Painting Venice in watercolour pencils

Before we continue painting Venice in watercolour pencils, here is a quick reminder. This is page 4 in this extended tutorial, and you can find a list of the preceding pages in the right column on each page in the series. 

Now, let's have a think about how we have been working and other approaches we might take to completing the picture. 

Apart from the techniques for the sky, we have been working stage by stage, building up colour from the white paper by putting down dry watercolour pencil pigment and then applying water in very modest amounts.  After this more dry colour has been added to develop depth of colour and add details. This builds colour on a foundation of tinted paper, and enables us to work more speedily than we could with just wax type pencils alone.

Most pencil pigments are of the transparent type and opaque pigments are rare.  This is because coloured pencil work relies on building depth of exact colour through layering and if we were to use opaque pigments we would lose that layering ability. Additional layers of colour would simply cover and hide the layers below, rather than adding to and adjusting the colour seen.

Most pencil pigments, therefore, use equivalents for the natural earth colours to retain transparency.  If we were using traditional watercolours the tubes would have labels on them which might well indicate the transparency, but pencils do not.  In many cases the colours are derived not from natural sources, but from chemical ones which, in watercolours, have a tendency to stain.

This is not a great worry to us unless we are trying to remove incorrectly applied colour.

You will recall that we talk of a foundation colour in the notes above. The foundation colour is the base which further layers of colour adjust. In the work to date, we have used a foundation colour broadly similar to the colour we are aiming for, and this is a suitable way of working when we require bright and light colours to be seen. There are alternative approaches and we will now look at one or two of them.

Grisaille underpainting

When we are in need of darker and less vibrant tones and colours, it would be a waste of time carefully laying down a colourful base - which will then get mostly cancelled out by layers above.

We can use a process known as Grisaille  (applying a grey or similar foundation on which later layers will build colour) or we can work with complementary colours that will naturally darken (using colours from opposite sides of the colour wheel).

In our case, we can work Grisaille by laying down a series of thin layers of a grey foundation so that we produce the effect of a grey and white photo.  The darkest areas in the picture will have the most pigment and the lightest have little or none.  We can then work our colours of choice over the top.  

I think this will be a good way of approaching the next phase of this exercise as the facing buildings are all in relative shadow compared with the market building.  The exception will be the moored boats that are on the far right of the picture and closest to us. These are in sunlight.

Using complementary colours relies on the darkening effect of (for example) layering green over red  - opposites on the colour wheel.  Layering red over green is not so effective, as green is the weaker of the two and a strong red on top tends to kill everything below.  Remember when you tried to get a pale colour by mixing two colours of paint together and you found that you finished up with a bucketful before you hit the right mixture?  

This could be because you tried applying a weaker strength colour to a stronger one.  Red and blue tend to be strong, anything with yellow in it is much weaker (yellows and greens).  In these cases you need to test out your actual colour choices to determine the best running order to get the result you need.  Every brand will have different pigment levels and mixing effects.

We will see this with the picture I will be working.  It is no use me saying that you need to use a particular colour followed by a specific second colour, as most of you will have different brands and use different papers. You will also be applying colours with different degrees of firmness to the paper.  You may well use different amounts of water when damping down or working colours.  It is just a case of understanding the method and discovering your own best options for colours.

The aim of this note has been to alert you to the fact that we will now take a slight change of direction and use the opportunity of the shadowed buildings to develop another range of watercolour pencil techniques.

Working with darks

At this point I must apologize. This section of the Derwent version of this tutorial was completed away from home without the benefit of the photo reference and I don't have a full description of the method used, or step by step photos. However, I do have a full description of the method with the Staedtler Karat pencils so I am including this to give you as full a set of notes as possible. Remember that the Karat range only included 36 colour and not the 72 of the Derwent box.  The full Staedtler range extends to 60, but I didn't have the extra pencils in this brand. 

