Rainy street scene by Mike Barr

Mike Barr talks about the inspiration of rainy days and offers advice on how to paint a rainy street scene with the correct detail and perspective.

Rainy street scenes

The fascination of a painted rainy street scene is almost universal. I’ve often wondered why this is and have come to the conclusion that when it rains, we’re all too busy trying to get out of the wet to stop and enjoy the view. There's real beauty in a rain-sodden town street and I believe it takes an artist to capture the essence of it. I've spent many hours out in the weather with umbrella and camera, ready to catch fleeting visions that may only last for a few seconds. Such outings usually provide one or two little gems. Yes, there will be strange looks, cold weather and wet clothes, but such small sacrifices are worth the priceless reference material.

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How to take photos in the rain

If you use a digital camera, you'll get the best results by using the manual settings; auto settings are liable to give disappointing results. Setting the camera to shorter exposures will keep the detail in the highlights and, as a rule, make the shadow areas darker. This can be really helpful when painting as good darks will work well and make the highlights into real focal points. It may take a little bit of fiddling but it's well worth the effort. 

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Top Tip - Remember that dark areas can be lightened on the computer to reveal hidden detail, but once a highlight area is 'burnt out' the lost detail cannot be retrieved.

Rainy street scene by Mike Barr

Rain, Bourke Street, acrylic on canvas, (60x60cm).
This location is one of my favourite places to paint wet streets.

Painting perspective

There are perceived difficulties with street scenes, for example details and objects that are out of the comfort zone such as vehicles and people and, dare I say, all that perspective, so I’d like to pull down these barriers by looking at the things we see in the rain. 

Firstly, getting bogged down in too much detail will mean curtains for your painting. The most important ways of capturing the 'truth' about buildings are perspective and tone. Getting perspective right isn’t about drawing lots of converging lines like you see in how-to draw books. 

Good perspective can be achieved without a ruler. Work out the vanishing point and aim the brush towards that. It's amazing how well this works but you must be confident with your strokes. Like everything, practice makes perfect. It’s one of the real pleasures of painting to see this come to fruition on the canvas. Suggested detail is all that’s needed for close-up buildings and, in the distance, tone will determine their rightful place. In the mist and greyness of a rainy day, the tones of recession will tend to merge into the weather.

Rainy street scene by Mike Barr

Rain on Flinders Lane, acrylic on canvas, (70x50cm).
Of particular interest here is the treatment of the cars and the raindrops on the pavement.

How to paint vehicles

A street full of cars can look like a horror story to an artist. The key to such complexity is simplification – a car is a box on wheels. 

For me, there are two important aspects of the painted car: 

  • The windscreen.
  • The shadow and light underneath it. 

One will reflect the day and the surroundings; the other will plant it firmly on the ground – this is most important.


Windscreens are best done with as few strokes as possible. This will give it a vibrancy that will rarely be achieved with overworking. As a rule, forget the people in the car, it’s needless detail in most cases. A windscreen can be the most dramatic element of a rain painting, especially if it reflects the lightness of the sky and perhaps the darkness of nearby buildings.

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Shadow and light

With the exceptions of cloudless days and when the sun is very low in the sky, there’s good shadow underneath a car, even on a dull day. Losing sharp edges where the tyres meet the road is a good idea too, especially in the wet – let the reflection of the tyre and the tyre itself almost melt together. Highlights on the roof and headlights will all add to the impression of the car. You’ll fail at painting cars if you try to capture the make and model. Leave the technical drawing to the experts, that's their job; ours is to give an impression of cars.

Rain on Waymouth, acrylic on canvas (detail).
This detail of a larger painting shows the attention paid to vehicles. Note the lost edges as the tyres meet the ground and the dramatic effect of reflections on the windscreen. Note too, that cars in the background are mere impressions with little or no detail.

How to paint figures

As with buildings and cars, figures in a streetscape are best kept simple. More detail can be developed in the foreground, but middle-distance and far distance figures are certainly going to look like they belong if details are kept to a minimum. Even artists who command big prices come unstuck when their figures have been too laboured – expert paintings but amateur figure work. The culprits are often too much detail and brushes that are too small. 

Practise, practise, practise and do it on cheap paper, not on your current work. Do hundreds of little people with as few brushstrokes as you can. Err on the side of smallness for heads and use a brush bigger than you normally would for such things, it works wonders.

Mike Barr is based in Adelaide, South Australia and is a fellow of the Royal South Australian Society of Arts. He is an award-winning artist who has become known for his beachscapes and rainy-day scenes both of which feature water and reflection. Mike is represented in Adelaide and Goolwa. His work is also available in Miami. He can be contacted at: [email protected].

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