The Botanical Tea Wash Technique -- A Watercolour Tutorial

I'm finding more often than usual that students taking my watercolour classes show up feeling uncertain about their artistic voice and can be especially hard on themselves about getting their technique right. I can't stress enough that art and *human*, creative expression is for everyone -- the notion that watercolours can only be mastered by a talented few should be discredited. With that in mind, I've put together this tutorial of one simple technique we cover in class, the tea wash, which is simple and fun -- and great for botanical watercolour compositions.  

 

The best way to start, always, is to get your workspace ready with everything you will need for your composition. Here I have some Eucalyptus leaves, my favourite Windsor and Newton watercolours, some hot pressed Arches smooth 300 gsm watercolour paper and a couple of mid-range soft, round tip brushes. You may also want to grab an HB pencil for sketching, a jar of water,  a palette to mix your colours in and some paper towel to blot your brush.

The best way to start, always, is to get your workspace ready with everything you will need for your composition. Here I have some Eucalyptus leaves, my favourite Windsor and Newton watercolours, some hot pressed Arches smooth 300 gsm watercolour paper and a couple of mid-range soft, round tip brushes. You may also want to grab an HB pencil for sketching, a jar of water,  a palette to mix your colours in and some paper towel to blot your brush.

I've picked out a few of my favorite leaves and lightly sketched them out on the page, making sure to capture all of their asymmetries and rough edges. I wouldn't worry about drawing the 'perfect' leaf -- even if there were such a thing, it doesn't make for a very thought provoking composition. Damaged leaves are complex and challenging subjects that turn out to be really interesting.   

I've picked out a few of my favorite leaves and lightly sketched them out on the page, making sure to capture all of their asymmetries and rough edges. I wouldn't worry about drawing the 'perfect' leaf -- even if there were such a thing, it doesn't make for a very thought provoking composition. Damaged leaves are complex and challenging subjects that turn out to be really interesting.   

I have taken a pinch of dark green and a pinch of brown watercolour and blended them into a couple of spoons of water on my palette. Then, I have made a second pool of water and tapped my colour soaked brush into it once, giving me a consistency that looks like very diluted tea (hence, the name!). This is a great way to establish a foundation when painting with watercolours because we want to build up the complexity slowly -- this is preferable approach because, unfortunately with watercolours, we can't go back when a mistake has happened. Starting at the tip of the leaf, I have traced my brush downwards so that there is a slight puddle being pulled downwards as I give my leaf its first 'wash'. With the right amount of moisture on the brush, you will hardly need to touch the brush to the page. It's good to be mindful of this technique because you won't need to panic about the page drying out too fast -- and that will allow your colour to dry in a single consistent tone without any brush marks or messy clouding effects.

I have taken a pinch of dark green and a pinch of brown watercolour and blended them into a couple of spoons of water on my palette. Then, I have made a second pool of water and tapped my colour soaked brush into it once, giving me a consistency that looks like very diluted tea (hence, the name!). This is a great way to establish a foundation when painting with watercolours because we want to build up the complexity slowly -- this is preferable approach because, unfortunately with watercolours, we can't go back when a mistake has happened.

Starting at the tip of the leaf, I have traced my brush downwards so that there is a slight puddle being pulled downwards as I give my leaf its first 'wash'. With the right amount of moisture on the brush, you will hardly need to touch the brush to the page. It's good to be mindful of this technique because you won't need to panic about the page drying out too fast -- and that will allow your colour to dry in a single consistent tone without any brush marks or messy clouding effects.

After my first layer dried, I have placed a second tea wash overtop to build up some more context. You can use the same diluted pool of color from the palette, or you can make it slightly darker by tapping the brush into that first color mixture a few more times, then place a few more drops into the tea wash. You can use this second layer to build up a bit of background shadow on your leaf -- and because we are painting 'wet on dry', we should start to see a nice, crisp edge that sets the second layer apart from the first one.

After my first layer dried, I have placed a second tea wash overtop to build up some more context. You can use the same diluted pool of color from the palette, or you can make it slightly darker by tapping the brush into that first color mixture a few more times, then place a few more drops into the tea wash. You can use this second layer to build up a bit of background shadow on your leaf -- and because we are painting 'wet on dry', we should start to see a nice, crisp edge that sets the second layer apart from the first one.

After letting the second tea wash dry fully, I have placed down a third layer where I will make some subtle color distinctions by using only the same green as before, in a separate pool of water. I have started around a few edges I'd like to emphasize, and then I have spread the color over top by clearing my brush in the jar of water and using the wet brush to lightly diffuse the color across the leaf. Once again, you will find that you get some really great effects around the edges when you take the time to let each layer dry before laying over the next one.

After letting the second tea wash dry fully, I have placed down a third layer where I will make some subtle color distinctions by using only the same green as before, in a separate pool of water. I have started around a few edges I'd like to emphasize, and then I have spread the color over top by clearing my brush in the jar of water and using the wet brush to lightly diffuse the color across the leaf. Once again, you will find that you get some really great effects around the edges when you take the time to let each layer dry before laying over the next one.

And now for the final and most crucial step, adding in those details that give your leaf character and make your painting unique. Making sure the the previous layers have dried first, I have cleared up my brush and blotted out the moisture on some paper towel, then I have taken another pinch of brown watercolour -- only this time I haven't added any water to it, rather I have dipped the brush directly into the concentrated paint. I have picked out a few places that I want to draw the attention to -- where this leaf looks like it has been burned and pieces have been torn out. I have tapped the brush at the edge of those places and made a very small mark. Then, while it dries partially, I have cleaned off my brush again and soaked it in water. Now, using only water on the brush I have gently extended the colour out into the leaf so that there is a diminishing gradient running over the colors underneath. If you take your time with this final step and really look closely at those markings on your leaf before blending them into the undertones, you will be sure to create a striking juxtaposition when your composition is complete. The most important thing to know about all forms of art is that there is never an incorrect way to creatively express yourself. Art really is important for the heart and your spirit; it is *always* worth making time for. I teach watercolours every term on Saturday mornings at CIT Solutions Short Courses -- here is the link for more information if you are interested -- thanks for reading and I hope to see you there! Link: CIT Solutions Short Courses  

And now for the final and most crucial step, adding in those details that give your leaf character and make your painting unique. Making sure the the previous layers have dried first, I have cleared up my brush and blotted out the moisture on some paper towel, then I have taken another pinch of brown watercolour -- only this time I haven't added any water to it, rather I have dipped the brush directly into the concentrated paint.

I have picked out a few places that I want to draw the attention to -- where this leaf looks like it has been burned and pieces have been torn out.

I have tapped the brush at the edge of those places and made a very small mark. Then, while it dries partially, I have cleaned off my brush again and soaked it in water. Now, using only water on the brush I have gently extended the colour out into the leaf so that there is a diminishing gradient running over the colors underneath. If you take your time with this final step and really look closely at those markings on your leaf before blending them into the undertones, you will be sure to create a striking juxtaposition when your composition is complete.

The most important thing to know about all forms of art is that there is never an incorrect way to creatively express yourself. Art really is important for the heart and your spirit; it is *always* worth making time for.

I teach watercolours every term on Saturday mornings at CIT Solutions Short Courses -- here is the link for more information if you are interested -- thanks for reading and I hope to see you there!

Link: CIT Solutions Short Courses