Washes – tonally graded washes & overlaying washes

This post covers my first attempts with washes and is in two parts: tonally-graded washes and overlaying washes. 

Tonally graded washes

The aim of this exercise was to practise producing a wash down an A3 sheet of paper (portrait orientation) in a strong colour, fading out to colourless gradually down the paper. It is necessary to control the load of paint on the brush as well as the gradual change in tone. 

I began this exercise by watching a video by Bob Davies (An introduction to washes) on Art Tutor which showed ways in which flat or graded washes could be achieved using watercolour.  Although I was going to use acrylic, the technique was similar although the characteristics of the paint are not.  The page below shows my version of this exercise:

Row 1: a flat wash, uniform colour applied with each brushstroke beginning half way down the previous brushstroke.

Row 2: Three brushstrokes – the first at the top of the paper, the second clear water applied at the bottom, the third a stroke of paint connecting the two.  I am not sure how this would work on larger paper – presumably several strokes would need to be applied for each of the ones used here.  If the brush were very large, I imagine that it would be difficult to apply the paint evenly. 

Row 3: a graded tonal wash applied by adding more water to each subsequent stroke.  Once again, each brush stroke begins roughly midway down the previous one. 

I found it difficult to get the amount of water just right. I did this exercise a couple of times.  The second attempt is below. Scanning exaggerates the inconsistencies in the paint but inconsistencies are present. I preferred the flat wash or the graded wash working gradually down the page when a more predictable wash is desired.  I used acrylic paint which seems to have stronger staining power than watercolour, although there are staining pigments used in the latter, too. I tried to keep the paint wet because acrylic dries fast and cannot be rewetted but the balance between wet enough to keep the paint flowing well and too wet is tricky.  



The exercises that followed on A3 paper were frustrating but taught me the importance of using good quality paper. Cheaper paper must be stretched on a board first and, even then, there is no guarantee that it won’t buckle when re-wetted.  I found it very difficult to produce washes that did not pool on the paper and also in which the brush deposited paint uniformly across the entire brush stroke.  I used up an old pad of 200 gsm watercolour paper on this exercise and will replace it with better quality paper. 

Apart from pooling, it was difficult to avoid streaks, even though I began each stroke roughly mid-way across the previous one.  The image below illustrates the problem that I had in  maintaining intensity of paint across the paper as well as streaking.  I used an acrylic paint (Schminke Akademie) in ultramarine.

Screen Shot 2013 09 07 at 20 58 08


I repeated this several times in this colour as well as in madder deep (crimson), for example, below.  Initially, I encountered with pooling of water even after stretching the paper:  The image below illustrates the problem with pooling, creating an uneven staining of the paper, although the tone does fade gradually down the length of the paper.  


I thought that pooling could be minimised and possibly overcome by taping the paper to a board, wetting the paper with clean water and allowing it to dry before applying the wash. However, this didn’t work when I tried to overlay one graded wash with another, regardless of whether the paper had been allowed to dry in between (i.e. wet-on-dry compared with wet-on-wet).   

I repeated the exercise using water-soluble oils. I achieved a more intense colour and managed to retain the intensity across the width of the paper, at least when the paint was thicker, but the problems of pooling were similar to acrylics.  Because the paint was thicker, I tried blending the brushstrokes with a fan brush.  However, these became increasingly visible as the paint thinned and maybe were not necessary with as the paint-water ratio was reduced. Interesting cloud and rain effect – I like the “clouds” at the bottom of the paper and maybe this is a technique that could be used in future but maybe not for washes!



Overlaying washes

I then began overlaying washes, beginning the second colour from the end at which the first colour fades out.  In the two initial samples below, which have dried flat but show evidence of the paint having pooled while wet, a crimson wash was applied wet-in-wet over a blue wash (left) and vice versa.  The colours blended rather unpredictably – the second colour dominates in both cases but there should proably be no single colour dominance. A third colour should be more visible in the centre where the two colours should blend.  The pooling of water / pigment does not produce a regular tonally-graded ground. The rather un-pretty results are shown below as part of the warts-and-all record.  The actual colours are not as pale as they appear here in reproduction: 



As my initial attempts were too pale, I tried adding more pigment and produced the one below madder deep paint overlaid a dry ultramarine surface.  The intensity should be uniform throughout if the wash is applied with similar tonal changes in both directions, with a colour intermediate between the two at the centre of the paper. 



The pooling was occurring with both stretched cartridge paper and watercolour paper. I tried to address this using a pad of paper that was thicker, as well as gummed at the side so that pooling was less likely.  I used WS oils this time.  The effect is very pale but more even. This is largely due to the paper quality but also due to the fact that I controlled the amount of water better and applied the paint for the second (green) layer to a tilted surface, whereas my earlier attempts had been on a table.  With the paper almost vertical, you have to be quick to control watery paint but it is easier to prevent lines than when the paper is flat.  The difference can be seen below – the blue layer was applied flat, the green layer tilted.  The small, dark smears indicate that the paint was not well-mixed at the start or was caught in the brush and dumped on the paper mid-wash.



Control is greater using wet over dry but I liked the way in which the colours ran into one another.  The colours merged whether the first wash was wet or dry but the effect appeared slightly different.

These techniques could be used to build blocks of colour gradually and subtly, allowing for gradual changes in tone.  I imagine that the effect would be more atmospheric than if glazes were not used.  They could also be used to neutralise / tone down a colour that was too dominant.  

Overall, I found this exercise frustrating. I understand the importance of it and clearly will have to practise but for the past 2-3 weeks seem to have been stuck in washes with piles of paper bearing the initial attempts accruing around my desk.  

 What I learned from this:

  • Heavier paper produces more uniform washes.  Thicker paper on pads with gummed sides works best.  Minimum 260 gsm.  300 gsm better.
  • Applying wet-in-wet creates a subtly different effect from wet-on-dry but both have their place. 
  • The size of the brush needs to fit with the paper size so that the paper can be covered in a reasonably short space of time and with less chance / fewer streaks.
  • Better results are achieved with watery washes if they are done on a tilted surface – not flat on a table. 
  • Care must be taken to load the brush with a uniform amount of paint, which should also be sufficient to lay a uniform wash across the width of the paper. 
  • The paint must be very well-mixed at the start so that a uniform consistency is present on the palette.  Mixing with a palette knife would be better than with a brush with the brush only used to apply the paint. 
  • Water has to be well-controlled.  Wiping the brush on a paper towel after adding water to the paint and then loading the brush carefully can work. 

2 thoughts on “Washes – tonally graded washes & overlaying washes

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