take advantage of the dampened sheet without diluting the color too much.

Materials / Travel Light  

I prefer to travel light leaving non-essentials at home. What is essential? Water, watercolor paper, pencils, brushes and paint.  For paper I prefer to use a 140lb. coldpress watercolor block because it is convenient.  In the studio I often staple my paper to a 5/8″ thick sheet of plywood.  I have several that I have sealed with varnish and have been using them for years.  Today a lot of my students choose Gator board.   Since I still have good plywood boards I see no reason to change. However, this is a matter of preference.  In the field the block lightens my load and allows me to work without having to worry about buckled paper. I always find a log , rock or some other support to rest the block without an easel.

I have a beautiful French easel but it is added weight.  I started out using one outside but found the weight was a restriction in many of the places I was visiting.  Try rappeling down the face of a cliff with a lot of added  weight or jumping from rock to rock to get to the right vantage point.  I do use an Army surplus ammunition can for my water storage and for a painting bucket. Yes, it is heavy but a good tight, no leak, water source is vital. That is why I suggest that you consider what you REALLY need and what you can do without.

Painting Procedure

I’m old school. When  I paint on-site,  I sketch and paint on-site.  At times I will take photographs for later reference but my primary focus is the subject I am painting. This is why I believe PASSION is vital. If you are not aching to paint it, why bother? I don’t use Photoshop or other manipulations on photos. To each his own but I prefer to get caught up in a dialogue with the object that has sparked my desire. Later in the studio if I desire to delve deeper I will drag out the photos, if I have any, to take me back to the moment. I like to use photos like a sort of time machine. I hear the sounds, smell the smells and am transported back to the spot.

mountain farm_56 24.5x 14DSC_0694                                                Mountain Pasture,  Blue Ridge. 20″ x 14″ , 140lb. cold press watercolor paper.

Mountain Pasture, Blue Ridge

Another simple on-site attempt.  The palette is very limited.  Indian Yellow, Thalo blue and Winsor Red. I quickly drew in a simple horizon line and roughly positioned the buildings before dampening the sky down to the horizon line taking care to avoid getting any water on the buildings. I took a moment to carefully introduce water around each of the building shapes.  This is a critical moment, so be careful.   A pale wash of dilute Thalo blue was washed into the sky and allowed to descend to the horizon line.  While the paper was barely damp I put in another wash of pale blue with a touch of Indian Yellow to create the distant mountain range. If you consider the edge you can see that some dry areas produced a crisp edge while a couple of damp spots blurred, creating a hazy effect.

Horizon line 

A careful examination of the horizon line will reveal a very thin white line. While the sky and distant range was drying completely I took my large 3″ brush and dampened the foreground. I was VERY careful to keep the area above the horizon line from bleeding into the damp foreground. While this is not quite like brain surgery you do want to be careful to keep the two damp areas from intermingling. That way you can prevent an uncontrolled bleed between the two areas from occurring.  While the foreground was damp I brushed in a wash of Indian Yellow. I brushed it in a varying degrees of intensity but it was not a totally flat tone wash.

When the yellow was completely dry; a second wash of Thalo blue was washed over the area. After ti was dry a mixture of Thalo blue,  Indian Yellow and Winsor Red was applied using a large 3″ flat brush.  Some areas were dry brushed.

Final Touches

Once the major tone was set I began to develop the barns with dry brush strokes, using a mixture of Thalo Blue and Winsor Red.  The white of the paper was allowed to shine through in critical areas to denote highlights. The darker detail  lines, doors, etc. are merely  stronger mixtures of Thalo Blue and Winsor Red. You will find it to be a very versatile mix. It can range from pale weathered grey to deep optical black. The cedar tree is dry brush Thalo Blue ans Winsor red as well.

blueridge farm_57 24.5x 14DSC_0693                                                 North on the Blue Ridge Trail,  20″ x 14″ 140 lb. cold press watercolor paper.

North on the Blue Ridge Trail

A beautiful vista.  I think the thing that really captured my attention was the sense of freedom. It was almost like one could just fly off toward the horizon. The wind was blowing gently with an occasional gust moving the grasses around in circular patterns. The distant haze of the mountains added to the power of the view.  The palette is identical to the last painting, only the proportions are changed.

