Watercolour pencil - Coventry Canal step by step

Various watercolour pencil techniques can be used in a single painting, as shown by this scene of the Coventry Canal near Tamworth. . 

With a watercolour pencil able to produce the 'line' then brush and water able to provide the 'wash', this medium offers a good way to develop a watercolour style of painting.

Firstly, consider the way a soluble line responds to water.

A firm line which is placed on the paper with pressure, will produce some wash when treated with water on a brush, but the line will remain on the paper where it has been embedded.

This is advantage number one for the line and wash technique - we can apply a line and know that much of it will remain as a mark even if some pigment is dispersed by the water.

We can ‘pull away’ pigment from one side of the line to leave a pale wash where we want it - and no colour on the other side of the line (this needs a steady hand and a good brush).

If we want a simple wash with no line, we can apply the dry pigment direct from the pencil as light shading, and then manipulate it with the water and brush.

We can still use other watercolour pencil techniques, such as the use of a pigment palette to add a small amount of colour to a wet surface, which will enable us to get the light blue of the sky and the shadows in clouds.

Once one layer of colour has been applied and is dry, we can introduce further layers of watercolour pencil pigment to build the tones and contrasts.

The paper you use will have some input here.  Don’t use too thin a paper and most certainly use a paper manufactured for watercolours.  

I usually select a 300 gsm hot pressed watercolour paper for fine detail in coloured pencil based pictures, but for line and wash I would recommend heavier paper and one with some surface texture (I will be using a 500gsm watercolour paper from Hahnemuhle, branded as ‘Andalucia’).  This has a good surface without too regular a pattern, will sit on a drawing board without stretching and take considerable work with a wet brush without buckling and distorting.  The resulting picture will be closer to a watercolour than a detailed coloured pencil picture, but that can be no bad thing.

For my example, I have taken a photograph of the Coventry Canal close to Tamworth in Staffordshire.  Hopwas Woods are to the left and in the distance, and the canal towpath winds its way on the right.  This canal still gets a lot of boat use, with narrow boats using it to link Coventry with the Trent & Mersey Canal at Fradley Junction.

Coventry canal reference photo

Getting started

The first step is to draw out the basic shape of the picture on the paper. I used an olive green watercolour pencil for this, as it will blend in to the predominant greens of the picture as it develops. 

I have already applied brush and water to the lower part of the drawing in this first image. 

Initial drawing and first washDrawing and first wash

Below is a close up detail of the work so far so you can see more clearly what is going on, 

Detail of first washCloseup of first wash

I now have the general shapes of the picture in position.  

You can see that the canal is where it should be, those tall trees to the left are in place, and the splash of contrasting light from the field of corn will supply the impact needed against the dark of the left hand tall trees and the darkness of the bank of trees behind the field in the distance.  

The reflection of light from the sky in the canal also provides interest to the centre of the picture.  

The two figures walking ahead down the tow path add a note of scale - I have drawn them a little larger than in real life.

Full base drawingBase drawing in place now

There are several ways I can approach the picture now.

  • I can complete the sky and the clouds.  
  • I can work along the foreground where there are plants that will overlap the water of the canal which will have to be done first (as they are lighter than the water).
  • I can complete the cornfield to the left, so that the trees on the left (which are darker) can be worked over the top).  
  • Or I can do an experimental bit of foliage on the right hand side along the path.

I have decided on the latter, as the picture will be used as a demo piece at the forthcoming Knuston Hall Open Day. It will be good to have a small area well advanced, to show the visitors at the event the way the sky is worked and the foreground constructed.  

This makes it a little more difficult for completing the picture, as the ideal course would be to do the sky first as the trees all need to be worked up to and over the sky.  However, the sky nearest to the right hand tree is cloudy so I will be able to work around the problem as there will be no need to add blue here. I should be able to leave the paper surface as cloud.

For this exercise, I am using colours from the Derwent Watercolour Pencil range (the full set of 72) and for the first step, I have taken four colours.  May Green (the lightest), Grass Green (another light green), Cedar Green (a good dark green) and for the purple tops of the flower area near the walkers, I have picked Terracotta. This last is a dark red, but I don’t want to use a purple in the distant colour and I think it will work well.

