10 Tips for Planning a Plein Air Painting: Watercolor Toolbox Tips III with Georgia Mansur

Hey its Georgia Mansur again, here to break down some of the steps of my watercolour practice like I promised in my last article, “Plein Air Like a Pro”, for my watercolour toolbox tips.
I will demonstrate for you so you can see inside the technical aspects of this incredibly exciting medium, watercolour!

Here are some of the guiding principles to keep in mind when working in watercolour. The first 15 mins of your painting are critical to get the relationships right ~ make a plan and stick to it for the light and shadow patterns as the light will continue to change if you are painting outdoors ~ don’t try to chase the light or you will never finish!

1. Plan to save your whites/lights
2. Paint light to dark
3. Paint background, middle ground to foreground
4. Paint top to bottom
5. Paint broad to detail using the largest brush possible for as long as possible

These are not absolute rules and can be adjusted to suit your situation and subject, but this is just one way to get started and guide you through the painting process with a plan and a purpose.

Planning is particularly critical to watercolour as there is a limited window of opportunity to work whilst the painting is active.

What do I mean by ‘planning’?

1. Be clear about what attracted you to your subject – if you can articulate your focus and what you want to express at this stage, you are way ahead of the game! i.e. ‘I love the way the light is reflecting golden light on the water’. Write it down next to your painting to remind you if that helps.

2. Division of space is how we tell our story.
We can make some executive decisions now that are very important to express ourselves and ‘tell our story’. Questions to ask yourself:
1. Is this painting more about the earth or the sky?
2. Is it a low horizon or a high horizon?
3. Where is your focal point?
4. Where is your light source coming from?
5. Is it warm or cool light?
6. Find your lights and leave them ‘open’!
7. Save any whites you want now for later.

3. Look for the four planes of light. Not always, but often the
1. SKY PLANE is the lightest value.
2. GROUND PLANE is a bit darker.
3. SLANTED PLANE is darker again (think hills).
4. VERTICAL PLANE is darkest (trees).

Four planes of light value sketch. Georgia Mansur

Four planes of light value sketch

4. Now comes one of the most important parts: SIMPLIFYING
How to simplify when everything looks so complicated?

Break everything up into SHAPES and VALUES.
Find your darks by squinting your eyes ~ this effectively blocks out anything that you can’t see through your eyelashes, meaning if you can’t see it when you are squinting, don’t put it in like it’s a detail even if you know its there. It’s tempting, I know ~ but we must resist that urge to get too specific just yet and focus on massing your darks together in large shapes and values.

Identify your dark and light spaces, positive and negative space

Identify your dark and light spaces, positive and negative space

Identify your dark and light shapes and the division of positive and negative space. This is key to creating the structure for your painting and an appropriate division of space.
Vary your shapes so it’s not boring ~ variety is the spice of life and you are the designer here! Create a few interesting shapes and patterns but not too many or it will not achieve the simplification you are after.

Cross physical boundaries of objects, linking the object to its shadow. Try not to focus on the name of the shape, rather think of it as a DARK, MID-TONE or LIGHT shape or else your verbal/logical brain will want to take control. Naming it ‘tree’ or ‘house’ etc. prevents you from getting those critical connections and relationships correct in the spatial/right brain and prevents you from seeing the abstract patterns and values.

There are several ways to make this process easier.
SIMPLIFY YOUR SUBJECT INTO LIGHT, MID-TONE AND DARK SHAPES. In the studio I use sheet protectors and print out a colour and black and white version to see this and in the field I create a 2 or 3 value thumbnail sketch in your sketchbook that will be the ‘map’ for the territory you are going to paint!

Value thumbnail sketch in sketchbook. Georgia Mansur

Value thumbnail sketch in sketchbook.

5. I use my red lens glasses or phone camera to see the light and dark patterns preventing being confused by colour. The red filter knocks out colour and you just see values~ making it easier to see the light, mid-tone and dark shapes into which you will break it down to simplify.

Red lens glasses and red filtered landscape to see values

Red lens glasses and red filtered landscape to see values

If the key to real estates is ‘location, location, location’, the key to watercolour is ‘value, value, value’. Most watercolours that are not working have an issue with incorrect values. Make sure you can clearly identify at least 3 tonal values~ LIGHT, MID-TONE & DARK.

