An Introduction to Line and Wash: Which comes first pen or wash?

Line and wash is where drawing and painting meet. If I had a penny for every time I’ve been asked which comes first, ink or wash, I would be a rich woman! The honest answer is whichever you wish and swapping things around can keep your work fresh.

  • Layers need to be dry before switching your media
  • Often the media you use first tends to (not always) play the most important role

If you want to concentrate on edges and pattern, developing detail then maybe start with ink. If emotion and atmosphere is important to you, reach for the washes first. We are always looking to play to the strengths of the different media, so that the sum of the line and wash adds up to more than the individual elements.

Line and wash painting of a red truck by artist Liz Chaderton
Line and wash painting of a red truck by artist Liz Chaderton

It doesn’t have to be either/or

You can always add more colour or more line once the previous work is dry, but it is hard to take it away. So stop when you are 85-90% finished, whichever media you start with.

If you want to loosen up your watercolour why not do washes first and then regain control with line? Or you might save a failed painting with the addition of line work. It can add the contrast and impact you might be missing.

Try it both ways!

Select a simple subject from the fruit or veg basket and try drawing/painting it starting with the line first and then starting with the colour first. Try staying within the lines, try splashing outside them. It’s amazing how quickly you will develop your personal style and preference.

Materials You’ll Need

The materials needed for this Line and Wash tutorial by Liz Chaderton. Photograph shows watercolour paints, inks, fine liner pens, pencil and eraser.

Pen First

I chose an onion and regretted it when I cut it in half!

A pen drawing of three onions in a row by artist Liz Chaderton
Start by drawing your subject from different angles. I enjoyed the papery skin of this onion and the lines running up and down it

If possible don’t do a pencil under-drawing, be brave and start drawing your subject. Draw it at least twice, hopefully more. Draw it from different angles and make a pattern with it on your paper. Vary your marks, add texture, break up the lines, use different pen widths. If you have other pens and ink, please feel free to use them, just make sure they are waterproof as we will be adding washes and you do not want a muddy puddle!

A pen drawing of three onions in a row by artist Liz Chaderton. Two of the onions are painted with watercolour paint in browns, yellows and purples.
Add colour in different ways, but don’t be beholden to the lines. Try wet on dry, wet on wet, softening edges, spatter or whatever else occurs to you. For an onion, scrunching up some plastic wrap in the wash might have created lovely crinkly lines…

Now add watercolour washes. On your first aim to stay in the lines, on the second deliberately ignore the lines. If you have done more, wet the paper and paint the subject wet in wet. Add spatter to another. Spritz the next one with a water spray to soften edges in a random way. Finally, pick out the best bits from the previous ones and combine them. 

Wash First

A watercolour painting of four onions in a row. They are painted with brown, burgundy and yellow hues.
If you struggle to paint loosely, why not use your fruit of veg to print with? This gives you the essence of the shape with little control. Let it dry fully before you use any line work on top

Paint your subject using appropriate watercolours. The temptation is to paint it precisely, so if your subject can be used to create a print, it makes a great alternative. If you struggle to loosen your watercolour (and wish to), then this will really help you. It gives a naturally simple and loose layer. 

A watercolour painting of four onions in a row by Liz Chaderton now includes expressive linework in black fineliner pen.
Now draw your subject on top of the colour. You might want to emphasise interesting marks and incorporate them into your painting or you might ignore the colour totally. If you need to, you can add further colour but avoid the temptation to neaten everything up. It is the slight chaos which gives energy to this type of line and wash work. When you are painting a ‘proper’ piece, try to keep this sense of energy

Once dry, use your pens to draw your subject. Again vary marks, break up lines and draw from different angles. If you have printed you might want to outline some of the paint marks or ignore them all together. Do you need to add further watercolour? Avoid the temptation to tidy things up!

Compare and contrast

Now, stop and compare the drawings. Which has more energy and charm? Which has captured the essence of your object? I am not aiming for photographic likeness but rather the gestalt – the very being of the subject. 

You should be able to see the strengths and limitations of both approaches and be well on your way to finding your favourite way of working.

If you would like to see this exercise in action (with a pepper, not an onion), hop over to YouTube:


About Liz Chaderton

Liz Chaderton is a professional artist based in Berkshire. Her third book ‘Line and Wash Painting’ is published by The Crowood Press on 24 January 2022 at £12.99 (ISBN 9781785009914) and is available to buy on our website. More of her work can be seen at www.lizchaderton.co.uk. 

OUT NOW! Line and Wash Painting by Liz Chaderton - 128 pages of inspiring Line and Wash painting advice with guidance straight from a professional! An essential guide for artists looking to explore the beauty of line and wash.

2 Responses

  1. Great technique, we’re starting up an art group once a week and I think this technique will be great for new comers and fun too

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