Let’s see how the colour goes down ..

The relatively rough paper is working well to take the colour from the watercolour pencil. We will have areas of white left from the grain of the paper and may wish to leave some of this white when we apply water to the pigment.   

The picture is approximately 12 inches  wide by 10 inches high  (33 x 24 cm).

Scribble stroke close upScribble stroke close up

See how I have used my usual interlocking ‘scribble’ stroke of the different greens for the areas with leaf.  On this paper, the colour hits and misses. the pencil stroke seems even more random with broken areas of white paper still showing.

I may well leave some of this as dry watercolour pencil.

None of the areas are shaded with straight lines.  Once water is added to the colour the structure of the image will be formed by the point of the brush, but for this part of the picture I want to avoid any clear lines which are at risk of remaining after brushing in.   I will rely on lines being left when I get to the left-hand trees and their branches.

I am going to work a little more dry colour into the left hand side and then we will discuss the addition of some water.

I am using a No. 8 Nylon type watercolour brush with a good point. The aim is to have a springy bristle which will manipulate the colour .  It is not necessary to use an expensive sable type watercolour brush ! This brush cost under £2!

As you can see below, more dry watercolour pencil has been added and I have now started with the water process.

Using a DAMP brush containing just enough water to soften and move the dry pigment, I have started at the top edge of the tree and deliberately left small patches of white to mimic the sight of the sky appearing through the foliage.  

The darker area of tree nearer the trunk will come with the next stage.  At the moment only the tree and the line of woods in the distance have been worked with water.

Adding colour to the foliage

Let us have a closer look at that area which has been worked ..

Note that nearer the edge of the tree, the damp brush has merely softened the pigment. The darker green still appears as a mark.  As we move down and to the right, more energy has been put into the brush and more water added, so that the colour has become more even.

Those distant trees have had the dry colour moistened and merged so that we can see a darker line of colour along the top of the far trees and also a darker shadow area along the bottom edge where the nearer trees stand forward.  

The light is catching the tops of those near trees but we see the shadowed green near the bottoms.

When the brush is applied to the dry pigment, the colour becomes mobile and can be pushed into areas  where we want darker tones, and moved from other areas to make lighter tones. 

This is a basic watercolour pencil skill and is worth practicing.

Remember the colour you see above, is not the final picture - there will be further dry colour and more water added yet.

Brushing the foliage

When you add water to Pencil based pigment and it dissolves, there may well be a change in the actual colour you see, as well as greater strength in the colour.  This is because the dry pigment bonds with the white paper and becomes a true watercolour rather than a layer of pigment bound in a soluble wax carrier sitting on the top of the paper surface.  

Some colours may change dramatically depending on the brand and the combination and amount of pigments included.  You should get to know the brand of pencils you are using both as dry and as wet colour.

It is useful to have a piece of kitchen towel handy to dab off excess water from the brush and also excess colour from the paper before it dries and becomes locked to the paper surface.  A screw of clean kitchen paper can be very useful to manage or remove excess colour.

I can now move ahead and apply water to most of the rest of that bottom right hand corner.

I am working my brush in the direction that the scenery goes with the aim of re-drawing the colour with the paint as it comes off the surface.  If I press lightly,the  lines of darker colour will remain.

If I press hard, I can lift and merge all the colour in the area being worked.

When I get a strong single colour appear (as in the area of rosebay willow herb to the left of the walkers ), I can adjust this by bringing up some green from the area underneath.  I have also pushed up some dark green into that area to represent  the area of darker shadow under the flowers.

Don’t forget, this is just the under layer.

More dry colour can be introduced later using those same coloured pencils, and more definition can be put into the details of the picture.

I want to restrict the colours to these four that I have chosen for the moment, so that I get some uniformity across the whole of a picture being completed in relatively small sections.

Continuing with the right hand side of the picture

Next stop is the sky.  I am finding that the very heavy paper is responding well to the water - there has been no buckling of the paper at all.  I have applied a layer of clean water to the sky in those areas where blue is required between the clouds.

