GUEST ARTIST: Plein Air Painting vs. The Studio

Doodlewash - Studio Watercolor Painting by Jem Bowden of King Street in the morning

Hi, I’m Jem Bowden (you can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or my blog). I am a watercolour tutor and landscape painter, and have recently turned ‘full time’ in this capacity. It took me a long time to realise that this is what my life should be about, and ‘getting here’ is something I think I’ll always be working on!

Doodlewash - Plein Air Watercolor Painting by Jem Bowden of corner of Lacock

En Plein Air

I was brought up in countryside close to Bristol, UK, and now live on the edge of the same city. Perhaps because of my rural upbringing, I hope one day to live closer to a ‘wild’ place, ideally by the coast somewhere, quite calm and peaceful with fresh walks of sea air… not an unusual dream.

En Plein Air

I love being out in the landscape soaking up the whole environment.  While enjoying summer I am now looking forward to being reminded of the forces of nature (and landscape scenes) that Autumn and Winter have in store for us.  I think I paint – and paint landscapes – only because I feel so inspired by the aesthetics and power of nature (and particularly the sky) that I have to ‘do something about it’.

Doodlewash - Plein Air Watercolor Painting by Jem Bowden of sandy beach

En Plein Air

I suppose I’ve always had the ‘creative’ urge; in childhood I drew all sorts, until I saw a JMW Turner exhibition at age 10, which then switched me on to the idea of painting the landscape.  At this age, I also wrote illustrated stories and created things out of fabric and wood. Later I became a musician for 20 years, which I then quit entirely to concentrate properly on painting.  To me it is all just creativity, which seems to give my life a purpose.

Painting outdoors is what I enjoy most, and what makes me feel properly alive!
While grass seed or insects land in my palette or on me, and the light changes or the wind takes the easel away. At the end of the day it all feels marvellous. All the while you get glimpses and little insights into nature, which feels like a privilege to witness. The focused observation of it all seems to heighten awareness of the senses, so every moment feels properly ‘lived’.

Doodlewash - Plein Air Watercolor Painting by Jem Bowden of Appledore boats at low tide

En Plein Air

Being outdoors keeps me feeling in touch with the world, in a way beyond our sometimes petty human concerns.  The fact that I set up an easel and attempt to paint the beauty of it is, I think, just a by-product.  The joy of ‘plein air’ (pronounce it how you like – I’m trying to invent a new way) is that it brings me into direct contact with the subject – the inspiration itself.  In the studio, I can really miss this, to the point at times of almost losing the pleasure of painting.

I also like the challenge of producing an interpretation, speedily – as outdoor painting tends to encourage – that I hope when I look at it away from the scene, it will feel like an authentic and evocative visual version of my experience.  It always seems against the odds, and indeed many of my plein air efforts fall short of this, and yet that is fine with me.  After all, why should it be possible at all to capture on paper something that is probably indescribable in words?

Doodlewash - Plein Air Watercolor Painting by Jem Bowden of water and buildings

En Plein Air

I don’t have a car so I do a lot of walking with maps after a bus or train ride, with a hiker’s style backpack containing my painting gear. A couple of years ago, I was fortunate to be invited to join a painters group, based around a core of friends. This has been a privilege too, with the added benefit of car lifts out to more remote places.  Painting out with a group provides a different, social aspect to plein air painting, which is fun and valuable in many ways.  Inspiration and ideas can be gleaned from watching how other painters work, plus it is nice having someone to share the ‘fun’ with when sheltering under a tree from a sudden downpour.


This is probably what I am doing, in general, when painting outdoors.  Sketching is a funny term, with different meanings to different people.  I guess I’m just using a palette of colours and some brushes where others may use just a pencil, or whatever else. To my eyes, watercolour can often be at its best when used quite spontaneously and with a direct approach that has a degree of all-or-nothing about it.   Not only do I like this way of working, but I often prefer other artists’ ‘sketches’ to their more ‘finished’ work.  There’s often some essential vitality, or the inspiration itself which is more evident in the former than the latter, and for me this is a big part of what makes successful art.