As you look you can see that almost the entire sheet was flooded with varying degrees of Indian Yellow.  Once again the basic shape of the house and barn were avoided with the initial water wash. The entire sheet , except for the two buildings, was dampened.  The yellow was not introduced into the sky.  Look closely and you can see the effect. Due to the weather, the wash dried rapidly.  After it was dry another clear water wash was applied down to the horizon line.  Once again the buildings were avoided and left dry.  A wash of Thalo blue was applied creating a misty effect. As the paper neared drying the darker portion of blue mountain on the right was put in.


A very pale wash of Indian Yellow was washed over the entire foreground that had just been dampened with clear water. Once the area was dry a pale wash of Thalo Blue was flooded over the same area creating a delicate green.  As the large expanse began to dry I washed in a dry brush mode several washes of Thalo Blue, a bit of Indian Yellow and Winsor Red to create the shadow areas.  The darker trees are Thalo Blue.

Next Session

The language of the brush and a painting that was started outdoors and finished in the studio.

More Tips

For more tips on watercolor technique you can purchase Don Rankin’s revised, updated edition  of Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor, Volume I . Purchase direct at 

Watercolor & Plein Aire

Watercolor;  a great choice for plein aire

Perhaps no medium is more adaptable to outdoor on-site painting than watercolor.  It is quick drying,  very light, versatile and easy to carry.  Many years ago I developed a travel pack that takes up very little room while offering me a great deal of flexibility in the tools and paints I can carry. I became accustomed to trekking into wilderness locations.  Anyone who has enjoyed back packing knows that your gear can become very heavy.  While french easels and the like are great, try carrying one along with your other necessities over rugged terrain.  It won’t take long before you decide it is not worth it.  My gear is very simple and light weight.

The travel pack consists of a clear plastic container that measures about 5″ x 9″ x 1.25″. It has a snap lid and will float and has a built in bracket where you can attach a lanyard if you like. The sketchbook is a 9″ x 12″ American Journey sketchbook.   As for an easel or painting surface, I make use of what I can find in the wild. I may use my lap, a rock or log or the gunwale of the canoe; whatever works.

plein aire2_20 plein aire_19


Make sure you have some sort of water container. Years ago I would carry an Army surplus ammo can. However, if you carry it full of water it can be rather heavy.   The most important thing is to make sure that you are using a reliable water source.  Contaminated water can adversely affect your painting. You can filter drinking water or take a little from your canteen.  In the sketches I will display I took my water directly out of the lakes.

Boundary Waters Trek

These days one would wisely think twice about drinking directly from a lake or stream. Years ago  I had the joy of canoeing the Boundary Waters just northeast of Ely, Minnesota.  We canoed from there up into Canada.  The following sketches chronicle some of the moments of that trip. These are watercolor sketches that were produced during my down time between paddling sessions. Most of them are quick pieces that I completed while “deadheading”, that is sitting in the middle of the canoe while my partners paddled. There was a small cup tied to a lanyard. That was our drinking cup. We would drink directly from the lake when we were not near beaver dams.  We were in an area where no internal  combustion engines were allowed and the water was clean.

northern lights_11

Northern Lights

Imagine , if you will, reclining in a canoe in late summer in the north woods completely out of range of any telephone, TV or radio.  Nothing but you, the dark water, billions of stars and a magnificent display of northern lights. Sadly, my sketch doesn’t even begin to approach the beauty of the moment. However, this simple sketch does help me to recall the experience.  Will I ever be able to do it justice? We shall see.

blueberry patch_13


Imagine acres of ripe blueberries.  For me it was like heaven since I dearly love blueberries. One caution, the bears love them too. You have to be very respectful and mindful of your furry neighbors if you decided to feast.

dead heading_15

Dead Heading

A fleeting scene of the landscape as we made our way toward Le Grande Portage and into Canada.

grande portage_12

Le Grande Portage

The lakes are interconnected. When one lake ends you get out and carry your canoe overland to the next lake. At times the lakes are at a much higher elevation.  In this case were were jumping from boulder to boulder on our way into Canada.  I had the privilege of scaling a cliff with a canoe. It really helped me get in touch with my ancestors who used this path on a regular basis.

in the mist_14

In the Mist

A wonderful way to paint wet into wet is in the rain. Never say never. Finally the mist gave way to full rain and I had to close my gear.

