San Giorgio dei Greci in Venice Italy

This is my latest watercolor painting of Venice it features the leaning tower of San Giorgio dei Greci which means “Saint George of the Greeks.” It is a Greek Orthodox Cathedral. I never get tired of painting scenes of Venice, the atmosphere, sense of history, and myriad of textures and earth colors, all say paint me! Watercolor is particularly suited to painting these atmospheric scenes.

The painting is based on a photo I took a few years ago while holidaying in Venice. You can see that it was taken on quite a bright day. For my painting I altered the sky to give the scene more mood. I also decided not to put in the blue striped poles on the bottom right had side as they were too prominent.

San Giorgio dei Greci watercolor painting

Leaning tower of San Giorgio dei Greci
Leaning tower of San Giorgio dei Greci watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright

Reference photo for my painting

San Giorgio dei Greci and Venice Canal
San Giorgio dei Greci and Venice Canal reference photo

How to draw this Venetian canal scene

Drawing a scene like this, where buildings are not parallel to one another as the canal varies in width can be a challenge. Also some of the buildings lean one way or the other. The trick is not to draw them with a single vanishing point but have the lines that converge on a vanishing region rather than a single point. You can see this in the image below. I have marked eye level as just above the bridge height. On a flat straight road with building fronts parallel to the roadway, all the lines moving away from the viewer such as window lines, would converge on a single point, know as the vanishing point, somewhere on eye level. However all such lines in this scene converge, not at a single point, but in a general region.

Drawing irregular Venice Canal vanishing points
Drawing irregular Venice Canal vanishing points

As long as these key lines converge in the same general area the perspective in your drawing should look OK. Another way to look at this is that each building will generally have its own vanishing point, as in typical perspective scene, however the vanishing point will not necessarily be the same for all buildings an structures.

Plein air watercolor landscape painting

Here is today’s plein air watercolor landscape painting I did with my Thursday plein air group. The location is in Luddenham, a semi rural area just outside of Sydney, Australia. It was a lovely day to be painting outdoors. Warm but not too hot, few clouds so no moving shadows to contend with, and no wind – perfect!

I was immediately drawn to an old shed in the distance and the pattern made by the trees around it. The form of the hills would allow an interesting lead into the focal point – the shed. While the distant hill would add space to my painting.

Here is the scene I was confronted with.

Luddenham landscape reference photo for watercolor painting
Luddenham landscape reference photo for watercolor painting

The steps I took for this plein air watercolor landscape painting are as follows:

  1. Decide what attracts my attention in the vista along with any compositional changes I will make. Remember there are no rules that say you have to try and paint everything you see when painting outdoors. I try to work out what is the minimum I need to put into my painting while still achieving the message I want to present. Too much information can lead to a confusing message.

I set up my plein air watercolor painting kit which you see below. Because the sun was already quite high in the sky I used my umbrella to shade my watercolor paper and as much of my palette as I could.

watercolor painting set up for plein air
Watercolor painting set up for plein air

The umbrella is supported by a lightweight extendible pole and attached to my plein air easel with Velcro tape. I used my carry bag as a counterweight as my plein air easel is very light and the umbrella could have toppled it. The bag hangs on the other end of the aluminium arm that supports my little folding palette.

Now that I am all set up I do a loose drawing of the scene. I am mainly interested in the general layout of shapes when doing my drawing. I do not put in a lot of detail as I want to keep the whole watercolor painting free and loose.

Drawing for plein air landscape watercolor painting
Drawing for plein air landscape watercolor painting

Inital wash for plein air watercolor landscape painting

With the drawing done my next step is to paint the sky and the ground under painting. It is very important that you get your tones right for this stage. The sky is usually the lightest tone in the landscape. The ground should be lighter, cooler, and softer in the distance. It’s tone increases as it moves towards the foreground where warmer colors are used. At this stage of the watercolor painting it should already look like a landscape, with the sky and your ground almost finished.

The greens I used for the ground are made up of various mixes of Aureolin, Raw Umber, Cobalt Blue (only a little) and French Ultramarine. All these water colors a artist’s quality and made by Winsor and Newton.

Under painting for plein air watercolor landscape painting

Under painting for plein air watercolor landscape painting

I take this opportunity to have a coffee and a chat while waiting for this stage to dry thoroughly. If you try to keep painting without letting the watercolor under painting dry thoroughly you risk creating mud.

The painting is now well on the way. Next comes the trees and the shed. I made sure the distant tree line was lighter in tone to those around the shed.