Doodlewash - Plein Air Watercolor Painting by Jem Bowden of boats and sea at Walberswick, Suffolk

En Plein Air

I’ve never felt inspired to ‘work up’ plein air painting into studio ones. To me they stand alone as the finished article. They are about what the watercolours and I did there and then, under the influences of the moment.  There’s something almost magical about it to me, which I don’t want to meddle with, so I’ve learned to accept their imperfections and happily leave them alone.  I like that honesty and again, I’ve always liked to see human fallibility in the work of other artists because being human is an essential part of being an artist!

The Studio

In the dark cold times of winter the studio comes into its own.  It is a different ‘discipline’ altogether for me, and relies on a different motivation and different inspiration to working directly from the subject.  In fact it is a lot less ABOUT the subject directly, and a lot more about the medium itself and the ways of handling it.  I find this time in the studio is also about reflection, reviewing, note-making, task-setting and sometimes soul-searching.  Also, I do more teaching and visiting art groups during this period of the year, all of which is rewarding and beneficial to one’s own painting practice.

Doodlewash - Studio Watercolor Painting by Jem Bowden of Cley Norfolk after downpour

In The Studio

In the studio I work, as a subject basis, from the thousands of photos I take during the course of a year. There needs to be a good memory link to the moment and place, to feel that inspiring connection again that made me want to take that scene away with me.  From that point though, much will get changed as the creative process begins, amending composition, simplifying, enhancing or changing the atmosphere, etc.  Interpretation, in other words.

Doodlewash - Studio Watercolor Painting by Jem Bowden of boat and water

In The Studio

The studio also presents a great opportunity to become more experimental again, which I think is always a very healthy and wise move for any artist, but one which, for me, can take some discipline at the beginning to get into.  Once I’m there, I find it can really take off, and I’m getting out of bed ridiculously early in the morning to try out an idea that has kept me from sleeping.

I do love painting the sky.  If I get stuck, I sometimes just paint a quick sky with abandon, and it can get me back into the swing.  Taking this as an example of something for studio experimentation, consider the ways you can try to differ the approach…

Doodlewash - Studio Watercolor Painting by Jem Bowden of malling down

In The Studio

Put in the clouds first, or put in the ‘blue sky’ first, try working with the board vertical, try working flatter, wet the paper in some places first, or don’t, use a huge brush, use a rigger, use a couple of new colours, try painting it all very pale, or darker than usual, try using some spatter, or deliberate run-backs, try using more vertical brushstrokes than usual, or only horizontal, try starting in the middle and working out, try mixing all the paint as you go, or mixing them all up ready first…

Try working at a completely different scale to your usual, try getting it done inside one minute, try doing the whole thing in 8 separate sections allowing drying between, try a different paper that allows glazing better and layer it up accordingly, try an absorbent paper and doing it in one wash, try varying your ‘attitude’ half way – painting the first half with real care and the second half with real abandon… There are millions of variables – not to mention that there are endless different types of sky!

Doodlewash - Studio Watercolor Painting by Jem Bowden of St. Paul's in the snow, Bristol

In The Studio

At the end of winter, I’m always raring to get back outside to my real ‘muse’. But I always find the indoor explorations under the lightbulbs of winter will have produced some steps forward in technique, and some new objectives, which can all help improve the interpretations to come in the year ahead.

Jem Bowden

Join Us In Our World Watercolor Group on Facebook! Click Here!

Recommended3 recommendationsPublished in Featured Artists
  1. Art-Chap-Enjoin 6 years ago

    Fantastic paintings and I totally agree with the “En Plein Air” approach – drawing from life really shows vitality. A few of these scenes look familiar – I spend many years living in Bath, not so far from Bristol.

    • Jem Bowden 6 years ago

      Thank you! I’m pleased you agree. By the way, I live on the road that joins Bath to Bristol, just on the edge of the city (Bristol). I’d rather be on the edge of Bath, but there you go!

  2. Melissa Elliott 6 years ago

    Your paintings are wonderful. The looseness with which you nevertheless accurately capture the scene is something to which I aspire–I feel my painting is always so careful. Your skies are particularly lovely, and I really appreciated hearing about how you try different methods (and all the ones you try!) to arrive there. Thanks for this.

    • Jem Bowden 6 years ago

      Thank you Melissa. I think when it comes to ‘loosening’ up yet keeping accuracy quite a lot has to do with a sound drawing underneath it all. Then squinting to reduce things to essentials… Try chucking the paint on once you’ve got the drawing done carefully. You need to be brave, and not precious about the result. Enjoy the process!
      Get the tonal values right (as per squinting) and don’t worry about matching colours at all. See how that goes!

  3. creatingincolors 6 years ago

    Your paintings are beautiful. And you pulled me in with your thoughts about being outdoors, landscapes, the coast, quiet, calm, peaceful and fresh air. Yes, I’ll be following your blog!

    • Jem Bowden 6 years ago

      Thank you so much!
      I’m very pleased to have had that effect. I do tend to go on a bit about the beauty of the landscape, nature, wildlife…. If it all gets too much you can always unsubscribe!! Cheers.

  4. How incredibly beautiful. I love the pale, calm colors you use. Wonderful work!

    • Jem Bowden 6 years ago

      Thank you very much! I suppose I don’t really go for the brightest of colours. Galleries have told me they’re not colourful enough! I use a fairly minimal palette of about 6 – 8 colours usually. Best wishes, Jem

      • I love how subdued they are. It almost looks as though it’s just finished raining. Really lovely. 🙂

  5. memadtwo 6 years ago

    Wonderful skies! (K)

  6. Teri C 6 years ago

    Very beautiful paintings and wise words on creativity.

    • Jem Bowden 6 years ago

      Thank you very much, Teri! Very pleased you liked the post.

  7. Susan Feniak 6 years ago

    Beautiful art! I am following you on Facebook Jem. And look forward to seeing and reading more about your art. Thank you for sharing this Charlie.

  8. Sharon Bonin-Pratt 6 years ago

    Jem, I enjoyed reading your story, and your paintings are a joy to see – full of expression and life. Thanks for the suggestions about how to capture landscape but still be true to the independence of watercolor.

  9. Jem Bowden 6 years ago

    Thank you Sharon!

  10. E. Bancroft 6 years ago

    Absolutely beautiful work, Jem (and a cool name to boot!). I was gazing up at our cloudy Vancouver sky this morning and wondering how it could be painted — because it was just like your third image under the Studio heading, all dark underneath and glowing white around the edges. You have rendered it so beautifully! I’m so happy to have discovered your work and have subscribed to your blog.

    • Jem Bowden 6 years ago

      Thank you very much E! And thanks for subscribing to my blog, hope it doesn’t disappoint. Pleased you think my name is cool – it’s not what I’ve thought myself all my life!

  11. Phil Cooper 6 years ago

    Gosh, masterful and beautiful work Jem, congrats, they’re absolutely lovely.

  12. dianegklock 6 years ago

    Wonderful to see you on here Jem , I enjoyed reading this piece and also love plein air painting . I liked your description about painting a sketch , a very good description . I was so excited to see the painting you chose under sketching as it is hanging in the inspiration corner of my studio . Well done article , wishing you all the best.

    • Jem Bowden 6 years ago

      Hi Diane! Well, it’s funny, when I painted that Walberswick painting (and for a while after) I thought it was a failure. Often the way, to be honest. But it went down quite well on my blog/FB and then you bought it! I’ve never painted the scene again, although I have some photos that I took at the time. I haven’t been inspired to, being there was so much better. The light in that painting didn’t last v long before rain showers took over and I had to shelter under one of those huts half way through. I was on holiday with my other half, so went out at about 7.30 am to get it done before breakfast so as not to be unsociable. As is often the case I think the subject here was so good, and the composition does a lot of the work. All I had to do was not mess it all up too badly! All the best, Jem

      • dianegklock 6 years ago

        Lol! I had no idea this was Walberswick , I must have missed that. Walberswick is on my list of places to paint one day. I have looked at so many books on Edward Wesson and watch so many DVDs showing beautiful places in the UK , they are all on my to paint list. Enjoy the charming countryside that surrounds you. Hi to your buddy Steve Hall . All the best, Diane

    • Jem Bowden 6 years ago

      Thanks again Diane. I’ll pass on your greeting to Steve.

