Why watercolour is so perfect for quick sketching

September 4, 2018 | 6 Comments

When people start sketching with watercolour they are normally obsessed with mixing the perfect colour matches for their subject and producing perfectly smooth washes. At the same time they want to do this quickly because after all that’s what sketching is all about.

These two goals (with a rushed technique) can lead to very disappointing results – over-mixed washes become murky and trying to tidy up a wash on the page leads to lots of nasty marks. I know this from experience, because it’s exactly what I did when I first started using watercolour, a little over 11 years ago. I also created many flat sketches because I was simply not using enough water and enough pigment!

A lot of my frustration with using watercolour in the early days came from not really understanding the behaviour of pigment suspended in water. Once I really started focusing on learning about that, my painting improved dramatically because I was allowing watercolour to do what it does best – perform magic on the page.

Watercolour looks loose and free, but in fact, it requires deliberate strokes. These strokes need to be placed on the page with a consciousness of water – how wet the page is, how much water is in the brush and how much the new wash should interact with what has already been put down.

When I’m out urban sketching and there are a lot of things happening around me, I’m not always totally in control of the water in my brush and on the page, especially when I’m working fast. But I know that if I keep it simple, be bold and decisive (and not fiddle) then somehow watercolour will take care of the end result. If only I had known these things earlier in my creative journey!

I had been asked to put together a course on watercolour for years so this time last year, when I started planning for it, I decided to include all of the foundational concepts I wish I had come across at the start, things that are not explained in demo-based books. My SketchingNow Watercolour course (which is now open again) is the result, and you can read more about it here.

But today I want to share with you a few thoughts about some of my recent trip sketches in terms of the way I use watercolour.

Tempietto, Veneto

This is probably my favourite sketch from the trip and it’s a very quick paint-only sketch of a Palladio building we visit on the Palladian Odyssey tour. When I say quick I mean under 5 minutes as I was teaching at the time.

I did this sketch before the 30×30 direct watercolour month, so I didn’t choose paint-only because of a challenge. Instead it was the way I instinctively chose to work in order to capture what I believed was the essence of the building. This sketch contains a mix of watery, juicy and pasty washes plus a combination of clearly defined shapes and merged washes. These areas of merged washes (wet in wet) are fairly controlled as there is a lot of white space which was preserved on the page.

Pizza, Palladian Odyssey Dinner

I actually found this a little hard to do at the time as I was working quickly (the pizza was getting cold!) and the various coloured washes were merging a little more than I had hoped for. Less white space between the elements was a major reason for the loss of definition, but I just let the paint dry naturally and in the end it looked fine!

Duomo, Florence

I’ve talked about this sketch before, but it’s a good example of finding the right subject matter to draw with a brush. I also knew that if I worked from right to left (my natural way to work since I am left-handed) then by the time I finished the ‘drawing’ component, the paint would be in the perfect state of ‘almost dry’ for me to apply the shadow wash on the right side of the dome and tower.

Olive tree, Umbria

It’s easy for me to choose mainly paint-only sketches when talking about watercolour techniques, because there is something special which happens to your watercolour washes when you put paint down first. But I will try and mix it up!

So here is a ink first paint second sketch of an olive tree where minimal lines gives the various washes room to mingle and separate. Another very quick sketch – this time done during a tour of a winery.

Morven Gallery, Isle of Lewis

Here is another ink then wash sketch and I’m including it to show you that not all my sketches are masterpieces! This one was done during afternoon with my sister, niece (6 yr old) and nephew (2 yr old) – so there was no hope for concentration. What I find interesting in this sketch is that it shows how I am always looking to mix techniques in non-traditional ways:

  • wet in wet and textured washes in the landscaping
  • layering (into areas of varying degrees of dampness) for the texture of the stone wall and slate roof
  • pre-wetting the page for sky (at the end, not the beginning of the sketch).

Rodel chapel, Isle of Harris

Strong juicy mixes starting with darks on a sunny but very windy day. (If you are doing the Watercourse: this is the same building which I show in the gallery section of Lesson 1. How different is the colour of the stone in this sunny day version?)

This photo shows how I started with the building and then added the grass around it. Once again the white is a very important element in this sketch. (Another SketchingNow Watercolour note: refer Lesson 3 Theory 3: Intensity and White)

Edge Cafe, Isle of Lewis

Here is a simple landscape (all I could see out of a cafe window) which was drawn first and then painted.

In terms of watercolour there is a big blossom/ backrun in the sky (which I like), a mix of wet fuzzy edges and a bit of dry brush to the ocean and then textured washes and splashes to the grass. No neat flat washes for me!

St Mary’s Basilica, Krakow

This is a very rare example (for me) of starting with a watery wash for the sky. I remember having to make a super extra conscious effort to wait for it to dry (a little time on Instagram???) It’s so funny that I wasn’t happy with this sketch at the time, as now I like it. I see lots of fun watercolour effects in it, including the merged washes in the foreground.

Wawel Castle, Krakow

My favourite sketch of the castle is this very minimal version with a few shapes and a few lines. I’m not afraid of my ink lines bleeding into my watercolour washes. And honestly, every window does not need to be sketched to tell the story!

Yellow house, West Wemyss, Scotland

Another ink then wash sketch where the wash part got totally out of control! I was actually doing it on purpose, trying to see how wet I could work and how much the washes would merge. Is it a disaster? Personally, I kinda like it!

Curved corner building, Porto

It’s not about colour, it’s about pigment! I’m always trying to create interesting washes by combining reactive pigments.

Street view, Porto

I put a varied wash down first and it was so beautiful that I didn’t need to do much more. This is not what I had planned to do, but I’m always trying to respond to what watercolour is doing on the page. If that means I only do half of what I thought I would do, then I’m very happy.

Building, Porto

Here I drew first (with a fude nib) and then had to rush to meet up with a friend. So a few quick brushstrokes and I was done.

Se Cathedral, Lisbon

This is another good example of the power of leaving whites – ie. starting with the darks. It gives me such freedom with my strokes as it separates the washes.

Oh! I have so many other examples, but I hope this selection gives you a feel for the way I like to approach sketching quickly with watercolour.

I’ve scattered some of the main themes from SketchingNow Watercolour throughout so if you have done/are doing the course I hope that you will find these new examples interesting.

Do you use any of these techniques? Or are you more traditional in your approach? – ink first, then one wash (wait for it to dry) and then another wash.

Finally: Just to let you know… SketchingNow Watercolour is now open. This is a self-directed course (so you can work at your own pace) but if you want to work through with a group I’m going to be leading a run-through, starting Wednesday 12 September. Click here for more details.


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