Sketching, pen & wash in Italy Part 1


On my recent water colour tour in Italy, run by Paesano Tours, I learned quite a bit about sketching and water colours as well as having a wonderful travel experience. Like mastering anything, the top three tips are:  practice, practice and more practice. And what better place to do that, than in Venice and various parts of Italy?

The tour was great value, well paced, with professional  tour organisers and guides Janette and Silvio.  Based in Venice for one week, then to San Terenzo for the second week, from where we could catch a ferry to beautiful locations such as the Cinque Terra … but more about that later.  

Watching the experts, like Melbourne based artist, Malcolm Beattie (pictured at work below) it looks easy, but when you have a go yourself … well, not quite so easy … but as the master himself says PRACTICE. Wherever you are, have a sketch book and pens with you and practice drawing anything. (the same advice goes for writers who always carry a note book and pen with them, for jotting down ideas, bits of dialogue and character sketches). 

I had never experienced plein air sketching or painting before – that is painting out doors, capturing the luminous effects of natural light and atmosphere, as opposed to artificial light with pictures produced in the studio. Plein air is a French word meaning full air. So quite a new experience for me and no with no pencils or erasers to rub out mistakes – just pens and paint – talk about living on the edge. Don’t worry about mistakes they say – they just become part of the picture (oh dear). 

Sketching and pen and wash is a great personal way to keep a journal of your travels. The mistake many of us make (including myself) is that we fuss about too much trying to make it too perfect and lose our spontaneity.   It’s an impressionistic view that you want to reproduce – not a perfect copy – that’s the camera’s job.  

Below is one of my first plein air efforts inspired by the surrounding vista (left) 

A few tips on pen and wash  

  • Use pen first, then add the colour – it’s easier that way
  • Try and be in the shade when painting as the paint dries too quickly in the sun
  • Simplify – select one part of the vista, focus on that and simplify – limiting  what you do
  • Complete the picture in stages
  • Don’t fill the page and leave room to sign, date and label
  • A pen and wash is primarily a drawing and we add value by adding the paint
  • It’s controlled scribbling, so it’s like putting a dot here and there where things are to be placed and then you draw between the dots
  • Light against dark – have a focal point of the picture


  • Ink Pens
  • Water colour paper  
  • Water
  • Paint brush (round 6 or 8)
  • Watercolour paints – if you are a beginner and don’t have any paints, just three primary colours are enough to start with to get you going, such as Ultramarine Blue, Yellow Ochre and Permanent Rose. Using a limited palette like this is good practice for mixing colours as tonal value is more important than a huge array of colours.                                                                                  Pictured below is Malcolm outside Librarie Acqua Alta (the bookshop that floods) sketching one of the resident cats.

Voila – it’s as easy as that …


Next post will feature more pictures from Italy and some more of Malcolm’s sketching and watercolour techniques.  

I hope you have enjoyed this post … if so I encourage you to make a comment and I look forward to keeping in touch.


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