Spiritsail Barge on the Orwell, mixed media on Stonehenge 250gsm fine art Kraft paper

Alan Bickley uses pen and wash to depict an iconic Spiritsail barge on the Orwell.


For this demonstration I’ve selected a drawing of a Spritsail barge from one of my numerous sketch books to use as a reference for this sketch - this typical nautical scene that was once a common sight on the River Thames and its many tributaries, hence the more common name of Thames Sailing Barge, as these wonderful old craft are often referred to. Fortunately, a great many of them have survived and can still be seen sailing up and down the Thames, a magnificent sight particularly when in full sail!

I’m keeping everything very simple, just pen and wash with a few additional touches of various other medium such as gouache for some body colour in a few places.


You don’t need to limit yourself to the colours and materials that I’ve used for the short demonstration, the choice is yours!

Here, you can see some of the materials that I often use when painting in mixed media - it’s so versatile, and great for experimenting and exploring along your creative journey!

Materials used:
  • W&N FW black acrylic Indian ink
  • Liquitex Acrylic ink: red oxide, burnt Sienna 
  • Pelikan neutral tint ink (no longer available so use neutral tint watercolour), or a grey ink alternative.
  • Designers Gouache: W&N permanent white 
  • W&N Artists Watercolour: ultramarine blue, light red, yellow ochre
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Demonstration: Spiritsail Barge on the Orwell

Stage one

These sheets of Kraft paper from Jackson’s Art are 56x76cm, so I’ve torn one of them down into four manageable pieces, each one being 28x38cm.

I’ve deliberately left the first three stages un-cropped so that you can see how I like to work - I don’t like being cramped for space when I’m in full flow drawing out my composition, and it gives me the option of adding more components should it be necessary, as well as being a useful colour testing area!

As is my normal practice, I haven’t drawn anything out with pencil, but plunged straight in with a loaded rigger brush using black acrylic ink, carefully crafting out the shapes of the main vessel and focal point, that obviously being the Spritsail barge. For added interest and balance, I’ve drawn in a few other smaller craft.

Once dry, I’ve mixed up some diluted neutral tint ink, and applied a wash of this mix to establish the horizon, forming the shapes of buildings etc using this same mix, and working some of this same strength ink wash to the reflections from the boats.

I let this dry, and with my no 1 rigger brush, started to loosely draw in some small detail on the boat structures using black ink, and filling in larger areas on the hull of the barge using a Dalon no 4 synthetic round brush. I’m not after a great deal of detail at this stage, or in fact at any stage - I’m only interested in getting down the basic framework of the composition, keeping a close eye on tonal values and the overall balance of the piece!

Stage two

I’d already done a colour test for the sails in the previous stage, which I was reasonably happy with. So, again with a loaded brush, I started to block these in, shaping them as I went.

I added a bit of ‘modelling’ to them using a light wash of Indian ink, making the foreword sail quite a lot darker in tone.

The reflections were a bit weak, so I beefed these up a touch with a diluted wash of Indian ink. Once dry, I drew in a few ‘calligraphic’ type lines with my rigger brush to enhance the reflections. This added a further interesting dimension - we don’t want a boringly flat series of washes!

Stage three

With my drawing board on a slight incline, I applied a diluted wash of ultramarine blue and light red watercolour, and drew out a few cloud formations, making sure to leave areas of the paper  showing through.

A few brush strokes using this same mix were introduced to selective areas of the water. I then loosely indicated the reflection from the sails into the water. 

Try not to leave a crisp line between the hull and water lime - I see this so often, and by consciously separating the two components, it just doesn’t look right! Try and merge them to an extent, it looks far more convincing.

During this stage, I generally hold the drawing board and slightly ‘rock it’ in all directions. This evens out the colour without forming any noticeable puddles. This combination of watercolour will often give you a granulation effect, (more obvious when using a Not or Rough watercolour paper, which of course we aren’t) -  this needs to completely dry off now, don’t try and work over a damp surface, unless you’re after a wet-in-wet effect.

Stage four

Once the sky was bone dry, I washed over a slightly stronger mix of the above two colours, and used this mix to wash over areas of the sky, as well as a few brush strokes to the water - making sure that I left a few areas of the Kraft paper untouched on the horizon line.

Time now to start adding a few bits of detail, being careful not to go overboard with these (no pun intended). The sky needed a few highlights, so with a mix of white gouache with just a touch of yellow ochre added to knock the brightness down, I drew in a few strategically placed brush strokes.

With this same mix, and using my rigger, I dropped in a few details to the vessels, the horizon line and water. I felt that the long hull of the barge needed to be broken up somehow, so I opted to include a small light coloured sailing boat, (think counterchange) a much needed improvement.

Further rigger brush work using Indian ink was added to the group of boats to the right go the main barge.

I rarely, if ever, usr a straight-edge for my rigging. I have done on the main barge mast area, the remainder was put in freehand with a rigger brush. This takes a good deal of confidence, and it can go wrong, so if you feel more comfortable, then use a straight-edge. I was looking at some of the rigging that Rowland Hilder had drawn in to his many nautical paintings, and he did in fact, on many occasions use a straight-edge himself... so I can’t argue with that!



I’ve painted this piece using a series of layers, referred to as the indirect approach. This is how I paint when I’m in my studio, with a series of carefully thought out layers, usually consisting of around four or five. 

The direct approach, more in the style of Edward Wesson, is my preferred choice when painting plein air. It’s often painted using the wet-in-wet technique, spontaneous and in one session, perfect for outdoor painting!


Tinted paper can be a great addition to your armoury, you have a ready made tone, and white highlights can really give your painting a lift!

About Alan Bickley

Alan is a retired graphic designer and editorial artist for the Daily Mail group of newspapers who has been painting and drawing for many decades, and studied fine art and graphic design at both Stafford and Derby colleges of art in the late 60’s.

Alan writes regularly for The Artist and you can enjoy a series of demonstrations in various mediums by


See more from Alan in the gallery by


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