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52 October-November 2012 / www.pleinairmagazine.

hether sitting on a park bench in Paris, balanc-
ing supplies on a sloping sidewalk in San
Francisco, or dodging trafc in Rome, Michael
Reardon can use his drawing and painting supplies to
create confdent, expressive, glowing paintings of what he
observes. In two hours or less of organized, focused efort,
he is able to sketch and paint long vertical watercolors. But
as easy as he makes it all seem, it took the California artist
and architect years to learn what will and will not work
when painting on location.
I frst tried painting with watercolors while I was in
college, and the results were disastrous, Reardon remem-
bers. I might not have used the medium ever again were
it not for the fact that in 1985 I saw an exhibition of John
Singer Sargents watercolors. I was so captivated by the
paintings I knew I had to try the medium again. Te frst
few paintings I attempted after that were as bad as my
college watercolors, but I kept at it. Later, I attended work-
shops with Jeanne Dobie and Charles Reid. Tey were
instrumental in showing me how to paint.
Te mistakes Reardon made during those initial at-
tempts were the same ones that cause many other artists to
abandon watercolor. He was layering multiple washes of
pigments in the same way one would build up oils, acryl-
ics, or pastels, and he was overworking the dark values.
As a consequence, the colors were dull and muddy and
the dark passages looked like holes cut through the paper.
What he learned from Dobie, Reid, and other artists was
that the keys to success with watercolors are planning and
restraint. Planning helps in making marks that are precise
and well balanced, and restraint allows the artist to take
advantage of the mediums natural characteristics.
Reardon developed his own approach while respect-
ing Dobies advice to use a few tube colors that perform
well together and Reids recommendations for keeping
watercolors fresh and fuid. Jeanne was insistent about us-
ing specifc pigment combinations, he says, and whether
one replicated her palette or not, the important point she
was making was that artists need to carefully consider the
characteristics and compatibility of the watercolors. And
Direct, Quick, Decisive Watercolor
Painting on Location
Californian Michael Reardon adjusted his choice of materials and techniques to keep his watercolors fresh and
lively and to complete his paintings in two hours or less, no matter where he traveled
watercolor demonstration
Michael Reardon ofers a demonstra-
tion during a workshop at the
Emeryville Marina, Emeryville, CA.
Photo: Janet Groza / October-November 2012 53
even though I need to exercise more control over paint
than Charles did when he allowed watercolors to drip
down the watercolor paper, I learned a lot from him
about using one stroke of well-considered color rather
than a lot of timid strokes of weak washes.
About 25 years ago, Reardon began meeting once
a month with a group of 15 to 20 plein air watercolor-
ists, most of whom are architects, and that motivated
him to spend more time working outdoors. We call
ourselves the Sunday Afternoon Watercolor Society
because we meet once a month on Sundays to paint
around the San Francisco Bay Area, he says. One of
the members sets up an annual schedule of painting in
downtown San Francisco, in Napa Valley, and in other
nearby locations. Since most of us have indoor jobs as
architects, engineers, or illustrators, we relish the op-
portunity to paint directly from nature.
Te more plein air watercolors I created, the
more I recognized the benefts of making a prelimi-
nary sketch; working on relatively small, vertical sheets
of watercolor paper; and using a specifc set of Daniel
Smith brand colors. Reardon also points out that the
palette he came up with is dominated by transparent
pigments, such as cobalt blue and quinacridone burnt
scarlet; he says, I use more of those two colors than
any others because they remain bright and transpar-
ent when applied by themselves or when mixed with
other colors. Te other tube colors he works with
include quinacridone gold, ultramarine blue, carmine,
phthalocyanine green, viridian, cerulean blue, new
gamboge, and permanent orange.
I mix my greens by combing phthalocyanine
green and viridian with various yellows, oranges, and
reds, never using blue as part of the mix, the artist
says. My purples are often a combination of cobalt
blue and quinacridone burnt scarlet, or ultramarine
blue plus quinacridone burnt scarlet. Te best advice
Emeryville Marina
2012, watercolor, 14 x 7 in.
NAME: Michael Reardon
INFLUENCES: Contemporary artists: Jeanne
Dobie, Charles Reid; historic artists: John Singer
Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla.
