Ink and colors on paper, 11 x 14 in.

San Marco basilica and surroundings in ink and watercolor

I’m generally pleased with the results of this recent painting — a rather large one for me at 11 x 14 in. I will comment briefly here on the palette and the process.


The palette is pretty traditional. The three main colors are ultramarine blue (PB29), yellow ochre (PY43), and venetian red (PR101). This is not unlike the so-called Velasquez palette. In addition, the gold color is mostly a mix of cadmium scarlet (PR108), burnt sienna (PR101), and yellow ochre. There are a few additional colors, such as the greens of the lampposts, a bit of cerulean blue in the sky and elsewhere, and so on, but these are minor. It’s not really a particularly bright palette, but brightness is conveyed by the juxtaposition of colors. The darkest areas are a simple mix of ultramarine blue and venetian red, in varying proportions — some are redder, some are bluer.

I have a process that I’ve evolved that I often (though not always) use. I’ve come to think of this as “my process,” though I don’t claim to have originated it. It’s just a way I’ve developed of working. Again, it combines ink and colors. Some watercolorists are condescending about the use of line with color. They say that line with color (“ink and wash”) can only be illustration and never fine art. This is nonsense, since ink and wash has a long and noble tradition, particularly in East Asia, but also in the West. I will have more to say about this in an upcoming post.

The steps of my process are the following:

  • Artful photography
  • Photoshop work, including conversion of image to line art
  • Transfer of guide lines to watercolor paper
  • Line drawing
  • Coloring


Because I do a lot of travel photography, I prefer the lightweight bodies and lenses of the micro four thirds system. I currently use an Olympus OMD-EM5 mk ii body. I bracket my photos and often combine them into an HDR image, which I find helpful as a color and value reference (even though I often change the colors quite a bit.) I have written previously about my camera system. I began as a photographer, and I consider photography a key component of the artistic aspect of my process. I certainly make no attempt to hide the fact that I am working with photos. Rather, I am proud of the photographic aspect, as I have refined my photography skills over decades through thousands of images.


There are two parts to the Photoshop step. The first is to make reference photos. I usually print on heavyweight matte paper. I begin by eliminating any unwanted elements in the image and doing any other Photoshop manipulation that seems needed. For reference photos I do not make the same kind of image that I do for displaying art photos. Instead, working mainly with the Camera Raw filter, I like to increase the vibrance (not the saturation!) in the image and crank up the clarity. For presentation photos, the “texture” filter is usually better than the “clarity” filter because it is more natural looking. But for watercolor reference images clarity is great because it emphasizes edges, which is helpful for my line work.

Besides the main reference photo, I often also make blow-ups of details so that I can see better what is going on in the image.

Next, I make a line version of the image, which will guide me in my inking. I have found that the simple “find edges” function in Photoshop does not find the edges that I want. Instead, I use a multistep process that I have described before, which I have saved as a action that I can run with a single click. I lighten this line version of the image (most simply, with the levels function), and I often also convert the black to a light gray or blue. Below is the line guides image for a painting of houses on a canal in Bruges, Belgium (for some reason it looks a little darker after uploading — imagine very faint lines).

Line guides for Bruges image

For comparison, here is the final painting:

Bruges house along canal in ink and watercolor.

Transfering the line image

Image transfer has an ancient history. The camera obscura, a mechanism that I think might have first been described by Leonardo da Vinci, is just one of many examples. I’ve used three methods for transferring the guides:

  • A light table with the watercolor paper placed over the line art. Unfortunately, thick watercolor paper tends to be pretty opaque.
  • Transfer paper, placed between the line art and the watercolor paper. The lines are traced with a stylus, depositing graphite on the paper. The nice thing about this technique is that the graphite can be erased, just like pencil marks.
  • Printing directly onto watercolor paper. For this I use a Canon Pro-100 inkjet printer, which is the same printer I use for reference photos. It will accept thick paper, up to a width of, I think, 13 inches. This is a time and labor saver. You just have to make sure you’ve been thorough and judicious about preparing the photoshop line image.

Drawing the lines

I love fountain pens. I use ones with fine, extra fine, or fude (bent) nibs for my line work. Fude nibs allow line variation and filling of large areas. It is important to use waterproof inks. I use either Platinum Carbon Black or Rohrer & Klingner Lily, a dark brown. I used the Lily ink in the San Marco painting. If you use a dip pen you can use India Ink (it will ruin fountain pens).

Adding color

As any watercolorist knows, color is not just about hue but also about value. It can sometimes be helpful to make a black and white photograph of a painting to judge its values without the distraction of color.

This is the point where you hope you don’t screw the whole thing up at the last moment.