Whilst the water is still glossy on the paper surface, I have then ‘dabbed in’ a very small amount of Ultramarine blue watercolour pencil pigment with a brush into those areas and let the colour spread naturally.  

I have encouraged some movement and also used some kitchen tissue to remove some excess blue.  The aim is to make areas of sky between clouds - they don’t have to be identical to the reference, but I have used that as a guide. I will add shading to the underside of the clouds later, and this will give them more of a cloud ‘shape’.

Following the addition of the sky I have worked more dry colour into the right hand side using the same four colours plus a dot of blue on one of the walkers.

As I commented earlier, this exercise was a demonstration piece for an all day event, and there needed to be a selection of areas visible  to visitors- some nearly finished and some just at the start. This is why I have been doing so much to the right hand corner.

Adding the sky

This image, below, is the result of a days work at the College Open Day (with interruptions to explain what I was doing).

Unfortunately it was not possible to scan or photograph the stages during the day, so I will now do a ‘tour’ of the picture and explain what has been done.

There is also a more detailed image further down, showing the central area.

After the open day

Starting on the right hand side we can see that I have darkened the shadows in the right hand tree foliage down to the pathway.  I have added dry cedar green watercolour pencil and then softened it with a damp brush, working in circular strokes with the brush to build the dappled dark you see.

I have added Terracotta pigment to the walker who was previously white. This will blend in better and run with the colour in the flowers on the river bank. I have added more green along the path so that the path edges are showing shadow.

There is another layer of cedar green introduced to the bushes just below the walkers and the light grasses have been retained.

Coming down to the bottom right hand corner, more dark green has been introduced to provide a line of shadow in the grass at the immediate front of the picture.  This is always a good move in landscapes (if you can get away with it)!  As it provides a step of darker colour to lift the eye of the viewer into the picture. It is a useful foundation or base for the overall picture.

As I work along the bottom of the picture, I will take the opportunity to add more dark shadow, even though it may not be there in the original reference.

As you come across the centre you will see that there are light grasses showing in front of the dark shadow in the water.  These were done much later and I will explain that process when we get to it.

The grass on the bottom left hand side is still quite light, and I have taken the opportunity to experiment how best to complete those red flowers.  First idea was to leave small patches of red representing the flowers and then apply the green. This didn’t work too well as the softening process with water, made the colours merge with the green making the red a dark grey.

I did put in some of that dark shadowed water while working back towards the right and to the centre, and I think it may help you to see a more detailed image of the centre area with a description of that process.

Detail of centre of paintingDetail of centre

I put that centre tree in position with the ‘usual’ light green scribbled watercolour pencil for the leaf cover.  I know the reference shows a tree which is more brown.  I will see later if the leaf cover needs adjusting, but for now it is light green!

See how the reflection in the water partly mirrors the scene above it  I have been careful not to add too much colour in the water at this stage.  It is easier to add and more difficult to remove if it is not wanted.

The tree has some structure to indicate where the main branches are.  I will not put in every branch seen in the reference photo.

That yellow ochre field is essential to the structure of the composition. It provides a foil for the trees behind it and also for the tall trees on the left which have yet to be completed.  Some ripples have been added to the water just to establish the broken surface.

Now let us look at those light grasses over the water shadow and also the solution to the flowers against the dark water and green grass.

The answer lies in the heavy grade of paper used.  500gsm paper is very thick and although this one has a soft surface and needs careful handling, it will take an attack with a craft knife and come up smiling.  Once the water on the softened pigment has dried, we can scratch into the paper surface, and draw the grass stems in with a knife.  Likewise the red flowers both against the green grass and the dark water.  This will pull up the surface of the paper and leave small pits with small bits of paper raised from the surface.  

I have then taken a WAX based pencil (NOT a watercolour pencil) and pressed dry wax colour into the paper to preserve the white of the grass and the red of the flowers.  If I do have to go over these areas again with wet pigment later, there is a real chance that the wax will act as a resist and protect the lighter colour from pollution.  We will see ……

There has been a two week gap between the work above and picking up this watercolour pencil project again. Fortunately the colours chosen for the earlier sessions were still identifiable in the box, as they were all turned upside down when put back last time.

