Capturing Venice
in Watercolour

with Joe Francis Dowden

PA Joe Francis Dowden uses watercolour to capture the atmosphere of a Venetian canal


Watercolour paints:

  • Payne’s Grey or a black
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Cadmium Orange or Yellow
  • Quinacridone Magenta
  • Cobalt Blue
  • French Ultramarine
  • Light Red
  • Naples Yellow
  • Phthalo Green


  • Clairefontaine Cardinal Watercolour Paper


  • No.s 4 and 8 round
  • Small flat


  • Masking fluid
  • Tracing paper
Tip: Lots of different reds, oranges and browns can be used. Treat the list as a suggestion.

With this type of painting it is essential that you work one layer at a time, allowing each one to dry before moving on. Before you get started concentrate on mixing large amounts of strong and flowing colour so that you don’t run out and above all don’t put too much effort into it. Masking fluid will protect the small details and the sky allowing you to relax and enjoy this exercise.

1 If you are concerned about perspective, draw the scene onto tracing paper first. Find your eye level which is also the horizon which you can see running across the drawing above the arch. Next find the vanishing point for the left hand buildings (the only real perspective problem) – it is shown here as the cross marked to the right. Then plot lines for the windows and left side canal edge, using a ruler. Once you’re happy with your perspective transfer the image onto your support. It is said that it takes about a year of practice to get perspective right, but this needn’t hold you back if you use this method.

2 Mask the gondolier’s pole and the edge of the gondola. Mix a blue grey and a brown grey from Cobalt Blue and Burnt Sienna. Brush the blue grey over the entire painting, strongly over the nearby canal, and the brown grey over the lower building faces at canal level then leave it to dry.

3 Mask the sky gap between the buildings – visible here as yellow masking. Brush the right side buildings with a wash of Cobalt Blue and Light Red leaving some vertical lights for window apertures.

4 Remove the masking from the sky. Mix an orange brown with Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Orange and Yellow. Mix a pinkish grey of Quinacridone Magenta, Cobalt Blue and Burnt Sienna. Wet the distant building and apply the pinkish grey to the lower half only. Please note, do not paint the top of this building and the distant top of the left side buildings. Brush the yellow orange over the left side building, leaving lights for the windows and darkening the base with a grey of Cobalt Blue and Burnt Sienna.

5 Mix brown and blue biased darks of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna, and some Payne's Grey on its own. Mix some Light Red and Cobalt Blue in a reddish mix. Drag the reddish mix across the lower part of the canal end building being sure to leave window spaces. ‘Dry-brush’, or drag the colour across the lower left hand wall for brickwork and let it dry. Wet the arches and apply brown biased darks to them from the point of a no. 4 brush, then darken the insides of the tops with a strong blue biased dark. Use a small flat brush to apply the dark grey to the lower distant windows, and use very pale greys to apply the higher windows using the no. 4 brush for the tops of the arches. Brush very pale details as ‘accents’ of blue grey colour onto the upper right distant end of the left hand wall next to the sky aperture above the canal. These details alone identify the wall, which will have a misty ethereal appearance.

6 Ensure you have plenty of colour mixed before carrying on. Add more colour to the left hand wall with more orange/Burnt Sienna mixes as before. Vary it with darker versions brushed into it both wet into wet and wet on dry. Use the small flat brush to apply dark brown greys to the windows and areas of dark tone and start defining linear detail. Apply intense darks of Payne's Grey to the insides of the arches, revealing the walls. Let it dry.

7 Brush a wash of grey over the gondola without painting the figure. When this is dry, locate and paint the colours over the grey and let it dry again. Apply dark shadow and window detail to both left and right hand walls using a mix of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna. Dry brush dark onto the lower left side wall for brick texture. Apply a dark mix of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna to define the gondola detail and paint the figure.

8 The next two steps are going to be done in one go so read both steps and prepare more than enough colour. Mix a very large quantity of wet colour for the water. Mix large swatches of Naples Yellow, Burnt Sienna, Phthalo Green, and Cobalt Blue. Mix Cobalt Blue into a lot of Naples Yellow, and add some Phthalo Green, and aim at a strong muddy blue green colour. Add Burnt Sienna to ‘calm it down’ and warm it.

Mix a muddy brick red reflection starting the mix with Naples Yellow and adding Light Red and a little Cobalt Blue. Mix plenty of strong dark with Phthalo Green and Payne's Grey in a blackish green. Brush in the muddy brick red reflection very wet using the no. 8 brush, keep it wet, leave a few holes and move straight to stage 9 before it dries.

9 The reflection doesn’t have to be exactly right to look good, but it does need to be brushed in fast and loose.

Mix some of the green mix with some of the brick reflection mix and continue brushing in the reflection downward toward the oar, making bigger ripple marks by flowing the tip of the no. 8 brush from side to side. Add some dark green vertical brush strokes to the distant reflection and leave it. As you come toward the foreground, use more of the green mix. Define the large ripples with sweeps of the brush. On the left side, brush a swathe of colour very wet. Leave a few lights, dotted around - work loose. The circles round the oar are not a complete circle but a series of broken reflections. I also did a little broken up dry brush around that area as well so it wasn’t too tidy.

While stage 9 is still wet, add darks of the Payne's Grey and Phthalo Green to the wet wash for soft focus ripples, and dark areas such as below the wall.

Finally, remove the masking from the gondola and touch on the oar with a little Burnt Sienna. Touch the end of the oar with darker Burnt Sienna, and then ‘smudge’ the colour across a bit with a damp brush. This puts the oar under the water. With the masking removed you may have to touch in a few little ‘white bits’ with dark. Finish off all the little details but do not be tempted to overwork it so – leave it alone!

Clairefontaine Cardinal Watercolour paper is a versatile and economic 300gsm watercolour paper, made using a unique combination of cellulose and cotton. It offers a durable but absorbent surface, with the benefit of a slightly different NOT texture on each side, so you can choose whichever surface you prefer.

TIP: Practise making ripple marks with a large brush on SAA Practice Paper – enjoy it and see what you come up with.