The shadowed buildings on the right hand side

As noted above, I am using the Steadtler version for this section (A pen and wash version) and you will remember that we have the smaller box of 36 colours here.  

The decision has been taken (by me) to work this with a grisaille method to get the benefit of deeper shadows with colour.  In this case we are working the reverse way to the earlier stages, and working with greys first rather than colour followed by darker tones.  This lays down a tonal picture in shades of grey which we later add colour to.  The colour being on the top, it retains the colour even though the area of the picture is dark.

I have just two grey pencils at my disposal from this box.  A darker grey which has a purple cast (a sort of Paynes Grey), and a lighter grey which is much warmer with a slight brown cast.  The darker grey is grey 8  and the lighter one is grey 80, if you are using the larger Staedtler set.  

If you are working with another brand and/or have a bigger choice than me, feel free to use whatever greys you wish, but reserve the colder and darker ones for the areas which are darkest. This image on the left is of the Steadtler picture - so far.

The first grey tones added in dry pencil. 

It is worth remembering that GREY is usually a blend of two colours - blue and brown. This gives us the ability to have cold and warm greys. 

Here I washed in the colour, to get a first even coat on the grained paper surface. You may need to have your brush a little wetter than previously, but don't get it too wet!

The second building has dry pencil colour still. I have not added any grey to the second building's walls as these are quite light in contrast to the others. 

One problem with taking photos of stages, is that the sunlight levels keep changing. This image is more correct to the actual painting. 

I have now completed the first layer of the grey watercolour pencil foundation and washed it in, You can see the effect of warm and cold greys. The colder ones have more blue and the warmer ones more brown.

You can now begin to see how the whole balance of the picture is changing with the darker tones arriving on the right hand side. This will become even more noticeable as the walls become darker.  There is a temptation to go even darker with the greys at the beginning, but remember it is easier to add more colour later than to have to take it away.

And this image shows the effect of a second layer of the dark grey being added and washed in.   I have not added a second coat to the area which will be green on the far right, or to the first building… the second coat is entirely of the dark purplish grey.  I think this may be enough so the next step will be to start adding some colour.

I do not know at this point if I will be washing this next stage of dry colour into the paper…. but I doubt it, as I want to retain some of the paper grain effect and some of the foundation showing through.

I do notice that those facing windows on the light coloured building are not straight and will need some correction when I come in with the dry pencils.

I will explain the working of the area of green in more detail when we get to it, as it is the only opportunity in this picture to work foliage, and that does work particularly well with watercolour pencils.

So let us see what happens when we start to add colour.  At the moment the added colour is all dry.     The first layer is a mid brown - called by Staedtler ‘Fawn’ but I don’t think it is fawn really !  ( No 49 from the 36 set ).  This is the colour you see in the first layer and visible on the right hand side of the building.

Next I have added a further layer of Golden Ochre ( No 16 ) which adds a stronger and deeper gold.  That is the colour you see from two layers just left of the building centre.

Finally I have added Burnt Sienna (73) to the far left edge of the building. I have been unable to resist adding a touch of the dark grey under the balcony and also some black to the post in the water and to the two windows.

I completed the mooring post because I wanted to make sure I left that sliver of white on the right hand side of the post when I did the rest of the building. The grained surface of the paper means that the pigment is picked up from the pencils and sits on the raised portions of the surface leaving the valleys of the surface much lighter and the effect is really too pronounced.

Let me complete the building front and you will see what I mean.

I am adding a small number of other colours as I go, to get the final result you see below on the left hand side (marked ‘Dry’) I then add water very carefully using vertical strokes and blending the colours I have laid down, without smoothing them out completely.  The result of that is on the right, below  (marked ‘wet’ ).


By using the damp brush carefully, I can smooth out the colour without totally losing that grained effect.       

Once again, I show below the current overall view.

We need to keep standing back and looking at both the picture and our reference to see that the tones and contrasts are not totally out of line.

