Line and Wash – Watercolor Painting Anyone Can Do

sketch of tent on rainy cold day
Line and wash is a combination of line drawing with watercolor washes to suggest a scene. It's a great way to get started with watercolor, or with travel sketching, even if you "can't draw" and have never tried watercolor before!

If the idea of painting outside or while traveling is appealing . . . but intimidating . . . a great way to start is to try line-and-wash. Even if you think you are “not an artist” and have no experience drawing or painting. Even if you “can’t draw”, I encourage you to jump in and try this anyway.

The combination of a line drawing with a watercolor wash seems to give even rather crude, out-of-proportion drawings a sense of charm. Instead of trying to replicate a photo or an architect’s rendering, go for the expressiveness and playfulness of children’s book illustrations.  You don’t have to show your drawings to anyone!

If you keep drawing, your drawings will get better with practice, but that’s not why I urge you to do it.

The real benefit is that you will SEE and appreciate more deeply.

You will be amazed how little you’ve actually seen very familiar scenes and objects, once you start drawing them.

Don’t be discouraged that your drawings don’t “look right”. As you try to draw something, you actually learn more about how it really looks. So, the drawing itself is always a little behind your understanding. It doesn’t always capture everything you just discovered from the drawing process. If you draw it again, the drawing will improve.

But you’ll also learn even more about what you are seeing, so your new drawing will still be trying to catch up to your perception. Experienced artists know that the goal is not to make a perfect replica (not even possible, since your drawing is 2D and the world is 3D, plus time!).

The goal is to make a drawing “good enough” for whatever your purpose might be. If your purpose is simply to use the act of drawing to enhance your ability to see deeply, it doesn’t matter much what winds up on the paper.  “Seeing more deeply and fully” and “accurately rendering a scene” are two different purposes.

Nothing wrong with working on your rendering skills, but I urge you to do that in some other context. When you’re traveling, or sketching something from your garden, tell your inner critic to go have a cup of tea and leave you in peace.

If you want to keep a travel journal, but you feel self-conscious about “not drawing well”, try drawing as if you were entertaining a young child, instead of the jaded adults in your life. Focus on recapturing the eyes and sense of wonder of a small child.

Start simple. All you need is a pen with watersoluble ink (a Flair felt-tip works well), an inexpensive brush, and a sketchbook or some paper that will hold up to getting a bit wet. This is a great way to use up that student-grade watercolor paper, because you won’t be getting it very wet.

I like to use my favorite Cross fountain pen, and a “waterbrush”—a small brush with its own refillable water reservoir.

As the name implies, line-and-wash consists of a line drawing together with a wash of color (or greys).

 

 

 

 

If you are working with a watersoluble pen, marker or watercolor pencil, you simply make your drawing, and then use the waterbrush to “drag out” some color from the lines here and there to suggest shadows or darker objects.

Running a wet brush along one side of the line will drag out some of the color, creating a shadow effect.

Running the brush over a scribble dissolves some of the color to add shading to a drawing.

You can see both of these techniques in these sketches.

If you like, you can add additional lines on top of the washes once they dry.

When you are ready to add color, you can use a small watercolor travel palette, water soluble markers (such as Tombow markers) or watercolor pencils.

If you don’t want your black lines to mingle with your colors (most people don’t), you’ll need to use a waterproof pen for this type of work. An ultrafine Sharpie works, or you can use a waterproof art pen, such as a Pigma Micron.

If you don’t have a travel palette, I suggest buying a Crayola brand kids’ watercolor set. The kids’ Crayola set actually has fairly vibrant colors.

They will get used up quickly, and they do fade over time, but for about $2-3, it’s a great way to try line-and-wash painting for cheap. You can refill it with tube watercolors later.

When you start adding color, here’s a guideline: line-and-wash seems to be most successful when it’s either mostly a line drawing with some splashes of color, or mostly a painting with a little line work to give it some definition.

Avoid the temptation to make a tight, detailed drawing and then “color it in”. Not only is that usually less appealing, but it takes the focus away from looking at the scene.  Stay loose with the brush, keep your eyes on the subject more than your page, and have fun!

I’ll leave you with some examples to give you the idea, but the best way to understand this is to do it!

Happy painting!

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