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Unlocking the Soul of the City

Painting Expressive Urban Landscapes with Watercolors

By Robert Joyner | Posted 10/8/23 | Updated 2/17/24

The cityscape is a bustling symphony of life, where towering skyscrapers meet quaint cobblestone streets, and the amalgamation of cultures and stories unfolds at every corner. Capturing the essence of urban landscapes with watercolors allows artists to convey the energy, diversity, and vibrancy of the city in a unique and expressive way.

Let's explore how to paint an expressive urban landscape using watercolors, discussing materials, unconventional approaches, and essential techniques.


Recommended Materials:

Before embarking on your journey to paint an expressive urban landscape, gathering the right materials is crucial:

  • Watercolor Paints: Opt for high-quality, artist-grade watercolors to ensure vibrant and long-lasting results.
  • Watercolor Paper: Choose a heavyweight paper designed for watercolors, such as cold-pressed or rough paper. The texture adds character to your painting.
  • Watercolor Brushes: Have a variety of brushes, including rounds, flats, and liners, to experiment with different strokes and textures.
  • Water Containers: You'll need two water containers — one for clean water and another for rinsing brushes.
  • Palette: A spacious palette with wells for mixing colors is essential to create the right hues for your urban landscape.
  • Masking Tape or Fluid: Use masking tape or a masking fluid to preserve areas you want to keep white.
  • Pencils and Erasers: Sketch your composition lightly with a pencil and have an eraser handy for corrections.

Unconventional Approach:


Expressive urban landscapes often benefit from a touch of unconventional thinking. Here are a few approaches to consider:

  1. Color Choices: Don't feel restricted to realistic colors. Experiment with bold, unexpected color choices to convey the atmosphere and emotion of the scene.
  2. Simplified Shapes: Urban landscapes are filled with intricate details, but simplifying shapes can help focus on the overall mood of the scene. Don't be afraid to exaggerate certain elements for artistic effect.
  3. Texture Play: Combine various textures, from dripping paint to splatters, to replicate the chaotic nature of the city. These unconventional textures can add depth and interest to your painting.


Now, let's dive into some essential techniques for painting expressive urban landscapes:

  1. Wet-on-Wet: Apply a layer of clean water to your paper first, then drop watercolors onto the wet surface. This technique creates soft blends and diffuse edges, perfect for depicting misty city mornings or rain-soaked streets.
  2. Dry Brush: Use a nearly dry brush with minimal water and intense pigments to create bold, textured strokes. This technique is ideal for portraying weathered buildings or gritty pavement.
  3. Negative Painting: Instead of painting the subject directly, use negative space to define it. Paint around the subject, allowing the background colors to bring the subject to life.
  4. Layering: Build up layers of transparent watercolors to achieve depth and luminosity. Start with lighter washes and gradually add darker tones as you progress.
  5. Lifting Techniques: Lift paint off the paper using a damp brush, sponge, or tissue to create highlights or textures. This technique is excellent for rendering reflections on glass surfaces or sunlit areas.
  6. Splatter and Flick: For an energetic touch, load your brush with paint and flick it onto the paper. This mimics the dynamic movement of the city and can represent falling rain or distant lights.

Tips for Success:

  1. Observe and Sketch: Spend time observing the urban landscape you intend to paint. Sketching on-site or using reference photos helps you understand the composition and details.
  2. Plan the Composition: Decide on the focal point and composition before you start painting. This will guide your process and prevent overwhelming details.
  3. Embrace Mistakes: Watercolor can be unpredictable, but mistakes can lead to unexpected beauty. Embrace accidents and adapt them into your painting.
  4. Practice Values: Pay attention to light and shadow. Mastering values will add depth and realism to your expressive urban landscape.
  5. Play with Contrast: Contrast in color, value, and texture can enhance the drama in your painting. Utilize dark against light and bold against subtle.


Painting expressive urban landscapes with watercolors is an artistic journey that allows you to capture the heart and soul of the city in a unique and emotional way.

Through unconventional approaches and mastering essential techniques, you can create urban landscapes that evoke feelings and stories, making your art a window into the bustling spirit of the cityscape. So pick up your watercolors, let your imagination flow, and watch as the streets and buildings come alive with color, energy, and emotion.

Next: Loose Watercolor Landscape Painting Demo

©2023 by Robert Joyner. All rights reserved.

Robert JoynerRobert Joyner is a full-time artist and instructor from Goochland, Virginia. He specializes in blending quality fundamentals with unconventional painting techniques. Robert has a home studio where he creates art and online teaching courses.