Watercolour pencil techniques - Brokken Bridge

Various watercolour pencil techniques were used for this project depicting Brokken Bridge in Clapham, Ingleborough.

The exercise involves Caran d'Ache Museum aquarelles (watercolour pencils) on a cold pressed watercolour paper. Any other brand of pencils could be used, provided that there is an adequate selection on landscape colours. However certain watercolour pencil techniques used depend on the surface of the cold pressed paper, so that is best not changed. 

The picture was started in August 2014 to use as a demo piece at the Knuston Hall Open Day.. Because the early stages were completed as a discussion with visitors, there was no opportunity to take the normal series of controlled photos of the early steps. For this reason the notes below cover the overall start comments and then a series of more detailed notes on the different areas of the picture. Later notes follow the more usual pattern. 

The bride is an old packhorse bridge, too narrow for anything to cross it other than a person on foot, or a horse with packs on its back. The bridge decayed through the centuries and eventually became known locally as the 'Broken Bridge' or in local dialect the 'Brokken Bridge'. It has now been fully restored, but is still just one person wide.

The first photo was taken in summer, and obscures the cottages behind the houses. Also the dark shadow in summer hides what is going on along the other side of the river bank. I used this winter image as a further guide to the lay of the land. 

Larger images of both these and another view can be downloaded as a pdf file here.

The outline drawing

My first step was to stretch a piece of fairly smooth cold pressed watercolour paper (300gsm) and then draw out the overall design of the project - including more details to the left and right. I also included the line of cottages at the back. I will be opening out the foliage a bit and allowing more sky to show along with more background. 

The drawing here shows my plan. You will see the picture is now far more rectangular that the first photo reference at the top of the page. 

The outline was drawn out with a H pencil and the graphite will later be erased once the first wash is in place. 

You can download the outline drawing here if you would like to use that, rather than draw it freehand. 

Watercolour pencil techniques - wash

After giving the sky area a wetting and allowing it to settle back into a damp state, I have mixed up three washes from the watercolour pencils.

These are all Caran d’Ache Museum pencils but you can of course use any brand. My colours are 662 Cobalt Blue, 049 Raw Umber and 245 Light Olive.

The sky is pure cobalt blue in a thin wash with the clouds blotted out with kitchen roll. A touch more blue is added in to highlight one or two areas of darker blue sky.

Your sky will look nothing like this and it doesn’t matter as each time it will turn out different!

You need some blue to give truth to the shadows within the picture, but keep most of your sky either white or very pale blue. Keep all your wash tints pale and blend your three colours as necessary to give darker tints (brown and blue give a good blue grey). 

One of the watercolour pencil techniques we will use is to lay the colour strokes in the water down horizontally, in the direction of water flow. There are several very pale layers of wash involved. Don’t go too dark too soon.

I have put some extra layers on to the shadowed wall area to kill the white of the paper more effectively, as this area will be in deeper shadow. I have ‘drawn in’ the branches of the tree with the brush in a light brown colour to preserve the shape and position of the branches for later, when the pencil is erased. Leave the light areas of wall and roofs white for the moment. I have applied a very pale layer of grey blue to the bridge in the right foreground where it is in sunlight. 

As the bridge is actually quite narrow, I have left the view of the bank through the arch of the bridge much lighter than the reference. I will correct this once I start using the dry pencils.

At this point I spent a day demonstrating watercolour pencil techniques using this picture as an example, and the artwork was completed on a very ‘ad hoc’ basis. At the end of the day, a substantial amount of work had been done and the notes below discuss this 

After the watercolour pencil techniques demonstration day

This is the full image at the end of the day’s demonstration. The notes below are in 5 units and I discuss each area in turn. You don’t need to work in this order .

Watercolour pencil techniques - moistening dry pencil

MOSTLY the work at this point is with dry pencil colour ‘scribbled’ on to dry paper and then blended with a damp brush, or sometimes dry pencil colour applied to a palette of rough paper and then lifted and applied to the picture to give small areas of controlled and stronger wash colour.

