Inside the Mind of a Watercolor Winner

Carolyn Lord won three top prizes in the November 2023 PleinAir Salon art competition, judged by prominent Western painter Skip Whitcomb. What she has to say about her award-winning paintings could help you as you approach painting your next watercolor landscape or make the decision to enter it in a juried art competition.

“High Altitude Vista” (watercolor, 11 x 15 in.)

Of Third Place Overall winner High Altitude Vista (watercolor, 11 x 15 in.) by Carolyn Lord:
“While I was in Crested Butte for their 2023 plein air invitational early last June, I painted High Altitude Vista on a park bench one afternoon. Unlike for June Snow (see below), which was painted earlier in the month, I decided to paint a grander vista, which included several mountain ridges. I also placed the mountains in the lower portion of the composition, making the sky with clouds the dominate element.  

High Altitude Vista is a painting of white show and white clouds. The challenge was to observe and depict the values and temperatures of those whites in relationship to the colors and values of the mountains, meadows, and forests, especially as they recede into the far distance.  

“My painting approach is to create interlocking shapes. This is helpful because painting outside, with the wind, heat, and lack of humidity resulted in a quickly drying watercolor. Rather than resist it, or develop a way to work around it, I accepted and adapted to this ‘problem’ by intuitively developing a painting approach that accommodated painting outside in this kind of climate.”   

“June Snow” (watercolor, 11 x 15 in.)

Of Best Plein Air Watercolor & Gouache winner June Snow (watercolor, 11 x 15 in.) by Carolyn Lord:
“When I arrived in Crested Butte on June 1 for the plein air invitational, I found the mountain snow was still plentiful at this elevation,” says Carolyn Lord. “I was inspired by the interlocking shapes of snow and mountain, and the subtle modulation of the values and colors of the snow and clouds — two motifs that are often considered “white.” Just months before I had completed my first plaster cast drawing at the Golden Gate Atelier, so I was keen to apply my developing observational skills to the landscape. I was also interested in the neutralized crimson color of the mountains. 

“The biggest challenge I learned while drawing a white plaster cast is how dark the whites need to be to support the lightest light and create the effect of light, sheen, and glare. Painting the landscape, I was attentive to the snow in the shadow, and what color bias they would have depending on what light and what colors it was reflecting. 

“Spending early June in Colorado, at 9,500 feet elevation, meant that rain, hail, or snow could happen at any time! My Honda CRV became the perfect studio because I could lift the back hatch and perch in the rear trunk area with my painting materials and paint.  

“I built June Snow in my customary manner: blocking in with straight lines, using my brush with non-staining watercolor. Working this way allows me to make corrections in my drawing before being the painting process begins.” 

“Art Garden” (watercolor, 11 x 15 in.)

Of Best Floral winner Art Garden (watercolor, 11 x 15 in.) by Carolyn Lord:
“As a perennial participant in another plein air event — Sonoma Plein Air, I keep my stress level as low as possible by focusing on the medium I’m best known for — watercolor, and the motif I’m best known for — flower gardens,” says Lord. “The Sonoma Garden Park is free and open to the public, and features native plants and trees, fruit trees, vegetable and flower beds, a bee-friendly garden, and garden plots for community members. Easy parking and port-a-potties make it an easy choice for spending all day to paint! 

“When I wandered over to this part of the garden, fellow Sonoma Plein Air artist Jason Situ was set up and already had his painting well underway. His umbrella and silhouette provided the calm, compositional anchor for the mille-fiori approach I took to painting the flower garden. 

“I used lots of little shapes made with individual dabs of paint, but I didn’t want the final effect to look spotty or choppy, with strong value shifts between each dab. The challenge was to manage the color intensity and value so the final effect would be to have  a large area in the shade, and a large area in the sunlight.”


“It’ll take time,” says Lord, “but I’ve found it helpful to consider: who’s producing the exhibition and what they think is important; who’s the juror/judge; where is the show and what’s the venue; who else has entered this exhibition in the past, and do I admire their work and career; have I entered this show before? If my work is accepted every single time, and often wins awards, it’s time to enter more competitive exhibitions. Here’s a quip that sums it up, ‘If you are not failing, you are not trying hard enough.’ But also, it’s okay to enter shows just because you want to show with friends, or want to support the venue or exhibitions director’s efforts.”


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