Quick Sketches

At times I find painters who are reluctant to show some of their sketchbooks. I do this because I have students who are often confused about plein aire work and why it is important. I think it is important for many reasons. It helps sharpen our observation skills. Working on the spot is an never ending challenge.  It is also a wonderful lesson in humility. We win some, we lose some. We keep on trying.

These are quick fleeting sketches. By no means do they approach a finished state. Yet, in their simplicity I wanted to use my brush to capture moments for me. The world may not hold them in high regard but this is a part of my working method. I’m not sure why but  there are times when I will mull over sketches for years before I paint the subject. No explanation for it. It is just my way. Perhaps that way I filter out the unnecessary.  When  I come back and do the final pieces I’ll get more involved.

Too often students and the general public will think of the glazing  technique as a long boring labor intensive chore. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Glazing can be what you want or need it to be. Get out in your own neighborhood, select a spot and paint. Try to focus your attention on a simple subject and don’t try to paint the entire world in one sitting. Focus, focus. Be kind to yourself and don’t be afraid to dive in.  Good Painting!

You may order Don’s book, Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor, Volume I direct at :

Creating Lively Color with Underpainting

Looks Like Snow

Watercolor  (22″ x 30″) 300 lb. Lana

Hopefully the color looks very rich and lively as you examine this painting example. Creating vibrant color that is almost as intense when it is dry as when it is wet led me to explore glazing for effect. The real story began with a man by the name of Rex Brandt.  Neither he nor I  were the first to adopt this approach to watercolor but he planted the seed that enticed me.

Multiple Techniques

As I have stated before glazing doesn’t have to be tedious nor extremely laborious. It can be, if that is what your vision requires or it can have spontaneous effects as well.  If you look closely you will see wet ‘n wet techniques coupled with some dry brush  and some careful detailing. Each technique is orchestrated to create a special effect for a specific purpose. Once again the main rule is to allow previous washes to be completely dry before the next wash is applied. In this attempt there are no opaque paints, no masking agents; just simple layers of one color over another.


The list of paints used is very basic. The yellows are  M.Graham’s, Gamboge, and  American Journey, Indian Yellow.  The blues are American Journey, Joe’s Blue and Holbein Marine Blue. The reds are American Journey Fire Engine Red and Winsor & Newton Perylene Maroon. The portions that appear to be black are an optical  black created with almost equal mixtures of the maroon and Joe’s blue.  The bottom line  is you don’t really need a boat load of colors to get strong effects.

The Foundation, choosing complements

The genesis for this painting was a sort of remembrance. I was in the Cumberland Gap a number of years ago walking the old trail to the Gap with a number of my relatives. The sleet was beginning to sting a bit and the air was cold and crisp making it easy to imagine what it was like for my ancestors as they trekked through this area.  The chief was standing gazing at the sky with his blanket folded over his hands and arms. It was a natural.  I began the painting with an under painting of red and blue.

At this stage the colors are Holbein Marine Blue, dilute Fire Engine Red and a touch of Perylene Maroon. Reds can be tricky so at this stage they need to be dilute lest they bleed and sully the colors that come later.  The Marine blue is lively and helps boost some of the later applications of color. By necessity, the under painting is pale. However, primary features are established as well as major folds and shadows. Keep in mind all of these elements are still fluid.  By that, I mean to say  that stronger washes can over ride or modify any of these preliminary strokes.

  At this stage several layers of yellow washes have been carefully applied and the figure is now defined by the additional  surrounding colors.  No additional work has been done to the red/blue under painting on the figure. The effect is heightened by the use of complements to help set the stage for the final work to come.

A Clear Path

If you take the time to study the beginning under painting, then the color addition, as well as the final piece you should see the path. Everything is rather simple when you look at the layers. Allowing colors to blend wet into wet and then polishing some areas with careful, deliberate brush strokes helped to create a unity.   For some individuals winter is drab. For me, it is invigorating and full of rich yet subdued colors. The range of greens, oranges as well as rich reds all sprang from the selection of a few colors.


When you have an idea or inspiration; make a plan.  Without a concept or destination your journey is futile. Allow YOUR  senses to direct you. As you follow, remember the basic rules  of color.


