MASTERCLASSES : In need of a wash and brush-up

PAINTING IN WATERCOLOURS : Emboldened by his class in drawing last week, Andrew Purvis seeks a further lesson from the master. Loading his brush with watercolour, he creates an orange that becomes a peach before taking a cubist turn
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IN A ramshackle attic studio, I sit with my sketchbook and wait. Stan Smith - painter, author, former Oxford don and chairman of the Chelsea Arts Club - is understandably late. The man I have chosen to be my teacher has just returned from a 2,000-mile round trip with his family, camping in northern Italy. He's been sketching the mountain lakes, the eagles, the vipers that come to cool themselves in the icy alpine air. By comparison, this rendezvous at his publisher's studio must seem like a banal affair.

As I wait, I have a good look around. Spilling out of the cupboards are hundreds of tubes of paint, cardboard punnets crammed with brushes, rolled- up watercolours. On the table in front of me is a still life composition, a teetering mound of layered sandwiches arranged almost architecturally. There are dark rye breads and neat white triangles, slices of brown bread stacked like dry-stone walls. Enthused by what I learnt in my first masterclass with Stan the previous week, I start to think about how to draw them. A passing book designer offers advice: "Just tuck in," she says. "Stan could be some time."

Halfway through my sandwich lunch, Stan arrives. After a brief recap on last week's class, he tells me what the afternoon has in store. It doesn't sound good; watercolours, he says, are the most difficult medium of all: "They're not as adaptable as oils or gouache because there's no opacity." In other words, you have to get it spot-on right from the start, because there's no way of painting over or correcting the mistakes you've made.

I explain that this is precisely the problem: I feel daunted by the empty page, and don't know where to start. I also feel inhibited by the tiny scale watercolourists use, with all the precision and dexterity this entails. That, Stan says, is a misapprehension: "You can work on whatever scale you like, so just let go. The absolute key is having permission to fail. People want to be very disciplined, very controlled, but watercolours are not like that. You just have to get on with it."

So get on with it we do. First, Stan helps me choose my palette: the word is used interchangeably to refer to the familiar wooden board (or, more commonly, plastic or porcelain dish) on which paints are mixed, and also to the range of colours an artist prefers to use. It is this that determines the character of an individual's work. After that it's straight in at the deep end with my first practical exercise - applying a colour wash.

A wash is a thin coating of very dilute paint used to construct a watercolour. Though some people paint straight on to the blank white paper, this is by far the most common technique. The colour of wash chosen helps set a unifying hue for the work, rather like a key in music; everything you subsequently paint on top will tie in with it. It is also a way of colouring a large area quickly, something you cannot achieve with the thick paint used later to apply detail. As I will learn, a wash is essential for controlling the build-up of colour.

My second exercise is a simple still life, learning to convey roundness and texture using colour-mixing on the paper. A darker tone of a colour can be used to suggest shadow, for example, while mopping away paint with a sponge can produce an area of gleaming white (the paper underneath) to suggest light. Stan reiterates last week's advice about really looking: instead of thinking of the objects you're painting, think in terms of areas of colour and - just as important - absence of colour. After that, I learn a little more about the materials watercolourists use.


Most beginners are obsessed with the "palette" their teacher uses - the range of colours he or she prefers - as if this somehow holds the key to success. Stan says he doesn't use a standard selection every time, but makes do with whatever he's got.

Watercolour paints come in a bewildering range of hues, and in three basic forms: pan, a small square block of dried pigment mixed with a binding agent; half pan, half the size; and tubes, containing paint in paste form. The chemical ingredients and the resulting colours are the same for all three, but the different types suit different needs. Pans and half pans are more portable, especially when housed in a painting box or field set. Tubes are better for mixing large quantities of colour - as when preparing a wash (see left).

So many colours are available that you may wonder why you need to mix them at all. The reason is practicality; a mixing tray or dish is only so big. It's also a way of imposing discipline. "You can work with just five colours," says Stan, "and achieve an astonishing range." This you can do in several ways: by pre-mixing several colours on the palette or dish; by laying one colour on top of another on the paper to develop gradations of hue and tone; or by applying colours "wet into wet" - letting them run together on the page to create new ones (see panel left). "Don't overcomplicate," says Stan. "Restraint is good."

He suggests a basic palette of six colours: cobalt blue, Hooker's green light, yellow ochre, raw umber (a dark brown), burnt sienna (a rust brown) and alizarin crimson. From these you can mix almost anything, but for a fresher, brighter look broaden your palette to 12 colours (including purer, more startling ones like cadmium red or yellow). With less pre- mixing, the effect will be warmer, brighter and less subdued. Only one colour is banned from Stan's palette, and that is black. If you use that, your painting will quickly become muddy. "Use Payne's gray [a kind of off-black] or a slightly blue or brown black," he advises.


