Select Delivery Region:
Our magazines
In this section

One Stroke Watercolour with Francesco Fontana

Posted on Thu 17 Jan 2019

Afew years ago I attended a Chinese calligraphy workshop. The instructor told this story: The king asked the court artist to make a memorable painting to celebrate his majesty. A year later the artist had not created anything, saying he needed time to reach the perfection the king deserved. Ten years passed and finally the artist was ready. He stood in the imperial hall, before the king and his dignitaries; he dipped his huge brush in the paint pot, took a deep breath, stepped forward to the canvas and laid a large brushstroke. The brush danced on the surface for long seconds before leaving the canvas. Everyone in the hall held their breath. Was the painter going to paint a second stroke? The painting was stunning already, so powerful. It didn't call for more! A second stroke might have destroyed its beauty. The artist put down the brush and walked out, exhausted. The king realised how much energy was concentrated in that single brushstroke. His majestic grandeur couldn't have been better celebrated than that perfect, essential and unrepeatable artistic expression. Ten years hadn't passed in vain.

This fascinating story inspired me deeply, and helped give a name to my relentless search for synthesis in my painting style. Watercolour in one stroke is my motto, to remind me (and my students) of the critical importance of doing less. I take the adage less is more very seriously – but it’s easier to say than to do.

One practice that helps to maintain this spirit is counting the brushstrokes – Barry John Raybould taught me that in 2009, when I was mostly painting in oil. I transferred the application to watercolour, which can definitely be more challenging (finish a painting in say 100 strokes). In my workshops the favourite assignment is to finish a painting with a given number of strokes.

The term ‘in one stroke’ is, to me, a discipline to do nothing unnecessary. What’s not necessary in art always is

disruptive. Remember, your brushstrokes are like arrows – don’t waste them. Save one stroke to sign your art!

DEMONSTRATION One-stroke watercolour

How many strokes will you use? Experience will teach you how to adjust, or use this ratio: painting size in cmx4 (painting size in inchesx10). My painting is 27x36cm (101⁄2x14in). So: 27+36cmx4 = 252 (101⁄2+14x10 = 245); I rounded it to 250 strokes. As long as you keep your brush on the paper, it counts as one stroke, so load the brush with as much paint as possible.


  • Draw your subject
  • Set a number of strokes to create your painting (say 100)
  • Pick the largest brush you have (you can change it later)
  • Start painting – and counting your brushstrokes
  • Don’t stop counting and don’t cheat

I chose a brush pen value study from an Austin, Texas cityscape as reference. I selected four hues from Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolours: indanthrone blue, olive green, quinacridone gold, quinacridone sienna.

Try this simple but challenging exercise

  • How large should your brush(es) be compared to your paper size
  • Load the maximum amount of paint (squeeze that tube!)
  • Figure out your gesture, speed and energy before putting paint on paper
  • Find the direction that can best define shapes: horizontal, vertical, diagonal, curved
  • Know exactly when to stop (as soon as you run out of strokes)
  • Establish priorities in your composition (where should you spend more strokes?)
  • Reduce the detail
  • Make sure your paint is clean, the right colour, value and saturation


I quickly sketched my composition with a 5B on the cotton paper.


I washed the paper with a layer of left-over paint from my palette.


The first 50 brushstrokes.


The 100-stroke stage – developing the background and dark areas.


150 strokes – the foreground and some detail.


240 strokes – more details and a last layer of indanthrone blue for the darkest area.


The final 10 strokes and my signature, completed in 11⁄2 hours.


Texas Cityscape, watercolour, 101⁄2x14in (27x36cm). I erased all pencil lines when dry, resisting the temptation to add more.

Francesco Fontana has a BA in Fine Art and is a co-founder of Fare Pittura Atelier in Milan, where he regularly teaches life drawing, oil and watercolour classes. He has also tutored workshops across Italy and France, as well as Bali and the US. He has exhibited widely and won many awards for his work.

This feature is taken from the March 2019 issue of The Artist

Click here to purchase your copy

One Stroke Watercolour with Francesco Fontana


Please login or register to enter your comment click here

No comments