An alternative approach to watercolour technique

watercolour technique: the traditional way

The cornerstone of traditional watercolour technique is learning how to apply washes – the flat wash, the graded wash and the variegated wash. Wash technique stresses the importance of using a fully-loaded brush to create a bead of colour which moves down the paper with each stroke. At the end of the process, surplus water is picked up with a damp or ‘thirsty’ brush. The aim is to produce a wash without any banding or unevenness.

Using washes, the beginner is advised to work in the following ways:

  • from general to specific (top-down);
  • from light to dark;
  • from background to foreground.

A typical ‘how to’ book will include demonstrations of how to paint simple landscapes/seascapes to reinforce the merits of the method. The idea, of course, is to encourage the beginner to believe that with these tools he can make instant ‘art’.

But the feeling of progress doesn’t last – or at least it didn’t for me. Attempting to paint anything other than the simplest subject matter using a classical wash technique always seemed to produce the same disappointing outcome: a painting devoid of impact. Colour was weak and often muddy, and there was an inevitable appearance of flatness about the result.


the problem with classical wash technique

Why should traditional watercolour technique tend to produce insipid paintings in the hands of the novice?

It took me a long time to realise a fundamental truth about watercolour technique – a simple relationship that explains much of the unpredictability of the medium. Here it is (forgive the pseudo-maths),

C ∞ 1/w

where  C = control and w = water. This is the E=mc2 of watercolour technique.

In plain English, it means the more water, the less control.

If you paint with a full brush you will find that washes will dry much lighter than they appeared when wet. Working very wet also makes it impossible to control a blend. For example, a dark colour added to a wet wash will diffuse to such an extent that it will be barely distinguishable when dry. And you are much more likely to be bothered by backruns (those ugly ‘rosette’ effects).

As I mentioned earlier, my attempts to paint with washes often produced muddy or dull colour. I realise now that working too wet can affect colour in three ways:

  • a very wet wash will be absorbed further into the paper surface and will tend to lose that characteristic watercolour sparkle and crispness;
  • applying a series of washes probably removes or disturbs the sizing on the paper’s surface making the wash sink even further into the paper;
  • working very wet will increase the tendency of some pigments to granulate or flocculate and a succession of washes may appear dull because of their relative opacity.

My other criticism of wash technique is that it produces paintings that look flat. In trying to define flat, I’ve come to realise that it’s actually two separate things. First, there is the flatness of individual washes. Working very wet makes it difficult to create strong tonal variations within a wash because colours diffuse so much. The other kind of flatness is to do with the suggestion of depth or recession in a painting. The beginner is encouraged to think of his painting as a stage set – a layered space consisting of background, middle distance and foreground. At its simplest, each layer corresponds to a single wash and the painting sequence is from background to foreground.

My earliest attempts at watercolour were with this ‘wash and layers’ method. From my own experience and from looking at the efforts of other amateur painters, I’m convinced it’s a method that creates more problems than it solves.

The biggest difficulty is that each layer is isolated in its own shallow space. This is not such a problem for the background and middle distance layers in the case of, say, a landscape where recession can be suggested by aerial perspective. But restricting the depth of the foreground space creates a compositional problem – the eye tends to move across the picture plane instead of into it. Foreground space needs to communicate with middle distance space and the usual way is to use linear perspective. In a landscape, this might be a road winding into the distance or a line of diminishing fence posts.

This ‘foreground problem’ is a common one with amateur watercolourists in particular and I’m sure wash technique has a lot to do with it.

There is perhaps a more general argument against traditional wash technique, especially the flat wash. John Ruskin, an accomplished watercolourist, in his book ‘Elements Of  Drawing’ states (with characteristic Victorian dogmatism) that every application of colour should be variegated. Why? Because variegation and gradation suggest form and recession as well as creating visual interest through tonal and colour variations.

Another criticism of wash technique – or at least a consequence of it – is that it generates a feeling of time pressure and lack of control during the painting process. Painting or cutting around complex shapes in a painting, e.g. working a sky wash around a group of buildings, will often split the wash into several sub-washes, each with its own little roll of colour. You find yourself flitting from one section of the painting to another trying to complete each part before the washes begin to dry. It’s a juggling act.

A final difficulty for the beginner is losing the drawing. Quite often washes will override pencil guidelines/outlines making them difficult or impossible to find. If the lost linework represents a clump of grass or a tree in silhouette, it may not be so bad; but losing, say, a carefully drawn figure can be very frustrating.

So is there a better way for the beginner to get to grips with watercolour?

Watercolour technique: Flower Study

watercolour technique: an alternative approach

What follows is a description of an approach to watercolour technique which resolves some of the difficulties that confront the beginner. The essence of this approach is to maximise control of the medium and by doing so to eliminate much of its unpredictability and to make the painting process a relaxed, enjoyable experience.

Here’s a summary of the key principles:

  • thinking in terms of strokes not washes
  • working from dark to light
  • working from specific to general (bottom-up)
  • using the right amount of water

Watercolour technique: Pub Musicians

strokes not washes

Thinking in terms of strokes rather than washes is an important distinction. Filling a shape with strokes is more flexible than using a classical wash technique. Stroke is placed against stroke. Individual strokes can follow the boundaries of the shape: there’s no need to work the paint horizontally. With strokes you don’t work as wet as with washes and less water means more control and makes it easier to predict the intensity of a colour once it has dried.