The most common way to begin a watercolour is to lay a background "wash" - an area of very pale, dilute colour - to provide a stable foundation on which to paint. This helps you cover a large area quickly and provides a unifying background colour to "hold" the painting together (since watercolour paints are translucent, whatever colour is underneath shows through, often to good effect).

A wash is also a good way to control colour build-up on the page. With watercolours, unlike oils, you can't change your mind about a colour you've applied and slap a different one over the top. What you must do is apply a thin wash of colour and "overlay" another once the first has dried. As a crude example, you could apply a pale lemon wash, leave it to dry, then paint a blue area over that to represent hills. The hills will appear green. When painting a house with terracotta walls, you could apply a pale burnt umber wash, leave it to dry, then paint a second layer over to build up a darker terracotta hue on the wall of the house that's in shade.

Before doing any of this, however, it's important to prepare the paper by wetting it and "stretching" it. This will stop it buckling when you apply your wash. Soak your paper for a few minutes in a sink or tray, tape it taut across a board and then leave it, preferably overnight, to dry.

In Blue Peter fashion, Stan produces some stretched paper he prepared earlier. "The first rule," he says, "is to mix enough colour for the whole paper. You don't want to mix a second lot and find it's not the same." The second rule is to work quickly, touching each area of the paper with just one stroke of the brush to keep the density of colour constant.

The first type of wash I attempt is a flat wash, a single uniform coat of blue. I wet the entire paper with water, using a sponge, as Stan suggests. This helps the colour I apply next to spread quickly and evenly, leaving no hard "edges" (ridges of colour darker than the rest). I mix a ridiculous quantity of blue and select a broad brush from Stan's collection. Starting at the top left-hand corner, I apply a broad strap of colour right across the page.Working downwards at a frenetic pace, I apply another strap slightly overlapping the first, and another, until the paper is filled.

I have to admit I'm pretty pleased with my flat wash. The bands of blue don't match exactly, but they melt into one another in a pleasing way. The same thing happens when I try a "gradated" wash (see panel opposite), the straps of colour getting paler and more diluted as I progress down the page. This kind of wash is good for sky. It seems almost a pity to start painting on it.

"That's the beauty of watercolours," says Stan. "The painting talks back. Water behaves in its own way, and some effects it produces are down to chance. I prefer to call it controlled or informed chance."

In a "variegated" wash, chance and human invention combine to produce a mottled, marbled or striped effect with two or more colours. The wetness of the paper is important, allowing a band of blue to run into a band of brown, say. Try tilting the paper to let gravity do its work (just turn your working board the other way up to stop any colours running), or use an electric hairdryer to warm the paper and push a tidemark of paint across the page.

"Do whatever you want," says Stan. "Have fun, experiment, break the rules. Too many people say: 'Oh no, I've painted a flat yellow wash and let blue run into it!' Well, let it be variegated then. At least it will look like a watercolour." With that he disappears, leaving me alone with chance.


When Stan returns, he demonstrates how to paint a simple three-dimensional object. "This is an orange," he says, constructing a pale apricot disc. He remixes his colours and applies a crescent of darker orange to suggest shade and curvature. A touch of blue is added beneath - the shadow cast on the table by the fruit.

Next, Stan uses a sponge to dab away a blob of orange paint, leaving the white paper bare underneath. This is a point of reflected light, like the glinting spangle you see in a cartoon character's eye. Then he turns his attention to the table the orange is standing on. Using a dry brush and splaying out its bristles (see panel right), he picks up a little undiluted umber paint and reproduces something that looks very like the texture of wood. Finally, he uses a brush to "stipple" the surface of the fruit with dots and flecks of red. It looks just like, well, an orange.

There are all kinds of methods you can use to convey different textures, Stan explains. Gum arabic (the consistency of honey, available in small jars) can be added to the paint. It produces a glossy effect when it dries, particularly useful for shiny feathers or foliage. You can use a toothbrush or a serrated plastic knife. "Turner kept one of his fingernails long," Stan says, "for scraping at damp watercolour to make a clean white line."

Now it's my turn to attempt this riot of effects. I mix a quantity of pale apricot just like Stan did. When I apply it to the paper, though, it is blood red. "Too dark and thick," Stan says. "Remember to keep it transparent." So I mix in a lot more water.

By now the paper is swimming, so I dry it with a sponge. My orange looks more like a peach, so I blob on some watery red and let it "melt" to suggest the glow of its velvet skin. Amazingly, Stan approves. "Good. Let your mistakes work for you," he says.

