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Line and Watercolour Technique by John Butterfield

Posted on Thu 24 Jan 2019

Line and Watercolour Technique

John Butterfield has developed a technique of using line and watercolour wash to achieve a three-dimensional effect. He explains his method, and how it came about, so that you can try it for yourself.

Working through line and watercolour technique has given me greater confidence in my watercolour work. It opened up an entirely new outlook on this medium for me, and I hope to be able to share my experiences so that you, too, can enjoy exploring with these methods.

It was when I was drawing many subjects on various types of paper with a pen which does not wash up that I had some lucky accidents. Incidentally, I have found that most pens which wash up are fugitive to light and tend to fade. The ones which have a spirit or Indian ink base are usually fast and so remain permanent and are not fugitive to light or sunshine.)  I had been ‘beavering’ away using assorted pens for my experiments; sometimes using pen and ink, on papers of various textures, sometimes resorting to using the rough, undulated side of wallpaper (it doesn’t all soak up water greedily).  At some point I began using Rowney’s Artists’ Superior Watercolour Paper:  the results astounded me – particularly when drawing tree trunks.  At first sight the effect seemed similar to brass rubbings or, if you remember tracing pennies on the heads and tails, a bit like that. By drawing across the grain of the paper it was possible, because of the rough surface, to achieve a three-dimensional effect. The trial and error method proved that for my way of working the Rowney Artists’ Superior 166gm or 300gm, or any of Rowney’s Artists’ Superior rough grained paper, is best.

Dales Village.  Pen and watercolour wash, 16½” x 23”  

This is a good example of the pen giving a three-dimensional effect to produce the trees – by being drawn across the grain of the paper.  This can also be seen in the wall.

The depth, solidarity and texture in trees that I had been trying for for so long began to emerge. Practice and more practice; experimentation and more experimentation gave me many exciting hours as I explored the possibilities of this method. Reading this over it sounds as if the process took a very long time, but it was really no more than a month before I tackled a full landscape by this method. Having completed all the bare outlines of my first landscape, I added some very simple watercolour tone washes. Before putting on the washes I found I could easily remove unwanted pencil marks and guidelines, leaving only the pen drawing which I knew would not wash up. The use of a putty or soft rubber is best because it does not damage the surface of the paper. With very thinly applied washes, I was able to achieve real three-dimensional effects at this stage. It seemed to me that entire pictures were taking on a dimensional quality I had never achieved before. Granted, this may not be to everybody’s taste, but for artists who want to try something slightly different, without having to alter their fundamental methods, I will endeavour to point out the pitfalls I encountered.

Northern Wealth. Pen and watercolour wash, 16½” x 23” 

Here we have the example of the study half finished.  It has still got the pencil sketch showing, but it is being completed by the pen.  Some colour tones have been added to show an overall tone.

First, start to draw with a pen until you feel you are the master of it and can control the tone you are working for. By this I don’t mean thick and thin strokes, but the depth of tone of the ink, whatever the width of the stroke.  At this stage you can find yourself with some sharp contrasts in tone which can be most disturbing. When you begin to apply the colour you cannot eliminate the tones of the underlying ink, so go gently at the beginning. Do watch the way the grain of the paper runs and whether you are using the ink with or against the grain. On the better quality papers this is more clearly defined and the snag here is that if you are cutting down a full Imperial size to half or quarter size (or less), some of the grain could be running in the opposite direction to that in which you want to work. One point to bear in mind is that it is possible to obtain very pleasing results by using the reverse side of the paper on occasions.

Northern Wealth. Pen and watercolour wash, 16½” x 23” 

Here the picture is completed. All pencil marks are eradicated – finished with the pen and then colour added in graded washes.

The use of lines made with a pen on the far horizon, particularly in industrial scenes, can create very sharp contrasts in tone which may not be what you  want – so do think things out before committing yourself. One method I have adopted to counter this sometimes disturbing effect is to paint pure watercolours for the sky and far horizon – and sometimes even the middle distance – before beginning to work with ink on details. This mixing of media is sometimes frowned upon, but I consider art to be a personal thing and therefore it is necessary for us all to express ourselves in our own ways.

When you are drawing with ink; especially when you are doing delicate shading, or many fine lines, if you break the continuity of your strokes and pause for a second to think or survey the drawing, be careful to lift your pen from the paper to avoid blotting. That is unless you wish to put the resulting drops to effect. A little experimentation can clear up the hazards of this method, and I have found it to be very useful when drawing grasses or flowers.

Wool Warehouse.  Pen and watercolour wash, 16½” x 23” 

Here the effect of the pen on the textured paper is clearly seen on the walls and also on the bales of packing material.

When you are attempting larger work and are satisfied that the basic elements (composition, perspective, etc.) are correct in the pencil drawing, stop for a while. Take a good look at the drawing as a whole; then begin to insert your dark tone with ink – particularly on buildings, walls and similar features. The reason I suggest this is that if you start to work, proceeding either ‘down’ or ‘up’ a picture with your pen, you may have difficulty in grading the tones. You will find it quite difficult to darken gradually towards the near distance or foreground. The work cannot then be corrected with the watercolour as the pen work will still show through the tones of the watercolours.


This article is taken from the April 1979 issue of The Artist

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Line and Watercolour Technique by John Butterfield

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