Ken Tolmie’s Watercolour Technique

1. Stretching the Paper
2. The Drawing
3. Background Wash
4. Underpainting
5. The Long and Winding Road
6. The Coup de Grâce

Step Three: Background Wash

Using very wet 4-5" housepainter’s brushes, Tolmie applies a wash, or a suspension of pigment in water. Thanks to the large quantity of water, the paint flows over the entire paper surface, leaving no background white at all. Watercolour washes are applied in layers, either wet-on-wet so that the colours bleed together or wet-on-dry. For a warm background, Tolmie uses a yellow wash, and for a cooler background he uses a blue wash. Note how differently coloured washes create different moods in The Ice Queen: Study (left) and The Singing Angel (right).

Tolmie’s use of washes distinguishes his technique from that of most watercolourists, who try to preserve background whites. In contast, Tolmie completely obliterates the background, and applies highlights using opaque white in the last stages of the painting. According to Tolmie, preserving background whites allows artists to paint transparently, but often results in a standardized look because of the narrow tonal range this technique involves. Tolmie uses a much greater range of colours than traditional watercolourists: “In this sense,” he says, “I treat watercolour like oils. I am not interested in transparency but energy, and I often apply additional wet washes towards the end of the process, obliterating detail to recoup the energy that the painting has after the first washes.

“As I add more layers, the washes bleed together to create an explosion of colour; this vivacious underpainting creates the energy of the finished piece. So although I employ a range of colour that is more typical of oil painting, I also strive for the fresh look and fine brushwork that are only possible with watercolour.”

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