When I apply blue for the shadow, it all goes terribly wrong. The pale orange turns to muddy green, and any hint of transparency is lost. I hastily mix a load of apple green and paint another orb, then another. I'll let my mistakes work for me and change my oranges into apples. Stan smiles a thin smile of what might be approval, but is probably despair.

Unable to convey roundness, I start to paint a cube instead. Like the apples, the cube is dirty and opaque.

"Ah, you've lost it," says Stan. "I don't think we can rescue that now. Let me tell you a little about theory."


In drawing, as I discovered last week, learning to look at a subject is the primary skill. With watercolours, the key is learning to analyse colour, looking at nature as if it were a painter's palette. "Think of the lilac skies of Van Gogh," Stan says, "or his ochre cornfields, and you'll get the idea."

There are two useful exercises for developing colour literacy. One is to practise naming colours after things: "You might say, 'That's a pickled cabbage red, or a gherkin green'," says Stan. Another is to think of colours you see as if they're labelled like tubes of paint. "You might look at someone's clothes on a bus," Stan suggests, "and say, 'Yes, that's a lemon yellow scarf with a burnt sienna check'."

He asks me to look at a building across the street. What colour is the brickwork? "A fairly bright orange," I say with confidence, but Stan shakes his head. "There are splashes of colour," he agrees, "but the overall effect is quite subdued - apricot mixed with a Payne's gray."

Another aspect of colour literacy is anticipating from the outset how a finished painting will look. "Remem-ber," says Stan, "that colours will dry lighter in tone than when you first apply them." The main thing, he says, is to keep the paint transparent. If it's opaque, like gouache, it will ruin the character of your work - that distinctive watercolour look.


Whenever you see white in a watercolour, it isn't solid watercolour paint. It's the pure white of the paper, kept free of colour using a variety of techniques. You can use masking tape or fluid (like Tippex), or simply take care not to allow paint anywhere near it. In extreme cases you can use a sponge or blotting paper to dab away wet paint and show the white of the paper. Or you can use an opaque gouache - Chinese white - to paint over an area of colour when it's dry.

"Some purists think that's cheating," Stan says, "but the greatest painters have done it." Turner and the improbable-sounding Hercules Brabazon-Brabazon (who worked in Venice) used a mixture of watercolours and gouache to mask out colour. It's like using a soft rubber in drawing to smear away a charcoal background and create a white area.

In watercolours, absence of colour is almost as important as colour itself. "That's the joy of the medium," says Stan, "the glow of the paper coming through, white or very light." There's nothing wrong with using tinted papers instead of a colour wash. "You can use a cold white tinted with greys in the winter," says Stan, "or a warm one with Naples yellow in summer."


These crucial tools are made from natural hair, natural bristle or synthetic versions of them. Bristle is less versatile but more durable than hair. The best brushes are sable, made from Kolinsky or Siberian mink - but they are expensive.

Brushes also come in a variety of shapes and sizes, numbered from 1 to 10 and after that by width. The most commonly used are Nos l, 4 and 8, which should be enough for most purposes. A 1in/2.5cm flat brush (squat and square in appearance) is ideal for applying a flat wash. For a gradated wash (see panel, page 76), a 1in/2.5cm mop brush is suitable. "The golden rule," says Stan, "is to use the biggest brush you can for the smallest work." For example, use the point of a No 3 or No 4 for detail, rather than a No l.

"They say the best brushes are made in Margate and Lowestoft," says Stan, "because those are fishing folk used to working with nets. They are the only people with the dexterity needed to tie knots in hairs and hold the whole thing together." !


A wash is a thin coating of very dilute paint laid in broad strokes over the paper as a background. In a gradated wash, the bands of colour grow lighter or darker as they move down the paper. This is especially useful for skies and landscapes.

PAINTING A SKYSCAPE: A gradated wash is a simple but effective way of creating an atmospheric sky. Using a 1in/2.5cm mop brush, lightly lay the first stroke of cerulean blue across the paper from left to right (above). It is not essential to wet the paper first, though you might find this makes it easier to lay colour evenly.

ACHIEVING THE WASH: Continue working from left to right, then back from right to left down the paper (above right). When the paint runs thin, add more water to the brush rather than more paint so the colour becomes lighter as you progress. The completed wash should gradate evenly from dark to light without streaks.

THE FINISHED WORK: The gradated wash begins as a dark flooding of blue across the top of the paper. As it progresses, the brush is loaded with more water and less paint. The colour is almost lost on the horizon. (right). This is a useful device, because a pale horizon draws the eye of the viewer into the heart of the picture


Wet into wet means applying paint to damp paper - either paper dampened with water or paper on which previously applied paint has not yet dried - and allowing it to spread. The effects depend on how wet the paint and the paper are.

