Many years ago the late Edward Wesson told me that pen and wash was a very good introduction to pure watercolour.

I watched fascinated as he painted a beautiful townscape, using just a bottle of Indian ink and a sharpened twig. After careful drawing, coloured washes were casually applied, which immediately brought the picture to life. He had shown that by drawing with black line and leaving white paper, the widest contrast of tone values had established the picture. The addition of colours then fitted tonally between the two extremes. A range of contrasts is much more difficult to obtain with colour alone, which is why he advocated pen and wash as a starting point.

The much-loved, Sir Hugh Casson, was another exponent of this method. With the minimum use of line and often only a suggestion of colour, his simple sketches evoked admiration from us all.

Think first

If you like drawing, you’ll love using pen and wash. Most artists start their careers using a pencil – and paint follows, so what’s different and difficult about using a pen? Well, you say, obviously you can’t rub anything out! And a good thing, too. You have to get it right first time, so think first, then go ahead and do it – no hesitation.  This is just how your watercolour painting should be – nine tenths thinking and one-tenth doing! Hold the pen loosely but firmly and enjoy.

For this article, I am going to use a variety of pens. As I am sure you know, there is such a huge number of them on the market that it’s largely a question of experimenting to find the one that suits you best. Whether you choose fountain pens, Biros, cartridge or brush pens, they will all hold either waterproof or non-waterproof (water-soluble) ink. The latter are generally the least expensive and I personally find them very exciting to use.

Figure 1 - Painting flowers in pen and wash allows both precise drawing and broad areas of colour

Painting flowers in pen and wash incorporates a whole range of styles and techniques, from precise drawing with a fine line at one extreme to a thick non-waterproof line at the other (Figure 1 above).  Remember to leave any white flowers or areas untouched and you’ll be surprised at the lovely colours that will seep out from the black line. It can also help make a really vibrant background.  Try it first on a separate piece of paper and use a careful but casual approach finally adding any detail.

Helenium, pen and watercolour wash 4” x 4” (10.1cm x 10.1cm)

For Helenium (above) I have drawn the flowers with a thin black waterproof pen adding new gamboge and sap green with light shadows of cerulean, permanent rose and a little of the yellow for the shadows. Burnt umber was added around the base of the centre part.

Figure 3 - Silk and dried flowers using an Edding 1800 sepia pen with waterproof ink

In Figure 3 (above) I have used a sepia pen (Edding 1800 0.5 with waterproof ink) to draw these silk and dried flowers. This gives a rather softer effect, which is lovely for flowers.

Variable line

Figure 4 - Patio Pots. For this quick sketch, Jan used a pen holder filled with Indian ink, which produced a variable line. Watercolour was added on top.

Indian ink (preferably the non-cloggable “Calli” ink) used with a pen holder and nib, produces a variable line as did Edward Wesson’s sharpened twig!  I drew the summer patio scene (Figure 4, above) and quickly floated colour on top. Look at the right-hand side and see how useful line is for delineating some of the leaves and varying the greens behind. A few lines and a few suggestions bring variety to your paintings and you can work quickly. This watercolour sketch took about half an hour which was just as well, as it was one of those lovely, really hot days and a Pimms awaited!

You can use a pen and nib for coloured inks too but, before buying, ask yourself two questions:  is the ink waterproof or water-soluble; and is it lightfast, or will it fade in the light?

Figure 5 - Lilies and chrysanthemums painted with a Pentel brush pen, which has the capacity to produce both thick and thin lines.

The Pentel brush pen also produces a variable line and the ink is waterproof. Rather expensive it works with a cartridge of black ink, but it does come with plenty of spares. I find it quite unusual and rewarding to use. You ‘stroke’ it onto the paper and it is able to produce both very thin and quite thick lines (See Figure 5, above). Worth trying.

Have fun experimenting, and remember that you can always drop on top of your dried painting if you wish; or draw with a pen on top of a coloured wash to start with (let the wash dry first, or you may ruin your pen). Try hot-pressed paper as well as NOT; it takes the pen very well.