Your #1 source for kayaking and canoeing information.               FREE Newsletter!
my Profile
Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Eye and HandOn the Water

Practical Art for Paddlers — 
The Colors of Water

By Tamia Nelson

November 2, 2010

Many paddlers keep a journal, and some go further, embellishing their journal entries with quick pencil sketches. It's not hard to see why. A journal serves to reawaken slumbering memories. It's also a useful resource for trip planning. Sometimes pictures really are worth a thousand words. Moreover, pencils are cheap tools. But they're not perfect, are they? As we saw last month, the ordinary lead pencil has its limitations. The visible world is a many‑colored tapestry, unfolding before us as we paddle, and graphite gray frequently fails to do justice to what we see. Colored pencils are one way around this shortcoming. Yet they, too, have their limitations. They don't do a very good job of capturing the radiant brilliance of reflections in the mirror‑like surface of a mountain pool. And they're not always equal to the task of matching the smoldering intensities of autumn hills and tropical sunsets. For jobs like these, you really need watercolors. Does this sound like something for an artist's studio? It's not. While most folks associate watercolors with the work of, say, J.M.W. Turner or Winslow Homer, watercolor was also the tool of choice for many early explorers and naturalists. Though their hasty field sketches were usually redrafted for publication, you can get some idea of their scope from the journals of surgeon‑naturalist Sir John Richardson and the unfortunate midshipmen Robert Hood [Warning! PDF]. Their work documented everything from botanical discoveries to the profiles of complex arctic coastlines, and it was all done in the field, often in haste and always under less than ideal conditions.

The good news? What worked for 19th‑century explorers can work for 21st‑century canoeists and kayakers, too. As the very name suggests…

Watercolors and Paddling Go Together

If a scene has water in it, watercolors can capture it on paper. Rivers and wetlands, ponds and lakes, even fog and clouds and rain — all are natural subjects for the paddler's brush. It won't be as easy as pressing the shutter release on a digital camera, to be sure, but then paddling isn't as easy as driving a jet‑ski, is it? And just like paddling, watercolor painting is a traditional art form with a very long, and very rich, history.

Moreover, watercolors have characteristics that are shared by no other medium. They glide over the paper when brushed on, and the final image has a unique luminous quality. Unlike oils and acrylics, watercolors are transparent, or nearly so. The pigments are suspended in water, after all. When the water evaporates, only the dispersed pigment remains behind, allowing the white of the paper to shine through. In fact, you don't even need to paint much of a scene. Highlights and whites can simply be left as they are, untouched by your brush, as in this small sketch of a backlit boat on a sunlit bay:

All at Sea

Can you see the paper's rough texture? From a distance, it would be less obvious than it is on your monitor's screen. In this case, however, I deliberately exploited the coarse surface of the paper to suggest wavelets sparkling in the sun. And it worked.


Watercolors. Water. Boats. It's difficult to escape the aqueous link. But why would paddlers want to? So let's take a look at…

Some More Examples of Watercolor Sketches

The main difference between a sketch and a studio work is detail. A watercolor sketch can take only a few minutes. (Many 19th‑century explorers completed paintings in the short time it took their voyageurs to smoke a pipe of tobacco.) Of course, size matters, too. Field sketches are best kept small, no larger than the size of a sheet of copier paper. And smaller is better. Here's an example of a quick sketch of conifers on a fog‑shrouded shore:

Sentinels in the Hills

The sketch took me about 15 minutes in all, with most of that time being spent waiting for layers of paint to dry before adding more. Now here's an even smaller sketch. The original wasn't much larger than an iPhone.

The Flow in Fall

For this late‑fall shorescape, I started with an outline drawn with a crow‑quill pen in waterproof ink, then added the color washes. Another late‑autumn sketch shows the margins of a wetland. The original is only a bit larger than the shorescape above.

Autumn Marsh

This also illustrates one of the limitations inherent in working in the field. See the smear of green at the bottom? That's a byproduct of haste, not a deliberate touch. But this is a sketch, after all, not a studio work, and the adventitious blob of color doesn't obscure the lush bed of rushes in the foreground shallows.

Watercolors are a versatile medium, too. They can limn a misty hillside on the threshold of winter…

Mist on the Hills

Bring a pen‑and‑ink sketch of a high alpine meadow to life…

Climb High!

Conjure up a scene drawn from the pages of an old journal…


Or capture a moment in the life of a beaver, briefly distracted while carrying some fast food home for the kids.


You can even evoke the feel of the deep woods in a winter storm:

Snowy Woods


What about it? Are you ready to try your hand at watercolor? Then you'll need to know a bit more about…

Material Matters

Luckily, watercolor sketching doesn't require much in the way of tools and materials, and the cost needn't be high. Quality counts, though. Steer clear of the big‑box stores. Your best bet is probably a college bookstore or a specialty retailer. You'll need paints, paper, a brush or two, a palette, a drawing board, and a container for clean water. You'll also need a way to carry everything, but this doesn't have to be elaborate. A ziplock bag will do fine.

Now let's take a closer look at each element in the kit, beginning with…

Paints  Watercolors are available in two very different forms: tubes and pans. Tube colors are fluid, whereas pan colors are solid cakes of pigment. Both are mixed with water before application. Pan colors don't need protection in sub‑freezing temperatures, but they require more preparation. I prefer convenient tube colors. Watercolors also come in two grades — "student" and "artist." (You'll sometimes see colors labeled "scholastic," as well. Avoid these! They're bottom‑of‑the‑line materials, intended for school kids.) As might be expected, artist‑grade paints are top quality, yielding colors of unequalled permanence and vibrancy. Unfortunately, these virtues are reflected in the price, but lower‑cost student‑grade colors from reputable firms — I use Windsor & Newton's Cotman colors — are fine for field work. In fact, most of the sketches reproduced in this article were executed with student‑grade paints.

