Watercolour Washes

Wednesday, 30th March 2005
Wild West Yorkshire nature diary

navigation bar
navigation bar

Mars brown swatchesLaying in a perfectly smooth wash isn't an end in itself - the character of a watercolour painting doesn't depend on 'untouched by human hand' perfection - but washes are the basis of the medium so it should be no big deal to be able to produce a perfectly smooth wash, if that's what you want to do.

I'm enjoying going through my new White Nights watercolour box, painting every two-colour combination. As there are 24 colours that means I've got 576 to try (although a lot of those will be duplicates, because yellow ochre-plus-phthalo blue is the same as phthalo blue-plus-yellow ochre; never mind, the practice will be good for me).

White Night WatercoloursThe Perfect Swatch

Without drawing a grid in pencil, I'm trying to space my swatches regularly on the page. I'm used to drawing in pen and I hope that by repeating this grid I'll develop a sense of proportion when 'drawing' with a brush. You can't see in this reduced version (left), but the white spaces between the colours make interesting, ragged-edged shapes in themselves. It's a way of drawing negative shapes; like drawing a white window frame by blocking in the glass panels.

This page (left) from my colour swatch sketchbook shows mars brown in combination with the other colours in the box. The pure, unadulterated, mars brown is third down on the right-hand column, just where it is in my paintbox (right), so, going through the box in order, I'm half way through my task.

As you can see from the rather too obvious banding in some of the washes, I've still got some way to go before I can be sure of acheiving the 'perfect' wash everytime. . .

Watercolour Wash Problems

Grease marks

Finishing touch


violet and olive green

yellow green and raw umber

Problem: A grease mark on the paper - for instance here, most likely, where I've rested my sweaty hand - can cause a break in the wash.

Solution: Cover the area that you're not working on with a piece of scrap paper or just try not to rest your hand on the paper too much before the wash goes on.

Hint: You could use this effect deliberately: for a textured effect, try rubbing a candle or wax crayon on the paper before applying the wash.

Colour mix: violet and olive green

Problem: When you get to the end of a wash there's often a tidemark where the last of the paint accumulates.

Solution: Take it out gently with a brush that is dry enough to soak up the excess paint but not so dry that it leaves a lighter spot in the wash. If the brush is too wet you could get a wash-out (see next column).

You could blot some of the paint off your brush then carefully remove the excess of the wash or, alternatively, have a brush moistened with clean water ready for any mopping up when you finish the wash.

In this case it looks as if I tried to touch up the pale tail-end of a wash with a spot more paint in the bottom right corner. I'd have been better leaving it as it was.

Colour mix: yellow green and raw umber

Problem: Too much liquid on your brush and not enough on the previous part of the wash you're adding to can result in a wash-back, where the paint is absorbed back onto a comparitively drier part of the page.

Solution: Make sure that you have enough watercolour on your brush when you paint the first part of the wash. That leading, lower edge of the wash should always stay wet.

Hint: You could use wash-back as a textural effect when painting natural patterns such as lichens on rock, trees in the mist or seaweeds on a strandline but beware that such a trick doesn't become the watercolour equivalent of a firework display: exciting but a vapid.

Colour mix: golden yellow and phthalo blue

ultramarine mixes

The Blues

Here are a couple of examples of the variations you get when mixing colours. On the right are my four blues, three of them mixed with ultramarine, while, on the right, the same four blues are all mixed with olive green.

The first reminds me of the skies and seas of the Mediterranean, the second of dark northern forests.

Out for lunch


forksycamoreTime for a bit of drawing, between all the colour swatches: cutlery in the fish and chip restaurant and, while I'm waiting for Barbara outside the post office, a sycamore, still bare at this time of year. Next Page

olive green and blue mixes

Richard Bell, richard@willowisland.co.uk

navigation bar
navigation bar