3 Tips for Loose Watercolor Urban Scenes

In this blog post, we will explore three essential tips to help you paint an expressive watercolor urban landscape that captivates the viewer and evokes a sense of the urban environment’s energy and charm.

Below is the finished artwork. It’s 11″ x 15″ on 140 lb. archival paper. It’s inspired by a photograph that was taken while vacationing in Stonington, Maine. If you want a full list of all the watercolor supplies I use and recommend, please visit the article below.

Here are three easy to apply tips for painting loose urban landscapes

Urban landscapes provide a unique and dynamic subject matter for artists, offering a plethora of intriguing scenes and a chance to capture the hustle and bustle of city life. Watercolor, with its fluidity and transparency, is an ideal medium to bring life and emotion to these vibrant scenes.

Inspiration Image
Inspiration Image

Tip #1; Embrace the Essence of the Urban Scene

The first step in painting an expressive watercolor urban landscape is to understand and embrace the essence of the scene you wish to depict. Urban settings are filled with diverse architectural styles, bustling crowds, and a myriad of activities that create an ever-changing atmosphere. Before you pick up your brushes, take the time to observe and absorb the cityscape around you.

Visit the location you want to paint and spend some time people-watching and noting the unique elements that define the area. Pay attention to the interplay of light and shadows, the reflections on glass surfaces, and the rhythm of the city’s movement. Take photographs and make sketches to capture the dynamic energy and emotions of the scene. These preliminary studies will serve as references and inspiration when you create your watercolor painting back in your studio.

Three Tips for Painting an Expressive Watercolor Urban Landscape
Three Tips for Painting an Expressive Watercolor Urban Landscape

Tip #2; Master the Watercolor Techniques

Watercolor is a versatile medium that can produce stunning, expressive effects when wielded skillfully. Mastering various watercolor techniques is crucial to bringing your urban landscape to life.

Here’s an article that breaks down watercolor techniques. Have a look!

a. Wet-on-Wet: This technique involves applying wet paint onto a wet surface, which allows colors to blend and bleed into each other. Use this method to create vibrant skies, soft shadows, and atmospheric backgrounds in your urban landscape.

b. Dry Brush: Dry brush technique involves using relatively dry paint on a dry or slightly damp surface. This technique is perfect for adding texture and details to buildings, streets, and other architectural elements in your urban scene.

c. Lifting and Layering: Lifting refers to removing wet paint from the paper using a clean, damp brush or tissue, creating highlights and subtle tones. Layering, on the other hand, involves building up colors gradually to achieve depth and dimension in your painting.

d. Negative Painting: This technique involves painting around the shapes rather than directly painting the subjects. It is an effective way to create intricate details and emphasize focal points in your urban landscape.

Experimenting with these watercolor techniques will help you achieve the expressive and captivating qualities that define a watercolor urban landscape.

Tip #3; Convey Emotions and Tell a Story

An expressive watercolor urban landscape goes beyond mere representation; it tells a story and conveys emotions that resonate with the viewer. To achieve this, you must infuse your painting with personal touches and evoke feelings through color, composition, and brushwork.

a. Color Choice: Select a harmonious yet emotionally evocative color palette that suits the mood of your urban scene. Urban landscapes often offer a wide range of colors, from the vibrant hues of street art to the muted tones of aged architecture. Use color strategically to direct the viewer’s eye and elicit specific emotions.

My personal choice is to use two color options; they are chromatic or tonal palettes. Chromatic palettes are more vibrant and colorful, while tonal are less saturated and more gray.

b. Composition: Plan your composition thoughtfully to ensure a strong visual impact. Consider using leading lines, diagonals, and framing elements to draw the viewer into the painting. Emphasize the focal point or main subject, such as a bustling market or an iconic landmark, to create a narrative that speaks to the audience.

Here’s a great course I created that breaks down composition and design, along with some excellent loose painting landscape tips.

c. Brushwork and Movement: Use varied and expressive brushwork to mimic the dynamism of city life. Swift and loose strokes can convey the energy of a bustling street, while delicate and controlled brushwork can capture the intricate details of architectural landmarks. Let the brushwork reflect the mood and emotions you want to convey.


Painting an expressive watercolor urban landscape requires a combination of observational skills, technical expertise, and emotional connection to the subject. By immersing yourself in the essence of the scene, mastering watercolor techniques, and infusing your work with emotions and narrative, you can create a captivating and evocative piece of art that showcases the charm, vibrancy, and spirit of the urban environment.

Remember, practice and experimentation are key to developing your style and achieving expressive mastery in your watercolor paintings. Happy painting!