Next to cost, the greatest hurdle for beginners anxious to fill their palettes is the extraordinary profligacy of named colors. Luckily, though, you do not need one of each. A handful of basic colors and an understanding of color‑blending will see you through all but the most ambitious projects.

Color My World

Paper  Watercolor paper is nothing like the stuff you put in your printer. It's very special paper, indeed. You can buy it in single large sheets — which you then cut into smaller rectangles — or precut, in glued‑up blocks. Papers are also distinguished by texture — ranging from smooth, or "hot‑pressed," to medium ("cold‑pressed"), to rough — and by weight. The heavier the weight, the thicker and more absorbent the paper, and the better it is for framing and hanging. There are probably whole books written about watercolor papers, but I'll cut to the chase here: I get by nicely with Arches‑brand 140‑pound paper, both hot‑pressed and cold‑pressed, in seven‑by‑10‑inch blocks. (Since blocks are glued together on all four sides, the block functions as a sort of easel. You can paint right on the top sheet, and then free it by sliding a knife around the edge.)

Brushes  You'll need brushes made specifically for watercolor painting. Crafted from either natural or synthetic bristles, these can be had in a range of sizes and profiles (round or flat), with the choice determined by the size of your painting and your technique. For field sketches and other small work, I use only two brushes: a round #10 sable and a half‑inch flat synthetic.

Palette  You'll also need a surface on which to mix paints. There are folding palettes specially made for travelers, but I just use a white plastic dinner plate. (Why white? Because it makes blending paints to match a color easy.) To keep any residual pigment from staining the contents of my pack, my plate‑palette travels in a second ziplock bag.

Drawing Board  If you use single sheets of paper rather than a block, you'll need a rigid work surface. I use a small bamboo cutting board as a drawing board, and I've used it for painting, too. But I recently discovered a better alternative in the Kitchen Supplies section of my local Walmart: a poly cutting board. While I'll stick by my earlier advice to leave big‑box stores' paints and brushes on the shelf, art supplies are where you find 'em!

Water Flask  Nothing special is needed here. Just make sure your chosen container is both unbreakable and unlikely to tip over, and that it has a wide mouth and a tight‑fitting lid. It should hold a cup or two of clean water. You'll dip your brushes into the flask to lift the water needed for mixing colors, and you'll also swish brushes around in it to clean them. Since these two functions are more or less at odds, fastidious painters use two containers, one for mixing and one for cleaning. I get by with a single flask, but I replace the water whenever it starts to look muddy. I never empty my flask into a stream or lake, however. Many colors contain small amounts of heavy metals, and traces of these poisonous substances will remain in your cleaning water. Either pack this dirty water out or decant your flask into a shallow hole at least 150 feet from the nearest waterway, backfilling the hole afterward. Don't get into the habit of licking brushes to point them, either, and don't use your painting flask as a water bottle.


It takes practice to learn the art of watercolor sketching, of course. It's no harder than learning to run whitewater, but you'll need some instruction at the start. Are you keen to follow in the wake of Hood and Richardson? Then you'll want to… A Scribbler's Feast

Hit the Shelves

I took a college course in watercolor painting. It wasn't a success. So I taught myself, instead. But I didn't have to do it alone. I found plenty of help on the shelves of the library. And you don't need to go to a university center. The little library in the crossroads hamlet where I live has no less than three feet of shelf space devoted to watercolor painting. Here are some of the titles I've found most useful:

Basic Watercolor Answer Book, by Catherine Anderson.  The title says it all. If I had to choose only one book on watercolor painting, this would be it. Better still, Anderson offers plenty of tips for working outdoors and on the move.

Landscape Painting in Watercolor, by Zoltan Szabo.  This is just one of Szabo's many excellent books on watercolor technique. It's a step‑by‑step guide that starts right at the beginning with an in‑depth discussion of materials and colors, then carries on from there.

The Big Book of Painting Nature in Watercolor, by Ferdinand Petrie.  After 30 pages or so devoted to the basics, Petrie focuses on specific challenges, from trees to clouds. His book is a valuable reference.

How to Make a Painting, by Irving Shapiro.  Although he was a studio artist, whose careful work is poles apart from my hasty field sketches, Shapiro's use of color and form — and in particular, his method of painting water scenes — has me grabbing this book down from the shelf again and again.

Reflections on Water, by Ettore Maiotti.  What paddler could fail to be intrigued by that title? And there's a lot to be found in this thin volume. Of special interest is Maiotti's knack for doing a great deal with very little. Some of his paintings use only three colors. And he even shows you how to mix your own pigments from scratch!




The paddler's world is much more than a portrait in gray and black. It's alive with color. Of course, adding color to your trip journal can be as simple as carrying a few colored pencils. But why stop there? Watercolor is a traditional backcountry art, with roots that go as deep as canoeing itself. And it's a natural for modern‑day voyageurs. Interested? Then give it a try. There's magic in gliding waterborne pigment across paper, after all — the magic of water.

OK. What's on the schedule for the next "Eye and Hand"? Connections, that's what. I'll be looking at the many ways that field sketching and photography can complement one another. Till then, though, why not check out a few books on watercolor from your local library and try your hand? And if you have any sketches or paintings you'd like to share, just send me photos of your work. I'd love to see them.

Copyright © 2010 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

Sponsored Ad:
Follow us on:
Free Newsletter | About Us | Site Map | Advertising Info | Contact Us


©2015 Inc.