The urban environment offers a wealth of potential material for the artist, though the hustle and bustle of crowded streets, traffic noise and diesel fumes can sometimes make it feel an inhospitable place. But away from the major traffic routes and off the busiest shopping streets most towns and cities contain more appealing areas, if you are willing to search them out. Here is where you will discover street life on a more human scale in and around outdoor pavement cafés, sunlit squares or colourful street markets which reverberate with life and atmosphere. Alternatively, there are the many quieter, more secluded places where people come to find a temporary retreat from the pace of city life.

Working method

The spontaneity of watercolour makes it an ideal painting medium for capturing the immediacy of street life subjects, but care should be taken to avoid it becoming laboured and overworked. To prevent this I aim to depict a more simplified, almost casual reality in my own paintings by allowing their forms to remain fairly understated, rather than attempting to produce detailed photographic likenesses of actual places. Working in this way enables me to create energy in the surface marks made on the paper. I also prefer to direct my observations towards painting focused glimpses of the particular, rather than looking for more generalised ‘views’.

My method of working is either to complete a painting on location or to record and collect information by drawing, often with the addition of colour notes, for possible use as the basis for future studio paintings. Drawing can be more appropriate on many occasions, perhaps in a busy environment when it isn’t convenient to set up an easel, or when time is at a premium.

The act of drawing is a sifting process through which you will leave out all but the essentials of your subjects. Also, there will be less likelihood of being plagued by onlookers when sketching, since without painting paraphernalia it can be less obvious what you are doing.

Another often overlooked determinant which can affect the energy in a painting is the position in which you choose to work. When painting on the spot I prefer to work either standing up at a light easel, or sitting on a low folding seat with my painting surface and materials on the floor beside me. Both these positions have the benefit of allowing me to paint at arm’s length and thus maintain a freer, unrestricted approach to prevent my paintings becoming too cramped. Alternatively, working at home offers a more controlled environment, without the added tension which painting on the spot can bring, but here I have found there is a real danger of becoming almost too comfortable.

Adopting the same ‘on location’ painting positions for studio work, in preference to the usual comfortable chair, does go some way towards helping me to recreate some of the apprehension or edginess I need to counteract any tendency for neatness or overworking. There are of course advantages and disadvantages to both methods. Painting on the spot enables you to work directly from what is there before you and here a painting will normally be a direct response to what is seen. Away from the subject there is an opportunity to be more creative. Altering or rearranging elements, for example, will often enable you to improve on a composition. Often simply changing the direction of lighting can add movement to an otherwise static image. You could also try incorporating unusual or more varied colour combinations to alter and intensify the atmosphere in a painting.

Street Scene, Malcesine, Italy, watercolour sketchbook study, on hot pressed paper, (30 x 42cm).

Here my aim was to record the effects of looking into the light. Studies made on the spot are an invaluable way of learning to see the essentials of your subjects.

Modelling the lights

Light enables the dynamic forms and rhythms of the urban landscape to be brought to life and is one of the main ingredients I use to energise my own paintings. The lightest lights are produced by allowing selected areas of the white paper to remain in the final image. These lights can be further intensified by placing strong contrasting darks around them, as in the accompanying example of the Street Café painting (below).

Street Café, watercolour on 300lb (640gsm) rough Arches paper, (35 x 51cm).  

The most effective way of defining lights in a painting is to surround them with darks. To exaggerate the light on the negative shapes of the umbrellas I contrasted them against the darkest darks of the building behind. I also simplified the figures at the tables into one large shape, with only minimum definition to prevent this complex subject from appearing too cluttered.

I do not as a general rule use masking fluid since I prefer to see the original uncertain edges left by the drawn brush work. The inevitable controlled edge of a masked-out area would, I feel, look out of place within the overall surface marks of the painting. I often begin the painting process by laying in an under-painting to the mid-toned areas in which I flood in a variety of neat colours, allowing them to mix and randomly bleed together. This process keeps the surface alive. I then try to complete the remainder of the painting in single applications of paint without further over-painting, always searching for the essential shapes with which to describe the subject in its simplest way.


Figures are another essential component since they provide movement to images of street life and I take care to ensure that they always look as though they belong in the picture. Very often figures can appear to have been placed in as an afterthought, or stand out looking like models cut from a fashion magazine. They do not have to be painted in considerable detail to look convincing, but they should convey a gesture which will give a clue to their purpose. For example, the figure group shown in Street Musicians (below) was painted with the minimum amount of detail with all but the essentials having been left out. Much of the figure forms have been left as white paper but their gesture is clear. This method of understanding elements helps to give added vitality or spark to a painting and leaves something to the imagination of the viewer. Regular sketching is the best method of learning how to portray figures convincingly.

Street Musicians, watercolour on 140lb (300gsm) Not paper, (25 x 25cm).

In order to make figures appear lifelike they must demonstrate a convincing gesture rather than being painted in lots of detail.

Integrating the whole

It is essential that all the various elements in a painting should mesh together to provide a fully integrated whole. Well-thought-out design, value and colour relationships will help to achieve this, but equally important is that everything in the image should be painted in the same manner. For example, the edges of a painting should be painted in the same way as the things in the middle. In Cambridge (below), though the foreground figures are a dominant feature, I have painted them in the same understated manner as the rest of the parts of the image. Had I been tempted to include them in more detail this would have over-emphasised their presence and upset the overall balance. It could then have appeared instead as a picture of figures set against a background, which would have given a less integrated whole. Similarly, the various foreground elements in the street scene in Riva Del Garda have been allowed to remain understated for the same reason.

Cambridge, watercolour on 300lb (640gsm) rough Arches paper, (51 x 35cm).  

Though the figures are the dominant feature in this picture I have integrated them into the overall image by painting them in the same understated manner as the rest of the image to provide a cohesive whole.

Street Scene, Riva, watercolour on 300lb (640gsm) rough Arches paper, (35 x 51cm).  

I designed the overall lighting pattern in this painting to direct attention towards the main focal point in the centre of the image.

The personality of any town or city is encapsulated within the forms of its urban landscape which, though familiar and often even ordinary, can nevertheless be a source of continued inspiration.