watercolor painting en plein air | Erin Kate Archer | Skillshare

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watercolor painting en plein air

teacher avatar Erin Kate Archer, art & illustration

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.



    • 3.

      non-painting related supplies


    • 4.

      choosing your scene


    • 5.

      field trip


    • 6.

      photographing & editing


    • 7.



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About This Class

en plein air: adjective. designating a painting executed out of doors and representing a direct response to the scene or subject in front of the artist.

in this class you'll learn how to create watercolor travel illustrations en plein air from start to finish. you'll learn tips and tricks for selecting scenes, packing, and preparing for all different environments. i'll take you along with me to paint on the manhattan bridge & in reykjavik, iceland, and arm you with everything you need to capture your own travels!

Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Erin Kate Archer

art & illustration


erin kate archer is a new york-based artist & illustrator with an ethereal, magical style. her work aims to calm, comfort, and transport. from immersive fairytale landscapes and glowing high-key celestial pieces, to charming flora & fauna and children’s book illustrations – erin makes what was once a static image a tranquil visual journey. 


erin has illustrated children's picture books; was selected for the sing for hope NYC piano painting project; is a skillshare top teacher, and has created work for a number of consumer brands. 


follow along with her on instagram, check out her portfolio for some finished projects, and visit her etsy shop to purchase prints... See full profile