I have spent a morning developing the lower left hand side of the picture.  You can see below how the balance of the picture is greatly improved by the addition of those tall trees which provide a slope for the eye to follow down into the body of the picture …. See the arrow inserted over the image.

If you refer back to the reference image (inset) you will see I have lightened and opened out the area between the trees to add more light to the left hand centre.  At the moment, I am just adding dry watercolour pencil and building up colour and lines both to the trees and to the far side of the canal bank.

The diagonal tree line draws the eye to the centre

Look at the detail of the pencil work and see how the strokes build up.  Once water is added, the lines will soften, but if the brush strokes are kept very light, the lines will be left but some colour will be merged and developed into a more watercolour result.

Dry pencil pine trees

And below is the result of that brushing in process with a damp brush.

Make sure that you work all your brush strokes in the direction the element of the picture goes.  Grass and tree trunks have almost entirely vertical strokes.  Any water must have horizontal strokes.  Any foliage can be dabbed, pushed, and generally shaped into position, leaving areas of light and darker pigment.

Remember, once the wet surface has dried, you can go back in again with dry pencil and add shadows, change colours. etc.

What you cannot usually do, is move dried paint once it has bonded to the paper surface.

For those more used to layering wax pencil pigment, using watercolour pencil can be a revelation -the number of layers that the paper can take are almost without limit.

Trees washed with water

As you will see, the main change in the next photo is the work to the pine trees on the left.

Most of this work is done with entirely dry pencil point - and a good fine point on the pencil too. We need to take account of the shape the branches take and allow for that curve in the outward facing branches.

The foliage cover is still pretty light, but this can be developed and where necessary the pigment can be lightly softened into position to fill areas with darker green.

Shadows added

Keep track of the light and how the tree trunks will cast shadows on the grass. Not every tree or every branch needs to be included, we need to work to give an impression of the scene that someone familiar with the walk down that canal bank would recognise.

The reference needs some following to duplicate the exact pine branches, so I am working more from what is needed for the picture, than making an exact photo realistic image.   Look at the next stage below where not a lot has been done.

The major change you will notice is in the left hand side pine trees.  The Cedar Green watercolour pencil is giving the tree foliage quite a different look and also balancing out all those lighter greens in the foreground.

You may have spotted that I have punched in some darker areas of shadow all over the picture using the black watercolour pencil.

This will simply darken colours when used over the top (unless used too much), and some small areas of dark now show along the bottom edge of the picture and within the grasses.

Finishing touches

I  have scratched out some small spaces of white in the foreground to put in more flowers (Terracotta and Rose colours) trying to get them into random position (not easy).  I may look at it for a few days now to decide if more flowers are needed, and if so, where.

The picture isn’t finished, but it isn’t far off. I will now put away the reference and spend time over the next few days, looking at the work at this point.  

Actions considered

After a week I had the following thoughts. 

  • Those flowers need to be different sizes.  I will need some larger ‘blooms’ to the foreground.
  • That blue shirt on the walker may be too bright. I can either darken it with a darker blue, or lift some colour with an eraser to reduce to colour strength.  This may not work as the colour may be too locked to the paper, but it might be worth a try.
  • I had thought I might do some more work on the water, but am now having a re-think. The water may be fine as it is.
  • Not sure that I want to add any shadow to the cloud bases.  They are not ‘perfect’, but tinkering with them now could easily ruin the picture.
  • The areas of dark shadow need to be defined better.  Perhaps some more Black will help.  It won’t read as Black when layered on top of other colours and will tend to simply darken the existing colour.

Final watercolour pencil painting

The picture is just about 'good to go'. It only needs a signature.

Final painting

Coventry Canal at Hopwas, Staffordshire.

Derwent Watercolour Pencil on Hahnemuhle Andalucia 500gsm paper

Copyright Peter Weatherill

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