4 Tips for Sketching Watercolor Landscapes On Location

“These places I paint, I know them intimately,” says Thomas McNickle of the tranquil surroundings located just minutes from his Pennsylvania home. “Even as a little child, I had two overwhelming interests in life: one was art, and the other was nature. When I started painting, it seemed totally natural that I’d paint watercolor landscapes of the places that I love—the fields and marshes that I’ve been surrounded by since I was young.”

He shares some sketching techniques here. Read more about Thomas McNickle in the October 2016 issue of Watercolor Artist (now available in print here and as a download here).

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4 tips for Sketching Watercolor Landscapes On Location:

1. Soak in the scene before starting.

“When you’re confronted by the beauty of nature, it’s overwhelming. Just stand there and soak it in for a while,” he suggests. “In your mind, you’ll begin to simplify the scene into color, shape and form.”

Thomas McNickle’s sumi ink study | watercolor landscapes

McNickle used sumi ink for these 3×4-inch studies.

2. Forget names.

“If an Englishman, a Frenchman and a German were all painting side by side and none of them knew each other’s language, the words they had for things would mean nothing. They’d each just be painting their interpretation of the color and the form and the light on those things,” says McNickle. “If you focus on painting a ‘tree,’ your brain takes over, wanting trillions of branches and leaves. You get involved in all the wrong things instead of concentrating on the big picture—the essence of the scene.”

Thomas McNickle’s sumi ink study 2 | watercolor landscapes

“Sketching is almost like calligraphy to me,” he says, adding that the practice is a time for establishing light with just three values (light, mid-tone and dark) and capturing critical elements in as few strokes as possible.

 

3. Work quickly.

McNickle might spend just a few minutes on a location sketch, up to half an hour. “If you include too much detail in your sketch, you start to lose what your primary motivation was,” he warns. “That’s very easy to do outside, if you work too slowly.”

Thomas McNickle’s thumbnail color study | watercolor landscapes

Thumbnail color study

 

4. Don’t chase the light.

“Establish the light in your sketch as quickly as you can—in as few strokes and with as few colors as you can—and then work on the structure of the image,” McNickle says. “If the light changes and you see something else interesting happening, don’t go chasing after that effect, because then pretty soon you’ll have to reconcile the rest of your image to the new light.” Stay true to the light effects that captured your imagination in the first place and follow them through to the end.

Thomas McNickle’s color study | watercolor landscapes

This 10×14-inch color study and the thumbnail version above depict the same subject. “The first things that draw me to a scene are color and light—they’re opposite sides of the same coin,” McNickle says. “The color is created by the quality of light on that particular day and the atmosphere.”

 

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