FEATHERY: when applied to very wet paper, the paint bleeds.

BLURRY: When the paper is damp, the paint blurs at the edges.

CONTROLLED: When the paper is barely damp, the effect is confined.


The surface of this red pepper is glossy and undulated, so it needs to be unevenly painted. Areas of deep red contrast with sharply defined highlights that emphasise its form and three-dimensional nature; use cadmium red and alizarin crimson paint for the two reds.

BEGIN (above) by using a No 8 brush loaded with clean water to brush in the shape of the pepper on to your paper. Leave two spots free of water for the highlights on the surface and the area where you will paint the stem. The pepper's glossy surface can be enhanced by semi-random wet-into-wet applications of paint. The contrast between the very deep and the medium red areas can be heightened by applying wet-into wet washes.

LOAD THE BRUSH with thick cadmium red paint and touch it on to the damp paper. Allow the paint to spread and blend quite randomly, although you should not let it spread beyond the dampened area of the paper. Any variation in the paint colour will add depth to the surface, so do not worry if the finish is uneven. Take care not to let the paint spread into the areas you have left empty for the highlights and stem.

LEAVE THE PAINT until it is almost but not quite dry. Now dip the brush into some alizarin crimson and gently touch it into areas of the pepper that appear paler in colour than others. The paint should blend and bleed slightly. By now, you should have created a variation of shades across the surface of the pepper. Alizarin crimson is a cooler, more recessive hue than cadmium red. Allow the red paints to dry.

WET THE STEM of the pepper with a brushful of clean water. Drop in some Hooker's green light and allow the paint to drift and fill the wet paper. Touch some cadmium yellow into the damp green stem, and allow it to blend and merge into it to create contrast and depth. Take care not to allow any paint to stray into the two highlight spots. Add a light wash of Payne's gray around the bottom edge of the pepper to create depth and contrast.

IN THE FINISHED WORK the cadmium red and alizarin crimson have merged and blended slightly on the paper, creating a three-dimensional effect that suggests how the light hits some facets of the pepper while leaving others in shade. The pepper appears glossy and the areas left white create sparkling highlights that give an illusion of depth. The Payne's gray shadow around the bottom edge enhances the three-dimensional effect. FOR A WINTER LANDSCAPE, lay a diluted yellow ochre wash across the top third of the paper and let it dry. Lay a mix of Payne's gray and alizarin crimson across the middle third for the hill and it's reflection. Allow to dry. USING a No 6 brush, dip it into Payne's graypaint and squeeze brush until it is almost dry. To represent the tree trunks on the shoreline of your landscape, paint in fine vertical lines.

DIP a No 9 brush in diluted burnt sienna and squeeze almost dry. Splay the bristles with your thumb and make feathered strokes over the yellow ochre wash. Apply a wet chrome yellow wash over the bottom third of the paper.

WHILE the bottom third is slightly damp, paint the reflections using feathered strokes as above. The drybrush technique used over flat, dry washes gives a spiky but delicate quality to your finished picture.


This can be used to achieve crisply defined masses of lines. The term 'drybrush' is a misnomer, because the paint is wet - a brush can never be truly dry in watercolour painting. But starting with a completely dry brush and putting only a little undiluted paint on it, you can create a quite different effect from that you will produce by flooding paint across the paper.

USING YOUR THUMB, splay the bristles of your brush - dipped in paint squeezed directly from the tube - and then drag the brush over rough watercolour paper (above left).

YOU CAN also achieve a drybrush effect with a brush that has previously been wet. Don't reload it; work it across the paper until the paint runs out (above right).


Always plan a picture's centre of interest - the place to which the eye is drawn - before you begin to paint. Draw an imaginary line, curve or diagonal and place your significant features on or near it.

1 The composition is divided into thirds horizontally and the horizon line placed on the bottom third.

2 A rhythmic curve snakes up from the walls to the white castle on the summit.

3 The centre of interest nestles between the land and trees, roughly a third from the left edge of the paper.


The Complete Watercolour Course by Stan Smith (Collins & Brown, pounds 17.99)

The Complete Watercolour Artist by Jenny Rodwell (Pelham Books, pounds 18.99)

Watercolour Step by Step by Hazel Harrison (HarperCollins, pounds 15.99)

Watercolour Painters Question and Answer Book by Angela Gair (Collins, pounds 16.99)


The Complete Watercolour Course by our master, Stan Smith, is offered, pre-publication, to readers of the Independent on Sunday at a specially reduced price. Copies cost pounds 14.99 each (including post and packaging) - a saving of pounds 3 on the recommended retail price. To order, please ring credit card orders on 01403 710851 during office hours. The publishers aim to despatch copies by return; but all orders will be filled within 28 days.