Don’t skip this part as I feel it is the most important step to set up your painting for success ~ getting proper shapes and values creates the structure and framework that will hold your painting together. Once you get this right you can relax into the spontaneity of the delicious flow of the medium, but your planning will make this so much easier!

6. Use the ‘rule of thirds’ to create a compelling composition by design ~
1/3 to 2/3 ratios of dominance:
1. Light to Dark
2. Warm to Cool
3. Sky to Earth
4. Positive to Negative
5. Bold to Soft
6. Active to Passive areas, etc.
The key is not to have two equal halves of anything because then it is confusing to your viewer which part is more ‘important’. By choosing this dominance ratio, you are telling your viewer what you think is more important and giving a clear message about what you want to communicate with your painting.

7. Design for maximum impact by exaggerating, manipulating and editing.
Use these tools to create an ‘eye pathway’, leading the viewer in and through your work. Check for design flaws or design errors in this early stage by viewing through your camera viewfinder to gain objectivity and see if it’s working as a whole.

 Loose, light pencil sketch. Georgia Mansur

Loose, light pencil sketch.

8. Sketch it out with a loose drawing using a light touch with a pencil on your paper. Hold your pencil loosely to avoid tightening up too quickly. Get the skeleton down so you can add the flesh and bones with watercolour. Do not waste time obsessing about the details at this stage unless it is critical to your design. You can draw in paint and it will remain more fluid and free. Get the main shape structure right and you can worry about the details at the very end…. i.e. bake the cake before you put on the frosting!

9. Colour. When choosing colours I recommend using a limited palette (see my Georgia Mansur DANIEL SMITH Watercolor Palette further below). As your colour understanding increases, you can add more colours and experiment with different ones but remember this important fact: using the same group of colours creates colour harmony in your painting. The most important thing I recommend is to lay out your colours with warm on one side and cool on the other. That way you will understand the temperature of your mixes and it will be easier to ‘warm up’ or ‘cool down’ your painting. I remember this by saying warm colours are like the sun and have a yellow base and cool colours have a cool base like the ocean.

Choosing warm colors for the painting. Georgia Mansur

Choosing warm colors for the painting.

I like to lay out my colours according to the colour wheel in a circular palette so it very clear which colours are opposite each other on the colour wheel and teaches you how to mix complementary colours to make harmonious neutrals that make your paintings sing!

*Another important point is to remember that watercolour generally dries a couple tones lighter than when it is wet and juicy so allow for this and make your darks darker than you think to compensate.

Keep it simple until you understand colour mixing more thoroughly. If your values are correct, the colours will work. Like in LIFE, if you get your values right,…the rest is easy!

10. Paint from your heart ~ express how the scene makes you feel rather than worry about technical brilliance. I usually do my paintings in three passes or washes. Build up your washes in layers with the first pass saving whites and putting in the higher key/lighter values [ Photos 1 – 2 ]. The second pass establishes form and value [ Photos 3 – 4].

Painting a golden landscape beginning with a wash. Georgia Mansur

Photo 1. Painting a golden landscape beginning with a wash.

First pass saving whites and putting in the higher key/lighter values. Georgia Mansur

Photo 2. First pass saving whites and putting in the higher key/lighter values.

The second pass establishes form and value. Georgia Mansur

Photo 3. The second pass establishes form and value.

Painting a golden landscape. Georgia Mansur

Photo 4.

 The third pass is where...fine- tuning whatever you want to make those details. Georgia Mansur

Photo 5. The third pass is…fine-tuning whatever you want to make those details

The third pass is where you can really go to town tweaking and fine-tuning whatever you want to make those details that make this painting speak your language and fully express YOU! This is the time to add those final details ~ the calligraphic touches and interesting flourishes that lead the viewer to your focal point, leaving them with a clear expression of your idea.
Just remember what I talked about in my last article in: “MY PROCESS”.

