Which should I use first in line and wash – ink or watercolour?

Pen and wash (or line and wash if you prefer), is a wonderful way of combining the strength of ink with beautiful soft washes of transparent watercolour. At its best, the sum of the parts adds up to so much more than the individual elements. But the most common question for those starting out is, which comes first – ink or watercolour? Should I draw first and then add colour or paint first and then add lines?

This simple exercise, involving a quick raid on the veg rack or fruit bowl, helps you realise that either works. Indeed, as long as your layers are dry you can switch between line and wash. Starting with one medium or the other, has certain advantages and each might suit your style of working better than the other. Or you might be like me and just change things around on a regular basis to keep things fresh.

Line and wash study of a pepper – which one was drawn first and which painted? Which do you prefer and why?

What you need for line and wash

Fruit or vegetable

Waterproof fineliner/micron pen 0.4mm

Watercolours in a couple of appropriate colours

A piece of NOT/cold pressed paper, minimum 140lb/300gsm

What to do

Select a fruit or vegetable which has enough textural interest to make a good pen drawing. A lemon or orange cut in half has the pitted skin and the juicy segments, but an apple cut in half is not quite as texturally interesting. A carrot with its leaves in tact, is more interesting to draw than one without. It’s a bonus if you can print with it, as we will find later. A tomato might be fun, or a head of broccoli.

Starting with pen, draw a life size version of your subject. Don’t aim for perfection. Maybe try to draw areas with one continuous line ie don’t take your pen off the paper. In other areas use a broken line – this will leave a job for the watercolour to do… Don’t try to add tone with hatching etc at this point. When you are 90% finished, force yourself to stop.

Now you can add watercolour. Aim for it to express the nature of your subject. Don’t paint inside the line, maybe let the colour spread and flow outside of the drawing and add a few splashes or spritz with water if that is appropriate. Allow to dry and judge whether you need to add more ink. You will probably find you don’t even though you only did 90%. The watercolour will have taken up the slack.

Now, do the same vegetable or fruit but start with colour. Aim for a very loose rendition. We are not trying to outline a detailed painting. If you find laying down loose washes difficult, try printing with your fruit or veg. It will give you a loose basis. Once dry, draw your item. Really, you can ignore your colour and draw what you see, but if there are nice watercolour marks, you may wish to outline and emphasise them. Now consider if you need to add more colour to deepen tones.

The one on the left was printed in watercolour first, the one on the right was drawn in ink first

Time to compare

Which has spontaneity and energy? Which do you prefer and why? Which has captured the essence of your subject?


As long as the layers are dry, you can switch between ink and watercolour as many times as you wish. It is far easier to add than it is to take away, so stopping at the 90% is a good rule of thumb. You will probably find that it was enough! Try and leave space for each medium to shine. Colouring in a perfect drawing or outlining a perfect painting, is missing the strength of line and wash. We are aiming to make 2+2=5. You may find that the one you start with is more dominant and if this is the case, use this to your advantage in future. Vary which you start with to keep your work lively and fresh.

Further ideas

This exercise is a short version of one of the lessons from my comprehensive online course which can be found at www.lizchadertonstudio.co.uk. In that course, I introduce you to a wide range of inks and pens, watercolour techniques and then how to combine them in an infinite number of ways. It covers portraits, animal studies, urban sketching and more.

Now watch the film

If you would like to see a short film of the exercies, please head over to YouTube here: https://youtu.be/8PLY4j2V3s4

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