The shed is painted with a mix of Cobalt Blue and some Burnt Sienna to create a grey.

The rust on the roof is created with Burnt Sienna and very little water. I used the side of my round brush and barely touched the paper. This creates a dry brush effect.

Painting the trees with watercolor
Painting the trees with watercolor

This plein air watercolor landscape painting was now nearly finished. All I had to do was put in the details, the pond, cows and fence lines. These objects are all placed to help the composition. Even the birds in the sky are placed to add interest and depth to the sky. They also help direct the viewer’s eyes to where I would like them to go.

The painting is finished and signed. The finished painting is below. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to let me know either through the comments section below or better yet through the forum pages.

Plein air watercolor landscape painting of Luddenham Farmland
Plein air watercolor landscape painting of Luddenham Farmland by Joe Cartwright

Watercolor Painting

What is watercolor painting? If you tackle the subject from the point of view of painting with colored water, rather than watercolor paint you may find it easier to understand.

By considering watercolor painting as dealing with colored water you are forced to give more thought to the water component. Water is the most important ingredient in watercolor painting but it is rarely given much attention. It is the water that lets watercolor paint do its magic.

I have found that most of the difficulties new watercolor artists run into are related to not keeping an eye on what the water is doing. On their painting surface or in their palette or on their brushes. Sure part of the problem is confusion about what steps to take with their painting, however as this confusion slows down their response to their work which allows the surface to dry too fast – hence water becomes a problem even here.

Watercolor painting Rising Mist boat painting by Joe Cartwright
Watercolor painting “Rising Mist” by Joe Cartwright

Why water is critical to a successful watercolor painting

It is the flowing of water and pigment on your paper that leaves behind a nice clean layer of paint called a “watercolor wash”. If you do not use enough water in your paint mix it will not flow down or over your watercolor paper and you will have a rough looking paint layer. In fact this is often what people refer to as a muddy watercolor painting. It is muddy not because it is the color of mud but because the layer of watercolor paint on the surface of your painting is actually quite rough instead of smooth which is what happens when enough water is used in the mix. This rough surface seems to inhibit the transfer of light through the watercolor layer. If you run your fingertips over a muddy passage in your painting you will find that it feels rougher, than when compared to a nice clean passage of your watercolor painting.

Think of sand on a beach. If the sand is roughed up by people walking, digging, or otherwise playing on it while it is damp, it will remain roughed up. However if a wave rolls over the sand as it washes back out to sea it leaves behind a nice smooth surface. This is similar to what happens on the surface of your watercolor paper. A definition of watercolor mud was given by a famous Australian watercolor artist, Norman Lindsay, who compared the process to that of a muddy puddle. If you leave a muddy puddle undisturbed, as it dries, it will leave a nice smooth finish. If however you disturb the mud while it is still damp, for example by digging into it with a stick, it will dry with a rough surface. This again is very similar to what happens on the surface of a watercolor painting if you keep trying to paint with thicker paint on a barely damp surface.

How much water to mix with watercolor paint

So just how much water should be in a watercolor mix? Well this depends on a number of factors:

  1. The angle of your supporting board. The steeper the angle the less water is needed to allow the paint to flow.
  2. How fast you paint. This is connected to your skill and experience level. The slower you paint the wetter your watercolor paint mix should be so it doesn’t dry too fast and stop flowing.
  3. How wet your watercolor painting is from a previous wash. Painting with thick paint into an already wet surface will still give you a soft edge but it will be more controlled than when you paint in a wet surface with a very wet mixture.
  4. The tone (relative lightness or darkness) you are trying to create with a particular mix requires more (lighter tone) or less (darker tone) water.
  5. The type of edge effect you are trying to create. A very soft effect where it is not possible to tell when one color finishes and another starts needs more water than an edge which is more definite. The other extreme is where you want hard, definite, edges. In this case you would paint on dry paper – though the mix still has to be wet enough that it will flow.
  6. The size of the shape you are painting. A bigger shape requires more water in your mix so it does not dry between each successive horizontal brush stroke as you paint down your sheet of watercolor paper.
  7. Atmospheric factors need to be taken into account as well. If you are painting in a hot room or environment you will need more water than when painting in a cold one. Outdoors you have to make similar allowances for the wind, which can be really tricky – so much so I rarely try and paint plein air if the wind is too strong.
  8. Finally all of the above are inter-related – this is where the skill comes in!

So next time you get out your watercolor painting gear give yourself some time to look at what the water is doing as you paint. It will certainly improve your results!