What if the shape is large and/or complex? The simplest solution is to break the shape down into smaller manageable sections and paint each separately. If necessary, soften the edge where one section overlaps another. (Beginners nearly always overdo the blending and softening of washes, often losing freshness in the process.) The second solution is to use the biggest brush possible for each stroke. Finally, you can give yourself more working time by pre-wetting the paper. Brush clean water over the area to be painted and then wait until the shine just disappears from the paper surface before you add paint.

Filling a shape with strokes won’t usually give a result as uniform as you might get with a wash. But does it matter? There are very few occasions when a textureless wash is required in a painting. Even in the case of skies, unevenness does not look out of place.

from dark to light

One of the mantras of traditional watercolour wisdom is ‘work from light to dark’. The usual reason given for this advice is that, because watercolour is a transparent medium, covering a dark wash with a light one simply makes it darker not lighter. This principle leads to a painting process that moves from broad, light washes to progressively darker, more detailed ones. However, there is a problem (and not just for the beginner) in working this way.

Whenever you put colour on paper you are making judgements about the tonality (value) and intensity (saturation) of that colour. But these qualities are assessed relatively, against a reference. If you paint from light to dark, the only references will be the untouched white paper and any (lighter) washes already applied. Even with practice it is difficult to avoid mixing colours that are too light and too pale. You need a second reference at the dark end of the value scale to allow a better assessment of value and saturation – which is a good reason for working from dark to light. By putting in the darkest values (accents) first, you can use them to key subsequent applications of paint. Working from dark to light also gets rid of the problem of losing the drawing since the accents will usually define significant elements of subject matter.

Purists may argue that overpainting a dark wash will disturb the underlying paint. In practice, however, this need not be an issue. Because the accents occupy only small areas, then, provided the paint is thoroughly dry and the overpainting is done with quick, light strokes, there won’t be a problem.

I find this process of picking out the accents can be made enjoyable by trying to assemble each accent calligraphically as a sequence of brush strokes.

For the beginner, it is best to make a mark and leave it so that all the accents are hard-edged and uniform in value. With experience, it’s easy to introduce variations in both value and edges by blotting with tissue or blending with a damp brush.

from specific to general

The third principle – working from specific to general – follows from the first two. Resolving the important areas of a painting right at the outset has definite advantages. First of all, concentration levels will be higher at the start of the painting process and there will be a natural tendency to work in a more controlled way at that stage – which may be appropriate if the subject matter includes, say, figurative elements. Working bottom-up also gives you greater control compositionally. While working on his Venetian series of etchings, Whistler found that he could compose more flexibly by always starting with the focal point. Taking a focal area of a composition to completion (or close to completion) provides that all important reference which can be used to key the rest of the painting with respect to line, colour and value.

Watercolour technique: A Qualified Success

the right amount of water

The final item in the list is probably the most important and the most difficult to communicate: painting with the right amount of water to maximise control of the medium. How do we pin down ‘right’? Let’s start by eliminating the two extreme cases:

  • working very wet as in classical wash technique with water collecting in beads and puddles on the surface of the paper;
  • using a predominantly dry brush technique which, although it may give greater control, produces peculiarly dead colour and sacrifices many of the appealing qualities of the medium.

As it happens, there is a sort of ‘automatic’ way of finding the right amount of water: by choosing the correct brushes. Brushes have always been a source of confusion for the student of watercolour, partly because of the advice which is often given and partly because of the bewildering range of brushes which is available.

As far as the advice given about brushes is concerned, I have two points to make. First, it is still widely asserted that sable is the best brush type for watercolour and has significant advantages over other animal hair and synthetic brushes. This view is often reinforced by the comment that ‘you get what you pay for’. I don’t doubt that the very best sable is a better brush than the very best alternative, but the beginner neither needs nor is likely to fully appreciate the qualities of the very best brush. The question arises: what are the requirements of a good watercolour brush? I’d say there are four: it should hold a generous amount of water; it should release that water in a smooth, controlled way; it should hold a fine point; and it should retain its shape at the completion of a stroke (I think this is referred to as ‘spring’ or ‘bounce’). Over the years, I’ve used a variety of brushes including sable, squirrel, ox hair, bristle and synthetics. Within each type, the quality can vary hugely. I’ve bought some very disappointing sables e.g. a large (expensive) sable that lacked spring and didn’t hold a point, and one or two smaller brushes that didn’t hold water particularly well. For several years, I used two inexpensive squirrel hair brushes that, apart from lacking a little in springiness, served me extremely well. (I noticed recently that good quality squirrel hair brushes are no longer a cheap alternative to sable.)

The second point I want to make is about two specific brushes that are often recommended to the beginner. The first is the hake. This is a flat, typically 2” brush of very soft goat hair. It has no spring. I’ve tried using this brush in the past and I often see examples of paintings where it has been used extensively. The reservation I have concerning the use of the hake, certainly in the hands of the novice, is that it encourages a tendency to work too dry, to create too many dragged brush strokes that look (to me) both mannered and ugly. The second brush is the rigger, a long, fine (usually sable) brush used for fine detail (originally ships’ rigging, they say). In the hands of the beginner, it tends to invite too many dry, dragged strokes and overindulgence in unnecessary detail. I sometimes feel that if you need to use a brush as fine as the rigger in a watercolour painting then it would be better to paint the subject on a larger scale and use a bigger brush.

Inevitably, I have to finish by offering my opinion on a suitable choice of brushes for the novice. I would recommend just two to start with: one large round and one medium round. I’m currently using a No. 18 and a No. 8 from the Daler-Rowney Aquafine (AF85) range. These are synthetic brushes and they meet the four criteria given earlier. They are showing excellent durability. They are suitable for both broad working and (sufficiently) fine detail.

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