I have been under a very demanding schedule and recovering from the adverse effects of an auto accident. The weather man says our temperatures will drop in the next few days. There is a stand of beautiful old gnarled trees not far from my studio that beckon me. Hopefully, I’ll be out doors for some plein aire work.  I hope to post that in the near future.

Glazing and Drybrush make a powerful combination

watercolor 11" x 15" (27.94 x 38.10cm)


watercolor 11″ x 15″ (27.94 x 38.10cm)

I get a lot of comments about glazing techniques in watercolor.  From time to time I run across people who are confused or don’t really understand that glazing isn’t a straitjacket.  You don’t have to commit yourself to layers and layers of tedious drudge work. You can, if that is what you think your concept needs.  However, there is no law somewhere that says you have to do it a certain way.  There is ONE rule.  It is very simple, MAKE SURE the previous wash is dry before you apply another layer.  Even that rule has flexibility.  You can charge another color into a wet passage if you desire a particular effect.  As a general rule, however, make sure the paper is dry.  In that way you can be assured of a clean sparkling wash.

Let the white paper work for you

In this little watercolor I made use of the pure white paper to satisfy some highlight areas. My subject was in strong sunlight and with her fair skin the reserving of the white paper was a natural solution.   The execution was straight forward using a limited range of colors.

Paper : 140 lb. cold press …D’Arches

Paints: M. Graham Indian Yellow,  Winsor Blue and Winsor Red

This painting was done before I discovered the virtue of Perylene Maroon.  If I were painting it today I might find myself using it in conjunction with or instead of Winsor Red.  As it stands however,  I modified the red with blue in order to achieve the maroon effect.


The actual painting was executed fairly rapidly.  A pale under wash of Indian Yellow was applied to the shadow side of the nose and cheek with the strongest mixture in the hair. Since I wanted the effect of sunlight to dominate the painting I made sure that key areas of light were left in the form of shapes. As you look at the piece you should be able to see the shapes, not only in the face but in the hair.

In my opinion it is the linkage between those shapes that help form the structure of the image and contribute to the idea that sunlight is beaming down, burning out the color.  We see these effects every sunny day. Why not attempt to capture the effect?

The washes in the face are simple, just an under layer of Indian Yellow followed by a wash of Winsor Red and blue.


The skin is fair and smooth and soft washes help to convey that feeling. The hair is silky and dry brush  helps to create the sense of hair. The yellow under wash helps to provide warmth and light in key areas of highlight.  If you study the hair closely you should be able to see the areas on the crown of the head   where blue helps to convey a sense of reflected light. The dry brushing started at the top of the head and follows a natural path to the tips of the hair. If you are not familiar with dry brush think of it as more paint than moisture in your brush. Practice, at first, on scrap paper.  Squeeze out the excess water from your brush, then swirl the brush  onto your palette. With a little practice you will get the hang of it.


It is easy to get caught up in detail and often lose the sense of the subject. Hopefully, the hair is believable as you view it. However, it may not necessarily be a perfect rendition of the actual hair.  The color is very close, almost perfect in fact. However, the arrangement of the hair has been ordered or simplified into major shapes so that the effect is achieved. One could say that a symbol has been created. Very often this is what we do in the quest to convey a concept.

Closing Comment

I’ve been painting for a lot of years and I have used a lot of different brands of materials. Many are still old favorites.  Every once and a while something special comes along.  In the area of brushes I have spent a LOT of money and still have brushes I purchased over 30 years ago! I really never thought I would ever find a brush that would surpass my Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky sables.  Well,  I still love my Winsor  & Newton brushes but Mary Whyte has developed a brush that is really spectacular.  You have to use it to believe it. It has a longer handle and a different balance. It carries more water but will snap down to a needle point in an instant. You can buy it at ArtExpress.  I bought one and I am delighted that I did.

One very important point; I have no monetary interest in promoting Mary’s brushes, book or videos. However, if you have not seen her work, treat yourself to some magnificent watercolors.

You can find more tutorials of Don Rankin’s work  in Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor, Volume I, by Dr. Don Rankin  at

Neutrals make powerful watercolors


Simple watercolor using neutrals

Glazes top and bottom, charges in center

Mixing color for effect

Making use of neutrals can give your watercolors a powerful boost.      

Take a look at the two color charts.  The combination is simple.  A red, a blue and a yellow is all that is involved.   Choosing the best red, blue and yellow will depend upon your experience. How do you know which combination to use? Experiment!

What is in the charts?    

The chart on the left is made up of Winsor & Newton Permanent Alizarin,  Holbein Marine Blue  and M.Graham Gamboge.

The chart at the top consists of American Journey Joe’s Blue, Winsor & Newton Perylene Maroon and M.Graham Gamboge.

While all of the paints are in the red, blue or yellow category you should be able to see that there are differences in the results. Compare the pale wash examples to the stronger wash examples. Also note the change in effect between the combinations.  Take time to explore your paints on a piece of paper not when you are actually painting. When you are painting you should have some sort of concept in mind.  However, it makes good sense to keep a separate piece of watercolor paper close by.  It can come in handy when you are trying to make sure of a color passage BEFORE you apply it in a critical area.

Get a grip on color 

I  am accustomed to lecturing on color theory for several hours in my classroom. It is a vast subject.  However, on this page I’ll stick to essentials. If you study the concept of subtractive color you will realize that as painters who work with pigments we have certain boundaries.  In pure theory our red is known as magenta, blue is called cyan  and yellow is called yellow. Simple enough.  However, not every paint named yellow is close to process yellow, not every blue is process blue and pure magenta really doesn’t look like the reds most of us are accustomed to seeing.

What is the solution?

If you have not done so, take the time to look at these process colors.  Every printed color page you view is based upon subtractive color theory. Be aware that it is different than additive color, the color of light, such as the color you see on this screen. Take time to learn the difference.  If necessary, memorize what the colors look like.  If you will do that you will find your color mixing frustration level greatly reduced.

Two approaches

As you examine the charts you will note that the swatches in the center look different from the other examples.   The center swatches were produced by charging.  Charging is the act of loading another color into a wet or moist field. It is very much like wet into wet painting.  You will note it produces a soft effect while the other swatches that are glazes have hard edges.  Both techniques have their place.

St.Clair Barn

The watercolor at the top is a small painting measuring about 10″ x 14″ (25.40 x 35.56cm). It was produced using Grumbacher Thalo Blue, Grumbacher Indian Yellow, and Winsor Red. Every neutral was created by manipulating the ratio of color in each wash. The painting contains combinations of glazing, charging and dry brush.  Basic flat washes were applied first.  Selective areas were charged with color while still moist. Can you see where?  Hint: the sky was washed in and while it was drying the foreground and middle ground  of a pale yellow/red wash was applied. The sky was not allowed to touch the foreground and middle ground lest they bleed together.  That was the plan. However, if you look on the left side you should be able to see that some of the blue sky seeped into the middle ground while on the right past the barn you can see almost pure white paper.   After all of this dried, the entire sky was dampened with clean water (this was done to prevent any inadvertent streaks).  At this point a darker combination of thalo blue and red was used for treeline.  As it was drying more of the mixture was added to the trees to enhance the dark value. The charging was done with the tip of the brush and the color was allowed to bleed into the wash.   The barn roof is another combination of blue and red.  In the final stages a dry brush technique was used in the grassy area.

Any Questions?

Please feel free to contact  me.

Similar pieces and more involved tutorials are available in Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor, Volume I at

Hello world!

Young WarriorDragging Canoe

Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor

This is a new venue for me. I am more accustomed to teaching in the studio and in watercolor workshops.  In 1985  Watson-Guptill Publications began publishing my books on watercolor technique.  In November, 2011 I re-issued an updated, revised edition of Mastering Glazing Techniques in Watercolor and it is now available at numerous locations.  If you want to buy direct you can purchase the new Volume I at or

The main focus of this blog is to discuss watercolor technique as well as offer suggestions about paints, brushes, paper and supplies for watercolor. I will exhibit various pieces for tutorials and try to answer any question you may have related to watercolor.  I am currently working on Volume II and will share some of the elements of the new edition.

So, if you are new to watercolor or an old hand please post your comments, questions, etc.  Please feel free to contact me at or see content  Choosing Reds  at

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look forward to hearing from you.

My special thanks to Gary Bolyer for his encouragement and help in getting started.

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