Hopefully the above will give you a new insight into watercolor painting which will help you gain more from your art. Watercolor painting is a wonderful medium and I wish you many years of pleasure from it if you are just starting out. Should you have any questions of comments please do not hesitate to leave them in the comments section below.

Watercolor painting of Bells of St Mark’s Campanile

This watercolor painting of bells, specifically the Bells of St Mark’s Campanile, the  the Bell tower of St Mark’s Basilica, in Venice, Italy, was completed by my class last week. It was a subject they had not done before and I thought it would give them some good practice with drawing curved shapes. It also allowed me to discuss the subject of negative space drawing as many of the positive shapes were really defined by painting or drawing the shapes between them.

The reference photo I used was one I took in 2010 when I visited Venice for an extended painting holiday. I liked the abstract pattern of  light formed by the window openings contrasting with the dark shapes above. It was also something not many people take the time to look at when they go up to the top of the tower. The view from up there is wonderful but I took the time to have a good look inside as well! One never knows when a watercolor painting subject will present itself.

Bells of St Mark's Campanile in Venice. The Campanile is the Bell Tower of St Mark's Basilica
Bells of St Mark’s Campanile in Venice. The Campanile is the Bell Tower of St Mark’s Basilica.

After completing a loose drawing of the scene I began my painting with a wash of varying strength mixes of burnt sienna, cobalt blue for the timber and iron parts of this painting. The Bell color was primarily watercolor mixes of burnt sienna and cobalt turquoise. The columns were a light grey made with cobalt blue and a little burnt sienna with lots of water.

I wanted to capture the feeling of the energy of these big bells and their complicated timber supports. Consequently I was not trying for photo realism in the painting, especially in the timer and iron support structure. It would have taken too long to achieve and I like to paint my watercolors quickly. I find that the more detail I try to put into a painting the less emotional connection I have with it. My greatest pleasure when painting is to see the watercolor paints flow on my paper and mix in a semi uncontrolled fashion. I find this very exciting. Everyone has a direction they like their watercolor paintings to go towards and this is mine.

After the initial watercolor under painting had thoroughly dried I painted the details concentrating on the tonal pattern of lights and darks in the scene.

Here is the finished watercolor painting. At some point I will do a full demonstration painting article on this subject. In the meantime if you have some questions please let me know by leaving a comment below.

Watercolor painting  of Bells in tower of St Mark’s Basilica, Venice Italy

Watercolor paintng of Bell Tower of St Mark's Basilica in Venice by Joe Cartwright
Watercolor paintng of Bell Tower of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice by Joe Cartwright


Rhode Island Red Rooster

I did this watercolor painting of a Rhode Island Red rooster recently as part of a series on animals I am doing with my watercolor painting students. This subject can be tackled in various ways and I used two different techniques with my two classes.

In the first watercolor painting I built the red watercolor wash of the bird’s comb and wattle (the red bits) in a number of glazes. In the second version I did it mostly in just one wash.
Here is the reference photo I used for these watercolor paintings in case you would like to have a go at it yourself. The reference photo is of a Rhode Island Red rooster on a friends farm.

Rhode Island Red Rooster

Rhode Island Red rooster reference photo for watercolor painting
Rhode Island Red rooster reference photo

Below are the two watercolor paintings of the same subject . In the first example I built up the color with a number of layers of watercolor paint. I made sure each layer was totally dry before I placed the next one on top. It was in the second layer that I sprinkled salt where I wanted to create texture. The salt was sprinkled while the wash was still wet and left to dry. Afterwards I brushed off the dry salt.

Watercolor painting of rooster head
Watercolor painting of rooster head

In the second watercolor painting of this Rhode Island Red rooster I painted most of the comb and wattle of the rooster in one go, the salt was used at this time as well.
You can see that in the first example the watercolor is much stronger and vibrant than in the second example. The reason for this is the extra layers of paint used.
The green background, being the complement of red, makes the red appear brighter as well.

Rhode Island Red Rooster watercolor painting restricted washes
Rhode Island Red Rooster watercolor painting restricted washes

You can see in the second example that the watercolor is a lot lighter though it has a fresher feel to it. There is no right or wrong way to paint this subject. I have given you these two watercolor painting examples to show just two ways in which this subject can be tackled. I can think of many more. I will be producing a full demonstration article on how these paintings were done in the coming months once I get through a few projects I have under way.

Below is another version of this rooster this time the body is shown as well.

Watercolor painting Rhode Island Red Rooster by Joe Cartwright
Watercolor painting of Rhode Island Red Rooster by Joe Cartwright