Area A: Top left

Nothing has been done to the oak tree (yet). You can see the way the initial wash has lined out the branch and has been doubled up in a second layer where there is shadow on the tree trunk.

The graphite pencil drawing has been removed. At the foot of the tree, the light olive pencil was used for the grass. The colour is wrong for grass, but it makes a good base to work on.

To the right you can see how the scribble strokes have been applied to the areas of hedge behind the top of the bridge. These will be damped down and blended in eventually, but making sure that we keep that crisp top line for the stonework in the sunshine.

The distant foliage in the trees to the immediate right of the oak tree are kept light for the moment and have had very little attention 

Area B: Bottom left

Here you can see the various stages of the watercolour pencil techniques used in the development of the grass.

Stage 1 is simply the underpainting. You can see that some blue has been added to the original green wash in places.

In Stage 2 some additional dry greens have been added with an assortment from the Caran d’Ache and Derwent boxes. The dry colour has been applied in scribble strokes and then softened with water, The colour is still too ‘bright’ and needs to be adjusted. 

Moving on to Stage 3, we can see that vertical strokes of dry colour from a pale blue/green have been applied over the softened colour, and then some delicate vertical strokes of browns and greys have been inserted for the shadow within the grass.

You can see that in Stage 4, further shading in thin layers has also been applied to the water using a palette of colour lifted from a paper based source. This has been well diluted and washed in Here I have used a mixture of dark blue with raw umber 

Area C: Centre of the picture

Scribble strokes have applied a range of colours to the trees behind the houses - refer to the reference and select colours from your box of watercolour pencils. Include some red brown and dark green for shadowed area.

Keep your strokes to those suitable for the subject - i.e. the buildings and bridge will have even and light strokes which will wash down on the paper with a damp brush and leave no residual mark.

I have left the pencil lines in for the windows at the moment and have only shaded the shadowed end walls. Keep any foliage strokes to random scribble so that residual marks after the pigment has been softened will give the impression of trees and bushes. Observe the areas of contrast where a roof stands out against shadowed trees - it gives the 3D effect. 

In this detail (left) – I haven’t made the shadow along the bridge wall too dark nor the bank below it. I can make these darker later, if I need to. 

See how I have yet to soften some of the bushes outside the houses and on the bank below the wall. I have made the opening into the wall and the steps down to the beck much clearer. I will straighten up that rear cottage end wall later when I next come round this way. 

The next section reveals one of my favourite watercolour pencil techniques...


Area D: Bottom right Corner

We have already looked at the way the water is being developed but you will see that I have been darkening and shading in more colour on the far bank.

I have left some of the dry colour un-softened and the roughness of the paper allows the white paper to show through. This adds sparkle of rocks in dappled sunlight and I will leave it like this. The shadows under the trees over there may be deepened later once I put the trees in.

Area E: Top right

We can now move round to the final area at the top right where similar watercolour pencil techniques have been used as before. 

Not a lot to show here - at the moment - but you can see how I have put down some lines for tree branches and also some very open scribbled strokes which have been softened in places to give a start to the foliage.

Two or three greens have been used and I will try and keep the open structure with bits of sky showing through as I add more colour and build the leaf cover.

There is a branch coming over the view from the oak tree on the other side of the picture and whilst this makes a nice frame for the houses and bridge, the branches and leaves must not be too regular in shape. That little dropping branch from the oak tree is very important to break up the composition there. 

Using the texture of the paper

I have started shading in the dark areas of leaf to the left of the oak tree and defined the smaller tree to the edge of the picture. I will be blending some greens into this pigment and then working a leaf effect later, but applying the darks first gives me the ability to define the edges.

This is the next colour I will be using - the Umber from the Museum range. If you are using another brand and colour range, then go for a brown that will provide a dark base for shadow on the tree trunk and also in the green of the foliage behind the trees.

I have also worked some Umber into the dark branch on the right of the oak tree and defined that crooked branch which drops down.

I have the advantage of a cold pressed paper which will provide a good surface to work both tree leaf cover and also rough tree bark. See from the close up image below how the pencil ‘hits and misses’ the paper surface to give an excellent start to the tree and leaf surfaces. 

