Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

March 13, 2012

Watercolours of the City

Filed under: Life Drawing,London,Painting,Watercolour — Rob Adams @ 7:14 pm

I entered a watercolour into the RWS exhibition this year and to my surprise I got in, then to my further delight it also sold. It was of the City of London, here is the link to the post: . I had not done many urban watercolours as it is quite time consuming to distil the detail down but still keep the busy feeling that a bustling urban scene needs. Still emboldened by my success I have set about painting some more. I find it great fun to assemble a street scene, unlike a countryside scene there more variables in the form of cars, trains and people. When you photograph any of these it takes a very large number of pictures to get images that are “just right”. Then you have to arrange all the bits and bobs to look as if they just happened and weren’t carefully composed after all.

Like a lot of art if anybody notices the means by which it was done then you have failed. Time of day is hugely important for me in cityscapes, even the most prosaic view can be transfigured by beautiful or dramatic light. This light usually occurs at dawn or dusk and the only way to strike lucky is to be there when it might happen, which in turn means being there a lot of times when nothing happens! So although luck plays quite a large part in finding a good subject, putting yourself in the way of where luck might strike is very much part of the business of painting the city. I carry a compass with me so that if I come across a scene I like I can estimate what time of day a view might be good. It should be possible to exactly work out which day the sun will shine down a particular street, but I haven’t got around to working out a method. I have a 3D program that calculates sun position at any time of day (used by architects to make sure their building looks ugly whatever the time of day) so it should be possible to load in a map an just dial it round until the light is right then read off the day and time when the light might be good…



London, Nelson, Trafalgar, watercolour, plein air, Rob Adams

A plein air sketch done sat on a stool in the middle of Trafalgar Square, the light was moving fast so I couldn’t linger over the figures. It had enough about it to prompt me to do a larger studio version.


London, tourists, nelson, lions, Trafalgar, water colour, painting, Rob Adams

Here’s the studio version. I didn’t really have the right figures so I might do another after getting some more people pics. What it needs is a really good figure or figures to give it a focus. There is no way round this other than spending an hour or two snapping passers by often I only get three or four usable from a hundred or so photos and even these will need a little surgery to give them good silhouettes. 1/2 sheet.


ship, london, deptford, creek, watercolour, Rob adams

I have been meaning to do this view for a while and have dozens of pictures of it in differing light. I was more or less resigned to making up the light on the ship, but hey presto I passed by and the light was perfect and the ship in dock! I got it more or less drawn out, but it was too awkward peering over a chest high wall to paint, so I retreated to the studio. It was very important to keep the tones in the distance controlled to give the feeling of the sun drenching the scene. 1/4 sheet.


London, street, cars, Brockley, watercolour, Rob Adams

From a photo taken last Autumn, just a snap taken in passing but on going through my photos recently this struck a chord. I added the figure to give a focus and stop the eye running off into the distance. 1/4 sheet.


Cannon st, london, st pauls, watercolour, painting, rob adams

Nearly a half sheet, one of the most complicated scenes I have taken on in watercolour. I did a fair bit of working out as various hurdles had to be introduced to stop the eye whisking off down the street too quickly. It was a real challenge to keep it tight but the internal handling quite loose. Below is my tone sketch which is done very quickly in Photoshop.


London, photoshop, sketch

Here is my working drawing. All the various parts are assembled roughly then I do a line drawing over the photoshop image. This is not just tracing I am all the time selecting what is important and the process allows you to find what can be left out. Also it sets the whole thing in your memory which helps with doing the final painting. I then put a very blurred version of the montage behind the line work and work into it with colour only partly derived from the scene. The main inspiration for colour and mood was a plein air done about a year ago. I’ll repost it below and below that the photo ref so you can see how it developed.


London, cannon st, oil, painting, rob adams


London, st pauls, cannon st

Here’s the unadjusted photo. So you can see a finished painting is quite a journey. I think I might do another of this in later richer light. I had better hurry though as they are going to rebuild on the right so this view of St Pauls will be gone!


London, railway, train, St Leonard's, Shoreditch, Hoxton, Station, watercolour, Rob Adams

St Leonard’s, Shoreditch from Hoxton Station. This had been waiting a while. I sketched it out standing on Hoxton station but after a few abortive attempts I realised I was not going to be able to get the train right. So I took pictures then forgot about it. So now a year later I finished it off. That’s it I have another three London watercolours to do, but that will be after a stint of oil painting where I really must put some work in if I am to improve to a decent standard.


  1. Great post Rob, thanks for sharing your process. I absolutely love the watercolours, particularly the one of St Leonard’s from Hoxton. How long do the finals take to paint?
    Congrats on the well deserved RWS acceptance and sale.

    Comment by Thomas Haskett — March 13, 2012 @ 8:46 pm

  2. Thanks Tom, They vary the big views of Trafalgar square and St Pauls take a day, the Hoxton one maybe 3hrs. The more areas that can be consigned to atmospheric washes the quicker to do!
    Best Rob

    Comment by admin — March 14, 2012 @ 9:07 am

  3. Yes, good point! The large Trafalgar Square one is very detailed, but still nice and loose, busy and alive. Love the painting on your front page too…

    Comment by Thomas Haskett — March 14, 2012 @ 11:24 am

  4. Great set of images and many thanks for sharing the process with us. Well done for having your work accepted at the RWS, well deserved.

    Comment by Mick Carney — March 16, 2012 @ 12:21 am

  5. Hi Rob,
    Beautiful work.

    I noticed in some of your watercolours, you transition from Blue to yellow for a sunset sky without getting any green inbetween.

    What colours do you use to do this? I have tried warm version of both (Ultramarine Blue and Gamboge Yellow) but I still get a green tinge.

    Can you help me?

    Stu French

    Comment by Stuart French — February 21, 2014 @ 7:24 am

  6. Hi Stu, Thanks! I think the trick is to get the yellow the right strength (not to strong) and more red than lemony. I put the blue in first reducing its strength as I go down with water then I add the yellow at the bottom and tilt the board to get the two to mix. I use one of the quinacridones for the yellow, either Burnt Orange, or Gold from Daniel Smiths.

    Comment by Rob Adams — February 21, 2014 @ 10:12 am

  7. Awesome, thanks for the advice!


    Comment by Stuart French — February 24, 2014 @ 9:56 pm

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