At the moment, I think the building just completed is too strong and the red building behind it to the left might have to be darkened, but I will leave that for the moment until I see the effect of adding further colour across the rest of that line of facing buildings.

One thing I should point out is how well the burnt sienna has gone over the dark grey on the adjoining roof.

Various interruptions have meant that I have not always been in a position to take photos as work in progress here, and the image above shows the Staedtler pen and wash version as at the end of February 2017. Let me go through the various changes and explain what has been going on.

Completion of the buildings across the back of the picture are pretty straight forward.  I will show a close up of the building line below. I have put in the posts, although that was not an entirely sensible move as it would be better to do the water first and then add the dark posts afterwards otherwise the brown and black will be in danger of spreading sideways when they have water added and worked. I have put in a foundation of grey/green on the water whilst missing the area of light reflection in the centre.

The foliage to the right has been worked with a selection of greens and browns and then a very small brush worked in a circular motion to pick up and leave darker and lighter areas in a random way.  See detailed photo below.

The water will be worked later as the problem here is that small Steadtler set of 36 colours does not give me a lot of choice of pale greens and greys so I prefer to experiment first with the larger sets of colours in the other versions and come back to the big challenge later..

A more detailed look at the buildings.

Try to keep the widows vertical (yes, I know the buildings in Venice are rarely vertical and the windows even less so, but it is good to show them fairly vertical in a picture).

I have shadowed under the pier which makes the walkway more three dimensional. The moored boats at the back have darker areas of shadow at the waterline. I have kept that seagull standing on the post as white and hope to make it stand out more later. There is a closer image of the tree foliage below.

The trees

You need a selection of greens and either grey or brown for the darker area of shadow.  Put down squiggles or circles of colour overlapping and when you have a reasonable coverage of dry pigment work the colour with a small brush in either a dabbing or a circular motion. This will leave small areas of darker and lighter colour all over the tree area and the brush will merge and blend the colours so that your selection of 4 or 5 original shades will become many. Work from top to bottom to move your pigment downwards and give lighter areas at the top and darker areas underneath.

Back to the Derwent version of painting venice

Let's now go back to the Derwent version which I don’t think was nearly as successful at this point.

Remember I didn’t have the photo reference so some colours will differ from the version with the Staedtler pencils.

Also, the Derwent pencils are a lot softer to the touch than the Staedtler so the working point tends to be bigger unless you keep re-sharpening to keep a fine point. This means that fine detail is not so easy. We can correct some of this when we go on to work the final dry layers.

My notes for the Derwent version now move on to the water area and the Gondola.

For the gondola, I have used a Gunmetal Grey with some black added for the darkest areas (waterline and top edge).  I have also introduced the same bright green used in the right hand bushes, which provides a colour link across the picture.  I have selected a darker red for the right hand boat and matched it to a Delft Blue to keep the colour tones less strident on the extreme edge of the picture. I may have to darken them again, but we will see.   Putting in the dry colour for the posts before the brush stage is not a good idea as it is easier to work the water and then put the posts in afterwards and get a good clean edge to them.  Alas!  I have done it now!

The Water

For the water, I have selected a range of very suitable pastel colours from the Derwent set. And I show here a close up of the water area with the first layer of dry colour laid down.

As you will see, there is no firm plan at this stage, merely a selection of colours - but carefully avoiding the area of reflected highlight in the water in the centre area of the picture. This (below) is the overall view of the picture with the dry colour in place for the water and foundation of the Gondola.

I suppose the water is the most daunting part of the whole enterprise and there is an even chance that it won’t go as intended - it rarely does when adding water to pencil is involve!    I have worked through the background buildings with a small brush to smooth down the dry pencil leaving the bottom of the mooring posts and the two boats on the right to finish off at the end.

Firstly I have laid down several layers of those 6 pastel coloured pencils shown above.  There is a fair amount of white in the mixtures as will become more apparent when we get round to applying the brush.