  13. SHARON HASCHALK 6 years ago

    I just happened to find your blog Jem. I love your loose, free style. Your paintings almost make me feel like I’m transported to the places you’ve painted. I need to remember the advice you gave above about getting down your drawing first and then squinting to get the tonal values. I’ll have to try and remember this! Thanks Jem for sharing your wonderful talent, wisdom and advice.

    • Jem Bowden 6 years ago

      Hi Sharon. Thank you very much for getting in touch. That’s a lovely compliment! I’m very grateful to Doodlewash for featuring me here. Good luck !

  14. Jodi 6 years ago

    Oh jem. I’m in love with your work. Thanks for the intro Charlie!

    • Jem Bowden 6 years ago

      Jodi, thank you so much… I’m lucky to be here on Doodlewash. All the best, Jem

  15. Shari Blaukopf 6 years ago

    Beautiful work Jem. Glad to get to know it here!

    • Jem Bowden 6 years ago

      Thank you very much, Shari! I’m grateful to have my work shared here. All the best, Jem

  16. Love your style! And the light in your works.

    • Jem Bowden 6 years ago

      Thank you very much, Robert!
      Light in watercolour is not so tricky as people often make it. I think it’s about using the full range of tone/value.
      Very, very pale washes and very dark paint, when required, and not obliterating the white of the paper. Mid-tones are too often over-used. All the best, Jem

  17. Firman Lubis 6 years ago

    Love your works. They’re awesome and so “alive” with the atmosphere you capture.
    Very agree with your words about the necessity to exploring new style or new color pallete, etc. Very inspiring to me. I hope it does to anybody else too.

    Thank you for sharing.
    Best regards from Indonesia.

  18. Jem Bowden 6 years ago

    Thank you very much, Firman. That’s a great compliment, as atmosphere is so important to me, as is ‘life’ in a painting. I wish you all the best in your explorations! Jem

  19. randiloudoan 6 years ago

    Love your paintings and also what you have to say about them and yourself. Well done, lad. My two favorites are the beach scene and the one that looks like and expansive view over farmland into the horizon. Lovely.

  20. […] – Oh, almost forgot – I’m fortunate to have been featured this week as a ‘guest blogger’ on Doodlewash ( where I discuss the subject of ‘Plein air vs. The Studio’. Here’s a link to the page: GUEST DOODLEWASH: Plein Air Painting vs. The Studio […]

  21. coyotespirit 6 years ago

    Jem, love your work…it has a simple style and yet speaks volumes…very provocative. Also, great article…inspired my butt yesterday 🙂

    • Jem Bowden 6 years ago

      Thanks very much, Coyotespirit. Those are great compliments. All the best, Jem

  22. Love it all Jem! indeed, outdoors is great fun! yesterday I did have a bad outdoor day, but I was happy with the result! that is what counts! When you stay indoors you keep sticking in solving solutions the same way over and over again, while you are out of doors, you must reinvent it every time, so you get better every watercolour!
    That is why I love the music of Mick Hucknall, he sings live even better than
    studio takes!!

    • Jem Bowden 6 years ago

      Hi Edo – Thanks again for checking out my post.
      What you say here is very interesting. You had a bad day, but were happy with the result. That is unusual for me, as even a good day – enjoying the painting and everything else – can often lead to a not very successful result!
      For me I think it is enjoying the process that is what matters most, otherwise I’d probably have quit long ago!
      All the best, Jem

  23. Mary Roff 5 years ago

    Love your paintings! Each one has a wonderful energy.

    • Jem Bowden 5 years ago

      Thank you very much, Mary. Energy in painting is very important to me.

Leave Me A Comment!

©2015-2023 Doodlewash®  Privacy Policy | Terms Of Use | Disclosure  Powered By


Want to say hi and connect? Do you make lovely things with watercolor and want to be featured in the next Guest Artist post?! Great! Not sure, just feel the need to say something? Awesome! Just fill out the form below!


Log in with your credentials


Forgot your details?


Create Account

%d bloggers like this: