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.

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