54 October-November 2012 /
I can give students is to prepare color mixtures
darker-valued than they think are needed
because watercolors appear weaker when they
dry on the paper. If artists heed that advice, they
wont have to apply a second or third layer of
paint that will make the colors appear dull and
Te other point Reardon constantly
emphasizes is the importance of planning a
watercolor with thumbnail sketches and pre-
liminary outlines of the important shapes. I
do a thumbnail sketch every single time I start
a painting, he says. Tat may only be a 2- x
4-inch quick drawing in a sketchbook using
an ordinary 2B pencil, but even that quick nota-
tion is indispensable for fguring out the shapes
and the range of values. It gets me through the
hard process of distilling the information so
that I can state it in an efcient and meaningful
way. It helps me determine the essence, to move
elements so they work efectively, and to plan
my attack. Its a road map through the painting
process and is critical to my ability to be delib-
erate and efective. Te sketch may not mean
much to anyone else, but it clarifes the image in
my mind that Im trying to convey.
Once Reardon is ready to paint, he tapes
Thumbnail sketch for Fontana di
Nettuno, Rome
Fontana di Nettuno, Rome
2011, watercolor, 12 x 6 in. / October-November 2012 55
a quarter sheet (7 x 14-inch or 10 x 14-inch)
of Arches or Fabriano 140-pound cold-pressed
paper to a board and lightly draws the basic
outlines of the important shapes. I fnd that
long, narrow sheets work best because I can
work from the top to the bottom while keeping
the watercolors fuid, he says. My goal is to
paint a section once, and not to go back over it
to tweak the shapes or extend the range of val-
ues. Tat isnt an absolute rule, and sometimes I
have to jump from one shape to a non-adjacent
shape to avoid having colors run beyond their
defned edges, and I may go back to punch up
a shadow. My objective is to paint in one go.
Ten I am less inclined to overwork a painting
with too many washes of color.
Reardon fnds watercolor especially well
suited to painting when he travels. He says,
I made a three-week painting trip to Venice
in 1997 and had an inspiring time painting
along the canals, in the markets, and along
the narrow streets. He continued making
painting trips with his compact kit, and then,
in 2005, he won the Gabriel Prize from the
Western European Architecture Foundation.
Te foundation, based in San Antonio, Texas,
awards the prize to one artist-architect every
year, and they favored my proposal to paint the
pre-1900 fountains of Paris, Reardon says. Ive
always been attracted to the interaction of water
and sculpture and I knew there were dozens of
great fountains in Paris. I spent three months
visiting and painting each fountain, sometimes
having to make up for the fact that the light was
not great at a particular time of day or that the
fountains were no longer working.
One of the signifcant benefts of the Paris
experience was being able to concentrate on
painting every day, all day, for three months. I
know my technique improved, and I got better
at being decisive and well organized after such
a concentrated efort. I did almost 40 paintings
and then used those in developing larger studio
paintings when I returned home. Its my prefer-
ence not to work from photographs, so I used
my thumbnail sketches and plein air watercolors
to develop studio paintings as large as 30 x 40
inches. Some of the paintings are at the founda-
tions headquarters in Texas; all the rest were ex-
hibited with the Tomas Reynolds Gallery in San
Ponte SantAngelo, Rome
2011, watercolor, 12 x 8 in.
Pont-au-Change, Paris
2005, watercolor, 9 x 4 in.
Water-Driven Prayer Wheel, Bhutan
2000, watercolor, 9 x 4 in.
56 October-November 2012 /
Francisco, and most of them are included in a book I published through titled Fountaines: Te Public Fountains of Paris.
MICHAEL REARDON is an architect and painter who is well known both
for his architectural illustrations and his plein air watercolors. He is a sig-
nature member of the American Watercolor Society, the National Water-
color Society, Watercolor West, and the California Watercolor Association.
He is also an artist member of the California Art Club.
M. Stephen Doherty is Editor of PleinAir magazine.
All paintings collection the artist, unless otherwise noted. All were
painted en plein air.
See more of Michael Reardons plein air watercolor paint-
ings in the expanded digital edition of PleinAir.
Campo Celestial, Venice
2006, watercolor, 10 x 5 in.
Elabana Falls, Australia
2002, watercolor, 10 x 5 in.