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Watercolour paintings of Venice

Updated on August 5, 2016
San Polo.  Photograph by Helen Lush
San Polo. Photograph by Helen Lush

Painting the canals and architecture of Venice

I visited Venice in 2008 and held an exhibition of paintings inspired by the visit in 2010 called “Time and Tide". I have included some of these paintings here with information about materials used, methods, and what I hope are useful painting tips. I am delighted to be one of the many many people who have visited and painted Venice – the place is an inexhaustible source of aesthetic wonders!

We stayed in a little hotel near the Rialto Bridge – one of the busiest areas in Venice. Little shops, restaurants, vaporettos and gondolas all throng the bridge and canal sides. The air resounds with the deep chug of the boats' engines and the slap of water against stone and metal. Massive wooden pillars line the edges of the Grand Canal – mooring for dozens of sleek black gondolas, sumptuously upholstered and trimmed with red and gold. The gondoliers manage them with effortless style, smartly dressed in black and white stripes with black hats or straw boaters.

"Grand Canal Sunset" by Helen Lush
"Grand Canal Sunset" by Helen Lush | Source
"Venice Texture 1" by Helen Lush
"Venice Texture 1" by Helen Lush

"Grand Canal Sunset" - Painting Tips

This watercolour was painted on Fine Grain 140lb watercolour paper, with my usual watercolour paints – Winsor and Newton Cotman tubes. The reds and golds of the sunset reflected nicely the terracotta and amber colours of the palazzos lining the canal. This called for a wash of pale pinky-gold over the buildings and adjacent water. A wash of blue was applied to the rest of the water while this was still slightly damp to allow some bleeding in. Once dry architectural details and shadows were added in purple-grey watercolour – I like to use a mixture of Dioxazine Violet and Burnt Sienna. Finer details were added last of all with Derwent watercolour pencils.

Venice Window

Photograph by Helen Lush
Photograph by Helen Lush

Marco Polo's House

Leaning out of the window of our hotel room you could practically touch the Teatro Malibran. In a quiet courtyard behind the hotel, Corte del Milion, was once the home of Marco Polo. The history of the city could be seen everywhere in the layers of architectural details on it's buildings. The very stone seemed to exhale the smell of antiquity. Although during the day the narrow streets maintain a steady flow of people, at night the city is silent – no traffic or rowdy crowds issuing from pubs! The bright little shops displayed masks of every variation and style, glass as jewellery, vessel and ornament, and gorgeous handmade paper in the form of books of all sizes and colours with accompanying pens, quills and all manner of stationery. Shops brim with chandeliers of amazing twisted and coloured glass like cellophane-wrapped candy.

"Venice Canal" by Helen Lush
"Venice Canal" by Helen Lush

"Venice Canal" - Painting Tips

In this watercolour of a canal I wanted to contrast the silken, almost oily look of the water with the dry, dusty, crumbly texture of the ancient buildings. I used a smooth 140lb Fabriano Artistico paper and initially laid down a wash of very pale golden yellow, avoiding the parts I wanted to keep white – in this case the reflection in the water, stonework around some of the windows and washing on the line. Texture was built up in the walls using a mixture of Dioxazine purple and Burnt Sienna. The area of water was re-wet and a wash of Prussian Blue with a little Sap green flooded in. Final details were as usual added using Derwent Watercolour pencils.

Materials used:

  • Fabriano Artistico 140lb Watercolour paper
  • Winsor and Newton Cotman 8ml tube watercolours
  • Derwent Watercolour pencils
  • Caran D'Ache Watercolour pencils

"Two Gondolas" by Helen Lush
"Two Gondolas" by Helen Lush

"Two Gondolas - Painting Tips

The two gondolas in this painting are the main focus, emphasising the black, scythe-like boats with their rich crimson and gold upholstery, and the dark water of the canal. The surrounding buildings are serving only to encompass the boats, the building on the right being deliberately left unfinished for a greater contrast. The curve of the balustrade on the left reflects the curve of the boats and leads the eye towards the bridge. This was painted on smooth 140lb paper using Winsor and Newton Cotman watercolours and Derwent Watercolour pencils.

