Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Three Wash Method Of Watercolour

Rex Beanland, Scarborough Castle, watercolour, 9 x 12

Scarborough Castle
9 x 12











During the past couple of weeks I have heard 2 well known watercolourists talking about their process, particularly their plein air (on location)  process.  Both of them said that their goal is to quickly capture their impression of the subject and they try to do this in maximum 3 washes.  This painting  of some ruins on the cliffs in Scarborough,  England illustrates how I think about that process.  It was done in just over an hour using three washes with a few details at the end.

The first wash was the blue of the sky blending into the yellow ochre just above where the cliffs begin and carrying that wash  down to the edge of the road.  The purpose of this wash is to add a unifying tone and also to identify by painting around any whites that are wanted.  In this case the only whites I left were on the lower building and the wall by the road.  This wash is allowed to dry completely and then it’s on to the all important second wash.  This second wash is the one that creates almost all the shapes of the painting.  In this case that second wash included the ruins, all the buildings and the multi-coloured cliff.  Everything just as you see it right down to the road.  This wash is about 15 minutes of exhilarating chaos as you monitor the wetness of various areas and continually add more colours wet in wet as well as a few darker drier bits to define shapes.  The final wash is all the darks and shadows and by magic when these darks are applied the light shines through the painting and it comes to life.  In this painting the only variation on this process was that I left the water alone until the end so that it could reflect what was going on in the rest of the painting.

Anyway, with this process I feel this painting has a nice sense of light and does show a bright sunny day.  Fast and fresh.

For me a real benefit of thinking in terms of this 3 wash process is that it gives me a way to organize the painting process before I even begin.  When I look at the photo I try to see beyond a collection of objects to get the underlying unity of colours and values.  I am forced to see not the objects (buildings, trees, rocks etc) but the painting as a whole.

This process is most applicable to plein air painting where speed, capturing an impression and spontaneity are key elements but they are also valuable for any type of painting.

Leighton Centre Workshop

Rex Beanland, Calgary Centre Cut (Demo), watercolour, 18 x 18

Calgary Centre Cut (Demo)
18 x 18










Rex Beanland, Seaton Seafront (Demo),  watercolour, 18 x 24

Seaton Seafront (Demo)
18 x 24









Rex Beanland, Leighton Centre Workshop Students

A Great Group












It was an excellent workshop last weekend at the Leighton Centre.  A great bunch of people and very enthusiastic.  It was also very neat to drive out to the Leighton Centre in the early morning light.

One of my goals for this workshop was to make the best use of the magical first wash in watercolour.  It was very gratifying to see everyone tackle that important aspect of watercolour painting.  Another very useful that idea that floated around the class was stated as “it’s only a piece of paper”.  If we look at our paintings  like that then we are more likely to just have fun and see what happens.  What if . . .

I added finishing touches to both paintings when I got home and it might be helpful to take a look at them.

The Critique

What I Like

Calgary Centre Cut is a painting idea that I am developing and I find the composition very exciting.  I love the lead-in of the road.  The story I want this painting to tell is of everything and everyone being drawn into Calgary as symbolized by the Calgary Tower and I think it has a strong sense of this story.  I like the centre of interest around the Lion Statue on the right.

I also enjoy the composition of Seaton Seafront.  I find the 2 poles which were attempts to deal with some of the dripping an interesting element.  I love the blue – purple colour contrast in the background hills and this is played against the warm orange in the middle of those hills.  The wall is a very effective lead in to the painting.  The little use I made of gouache is also effective particularly in the small light reflections in the puddles on the pathway.

What I Would Like To Change

Both paintings by this point have been a little over worked.  That beautiful first wash has been diluted by subsequent washes.  In Calgary Centre Cut as much as I like the dark shapes I added to both edges I don’t like the colour choices.  The purples don’t work well with the overall colour scheme. In Seaton it’s mostly that the second wash in the sky takes away that lovely sense of light it had at first.  I would also like to make the wall wider at the bottom and  make the colour notes in it more to the blue side so it contrasts with warm beach.  The original study that I did before the workshop shows very effectively the sense of light that can be had when that first wash works.

Anyway, thanks to all who attended and keep painting.




Seaton Beach – The Magic Of That First Wash

Rex Beanland, Seaton Beach, watercolour, 12 x 16,

Seaton Beach, watercolour, 12 x 16











I’m very excited by this painting.  It’s from our trip to England about 3 years ago.  It’s the sea front in a little town called Seaton on the south coast.

