Whether you're just beginning to experiment with urban painting or want to hone your skills, there's always something very freeing about doing quick urban paintings. It's actually not as difficult as it seems, and luckily for us all, professional artist Adrianna Johnston has a few tricks up her sleeve that we can all use.
Read on to learn Adrianna's easy-going sketching and painting techniques as she paints an old building on Ellis Island, New York.
Step 1: Sketching and Inking
Adrianna starts with a quick demonstration of how she plans to add texture to her painting via the wet-in-wet technique. It's pretty easy – just drop wet paint onto a wet surface. Then, you can "charge" that area with paint by dabbing in more paint, which will give it a little texture when it dries.
You may even get a "cauliflower" or "bloom" effect, which is when paint blooms outwards from the area where you dropped paint in.
Tip: The "cauliflower" effect is usually unwanted in watercolour, but some artists love it! I say that it depends if it's intentional or not.
If you're following along, you'll need to gather: a B5 cold press watercolour sketchbook, watercolour paints, a palette, a spray bottle filled with water, a size 3, 6, and 10 round paintbrush, 2 containers of water, paper towels, an HB pencil, an eraser, a Fude fountain pen with black waterproof ink, a fountain pen with an extra fine nib (filled with the same ink), and a white gel pen. You can also print or use a digital version of this reference photo.
For paint colours, you'll need: viridian green, buff titanium, neutral tint, Jane's grey (or a mixture of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna), cobalt blue, raw sienna, burnt sienna, and cadmium red. Adrianna uses paint from Daniel Smith, but feel free to make substitutions as needed.
First, do a quick pencil sketch of the main tower. It should take no more than 5 minutes, as you're just laying down the basic outlines and a few guidelines. Of course, feel free to make your lines a bit more squiggly than realistic, too!
Next, use the Fude pen to go over your sketch. Think of the ink as a tool to mark out where all the corners and shadows are, drawing a thicker dot with the nib's flat side and a thin line with the nib's very tip. You can also squiggle your lines here, though do leave plenty of white space and gaps for highlights.
Note: Fude fountain pens have a nib bent at the tip. This means you can use the flat bent area for thick lines and flip the pen around to use the tip for thin lines.
For the darkest shadows, leave a larger dot or line of ink next to them before using your finger to smudge the ink in the direction of the shadow. While the ink should be waterproof, it still takes a few seconds to dry, so within those few seconds, you should be able to smudge it.
This also helps to add a bit of a rough texture to your drawing, which helps enhance the overall look at the end. Try not to overdo your inking though – less is more in this case! Plus, you can always add more dots and lines later.
When you're done, you can erase your pencil lines if you want.
Step 2: Painting in a Flurry
It's time to paint! This goes by quickly, so try to plan your paint order and what to do before starting.
First, prep your paints by spraying them with water. You can also take some of each and put them in different mixing areas in your palette ahead of time. Then, prep your paper by spraying twice over your drawing. This encourages your paints to bloom more and create soft blends.
Starting with the size 10 round brush, mix viridian with a touch of Jane's grey, then drop it in the roof area. Leave some areas of white for highlights, using the reference photo to guide you. Next, mix in more Jane's grey for some mid-tones and shadows, "charging" the wet area with paint.
Use your spray bottle on the right side of the roof and aim the nozzle to the right. Spray once to make the paint move to the right side. Adrianna wants the paint to move outside the lines, which will give the painting that "easy-going" feeling!
Tip: If your paint and/or water ever starts to pool too much or go somewhere you don't want, use a paper towel to dab and soak up the excess liquid.
Next, use pure Jane's grey to paint the middle section of the tower. Don't forget to leave some areas of white for highlights! Also, some areas of your paper might be dry, which is fine – you can get some rough textures if you paint over these areas quickly using the side of your brush.
Add in more Jane's grey for the darker shadows, then for the bottom half of the painting, switch to a mixture of burnt sienna and cadmium red. Paint that area as seen in the reference photo, dropping the occasional areas of buff titanium for the cream-coloured blocks. Mix Jane's grey with burnt sienna for the middle window area, and paint it in.
Note: You want to work quickly so that the top half bleeds a little into the bottom half of your painting. While you can coax the paint to mix a little more using a clean paintbrush, once your paper is dry, it won't work as well anymore.
Use the same spray technique for the bottom right side of the tower, and drop in more Jane's grey. And don't feel like you have to confine the colours to what you see in the reference photo! Just paint in the general area, and allow the watercolour to go where it wants to go.
As for the left side, use light buff titanium and add it next to the red bricks area. This will help balance out the dark side on the right.
Step 3: A Little Splattering
Mix cobalt blue with a touch of Jane's grey for the sky, and dilute it a bit so it's quite light. Paint the paper's upper left side in a haphazard way, though try not to overlap with the tower's edges.
To add some splatters, load your paintbrush with diluted Jane's grey, then tap the brush's metal ferrule against your finger. Droplets of paint should fall onto your paper, creating a lovely random splatter.
If you don't want certain splatters, you can remove them by gently dabbing them with a paper towel.
Step 4: Shadow and Ink Details
Add a few more details in waterproof ink using a fountain pen with an extra fine nib. Unfortunately, I didn't have one, so I just used the tip of my Fude pen like before.
These will be lines and dots in areas you feel could use more definition and add more detail to the window and the midsection. Again, you want a careful balance between black and white here to create a good contrast between light and shadow.
Switch to the size 3 or 6 brush, and use it to enhance the shadows in the tower. You can do this by using a slightly more saturated Jane's grey and layering on top of specific areas. Your painting may still be damp, which is perfectly fine – you'll get some softer shadows that way.
If it's already dry, that's fine too! Remember that dropping paint onto a wet surface will dilute it a little more while using it on a dry surface makes it appear as it is.
Once you're done with these details, add more splatter to the bottom left side of the painting if needed. Again, lift out the splatter you don't want using a paper towel, and do it quickly, as it only works while the paint is still wet.
Step 5: Optional White Details
To complete your painting, wait for the paint to dry before using a white gel pen to add back some highlights. This works best in darker areas, but you can also add it on top of mid-tones if your pen's white ink is opaque!
If you feel like there are enough highlights in your painting, then feel free to skip this step and go straight to signing your painting. And, of course, once you've signed it, you're done!
I hope you had a fun and informative painting session, especially if you like painting architecture and urban scenes. If you're interested in watching the video version, you can watch Adrianna's 90-minute class. There's a lot more to learn from the video itself!
If you're interested in learning from other artists, do consider subscribing to our newsletter. You'll be kept up to date with our latest workshop schedule, product releases, and flash sales!
Nicola Tsoi is a practising 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.