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  June 2007 - Giving Yourself an Edge

“Someone once said that watercolorists and pilots have much in common:

They’re flying on their own and nothing can help them but their thorough knowledge of the mechanics of their craft”.


                                                                                       John Pike (1911-1979)

 Considering all the things that can go wrong when painting a watercolor, it’s a wonder that they ever work out. I find this especially true when I’m painting on location. Because of the sun, the heat, the wind and the bugs, I generally use a direct approach that is, in some ways, more akin to painting an oil painting.

I know that the drying time will be minimal. So rather than trying to work large areas, I tend to compartmentalize the areas of the painting. I work a smaller area, charging in pigment and orchestrating the paint flow until I have an area that is the right value and has interesting gradations (light to dark, warm to cool etc.). One drawback of this approach is that I have to make certain that the area I’m working in will relate appropriately with all the other areas of the painting. This takes a lot of practice, and even then it’s a risky proposition.

Sometimes the subject can also be visually confusing, and I’m forced to do some advanced planning. That’s when I pull out the pad and make a value study.

These small black and white studies help me preview my light, dark and middle values. They also give me an advanced look at my overall design. In short, they provide me with a roadmap that I can follow when I’m working on the color painting.

These black and white value studies can also be of great assistance when planning a large, finished studio work. I don’t always find the need to do a value study, but over the years I’ve learned enough to know when I need some help.

So, if you occasionally struggle with painting the right value in the right spot, this may be a technique that gives you the edge you need to execute that masterpiece.

I’ve included four value studies and the accompanying sketches to give you an example:


 These first two black and white studies were executed with Tombow Dual Brush/Pens. I use N25 and N35. Each pen has a flexible brush tip on one end, and a fine point nib on the other. You can draw with them and then dissolve them and manipulate them with a wet brush. Or you can draw with them right into a wet wash, or a combination of both.


Ingleville Shack


Tin Roofs



For the two following black and white studies I chose Derwent water-soluble pencils No. HB, No. 4 and No. 8.

painting painting

Moroccan Street Scene


Pecos Ruins


Both the Tombow Pen/Brushes and the Derwent water-soluble pencils also work well for sketching in cafes, restaurants and other venues that might not be suitable for full-color painting. They are a lot of fun and I hope that this will open up new avenues for exploration in your sketchbooks.