Discovering the Benefits of Painting Watercolors in your Lap

sitting on beach with painting on lap

I haven’t had an art studio until recently because I was moving, then working a day job to pay for the extra expenses of moving for the past 6 months. To say that I have an art studio may imply a larger, more formal space than my easel in the corner of the room setup. My space maybe small, but it’s a dedicated place for my art, so I’m calling it a studio. During time I was between art studios, I had to improvise a painting setup. I found myself painting outdoors and, eventually, painting on my lap quite a bit. Now that I have an art studio and don’t have to paint in my lap, I found that I prefer painting watercolors in my lap.

When I first setup my studio, I was really looking forward to painting “properly” again. For me, this means painting vertically on a table, on a drafting table with the paper propped up at a small angle, or horizontally at an upright studio easel. Once I had my flat painting surface and vertical studio easel setup, I tried to go back to painting in these three ways, but I quickly ended up with my paper and board on my lap.

When I am painting with watercolor, I rarely keep the paper and board in the same place. It’s vertical, then sideways, then upside down, then back to sideways (sometimes in the span on 1 minute)! As I paint, the water does what it does and I move the paper and board around to work with rather than against it as the water dries on the paper.

I’ve stopped trying to control what happens on the paper and work with what the watercolor wants to do to create my paintings. Having the paper and board on my lap gives me the ultimate freedom to adjust and move in response to where the water wants to go and what it wants to do in that moment.
Once I came to accept this was my preferred way of working in the studio, I tried plein air painting without an easel one day on the beach. I grabbed the beach umbrella and chair and set it up among the families enjoying the beach.

The first thing I noticed after I begun painting without an easel was the ease of painting near the ground. Being lower to the ground than I would have been standing up meant that I could just sit my water bottle and brush holder onto the ground. Everything was within reach without bending over or worrying about anything toppling over.

Storing the water bottle and brush holder is problematic to me when I stand and paint outdoors at an easel. My two hands have to hold the paint brush, palette with paints, water bottle, and other brushes you may need but aren’t using quite yet. I can’t paint with all of this in my hands, so I end up either hooking the water bottle and brush holder to my easel (hoping it doesn’t topple over) or sitting the water bottle and brush holder onto the ground (requiring me to bend over whenever I need to change brushes or rinse out my water...which happens a lot more often than my back wants)! I also found that I was able to focus more on the painting while seated because I didn’t have to figure out how to not trip over the water bottle, brush holder, and my bag that was on the ground everytime I moved.

A drawback to painting on a chair with the paper and board in you lap is not being able to move back and forth as you paint. I tend to pace a lot to get different perspectives on what I’m painting. Being in the chair didn’t allow me to pace, so I ended up moving the paper and board up close to me, then far away with my arm. Sitting it on the ground would have worked except blowing sand does stick to wet watercolor paper. It dries eventually and can be brushed off, but you are done painting until that happens.

Another drawback is that I couldn’t move my arm in as wide of a range of motion while sitting in a chair with high armrests. To work around this, I recommend choosing a chair that doesn’t have any arm rests or one with very low, unobtrusive armrests.

I still use the flat table and upright easel in the studio while painting, but do about 50-75% of the painting in my lap. The studio easel is crucial to my painting process because it allows me to see the the painting from across the room while sitting and pondering what it needs next. The flat surfaces are perfect for stopping the flow of water after moving the board around to make sure it dries in one place.

I’m not sure how many others paint watercolors in their laps, but I highly recommend trying it out if you haven’t already to see if it works for you.

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