Level: Intermediate

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1. trailer: Hi there, I'm Erin Kate Archer, I'm a watercolor illustrator and this is Watercolor Painting en Plein Air. In this class we'll walk through everything you need for painting en plein air, which is just French for painting outdoors, from what you should pack to how you should prepare for different environments and little tips and tricks for you to be able to create your own travel illustrations that capture your trips. And I'll take you with me to Reykjavik, Iceland, and on the Manhattan Bridge to do some travel illustrations in real life. If this sounds interesting to you, enroll now. 2. supplies: Class is all about on plein air painting, watercolors specifically. We're going over some illustration techniques and tools and everything you need to know about watercolor and plein air painting painting. We're going to start out with supply. I have this little bag that I use for my supplies. A friend actually brought it for me from Paris, so I feel like it has a good travel vibe going on. The first thing that you need is pretty similar to whatever you're going to be doing normally, but we're going to shrink things down. I usually try to stick to two different sizes of pens. I work pretty small, so I stick with 01s, 005s and then maybe I'll add in like a three or four if I have room for that. Then next up, it's always good to have a pencil and I just use this old mechanical pencil. I don't think that's a big deal to have something pencil. Then eraser to erase this pencil lines, and the next that we have paints. You can either use a kits like this. These are from premium marketing and I liked them a lot and they're not the best paints out there, but it's a good package and they have a nice selection of colors. I do like this and I feel like they are pretty small, but you can also use a little mini watercolor thing that you can make yourself out of an [inaudible] pallet. Then next up which is something I always get questions about is the water brush. These are so great because they have a little tube full of water and the ends so you can fill them up and then not need to bring a cup of water to use for your watercolors. I will lick my favorites in the descriptions, but if you just look up water brush, you can find them. Just make sure you don't get the absolute cheapest ones because they can sometimes sleek like when you press on these, they do leave that a little bit of water. You can see that. But the ones that are cheap, they just everywhere. Those aren't very good to have in your kit. I have a couple of those in my kit. They come in like small, medium, large and I do a large and small. I have one for like [inaudible] and one for more detailed things. Then next up you will need some paper towel. Sometimes I forget to bring this and that's one of those things that you can find just out and about, so it's not a big deal if you forget that. I usually bring along some masking tape. This is a washi tape and then I use this to tip up my paper. For details, I'd bring a wet drop pen. This is one of my staples. Then my first paper, I suggest a simple notebook with paper and I will leave links to my favorites. I prefer cold press because of the texture and I prefer having a spiral bound notebook you can fold it completely flat, so you don't have to worry about holding open the binding of a regular stitched like perfect bound sketchbook. Those are our spice. 3. non-painting related supplies: Those are our basic painting supplies, the ones that you pretty much need, and then there are a few extras that I would recommend. If you're going around with a water brush, a good trick is to get one of those little drink flavor containers like meal, that thing and once they're empty, you can fill those with water for an emergency refill. Although usually you can find water wherever your painting, but it helps if you aren't near a sink, because when you try to fill up those water brushes with a water bottle doesn't work so well. I also sometimes bring black and white gloss, because for watercolor painting, a lot of times you can't get that intensity and you're not supposed to use white paint. But for details and for travel paintings, I find having a white gloss to do a really opaque highlight is really helpful in the same as not having the time to mix your own black paint, let alone the actual space in your palate. That's a good one. Then there are a few non painting related supplies I recommend. The first one is sunglasses, and it's really important because I'll show you some pieces that I've done. For example, I did one at the top of Rockefeller Center, and I was like sitting on the ground trying to paint the New York City skyline and the sun was so bright that I didn't even see the entirety of the skyline, and you can see some glaring mistakes in the backgrounds. I mean, maybe [inaudible] you and me and not to average eye but I can see them. I'll definitely recommend sunglasses and maybe a baseball hat, something like that, can be really helpful too. The next thing is headphones. I think headphones are really important for this if you have a hard time painting in front of people. I've had a lot of luck with, by having headphones in and people are more likely to leave you alone and not bother you. Sometimes it's nice people, for the most part, have nothing but good things to say. But it can be weird if you're not used to it and people are coming by and looking at your paintings and saying nothing or maybe just saying somebody to their friend, and it helps you like block out the world. I don't think I could do it without headphones, so that's my recommendation. Take a good podcast with you. The next thing is, of course, your phone or your camera, however you're going to do that. I love taking the pictures like side-by-side, and I'll put up a few here now so you can take a look at those. But, of course, you want to document your experience. Next, you'll want to have water. Same as the New York City story, Rockefeller Center. It can get really hot and it's a long day. Usually if you're going to do on bringing your painting you have to stay there for a while, and you don't get to get up and move around. Maybe you pay to get in somewhere like whatever it cost to get to Rockefeller Center, and you don't need to want to go and buy expensive border leave and come back. Having water with you is always a good idea. Reusable water bottle if you can. Next is binder clips. Binder clips are really helpful if you end up using a perfect bound sketchbook. That keeps going all over the place, or if you want to just make sure that the cover stays open, or if you want to clip your paper towel to your bag so you don't forget it. All of these things, it's really useful to have binder clips around. I'm sure you'll find other uses for them as well. Even if you put it at the end of the table too, make sure your pens don't roll off, little things like that. Then as far as where you're going, you have to prepare for the environment. Like you can see this Paris when I did up here from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, It was a horribly rainy day that day, and I ended up, I did most of it from the top and then I went inside where it's a little bit more covered and did the rest of it from a picture in there. That's another reason, good reason to have your camera, so you can take a picture first and make sure you can capture the light and the exact scene where you're painting in case for some reason you get rained on. But if you're talking to weather, you can paint in the rain and you just need to make sure you have an umbrella and make sure you are in a spot where you can prop it up, or make sure you go with that really nice friend who can hold it up for you. Those things are all fine. I usually try to also wear on something like waterproof jacket so that even if it's warm out, I can put it down and sit on that, which is really nice. Also if you're going to be painting somewhere cold, you want to make sure to bundle up. I'll put in a clip here that my boyfriend took when we were in Reykjavik, and I start to do a really cool painting because it was freezing of a waterfall outside of Reykjavik. You'll see that. You'd have to bundle up if you want, if you're dedicated. Definitely recommend gloves, really thin gloves if you can, because you're going to be making fine movements and you don't want anything to bulk you up. I think it's a really good idea to make sure you plan for your environment. If you can go on, it's not supposed to be raining, then that's great. But if you can't, then you could definitely plan for it and dress for it, and still make it work. 4. choosing your scene: Next, we're going to talk about choosing your subject matter, so I would recommend before you go to do some research, so if you're going to Paris and you want your painting landscape to be of the Eiffel Tower, you can look around to see where great views of the Eiffel Tower are, check out Yelp, check out Instagram, just through the hashtags, and see where the most beautiful spots are. Because a lot of these en plein air paintings, the times that they're the best are when you have a scene that's so gorgeous when you come look at it, but when you take a picture it doesn't like quite come through, these kind of en plein air paintings are perfect for those because you can really communicate how the scene looked to you when you were there in a way that somehow cameras just can't do it. That's always a good plan, and if you go through Google, and like in this case, I did it from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, and so I googled like Arc de Triomphe then I had a bunch of different pictures and something that you can always do if you are going with other people, I was lucky enough to have great friends traveling that just left me there to finish my painting that day. But if you don't have that kind of relationship and someone's hanging out with you, then you might want to do a pre-sketch so you can have your layout all planned out and take your reference picture and do the outlines really lightly in pencil, just like we are going to talk about later on and have that already. That's usually the most time intensive part of doing en plein air paintings, so once you have that completed, then you can really speed along the rest of the process and maybe make sure your friends are a little bit more comfortable so that they don't have to stick around with you as long. The other opportunity you can do is, for example, this one in Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, I was lucky enough to study abroad there in college. So I had gone to the spot a bunch of times and then planned out my spot for doing my en plein air painting and I found a nice bench and I took a picture from there and I planned it all out, so that is always a good idea. Another note about traveling, you should always check to see if there are free discounts, for example, you can get to the top of the arc to travel for free if you're a student, I believe, so always check for those free discounts and check on Yelp and everything because it's always better to have things be for free if you can make that happen. As far as picking your reference materials too, if you are doing a scene where there is a ton of detail, just know it's going to take you more time. The difference between time it took me to do this Paris one and the Sagrada Familia was huge because each building in Paris, I was doing that skyline in its entirety. So if you don't have as much time, maybe isolate your picture and only do a little snippet of the buildings around the Eiffel Tower or whatever your subject matter is, and you will be able to cut it down a lot more and no one would be the wiser, that was already inside of me, they'll just think it was your artistic license. 5. field trip: Now that we have the basics done, we're going to get out there and do a couple of paintings. I'm going to bring you with me to a scene I did in Reykjavik and a scene that I did from the Manhattan Bridge of the Brooklyn Bridge. We'll go ahead. One more thing before we go. I've already gone ahead and I have done a little bit of sketch based on some images that I found online. We're going go ahead and sit in that spot. Here we are. You can see the Brooklyn bridge. It's a little bit loud, so I've had to mute everything but I'm going to start out with my small pen and do some of the straight lines. I'm not really faithful with a ruler but sometimes I'll add those in. I'm going to add a few little details and I'm still working with that same size pen and then I'm going to later on switch to a thicker pen and a thinner pen. Here I'm doing the background, which is fuzzy so I'm going to use a thinner pen there. Again, using that thinner pen, I use that for more of the details so here I'm looking on the rocks over by the shore. I'm just making with wiggly lines, I'm not trying to draw each specific rock faithful to how it is placed on the shore but just suggesting that there are a bunch of rocks there. At this point I've gotten a good amount of my pen in. I'm going to take this pen which is almost dried out so it has a sketchy look to it and I'm going to use that for the details in the back that are blended away and then just for little details around that need to be less in focus like the bricks here on the Brooklyn Bridge. I'm also going to take this 005 pen which is my smallest and use that for the more minute details like the facade on this carousel. This size pen is also good for doing the details on the bridge. But honestly, if you're running short on time, you can gloss these over and just work on painting these parts. I had a little bit more time and I'm doing this for you guys, so I want to have more of a finished piece. But you don't need to do that if you want to do more of a suggestion that involve the metalwork that's there or even the bricks too on the side of the bridge. Here we're doing a close-up and you can see for bricks I'm just making tiny rectangles that are interlocking. I'm not doing the whole of the bridge, just spattering them around so that you get the idea that this is made out of brick. Again, another point that you need to do if you are having different surfaces like this is make sure your bricks are lining up the way that the bottom of the building is. You can see how they're diagonal so we need to make sure these are diagonal to make sure it works. We've got all the details now and I'm going to take