"Ponte Storto, San Polo" by Helen Lush
"Ponte Storto, San Polo" by Helen Lush | Source

"Ponte Storto, San Polo" - Painting Tips

The bridges of Venice provide a great source of architectural interest – each one different from the next, some with wrought iron detail, built of brick , wood and stone. The interest is increased by the reflections in the canal water. When painting reflections in water it is helpful to remember that light colours will appear darker and dark areas lighter.

"Canal and Gondola" by Helen Lush
"Canal and Gondola" by Helen Lush

Fish and fruit markets

Close to the Rialto bridge, the Pescheria is housed within an ancient open-sided building next to the Grand Canal. Its many stalls are brimming with every kind of fish and shellfish, fresh and glistening. Crowds of people jostle among the stalls. The adjacent fruit and vegetable market is a riot of colour – enormous long luscious strawberries, bitter chicory, artichokes, in fact all kinds of vegetable and herb. Quite a source of material for painting in itself. In a courtyard nearby, young men are playing football while others sit around and watch the game. It is all very civilised with lots of banter between the players and onlookers - an ordinary scene rendered extraordinary by the surroundings!

"Canal and Washing Lines" by Helen Lush
"Canal and Washing Lines" by Helen Lush

"Canal and Washing Lines" - Painting Tips

I have painted washing lines in many settings – they add an ordinary domestic detail to a scene, break up vertical planes and add interest and rhythm with their fluid shapes and splashes of colour. In Venice they were plentiful, strung across balconies and canals.

This watercolour sketch was done quickly for a spontaneous feel. Serendipitous marks created by the initial wash were emphasised with pencil and added to the texture of the masonry.

Piazza San Marco and it's Pigeons

We walked miles around the streets of Venice, sometimes hopping on vaporettos, often not knowing where we were. Entering a shady arch we were amazed to emerge into the light and grandeur of Piazza San Marco – stunning in it's scale and such a surprise after the narrow passages of the nearby streets. At the far end the Basilica squatted in all it's gilded glory and the campanile tower added a vertical element to the vast tableau. The square was full of people and pigeons! Armfuls of birds fed on the corn sold by vendors to the tourists. Wooden palettes were stacked in piles, ready to provide raised walkways when the next Aqua Alta flooded the square.

Feeding the Pigeons in Piazza san Marco.
Feeding the Pigeons in Piazza san Marco.
"Venice Texture 2" by Helen Lush
"Venice Texture 2" by Helen Lush

"Venice Texture"

The two abstract paintings included in this hub were inspired by details of architecture such as the byzantine arch used in "Venice Texture 2" and the patterned brick work of the Doge's Palace, and combines this with calligraphy to try to give a feel of the texture of Venice.


I would encourage any artist looking for inspiration to visit Venice and find a wealth of source material, fascinating history and a chance to explore a completely unique city.

My obsession with Venice has encouraged me to read everything I can find on the subject. Fiction is my preference and if you are of the same mind, I would humbly suggest you read all or any of the Inspector Brunetti novels by Donna Leon, "Miss Garnet's Angel" by Sally Vickers, "The Rosetti Letter" by Christi Phillips, "The Glassblower of Murano" and "The Venetian Contract" by Marina Fiorato....If you can't get to Venice then you can visit it in your imagination!

Detail of "Grand Canal Sunset 2013" by Helen Lush
Detail of "Grand Canal Sunset 2013" by Helen Lush
Looking towards San Giorgio Maggiore.  Photograph by Helen Lush
Looking towards San Giorgio Maggiore. Photograph by Helen Lush


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    • DaffodilSky profile image

      Helen Lush 4 years ago from Cardiff, Wales, UK

      Well thanks Kathryn - that's exactly the sort of response I was hoping for! I really appreciate your compliments too. I am aiming to produce some "How to" hubs involving painting in watercolour quite soon, showing the various stages of paintings as they progress.

    • Kathryn Stratford profile image

      Kathryn 4 years ago from Manchester, Connecticut

      This is the kind of art that makes me wish I knew how to use watercolor. Your art and photography are both beautiful, and your stories behind them make me really want to go to Venice! Well done, and thanks for sharing this with us.