Sunday, 3 March 2013

Monochrome, Ink Wash Tonal Painting of a Calla lily

Following the previous tutorial on graphite I think it's time to introduce wet media in the form of another monochrome  - this time black ink.  I use ink for quite a lot of illustrations and it's a great for getting to grips with tone and form without the added confusion of colour, and, it's a bit quicker than graphite!

 I think ink wash painting originated in China. Traditionally artists used a black inkstick which is ground over an inkstone, these materials are still readily available, although today ready prepared Chinese inks are available and that's what I use. The part of the Chinese ink painting that appeals to me is the philosophy behind it, that is the importance of capturing the essence or spirit of the subject. Chinese ink wash painting varies from very detailed work to the minimalistic brush stroke approach. I'm sticking with the detailed approach suited to botanical work but like to think I can at least try to create a more personalised approach that captures the character and movement of the plant.

 Ink is not used straight out of the jar and should be diluted with water to produce a watercolour like feel which creates some lovely subtle greys through the layering of ink washes, in much the same way as in traditional watercolour technique.  A word of warning though, ink can be quite unforgiving because unlike most watercolour paints , it cannot be lifted from the paper once applied. 

For this tutorial I've chosen a single dark coloured calla lily because it's a fairly simple subject for beginners and is usually available from the florist or supermarket.

Setting up and a bit about lighting
Before starting always take time to set up your subject and make sure you are happy with the lighting and position of the subject.  I use a science lab retort stand and clamp to secure the flower. If you don't have a retort stand just place the flower in a tall thin necked bottle of water but be careful because it will wilt quite quickly. I then place a piece of A1 size stiff white card bent in the middle, like a giant greeting card, behind the flower and retort stand. I position a lamp at the side of the flower to light the subject because I'm left handed so mine is on the right,  right handed artists should position the lamp on the left hand side. This avoids working in your own light. The white  card behind the subject allows the light to bounce back onto the shaded side of the subject and enhances the 3 dimensional look by shifting the shaded area away from the edge. This is called reflected light ( see below)  Play about with the distance of the lamp from the flower to get the lighting right; too close and the subject it will lack midtones and if too far away the subject appears to lack form with no definition between light and shade.
The effect of reflected light on a simple form. On the left , the shape has light reflecting back off another surface ( our white card) so the shadow is shifted away from the far left edge because the light bounces back off the white card. On the right, the shape with no reflected light shows the shadow hard against the edge of the object. Note: Although reflected light is lighter than the shadow it is never as light as the highlight. 

Complete rough sketches to decide on the composition

First of all complete a number of rough sketches using thew same principle of identifying the key shapes as outlined in the first drawing tutorial, this will help you to decide on the best composition for the flower. Try to make sure you have captured the overall characteristics of the flower - quite often there is something very specific about the architecture of a plant, so take time to observe the typical features and always make sure that you have a typical specimen.

The Outline Drawing
When you are happy with your composition transfer your drawing to the watercolour paper. I used Fabriano Artistico HP 140lb but any good quality HP paper will do. I usually draw straight onto the paper copying my initial sketch but if the subject is complex I trace my rough sketch and transfer it. If tracing from my original sketch I use Tracedown or Saral graphite transfer paper, this keeps lines to a minimum.

Outline drawing on HP watercolour paper.

Starting to paint

For this painting I used Winsor & Newton black ink, but there are a variety of Indian inks available, Sennelier is also a very good ink. You can use the more traditional ink stick and inkstone but for starters I recommend the ready to use inks. A white ceramic shallow dish or tile is used and add a the ink. The ink has to be very dilute for the initial wash but the brush should not be dripping but loaded with sufficient water to swell the brush. I use a size 5 Kolinsky sable Rosemary and Co. spotter brush for the initial wash. Ink dries fairly quickly on the tile so only use a small amount. Remember it can't be lifted, so getting the amount of ink right in each wash is important. Always test on a spare piece of kitchen or blotting paper kept next to your work. Ink needs to be applied swiftly because of the fast absorption and drying into the paper. The outside of the lily is paler than the inside so this is achieved by having a more dilute wash of ink.

First wash applied and second underway. Note the light on the stem, with the highlight on the right and reflected light on the left, which gives the stem it's rounded appearance. A more dilute wash of in was used on the outside of the flower because it is lighter then the inside of the flower, also the inside is partly in shade. 

Applying Further Layers
I usually try to keep washes to a maximum of 3 - 4 layers to build up the tone, with possible addition of some fairly dry brush work if necessary. This comprises of 2 main washes to give the shape and the 3rd of ink applied to more focused areas to give detail. I add the shadows last. The flower is dark, more so on the inside than the outside and the stem is light.

Finishing touches
Once all of the washes are applied and the correct depth of tone achieved, I add fine detail such as veins using a W & N size 0 brush and use ink very sparingly.

NEXT TIME......Leaves....maybe even in colour! 


  1. Another great tutorial Dianne - thanks so much :)

  2. Thank you :) so pleased it's useful

  3. Ohhhh I missed this tutorial Dianne! Thank you and yet again another great one and i'm going to take all your tips on board...Still so much to learn :)

  4. Hi Dianne, Nice tutorial and beautiful picture!
    I am pasting links to my painting for you evaluation and competent opinion. They were filmed and developed some 20 years ago, then scanned.