Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

September 12, 2017

Pen and Wash

Later in the year I am to give a talk at a local art club. The previous year I had done Pen and Ink and as I left they asked me back and wondered if I could do one on Plein Air painting the same time next year. A few weeks ago at an exhibition of the group’s work I picked up a leaflet that listed the upcoming talks and found I was scheduled in to do a talk on Pen and Wash… A slight panic then set in after I went through my old, ancient and then antediluvian drawings. It seemed that bar about 6 illustrations pen and wash had not been a big feature of my 40 year career!

Now I have always admired pen and wash as a medium and 2 of the examples of my massive output in the media were recent where I had washed colour out of the ink in a pen sketch. However I could not help but conclude that I was about 20 slides shy of the full Powerpoint. No matter I thought with a sudden gush of over-confidence I’ll do some it will be fun! After all how hard could it be?

Very… perhaps another to get the point over…VERY!

Its beguiling simplicity might be the problem. You first think, “Oh I’ll just do a pen drawing and colour it in.” Then you think, ‘How much pen?”… “How much wash?… Pen first, wash second?… Wash first, pen second?… Waterproof ink?…Non-waterproof ink or a mix of the two?” The only way forward was to look at what others had done and then experiment.

The first technical problem I hit was paper. I tried hot pressed Arches Satin, in one of those glued pads. Not too bad but the surface is quite soft. Wash took well though, so a contender. Next a Moleskin sketch pad that bore the legend on the outside “for fountain pen”. Bah!  The ink went straight through it feathered like mad and was so soft the nib tore up the surface. It rejected watercolour, but sort of interestingly in a way you might exploit.

By now obsession was setting in. On my shelves sit many pads, sketch books, glued pads… and loose sheets. They go back to about 1910 with old sheets of paper my granny had. Indeed I could probably fill a medium sized “Paper Through the Ages.” museum. Cue a pseudo scientific face off!

Below are the scanned tests, I won’t go through them individually if you click there is a hi res image so you can form you own opinion. I scribbled with 3 inks one a waterproof and non waterproof mix which I tested with a wash of clean water. Of the other two inks one is a dilute 6:1 water to ink and the other a Red with the Zebra “G” nib which is sharper and more prone to catch but lovely to draw with.

paper test

The results are mixed. Some failed the G nib test so I excluded them. The worst by far was the Moleskin, worse even than bargain laser paper which is a technical feat. Surprisingly good was 100year old white wove writing paper. Bristol board old and new was very good with the pen but not so hot with the watercolour. Frisk CS10 from the 70’s is the best as far as feel with the pen but the very high china clay content means the waterproof inks don’t dry waterproof. Arches was poor with the pen catching very badly with the G nib, good with the watercolour though. Of the commercial papers the cheapo Fabriano 100 sheet drawing and watercolour pad 250gm was easily the best with the colour washing out very cleanly and hard enough to withstand the G nib. My favourite Ruscombe mill paper also passed with flying colours the paper is so hard sized that the G nib worked despite the texture of the surface. I used the blue but they make other colours. Below is the vile Moleskin…

Below is the back or verso of the sheet… as you might guess it also destroyed the page behind… the dark spots are where the pen went through entirely… not the sharp G nib by the way, a soft tipped fountain pen nib.

Next my efforts old and new…

This drawing has appeared before a few years ago. It is Honfleur, I did a few pen and washes on this trip, I can see I kept the penwork quite open so it would accept the wash. Also some pen is under the wash and some on top which adds variation.


Leadenhall Market, London, Pen and wash

This was done after I got back. It is Leadenhall Market in London. Again I am dividing up the work between the wash and the line. I think I resorted to wash here because of the complex subject and lack of time.


normandy, france, pen and wash

France again, Normandy this time. I well remember doing this I penciled carefully then started with the watercolour and it slowly lost definition and structure. So I added pen to accent the main beams and trusses. I remember being quite chuffed at the result.


Portobello, pen and wash

I am starting to see a trend here… I resort to pen and wash when in dire need! This is Portobello and another watercolour that went off the tracks. It was wet and I remember having to finish in a rush as the downpour started. The result I have to say is probably better than if I had carried on with just the paint.


Honfleur, france, pen and wash

Honfleur again. Not a rescue job this time thank heaven. This pen and wash at its simplest with the colour being washed out of the line. As it is on the blue Ruscombe paper the added highlight gives a relatively full toned image. Here the pen is definitely to the fore.

Well that is the past efforts in the medium. Having looked at these I decided to do more to explore the variations possible. The first thing was wash first or pen?


Hanford house, pen and wash

This is Hanford house, here the drawing is done in pencil then most of the wash work laid in. The pen was then added. The advantage of this is that the pen work is only added where it is needed so I stuck to line with little or no hatching. A few bits of final watercolour darkening caused the red in the ink to run which I quite like.


Wells, somerset, pen and wash

Another one, this time of Wells, where the wash went in first. Less successful here I feel. I have overdone the pen work and the line is too heavy on the cathedral itself. I am unconvinced by the wash first method now. I think some pen at least has to go in before.


Kimmeridge, Dorset, pen and wash

This recent drawing of Kimmeridge is much more like what I am aiming for. This is pen then wash with most of the colour coming from the line itself. A few areas of pen were restated but I like the balance of hatching and washes. I left far wider gaps between lines than I would normally do so as to leave paper for the wash to show. A very quick way of working about 40min whereas a pen drawing could take double that.