Lately, I’ve been very conscious of the beauty and magic of the first wash in watercolour. The first wash begins with the first touch of water and pigment to the paper and doesn’t end until it is finally left to dry.  For years I lacked both the confidence and technical ability to get very creative with that first wash.  I would mix a colour in the palette and apply it to the paper and let it dry, planning to then come in with further washes.   The problem with watercolour is that as soon as you put another layer of paint on top of a dry wash you lose some of the glow.  In watercolour that  freshness and glow that it is famous for  comes from light passing through the pigment to the paper and then reflecting back to the eye.  So it’s sensible that with 2 or more washes for the light to pass through the light that bounces back has lost some of that glow.   The goal therefore is to try to get as much accomplished as possible in that first wash.  When you apply the first wash of colour it’s very beneficial to ask yourself ‘What else can I do’.

The reason that I talking about this and the reason that this painting excites me is that it was a true success story in terms of that first wash.  For the sky I started with a very pale yellow ochre wash and then started adding some light washes of blue.  Then while this was still very wet I added the dark clouds which blended beautifully.  Then with the paper still wet I added the land in the background, gradually getting stronger and thicker mixtures of pigment.  Then after waiting a couple of minutes but with the paper still wet I added a few darker accents along the top of the hill and along the shoreline.  I just kept playing with it until I was happy with it.  Then and only then I let it dry completely.  So after 15 minutes the top half of the painting was pretty much done.  When it was dry I did add the darker accents that you can see have the hard edges.  Adding these darker shapes does make that first wash, visible beneath them, truly glow.

The bottom half of the painting was accomplished in a similar manner beginning with a very pale yellow ochre / cad orange wash and then building up the darker values.  Final touches including the tree shape on the right and the shadow side of the wall were added to dry paper.

So I’m feeling quite evangelistic about working with that first wash and seeing how far I can push it.  You often hear that if you allow watercolour to do it’s thing it will paint itself.  One thing this means is that when you get creative with that first wash magic things happen.

If you are interested in learning more about this you will want to join me for my 2 day workshop March 23/24 at the Leighton Centre.  This is an important component of what I will be teaching at the workshop.  You can get information and register for this workshop from the Leighton Centre website.


Plein Air – 2 Studies And What I Learned From Them Plus Bonus Material

Rex Beanland, Bella Roma, watercolour, 9 x 12

Bella Roma, watercolour, 9 x 12









Rex Beanland, 5th Street, watercolour, 9 x 12

5th Street, watercolour, 9 x 12












These 2 paintings are recent plein air studies.  I have always been a big fan of plein air painting even thought I didn’t actually do it all that much.  This past year I have done it more consistently than ever before.  While that in itself is a big step forward, the more I do it the more I expect to achieve  each time.  At first I was happy if my painting looked like the scene.  The closer it was to the actual scene the happier I was.  Now, however, I feel the need to raise the bar.  Yes, I want it to be fairly accurate but more importantly I want it to be a painting that tells a story, in other words a painting with substance.

I was very happy with Bella Roma because I think the values are accurate and the drawing is good.  It was a day with just a bit of sun so there weren’t really strong contrasts.  But mostly what I like is the centre of interest.  With the people and the darks in the door I think it has a story.    In  5th Street my goal was just to get a realistic value pattern.   It was a little more challenging than Bella Roma because of the bushes and the tree.  I wanted to also create a strong contrast between the shadowed building and the sun lit lawn.

So mission accomplished?

In many ways yes, but in the bottom image I still had to do the darker wash on the side of the house with 2 washes.  In watercolour it’s so important to try to get it in that first wash because that first wash has the magic and the glow that watercolour is famous for.  As soon as you let that dry and go over it again you start to lose that freshness.  It can still be effective but it lacks the magic.

I was so pleased that today (when I did 5th Street) I spent an unusual amount of time after I had done the drawing to squint and identify the value pattern.  I identified it quite well in my mind but there is still work to be done  get it get it on paper,  the first time.  Still I’m happy with this step.


Rex Beanland, Skateboarders, watercolour

















I happened to see some video of skateboarders recently and did these quick little studies. It was fascinating to catch the human body in these unusual and very active poses.  This is definitely material that will find it’s way into a painting in the future.  These images weren’t done in a true plein air manner but I thought that they sort of fit in with the spirit of plein air.