Stage 1 is Planning (composing, getting my underpainting on whilst saving my whites)
Stage 2 focuses on Values (structure and mood through colour and temperature)
Stage 3 is about Fine Tuning (details, unifying and pulling it all together)

One thing that I think many beginners don’t quite understand is the importance of the consistency of paint to water ratio. 
Here is my general rule of thumb.

Stage 1 = First wash is coffee or tea consistency with a fair bit of water
Stage 2 = I use a creamy consistency, less water and more paint (wet onto damp gives soft edges)
Stage 3 = I use paint straight out of the tube for the final accents ~ Vegemite, Nutella or Peanut Butter consistency depending on which country I am teaching! (wet into dry gives crisp edges for man-made objects and important details)

In stage 3, I am looking to make sure it is reading the light and points of interest leading the eye effectively and most importantly, making sure my focal point is the star of the show.

Loading your brush properly and controlling the ratio of wetness to dryness takes a bit of practice but, you can control the amount of water by using your sponge to offload some of the moisture. Try to make sure you are not starting with a brush already half loaded with water after rinsing it or else you won’t get the consistency you need and will be struggling with a lot of cauliflower blooms on your painting!

A few more things which I feel are important: Step back from your work often (one of the reasons I like to stand) to be sure you are working the painting holistically and not simply ‘objects in isolation’. Work the whole painting so it develops at each stage in a balanced way.

Keep reminding yourself of your original idea and make confident strokes that support that intention. Avoid ‘cat-licking’ strokes that make a muddy mess. Stop before you think you might be finished (say 80%) to reassess and ask good decisions to finish it off. Do not overwork your painting. It is better to leave it with a few ‘not perfect’ strokes that are fresh and expressive than to flog it to death! Trust me on this. I have flogged plenty and they are like ghosts that haunt me under my bed….
And now, the most important tip and most difficult step of all….
tools down….step away from the painting!

Golden Landscape by Georgia Mansur

Golden Landscape by Georgia Mansur

The biggest secret tip I can give you is to know when to quit.


Please click to read Georgia’s previous Toolbox Tips:
Toolbox Tips I: Toolbox Tips with Georgia Mansur: Watercolor Supplies and Workspace Setup for Successful Painting.
Toolbox Tips II: Plein Air Like a Pro: Watercolor Toolbox Tips with Georgia Mansur

About Georgia
Georgia MansurGeorgia Mansur is active in the Cultural Community in Australia and Overseas, including:
• AGRA (Australian Guild of Realist Artists)
• ADFAS (Australian Decorative and Fine Arts)
• CAC (California Art Club)
• IPAP (International Plein Air Painters)
• LPAPA (Laguna Plein Air Painters Assoc.)
• NWS (National Watercolor Society)
• CWA (California Watercolor Assoc.),
• AWS American Watercolor Society,
• AIS American Impressionist Society.
Georgia was a featured water media presenter and faculty member at the Plein Air Convention in Monterey, California and is one of the top 100 watermedia artists featured in North Light Book’s ‘SPLASH 15’. She is a respected watercolor artist and popular instructor worldwide. Please visit her website and blog or email directly for info on upcoming workshops and events.
Website: GeorgiaMansur.com
Website/Workshops: GeorgiaMansur.com/Workshops
Blog: Passport2Paint.com
Facbook page: GeorgiaMansurArtist

Why I love DANIEL SMITH Watercolors
“Using DANIEL SMITH watercolor has opened up exciting new creative possibilities—the Quinacridones and Iridescents offer new options for creating with sparkling effects. The high quality pure pigment loads ensure that I get delicious darks and juicy vibrancy in my work.”
—Georgia Mansur

Georgia Mansur’s DANIEL SMITH Watercolor Palette:

Georgia Mansur's DANIEL SMITH Watercolor Dot CardAlizarin Crimson
Lemon Yellow
Cadmium Red Medium Hue
Cadmium Yellow Deep Hue
Carbazole Violet
Cobalt Blue
French Ultramarine
Indanthrone Blue
Neutral Tint
Opera Pink
Phthalo Turquoise
Quinacridone Gold
Quinacridone Magenta
Raw Umber
Transparent Red Oxide





Georgia Mansur in her studio

Georgia Mansur in her studio