We can now start to see the overall shape of the composition.

I will add Umber to the branch higher up, that frames the top of the picture, remembering to keep a watch on the dark and light sides of the branches.

The dark shadows will define against light sky and leaf. The light sides of the branch will show up against darker backgrounds.

Being careful over these differences will give the feeling of depth, with parts of the landscape standing in front of others. Look above, at the arch of the bridge, and see how it separates from the river bank behind it. 

Let me remind you of the need to keep a good accurate point on your pencil.


Tips for tree branches

This is a good moment to discuss the working of tree branches.

You will note that the original reference of Brokken Bridge has been extended to include more tree imagery on the left and right hand sides.

When you are completing branches you need to keep in mind three points -

  1. That branches get narrower as they get further from the main trunk. Growing wood generally keeps the same volume all the way up a tree - in other words, if a branch splits, the two resulting branches will both be smaller in diameter than the original. You will get exceptions to this rule when a tree has been damaged, but the human eye and brain expects a branch to get narrower, so it is best to oblige.
  2.  You don’t need to include every branch and leaf which you see in real life or in a reference.
  3. Leave spaces for the birds to fly through the leaf cover and the eye to see sky This means that you may need to change the reference a little. You should be getting the message that the reference photo is just a starting point for your picture. 

Foliage and grass watercolour pencil techniques

Two hours work on the picture bring the level of completion to the scene (above).

I have introduced some extra colours.

  • A dark Phthalo green which additionally adds depth of shadow to the dark green immediately above the top edge of the bridge,
  • Saffron, which additionally adds a warm glow to those trees in the background
  • and a green ochre which adds warmth to the grass.

Using short upward strokes of all three colours to the grass area, I am able to give the illusion of rough grass with clumps and areas of shadow. The use of the three colours in the grass will provide linking to colours elsewhere in the picture.

More shading has been added to the oak tree trunk. Our reference shows this as shades of yellowish brown, but we know that an oak tree is actually quite grey in colour, so the warmth is reduced by using a light grey and also our dark green to work more colour here. A brush has been used to wash some of that colour into the paper 

You can see in the detail image (above) that the dark green has been applied to the area behind the trunk to highlight the tree on that side, and a series of scribble strokes have been added to produce the oak tree foliage.

This is still incomplete, but I wanted to build this up carefully still leaving gaps in the leaf cover and taking the curve of leaves over the top of the picture, framing the farm houses, bridge and cottages as you can see above.

The scribbles have been given a light wash with a damp brush to soften the appearance and further greens will be added later and also washed in. 

Finally, for this stage, I have worked over those background trees and the green tree shadows around the houses. I may darken these further, later.

Further areas of interest have been on the bridge itself and the shadows around it, putting down additional colour very carefully.

The next step will be to work over the oak tree foliage again to build depth of colour higher towards the top edge of the picture, and separating the greens of the two opposing trees The background trees will then need some extra shaping with shadows. Then the river needs attention and the last step of all will be to the buildings. 

All our coloured pencil techniques combine into our picture

The finishing steps involve working up the oak tree foliage with dark greens and settling the pigment back into the paper with a small pointed brush and then re-working more greens and some browns into the leaf cover (the overall scene is autumnal).

Detail is put into the buildings, but contrast is kept low to avoid directing the eye away from the bridge itself.

More oranges are added to the background trees and the roof of the main house is sharpened (and straightened).

To the left of the oak tree trunk, shading is added in greys, greens and browns and left dry so that the oak tree stands forward.

A small amount of black is introduced to the shadowed area under the bridge where the actual structure lies. The water is then worked with areas of grey, blue brown and green shading which are washed in with that small damp brush to give a more dappled and active look to the water surface. The wet pigment from the water treatment is pushed up towards the far river bank which gives the dark water edge.

Finally some shading is added to the bridge keeping as much of the lightness as possible to the left hand side. 

Obviously more work could be done here to add more and more detail, but that, I think, would spoil the overall effect.

The finished picture, utlising many watercolour pencil techniques, is shown above.

It is 12.5 ins x 10.5 inches and will probably be mounted up and framed slightly smaller.


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