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Exploring a Painting Subject


Every once in a while a painting subject pops up that is really intriguing. As you draw and paint all sort of ideas start to emerge. You soon discover that one painting is just not enough to explore all the possibilities.


Re working the subject and seeking out similar subjects allows you to experiment and stretch the ideas in various directions.

Painting a watercolor of Venice
Find a Favourite Painting Subject

For me the weathered, ancient facades of Venice got me experimenting with textures, colors and flat, perspective free presentation. I love the simple, geometric layout – everything square on and flat. The subject becomes formal, static and rigid. Into this framework all sorts of dynamic textures, colors and suggestions can be woven. These examples show how subsequent paintings gradually incorporate new ideas and expand on existing ideas

Sometimes a painting subject throws up so many ideas and options, a whole series of paintings are needed to fully explore its potential.

These Venetian facades I once treated in a more realistic manner, paying attention to perspective, light source and shadows.  By gradually eliminating these clues to realism, a more formal, graphic layout is produced. 

Venetian Facades make an interesting painting subject to explore


This formality provides a great contrast to the loose, sketchy pen and charcoal marks, the casual application of paint and the areas of subtle suggestion.

The shapes and proportions of the buildings in this painting were adjusted to create a more satisfying arrangement. Patches of color were simplified and exaggerated to reinforce the focal point. Contrasting areas of flat gouache with vibrant, transparent watercolor add to the interest of the surfaces.

The wash of Phthalo Blue through the water was taken up either side of the painting to allow the focal area to dominate before patches of tinted gouache were worked over the blue.

Variation on Venetion Facades




Contrasting opaque pigments in the boat hull, awning and bricks with transparent washes in the sky, water and buildings give this painting a shimmering, vibrant appearance. The top right and bottom left hand corners were softened with a translucent wash of dilute gesso. The subtle suggestion of detail was reinstated with fine lines of charcoal pencil once the gesso dried.

Watercolor of Venetion buildings and blue boat




Here the focal area is left sharp and clean while large areas of the painting have been lost and softened with gesso and gouache.


The translucent softening and understated suggestion give the painting that lost, mysterious character of early morning Venice.

Watercolor showing s different approach exploring the same Venetion theme




Much of the building’s detail has been lost in this painting. Washes of Phthalo Blue from the water have been taken up into areas of the building to encourage the appearance of a band of diagonal light across the facade.

Translucent gesso was also worked into the lost regions before some of the details were redefined.


Charcoal pencil and rigger lines were used to reinstate detail then a mixture of White Gouache and Phthalo Blue was loosely worked over the surface in a pattern echoing the windows.


The patch of cool white light at the top was made by dropping white gouache over the blue pattern and spraying the edges with a mist of water.

Explore a painting subject - Venetion facades




The same approach was used on this painting of buildings along the river in Prague.


Flattened, square on vantage point devoid of perspective, intense tonal contrast and strong color in the focal point with subtle, lost suggestion at the extremities.


Leaving areas of simple understatement allow the detail of the focal area to dominate.




Next time you find a subject that fascinates you, don’t settle for a single painting. Try a number of different approaches. The important thing is to explore your chosen painting subject.


Experiment and take risks – don’t feel you have to produce masterpieces. It’s much better to occasionally have things go wrong than to constantly take the same safe approach.

Play around and experiment – you might have the odd failure, but once you have a few works together that you are happy with, the fear of failure soon disappears and the fun really starts.

Good Luck!


Want more ideas on painting subjects? See what to paint.


Author: John Lovett

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