this bigger brush pen to go around the outer edges of it to bring your eye in. I'm leaving those far-away details like the Statue of Liberty, which you really can't see that much from the actual bridge, but I'm taking my artistic license to have it be in there and just places that your eye are supposed to be drawn to or anywhere that needs to be filled in black like these window, I'm using my brush pen for that. This is nice and portable and dark. I'm moving on to painting with my palette. I'm starting out with my sky and my water because those are the backgrounds of these pieces. Just mixing up a dirty blue for my sky and just creating rough sketches of clouds and then blurring it out with my paintbrush. You can also use a paper towel for this part. But I generally just do a rough sky. I don't really do a whole wash of blue because it's not really the focus of this painting. I'll just do a little bit of suggestions of clouds and then let that speak for itself. It is important though to remember to stay within the lines for this because we will be painting over it later and since watercolors are transparent, you will be able to see how the skies blend into buildings. Next, I'm going to do the water and important thing to know about painting water is to go in the direction that it is actually flowing. If you did vertical lines here, it would ruin the effect of it being water. Water is the color of the sky that you have and water reflects the color of the sky so I'm using that same color here. I lost my sunlight filming, but I just want to talk you through a couple more details. You can see here how the buildings on the right, which aren't the focus of my piece, are like a faded-out color and that I have just gone in with a smaller brush and done the different details. We will do a little bit more when I take you to Reykjavik. We'll go ahead and do that next. Here we are in Reykjavik. I just wanted to give you a quick shot of where I'm working from. It was a really rainy day so we ducked into this bar after I'd taken the image from the top of Hallgrimskirkja, a big church in Reykjavik, of the scene I wanted to do, basically all of Reykjavik. I'm going to start by taping out my paper and I want to have a square piece so I'm cutting four equal-size pieces of the tape. I'm going to started out with my skinniest pen. I've already done the sketch based on the picture I've taken. You're making things smaller as they get away from you and I'm just going to ink in all of the tiny details first. The same thing about doing water, you have to make sure you're doing it in a horizontal motion in the way that it would be flowing, not in a vertical way or else it won't really seem like water. In here I have my three different levels of pen. I'm just going to go ahead and move up from my 005 to my one, so that I can come up where it's closer to the camera and those lines will be thicker. You can see how these lines have increased in size as they get closer to you and that creates the depth of it being more realistic. Then after I've done that, I go back in with my tiniest pen and just do all of the details. We could put colors of the roof and all of that. I start out with my brush, I've done the same sky, just sketching it in and using the same color for the ocean. Now that my water is still wet I'm just going to come in with a little bit of a darker green and dab it in so that it can create a faded out reflection of the different little houses and bushes, and then going in with all the multicolored houses. You'll be able to see that I did not recreate these faithfully. Here and there, there was that white or yellow-and-blue house in the middle that really caught my eye. But the rest of them, I just picked colors that pleased the composition rather than true to life because you couldn't really tell from the picture that I taken where each piece was. Now I'm going in with my white pen. That's a big part of doing some of my illustrations. I really like to bring out the highlights, especially in a detail piece like this, I can add a little bit more. Here we have the finished piece. You can see how I've tried to take a little bit of artistic license, but you can still tell that I have taken it from here. After we were done with this illustration, we went back to the church and it had cleared up a little bit by then and I actually took this picture about 10:00 A.M because we went in February so it's still quite dark in Iceland, but I was able to brighten it up quite nicely using Snapseed and the other apps I'd mentioned. That was a really great experience. While we were in Iceland, I did a few other pieces so here are some glaciers that we saw, as well as a waterfall, which was where I showed the clip before of it being really rainy. There was no option that talked into a bar there and this is the blue lagoon which was super magical. Definitely recommend visiting that, and a view of Hallgrimskirkja, the church that we drew the view of just from the street. 6. photographing & editing: Okay, now we're back in my studio and we are going to just take a minute to talk about taking our pictures after we've completed our own [inaudible] illustrations. So when you have your painting and your scene it can be difficult to show both in those fields, so I wanted to give you a few tips. So the first one is that you want to use the deepest depth of field that you can use. So you want to have everything in focus if possible. This is actually hard to achieve on an iPhone. I'd recommend using an app like Camera Plus where you can set it manually, but if you can't, don't beat yourself up. If the backgrounds fuzzy, that's okay, your artwork is the front-and-center focal points. So, the next thing is if you are having trouble with light, because usually those things go hand in hand, like maybe you select your painting to be focused on and then that makes the rest of your landscape really dark or blown out or anything like that. So my recommendation is to use snapseed. Snapseed is an app from Google, I believe, and they have a tool that as a brush, you can Dodge and Burn and set the exposure of very specific areas, which is great for this if you want to just do the square of your paper, and then as far as taking pictures while you're there, you want to make sure that you can take a bunch, because you want to make sure that you can take them while you're there, because chances are you're not going to be back with your painting anytime soon. So my recommendation is just to take as many as possible from all different angles, focused on different things. Change around the settings if you're using Camera Plus and you're more likely to have the perfect picture if you do it that way. 7. outro: This is the end of the class. Thank you so much for coming along with me. I hope you enjoyed learning a little bit about en plein air painting and that you've been inspired to do it yourself. I'd love to see your own work. If you post a class project or post it on social media, tag me @ekatearcher or hash tag EKateArcher on Skillshare. If you are interested in seeing more of my work, you can see my website at www.ekatearcher.com or across the Internet, Instagram, Twitter, everything @ekatearcher. I hope to see you there and I'll see you in the next class.