Milton Abbey, pen and wash, Dorset

This is Milton Abbas in Dorset. I wanted to try using waterproof ink and go for a subtler atmospheric feel. I used hatching much in the way I would when producing a tonal pen drawing with no outlines but just dropped the line density to accept the wash.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, pen and wash, drawing

This is from an afternoon expedition to sketch on Hambledon Hill. I am frustrated that these fantastic vistas I have on my doorstep are so difficult to make into paintings. You get the same with photos, when you take a picture of an amazing panorama from one of those official viewpoints. Somehow the results always disappoint, even though the scene itself when you were there was amazing. On this one I did the watercolouring first. I laid in all the shadows in a blue which decided the structure and lighting. Next I defined and toned with a pen loaded with grey ink. That was then overlaid with some more watercolour to unify the masses, finally I strengthened with a black pen.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, pen and wash, plein air, drawing

I set about this one with a bit more urgency as the weather was looking threatening. Hambledon Hill has lots of intimate subjects as well as the huge vistas. Once again I did the watercolour part first then, as it looked as if I was in for a soaking, I set about it with a reed pen dipping directly into the ink bottle. The rain shower conveniently deluged Shroton in the valley to my left rather than me so I then added black fountain pen to define the masses and lighting better. A4 Pen and Wash.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, pen and wash, drawing

I then headed home only to spot another squall approaching from the other side. As I was definitely not going to make it home or even off the hill before it broke I set about trying to bash in an impression of the rain arriving. I used the reed pen again but with my red brown ink this time . I drew very broadly the basic forms and started to lay in tone with watercolour before the ink was dry so as to wash lots of colour out of the ink. I then skipped back and forth between wash and pen until it felt done. To my astonishment it once again rained in the valley rather than the hill so I even got home dry! A4 pen and wash.

I have enjoyed my foray into pen and wash so far and I think it has done me good. I was getting a little too comfortable with the pen and white highlight on the blue paper so it is good to ring the changes.

April 1, 2017

A Lightweight Rig For Plein Air

Filed under: How to do,Painting,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Rob Adams @ 3:24 pm

An irredeemably nerdy post, but when you are painting plein air a lot, kit and the weight of it is a key issue. If you can’t carry your gear all day then you are stuck with painting whatever is near your car. Trolleys are great in the city but along a cliff path they are just a nuisance. I was watching a video by Tom Hughes who is a very fine painter, he has done an excellent series of videos called Thoughts on Painting. With some amazement I watched the one where he goes through his gear and says he carries a backpack weighing 15 Kilos! This is in soldiers yomping with bags of rocks on their backs territory. Fine for him, he is young and strong, but I am old and fat and only averagely fit.

Recently I made a studio easel to replace my large and unwieldy Mabef out of jig making gear (for making woodworking and other workshop jigs). The result was lighter smaller and had the added bonus of rotating the canvas to ease making directional brushstrokes.


Here is the basic stuff it comes form Axminster click here to see in their shop. It is a simple T channel that takes specially shaped bolts and is predrilled to fix down.


Here are the fittings and here is the link to them. This is a whole set but you can buy bits individually I believe. I had thought after making the studio easel that the same stuff could be used for plein air. I had also at the same time settled on using a vertical palette which makes mixing tones so much easier as they look the same as when seen on your painting surface, which they will not do if the palette is set at a different angle to your board.

So here I will go through my plein air painting set up set up and how it all goes together. First weight!

Boardholder Palette and Wet box with four 14in by 10in boards.  1.890KG

Gitzo carbon Fibre Tripod with Ball Head and quick release          1.284KG

Paint Box with 10 Colours Medium Turps and Dipper                     1.444KG

Brushroll with Brushes and Rag                                                           0.288KG

Rucksack Shoulder straps                                                                      0.700KG

Total weight                                                                                              5.606KG

If I preload my palette and only take 4 tubes of key colours          4.862KG

So about a third or less of Tom’s load!

I’ll go through each item in detail:


Here is the basic frame with board holders and palette they can all be positioned however you want. Biggest board is about 20in by 16in but you would have to add a bigger wet board carrier. The current one is 14in by 10in but I will be making a 16in by 10in to go on the same rig in due course.

board box

Here is the board box and tripod. The box is made of 2mm ply so is very light. The Gitzo tripod is very expensive but there are other much cheaper ones on the market that weigh much the same. You do need a decent quick release Ball Head on the tripod cheap ones aren’t strong enough and in my experience sag when any great pressure is used on the brush.


This is the paint box notice it has a track fitting so that it too can be attached to the “T” track.


Finally the rucksack straps and brush roll. I just took a fairly cheap but comfortable rucksack and cut away everything but the back panel. The bright metal washers at the top are fixing a wooden baton with another “”T” track fitting so it will attach to the track. The brush roll is… well a brush roll.

Here it is all set up and ready to paint. It takes about 2min to set up ready. If you want to you can rotate the whole lot 9o degrees so that your palette is by the side of your painting.

…and the rear view. The “T” track has a quick release plate attached to it, but it does not have to be removed to pack the whole thing up.

Here is a close up which show how everything hooks on to the track. If I want to adapt it then other bits could be made that fit on the same basic track.

To pack up it all stays on the tripod. The Wetbox clips to the palette making a lid but also supplying a board for doing watercolours as you can see here. Watercolour stuff, colour box, water, sketchbook  and brushes just go in my pockets. I like to have both media with me if possible. The wet box becoming an angled board allows me to work standing up which I prefer in most cases.

Here it is all packed up ready to fix on the straps.

This is with the rucksack straps attached. The tripod stays fixed to the quick release plate. The Bungee just holds the bottom of the strap panel in place and stops anything flopping about. The ties of the brush roll are knotted round the “T” track but I might think of a better way in due course.

Here we are ready to go. On the left you can see the knurled knob that holds the rucksack section in place on the “T” track. I would always advise getting a rucksack with a waist strap and decent padding as this one has. It was sad to cut up a perfectly good rucksack but it wasn’t an expensive one.

So that’s it, this is really just a prototype so I shall make a more streamlined version in due course.

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