The Urban Sketcher | Marc Taro Holmes’ Tea, Milk and Honey Technique for Applying Watercolor

Follow along as urban sketcher Marc Taro Holmes shares his three-pass tea, milk and honey watercolor technique of applying color:

I refer to the washes as “tea,” “milk” and “honey” to correlate with their translucency, coverage and application. Tea is a very fluid wash; milk, on the other hand, is a bit more opaque, requiring less water and more paint; and honey is a rich, sticky mix of paint and a minimal amount of water applied sparingly.

Basically, I’m working from lighter to darker and larger to smaller, beginning with tea, which is followed by milk and then honey. The initial tea wash covers the entire composition with large shapes. The following passes of milk and honey cover the underlying tone, building strength and solidity in the shadows.
















Knowing that I’m going to do most of the work with watercolor, I don’t put more effort than necessary into the drawing. It’s just a clean, fairly descriptive pencil drawing that includes the major outlines of color shapes. This scene was at midday with the sun behind a thin haze of cloud, calling for a generalized glaze everywhere and a washed-out sky.




























The transparent tea mix should flow freely and tint—but not obliterate—the drawing. I applied this color wash quickly, trying to work the three big shapes in the image wet-into-wet while staying loose and splashy with lots of color variation. At the same time, I kept the dry edges between the live shapes sharp. I did all of this before the live shapes dried. I can usually wash an entire image in 5 minutes or less, but the combination of swiftness and accuracy takes some practice. While working, I was aware of the color variation, going back for a slightly different hue each time, modifying the base color with warm and cool neighbors. Notice that I left a few small flecks of white throughout the midground to create random glints. A wash should never be too smooth or perfect. I should have hit a richer color in the sky, because it’s too pale, and the warm white of the stone building is too bleached out. Mostly, though, I find it’s important to accept whatever happens at this stage.







































After the tea pass dried, I moved to the second pass of color—milk. It needs enough paint to be cloudy to cover what’s gone before. I worked from lighter to darker with this wash; I only needed to deepen midtones and shadow shapes. I was careful to leave the lit areas alone and let the tea stain glint through. For this pass, I didn’t want uniform coverage; instead, I created a light-dappled texture, letting the layers intersect. Allowing little gaps in this pass created the illusion of light bouncing off the upward-facing surfaces.

I don’t hold back on the paint in this pass. Remember how little honey there is in a cup of tea (or the final pass). The darkest darks are only for the final pop of contrast.

This stage is the most fun for me, as there’s a lot of exciting brush calligraphy and charging-in.



























St. Joseph's Oratory, Montreal (pen, ink and watercolor, 15x22) by Marc Taro Holmes

St. Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal (pen, ink and watercolor, 15×22) by Marc Taro Holmes






















After letting the milk pass dry, I move on to the honey pass. If you think about my analogy, there’s usually just 1 teaspoon of honey in a cup of tea. It’s the same for creating the darkest darks when painting—a little goes a long way. They’re only 2 to 3 percent of a typical sunlit image. Even when a subject is dark and shadowy, the spot blacks are only for the deepest contact shadows. A sketch doesn’t really come together until these darks are properly placed, because they’re the basis of the gradient of interest. We know the weight of the darkest darks attract the eye. In a painting like this, the viewer’s eye will travel from eye magnet to eye magnet, moving around the space.

The honey pass is the mostly about the deepest darks, but it’s also the last chance to re-touch the lightest lights. I used white gouache mixed to a honey consistency to sketch in the lilies in the flower bed.


For a more in-depth look at Holmes’ tea, milk and honey approach, as well as urban sketching techniques, tips, exercises and more, turn to The Urban Sketcher at

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The Urban SketcherExcerpted with permission from The Urban Sketcher by Marc Taro Holmes (North Light Books, 2014). Available at and everywhere books are sold.


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