Doug does all of his freelance painting of landscapes, seascapes and building portraits outdoors where he can fully absorb all that is going on around him as part of his process to capture the essence of colors, values, and textures in his compositions. Though much of his subject material is from Central Coast and Southern California, Doug also paints extensively in the Chesapeake Bay area, Delaware River Valley, New England, and the Pacific Northwest.

What is it about plein-air, transparent watercolor painting that turns me on? Well, I guess I’ll have to say that when I was a kid, my Dad used to take me out watercolor painting with him, when we were on vacation down at Gibson Island on the Chesapeake Bay in MD or up in Cape Cod. He’d do a sketch and a quickie watercolor painting while I watched him. But after a while he got me some equipment so I could do some painting with him. 

When I reached the 6th grade, I began singing as a chorister for the Washington Cathedral and attended St Albans School on the Cathedral Close which offered wonderful courses in art that have provided me the skills I have needed over the years.

I did not formally take on art as a career until ten years ago, when I became 70 years old and had retired from the practice of architecture, urban planning and energy-conserving design. This was when I came across an art teacher named Hisako Asano and was introduced to the renowned plein-air painter, Henry Fukuhara. He took us out painting up in the lovely Eastern Sierra Mountains near Manzanar, CA. I was soon able to turn out some excellent work that was inspired by what I learned from being with him. I fell in love with the experience of painting outdoors, which I have now focused upon over the past decade. The joy of experiencing what you see inspires you to do your best work!

I have no place reserved specifically for painting equipment. My paint bucket with supplies, painting boards, paper, palette… my box of pigments, brushes and tools… are generally somewhere out in the open, in my office, the front hall of our home, or the trunk of my car… ready to go wherever I’m going to paint… outdoors!

I rarely do any painting at home. When I leave the site where I’ve been painting, the painting’s done. It goes straight to my photographer for a digital image and proof. Sometimes I’ll get slides made for future exhibits. But nowadays, most exhibits prefer/require digital images. And this can be problematic because I’ll later want to exhibit the work I’ve done when I’m painting and traveling out there… and I may end up having the good fortune of selling one or two of these paintings before returning home where I’d typically get them photographed. Unfortunately, when you leave a painting with the buyer, it can be a challenge recovering it to get a photographic image. So I recommend you include a proviso allowing the artist (you!) to reproduce it digitally before the painting is actually delivered to the buyer. This way you don’t have to rely on other people to take it to a photographer, or you don’t have to worry about finding a local photographer to take an image before it is sold (this has caused me all kinds of problems: No photo, no image for your files! No image, nothing to submit to exhibits; no exhibits, no awards!). Again, without a digital image of the painting, there’s no record (outside of the painting itself, of course) of what you had accomplished! (See also discussion under “Reproducing Your Artwork“.)

I view whatever studio work I’m able to accomplish as an opportunity to experiment. Since I don’t do much experimenting when I’m painting outdoors, I need to experiment indoors. In a studio situation, you can experiment with anything… new and different colors, techniques of painting, whatever… working quickly towards the completion of perhaps several paintings in the time it may take you to do but one such painting outdoors.

Outdoor painting takes more time to absorb everything that’s going on around you. None of these “distractions” occur while you’re painting indoors, particularly when the subject’s unreal (e.g., when you’re painting from a photograph or image of something).

When you’re painting outdoors, absolutely nothing’s left to your imagination. Everything’s real! The experience of being there involves ALL your senses. That’s precisely why I paint outdoors. It’s all about the “experience”: taking in everything around you!

Discovering a subject to paint is the first experience. Targeting elements of your composition is the next. Then it’s about getting comfortable: nestling into your bucket seat and allowing the sun to shine down on you. You begin to smell and hear things around you, observing how they change: the highlights, shadows, backlighting of leaves, the petals of flowers. You see how the sunlight passes through blades of grass; how shadows contrast with the brighter sunlight areas; how little twigs and branches capture the sun or shadows from their neighbors; and, how sunlight, colors and shapes of clouds are reflected on the water below. You see wind moving over the surface of the water, deep shadows among the rocks and about the earth around your feet. You see the intricate nature of plant life growing about you… and images in the distance of various colors and values. All these things are perhaps captured for an instant in a photograph, so you really don’t experience them as you would on site where they continue to evolve every moment you’re looking at them during your outdoor painting experience! That can be a challenge for some artists. They may have trouble sorting all these things out. But you have to learn how to do this is if you want to become a successful plein-air artist.

While painting outdoors, anything you do with your brush while removing pigment from palette and placing it on wet or dry paper becomes a conscious decision… and is never wrong, since the context in which you do everything always changes. What’s important is being inspired to do something at the moment! This is generally impossible in a studio. You can simulate this experience painting in a studio while listening to music… since music, like nature, can inspire you. As a matter of fact, that’s how I was taught to paint in high school. Can you imagine what might happen if you painted outdoors with music!

The clue to successful outdoor painting is being able to transmit what you see with your eyes to your hands and then your brush. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it does happen a great deal… as I mix the pigments in my palette with the particular brush I’ve selected… lift the brush and subsequently place it on the paper. Inspired by what’s going on around me, captured by every sensing mechanism… my nostrils, eyes, ears and skin… how could I ever fail to produce something of substance? Given the proper circumstances, the right time of day… adequate time to paint… you’re bound to be successful! I am! Sometimes your painting will be exceptional! Very rarely is it unacceptable. That’s why I paint outdoors! Nearly all these outdoor paintings are photographed, framed and exhibited. Not so with studio work. Some studio work may end up in an exhibit… as “successful” experiments, but nowhere as many as those that have been painted outdoors.

Douglas Stenhouse also wrote a book about watercolor painting.

“I decided to write about how I paint, not only to share my observations with others, but also, frankly, to do some self- examination. I wish I had done this earlier in my life! But then, how was I to know I’d benefit from doing so, certainly at a time when I had no aspirations of becoming a professional artist.” 

To learn more about Doug’s Watercolor Painting Book and/or purchase a signed copy, click here.

Douglas Simms Stenhouse, watercolor artist, transparent water color art, watercolor painter, painting with water colors