Even if you are pressed for time, you can still capture urban scenes that pack a punch! Artist Amy Stewart gives some helpful tips and shares a few secrets to using value and colour to make amazing art.

Step 1: Sketching and Inking

While you can use these techniques at home and work from a reference photo, Amy highly recommends using them when you are outside as well. This is because working from real life is often better, as your eye can capture the moment and atmosphere much better than a camera lens can.

Even if you are working against the clock, this actually helps since you will be less hung up about making everything neat and perfect! But even if you are painting at home, that is fine – just try to relax and keep things loose.

In preparation for this workshop, you will need an A5 hot-press watercolor sketchbook, a fountain pen, and a brush pen filled with black waterproof ink, a pencil, a white gel pen or paint marker, watercolour paints, a palette, a size 8 and size 6 round brush, 2 containers of water, and paper towels. You can also print out this reference photo of Amsterdam or have it on a computer screen.

Note: As always, feel free to make substitutes for certain tools or materials if you need to! For example, you can use cold-press instead of hot-press paper or use a fineliner pen with waterproof ink instead of a fountain pen.

For watercolor paint colors, you will need pyrrole orange, transparent earth red, quinacridone red, alizarin crimson, cobalt blue, ultramarine blue, Prussian blue, sap green, hansa yellow, new gamboge, yellow ochre, and buff titanium or Naples yellow.

First, draw a frame around the area where your painting will go. Then, do a quick sketch of the scene in pencil. You are welcome to skip this step if you want to save time! Either way, it should be very fast – no more than 5 minutes. Just get the general outlines of the buildings, boat, and trees.

Tip: Amy suggests working from the outer edges before working your way into the middle since you want to fit the whole scene onto your paper. It does not have to be super accurate or proportional, but it should still look like an urban area from Amsterdam!

Next, go over the same drawing but in ink, this time adding details such as the windows, rooftops, bushes, and chimneys. Do not worry too much about perspective either, and just focus on getting all the main features down. You can also scribble in the trees and the bushes along the bottom of the boat for a bit of visual texture.

Step 2: Establishing the Darkest Shadows

Next, use a brush pen to fill in the darkest areas. This is where you can really make your drawing (and eventual painting) pop, as the ink creates the greatest contrast to the white of the paper.

Add this to areas such as the underside of the boat, underneath the eaves, the tree trunks, in some of the windows, and so on. The aim is to get a general sense of the values in the scene.

Tip: If you’re painting outside (i.e., plein-air painting) and you’re not sure where the darkest shadows are, you can use a filter on your phone’s camera to turn things into black and white. Of course, it’s best if you can determine this for yourself, but this is just a tip to help you if you’re feeling stuck!

Bonus tip: While some objects may be black, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should also ink that area. You want to prioritize making the areas in shadow black instead! Though, in this case, the bottom half of the boat is black in color and also in shadow, which means you should make this area black. Ink around the bushes, though.

You can also add some “wave lines” for the surface of the water to make it more obvious that it’s water, and more scribbled shadows within the trees for more drama and texture.

After inking, give your drawing some time to dry completely before you move to the next step.

Step 3: Lay the Base Colors

It's time to start painting! To begin, prepare some color mixes on your palette: cobalt blue, a blend of pyrrol orange, transparent red earth, and alizarin crimson, then add ultramarine blue and yellow ochre to make a dark brown/grey color. Feel free to adjust the ratios of these paints as per your liking.

Start with a light wash of cobalt blue for the sky. Then, for the buildings on the left, use a mixture of red and orange for the front. You can vary the color by painting a light wash first, then dropping a little more red or orange in certain areas. Try your best to avoid painting in the windows and eaves, although if there’s a little bit of overlap, that's fine. It helps keep things loose!

For the middle-left building that's darker in color, add cobalt blue to your brown mixture for a more neutral grey, then drop in areas with more cobalt blue. Vary the other buildings' colors slightly, with more brown in one and more red in another. This gives a more colorful and interesting look, even though the reference photo shows something different.

Paint the rooftops in similar colors, though go with an orange-red mixture for the red roof and a neutral grey or blue-grey for the others.

Use the same blue-grey for the top of the boat and a darker neutral grey for the shadows along the boat’s edge. Then, for the bushes, mix hansa yellow and a little sap green for a light green. For the trees, mix sap green with Prussian blue, and paint around the darkest inked areas using this very deep green.

Tip: Amy sticks to a more limited palette so that the colors begin to blend and harmonize with one another. If you have too many different independent colors, the painting could end up being quite chaotic and busy, so try to keep this in mind when you’re painting.

Step 4: Details and Lighter Values

Once the previous layer of paint has dried, you can move on to the details, mid-tones, and highlights.

Paint the windows using new gamboge. Some of them are slightly pink, so you can pick out a few of them and paint them using a diluted alizarin crimson or quinacridone red.

Add some red and blue signs along the bottom of the buildings, then paint the tarp on top of the boat’s cabin using the reddish-orange mixture.

Paint the rest of the trees using the same light green mixture you used for the bushes, although add a little more yellow to make them lighter. You can blend it into the dark green areas by gently brushing over the shadows with your wet brush, as this will reactivate the dark green to create a smoother transition between the different greens.

Next, paint the water using the same cobalt blue as the sky, since the water’s surface will reflect its surroundings. Drop in some of the light green to indicate the bushes’ reflection, and some brown for the buildings’ reflection. Then, darken the underside of the boat using the blue-grey mixture.

Add some of the rusty details along the side of the boat using transparent earth red and paint in any details you think will enhance your painting. This part will depend on you, as you can see what’s best for your painting!

Step 5: More Shadows and Contrast

Mix more of the neutral gray, and use it to darken some of the shadows you have, such as the areas under the trees, under the eaves, and along a few of the edges of the buildings. This adds even more contrast to your painting for a more dramatic look!

Next, use buff titanium or Naples yellow to lightly paint a few of the eaves. Remember to leave some areas white and preserve your highlights! Leaving tiny gaps of white while you’re painting will also give your painting a looser, sketchier look, adding a certain charm to this urban scene.

To finish off, use a white gel pen or paint pen to add back any highlights you want to bring back. Once everything is in place, you’re done! Feel free to sign your painting and share it with us and Amy. We always love to see the art community putting these workshops into practice!

For more tips from Amy on how she paints and documents her travels, check out the video version on our website.

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Nicola Tsoi is a practicing graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy.



  • Sydney said:

    Thank you, that was wonderful.

    March 01, 2023

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