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Plein air watercolour tools of Andre Jute

This article is written by guest writer Joanna Truscott.

Joanna Truscott caught up with André Jute, a novelist, typographer and painter who lives in Ireland. First she talked to him about painting plein air watercolours.

“As a young man I was a portrait painter in oils,” says Andre Jute. “I went away to advertising and then literature and publishing. A few years ago I returned to first sketching and then painting again, purely for relaxation.”

I remind him that I interviewed him at Cambridge back when he first became a bestselling novelist, and that he got me drunk at lunch, took me for a fast ride in his Maserati, gave me a cream tea in the historic Churchill Suite of a smart hotel, then poured me back on the train to London.

“Ha! You’ll have to make do with lemon tea from my flask. I lead a much more relaxed life now. I speak only to journalists I know. There are plenty of relaxing painting outings on my bicycle from where I live in West Cork. I’ve been meaning to paint this scene in oils but the weather isn’t cooperating. So I’m making a quick watercolour sketch in my little pochade tin just to get the framing and proportions. I’ll have to do the big oil in the studio over the winter.”

The “little pochade tin”, it turns out, is a 6x4in tin in which Hahnemuhle sells 220gr rough-surfaced postcards Andre likes for quick sketches. It lives permanently in the handlebar bag of his bicycle. “The little enamelled paintbox inside is from Fome in Italy. Hermes, the scarf people in Paris, used to sell it as the ‘Princess Diana paintbox’. It comes with eight halfpans, if you can still get one. But the tiny W&N brush it came with was useless, so I used that space for four more halfpans.” The double palette clip-on dippers are lidded and filled with water at home or from his bicycle water bottle.

“The halfpans are Winsor & Newton Artist’s Watercolours, now called Professional. I generally use pans or halfpans from W&N Professional, or tubes of American M Graham honey-base watercolours. You get more mileage from the quality end of the supply spectrum, and you get more traction out of media, surfaces and tools that you learn all the peculiarities of, so to me it makes no sense to chop and change all the time. I make my own sketchbooks of 300gr cotton paper from the main brands. Sometimes I tint the paper with light tan pigmented ink or tea. I don’t know why somebody doesn’t make fawn watercolour paper.”

“I have plein air kits for various sizes of work which use waterbrushes and do without the dippers, but a plastic-filament waterbrush, while most of them point well when they are new, and you can learn to do a lot with them, in the end is still just a synthetic brush, not quite as versatile as a sable brush.

“The collapsible travel brushes I like are the Da Vinci 1503 sables. I have a kit that comes in a little black faux leather foldover bag and contains the sizes 4, 6 and 10.

“When I say ‘sketch’, I mean a vignette, an aide memoire, not a highly finished painting. So, to me, frankly, a size 4 is a detail brush, even a size 4 as large as the da Vinci, which are widely regarded as generously-sized brushes. But I expect many painters more interested in fine detail than I am would consider it a suitable brush for a postcard size watercolour sketch.

“I was asked recently by rather a famous watercolourist who lives down the coast here which of these brushes she should buy to try out one, and I said that, because these brushes point so exceptionally well, the size 6 — which I was using in this little pochade tin when she found me — would be good for both detail and large gestural work all the way from postcard to octavo [eighth of an imperial sheet, 11x7.5in]. Since she’s an experienced watercolorist, used to doing a lot with a single large brush, I added that, if she expects to do quarter-imperial or larger en plein air, she should go straight for the size 10 or even the very large size 12, again because they point so well.”

“Do you use your size 10 as sort of a mop, then?” I ask.

“It would work very well as a mop. I have squirrel and sable mops that are quite a bit smaller that I use in the studio. But no, it would be extravagant for a Calvinist like me to use such a well-pointed but expensive brush as a mop. I’m saving the da Vinci 1503 size 10 for when I get a chance to work on a quarter- or half-sheet outside, when I expect to do 99% of the painting with it, perhaps filling in the smallest detail with the size 4.”

“You don’t use these brushes in the studio?”

“You could, but I tend to use even larger brushes, and specialty brushes, for studio watercolours. In any event, I would want to keep these da Vinci travel brushes ready to go the moment I see the sun peeking out, which won’t work if I’m using them in the studio. So mine stay with my grab-and-go kits on the glovechest near my bicycle or on the table near the door of my studio. Back at the monkey farm I’ll show you a painting I made in an eighth-imperial size sketchbook, roughly A4, with the size 10 da Vinci 1503. It’s a versatile brush.”

“But I can see someone else using the da Vinci 1503 set permanently in the studio, where they have a serious advantage with the entire handle being made of plastic rather than vulnerable wood. I have an elderly, still perfectly good, 5/8in one-stroke W&N sable that I inherited from my father-in-law which I will soon have to refinish because the paint has chipped off the handle, exposing bare wood. Wet won’t affect these da Vinci travel brushes!”

“But you still can’t put them away wet in their housing?”
“No, definitely not. Sable, squirrel, any natural fibre, put away wet in a tight tube, will rot, for sure. It’s okay to put them wet in the tube in the field for transport home, but once home you must uncap them, dry them thoroughly in free air, and then dampen them very slightly and only on the outside as you shape them with your fingers so you can recap them. That slight damp will evaporate through the small hole at the top of the cap.”

Andre’s books:
André’s blog, Kissing the Blarney:
André’s web site:

Next installment: Points, Giants and Angles — Andre’s weird and wonderful studio watercolour brush set: