Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sepia Wash Drawing

If you're experimenting with watercolor for the first time, a good way to get some practice is to do a study in sepia. 

Here's a sketchbook page I did while waiting for a train in Italy about 20 years ago.

Parco della Montagnola, Bologna, Italy. Sculpture by Diego Sarti
By painting monochromatically, you remove the variables of chroma and hue. That lets you concentrate on the basics of the dampness of the paper, the amount of pigment on the brush, and the wetness of the brush. That's enough to think about.

Most subjects will call out for a variety of handling, including:
1. Large flat areas, such as the background of this painting. (I did that to simplify, or I would have missed my train)
2. Wet into wet blends, such as the shadow in the lower right,
3. Drybrush, such as along the cat's shoulder and the rock platform.
(I missed my train anyway.)

Here are three tips:
1. Do a fairly careful graphite pencil drawing first. It's especially hard in watercolor to correct mistakes in the initial drawing.
2. If you need to erase, test the effect of the eraser on the paper on another page by rubbing the eraser on a patch and running a flat wash over that area. Some erasers leave behind a little oil or grease that can affect a wash. You can erase after the painting is fully dry and avoid this problem.
3. When you're ready to paint, make sure you have both a big brush and a little brush, and make sure your watercolor set has a mixing well in case you need to mix a large amount of wash. You don't want to have to stop in the middle of a big wash to mix more.
 In Arthur Guptill's classic 1935 book Color in Sketching and Rendering, he demonstrates a few examples of commonplace objects painted in a monochrome watercolor wash. He recommends choosing an object that's white or relatively colorless, like this wooden basket. Painting it in actual sunlight, he noticed the darkness and sharpness of the shadow edge from C to B, the absolute dark accent at A, and the closeness of value at the plane change at (e) inside the basket.

This white china cup is an ideal subject because its faceted sides make the stepwise transitions from light to shadow abundantly clear. All these steps can be carefully modulated with the washes, and the process is immensely faster than charcoal. Plus the tones are smoother and purer. But it takes practice to do such an accomplished study, since you have to lay down the tone and leave it: you can't scrub on it or tweak it forever.

People through history seem to be conflicted about whether to call such a study a drawing or a painting, so they're often referred to as a "wash drawing." I love the fact that it's on the boundary line between drawing and painting.

Instead of sepia, you can use lampblack, ivory black, burnt umber, or Payne's grey, each of which has a slightly different character.

Watercolor in the Wild buy
Color in Sketching and Rendering by Arthur Guptill (1935) Highly recommended, and it hasn't been reprinted.


Dennis said...

Reading this while waiting for a train motivates me quite a bit!

If only I had watercolors.


Jacob A Stevens said...

Hi James, is "sepia" the actual name of the watercolor pigment you're using? Thanks to "watercolor in the wild" I'm building myself a watercolor kit, but I don't remember seeing sepia at my art store (but I wasn't looking for it either.)


James Gurney said...

Jacob, yes, it is. Real sepia used to be made from the ink of a cuttlefish. In fact the name comes from the Greek word for cuttlefish.

Now they use a lot of other pigments to achieve that dull brown-black look: If you want to really get into what's in your sepia, check out

Dennis, don't miss that train!

katybee said...

Hi James, definitely something I need to try. Great post.

Also there is a digital edition of Guptill's book available at the Hathi Trust Digital Library. Here's the link:;view=1up;seq=2

thanks kate

Mark said...

I've never been able to erase pencil lines after laying a wash; the pigment seems to set the graphite, acting as a fixative of sorts. It would be quite lovely to be able to erase all those pencil lines leaving just pure washes, though.

Glenn Tait said...

Its great how you are building on “Watercolor in the Wild” with these types of posts. So many times it’s small things, like the messed-up sketchbook page you mentioned or painting monochromatically, that help make the learning process more doable.

It’s also unspoken things that are informative; watching the video I found it interesting to see how much you rotate the brush, shift your grip and change the brush’s position while you’re painting and manipulating the watercolour.

I like the shots when the sketchbook and palette are both in frame. It’s instructional to be able to see the colours you are selecting and mixing before you put them down on paper. A corner inset showing the palette work as you do a painting might be interesting in a future video.

Looking forward to the next “…in the Wild” video.

Unknown said...

I've been trying to do monochrome watercolor for YEARS, and I still face the same problem: no matter how carefully I mix the shade I want, I have a hard time getting it repeatedly on paper because it depends so much on the quantity of mixture in the brush... How do you deal with this?

Chris said...

The same examples appear in Guptill's watercolor painting step by step book. I wonder if it is a rehash/reprint of the book you sourced?

James Gurney said...

Chris, yes, "Watercolor Step by Step" was edited by Susan Meyer and published after Guptill's death, and it consisted of some of the same material presented in new forms. There's a good discussion of Guptill's books in the order that they were published here:

Glenn Tait said...


I came across this 2005 reprint of "Color in Sketching and Rendering" on Amazon. Do you know anything about this one?

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Glenn. I didn't know about that one. Looks legit, but I've just never heard of the publisher. My guess is that if you can find an earlier reprint on this one, the colors will be truer. I ended up buying a first edition that was in slightly rough shape so the price wasn't too bad, but the colors are great, and the colors matter in this book.

Andra said...

This is so important! I'm currently trying to work my way through the light/shadow in graphite/pencil, which is hard enough - going to watercolour seems impossible at the moment! I love the feeling of concentrating on an object, though. Thanks!