I have deliberately left the bottom of the posts and the gondola at the moment as I will need to do these after the water is completed to avoid smearing dark colour over light.   The dry pigment is quick thick but will quickly bed in when we add water with the brush.  I am keeping a pad of kitchen roll available as I will want to lift out some areas where the colour is too strong.  I am also using a bristle brush as can be seen below in the photo.

Keeping the brush fairly dry (but wet enough to dissolve the dry colour), I have blended the colours of the water area using horizontal strokes.  I have also picked out some areas with a paper pad - again keeping movements horizontal. Once the paper has dried from this step, I will be able to add more of the 6 colours, but being more precise where I put them.

I want to keep the water darker nearer the viewer so that there is a balance for the strongly coloured buildings.  As a matter of good practice, It is always a good plan to build in a foundation of shadow or darker tones at the bottom of the picture to form a good base for the scene to ‘sit’ on.

Once the paper has dried off, I can go back and add a further series of horizontal lines with a selection of my pastel colours, keeping the lines so that they start to show the swirling water and the shadows of the small waves in the water.

I then apply a small flat damp brush and work those little waves - again horizontally.  

I have taken the opportunity to put more shadow below the right hand boats and also brush in the bottoms of the mooring posts and drag some of the dark brown into the water as reflections.

There is now a little Smalt blue and Cedar green in the water colours to add more strength. These are darker tones of the colours previously used.    I will now work the same treatment on the left hand side and review how much darker I want the colours to go.  An advantage of the watercolour pencils over traditional watercolour is the ability to use a wide range of separate but toning colours and being selective over how they are mixed on the paper.

Now I have more dry colour down on both areas of water and I have added some black to the gondola and I have added colour to the Gondolier.  Next step is to add water to this in short horizontal strokes so that the colours do not merge too much.

The dark brown colour marking the edge of the quay in front of the open market area and along in front of the Fish Market building will be dragged down into the water with a barely damp brush to show the reflected shadow. You will see I have added green (Cedar Green) to the shadowed water below the gondola and the right hand boats. There is still some detail to be added after I have resolved the water area - the Gondolier’s pole  and the heads of the passengers  as well as the red back of their seat.  I guess I will have a fair bit of fiddling to do, but let us see what brushing in water brings to the picture for the last time.

First a quick look at where I have used a clean wet brush to soften the colour in areas of water and then lift out immediately with a piece of clean kitchen roll.  This has given me light points in the water to indicate where the sky is reflected in the ripples.

So we now have the bulk of the picture complete. Later on today, I will sharpen up some pencils to a good point and go round adding bits of detail and finishing off areas like the Gondola and Gondolier and also some detail on the right hand side boats.

Derwent Version
72 colours available

Cold Pressed paper - Clairfontaine Etival 300 gms
Finished size 16 x 10 inches

I have called this ‘ Possibly the final version’ of the Derwent picture.

Additions in dry pencil are around the Gondola, The edges of the red blinds on the Fish Market, The front of the facing buildings, the foliage on the right (added shadow) and the right hand boats.  You can always find something to fiddle with, but when working on such a rough surfaced paper there are limits to how much accuracy you can achieve.

I think I did what I set out to do, namely see how watercolour pencil could be used on a cold pressed paper (unstretched) to get a reasonable image down.   When you compare the three versions I completed with different papers and different brands of pencils, , it is surprising how well the limited range of colours from the 36 Steadtler box stand up against the full range of colours from Derwent and Faber Castell.  It just shows that with watercolour pencils, colours ‘in between’ can be easily mixed on the paper.

You might like to reminded of the finished versions of the other two pictures  (shown below). 

Thanks for following the exercise.

Faber Castell Version
120 colours available

Cold pressed paper - Clairfontaine Etival 300 gsm
Finished size 16 x 10 inches

Staedtler version
36 colours available

Cold pressed paper - Clairfontaine Etival 300 gsm
Finished size 20 x 11 inches

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