Sketching the Light and Landscape in Venice

“I’m not getting on.”

“You have to get on.”

“I don’t, I’m not going.”

5 minutes earlier, you could have mistaken us for locals, idly chatting to a friendly looking Italian who had informed us we needed to take the Linea Arancio (Orange line) to San Marco.

The journey time? Well …it could take anywhere between 30 minutes and 1 hour. He seemed vague, but of course, why should he know details about the journey.

We’d caught a late night flight into Venice and were waiting for one of the last ‘Alliguna’ boats from the airport.

The energy started to change and people formed an orderly queue beside a man clinging precariously to the side of an extremely buoyant boat and then it dawned on us.

The small lurching vessel moored in the dock, that I had 100% assured Vanessa we wouldn’t have to go in, was indeed our transport.

And the vague Italian man … he was the Captain.

The rain lashed into the small space at the rear of the boat, tourists and suitcases packed in together and then I heard Vanessa say  “Scusami, Scusami, we’ve changed our minds, we’re getting off at the Rialto Bridge”

3 stops earlier than I’d planned.

Our Venetian adventure had begun…

Waking up to clearer skies, I eagerly packed my pads, pens and cameras into my backpack, put on a warm jacket and couldn’t wait to get out into the narrow streets to absorb the atmosphere and a few espressos. I had come to sketch and paint studies to take back to my studio, keen to capture the magical Venetian light.

It’s dangerous walking around Venice with a sketchbook because every view is just so…sketchable.

There are so many elements within the city that ‘help’ your drawings, it’s an absolutely fantastic place to observe and practice your compositions. What’s great about the small canals and the tall buildings, is they always create a shadow contrast in the water.

This is even apparent on overcast days because the sky is still much lighter in tone than the shadows cast by the buildings. You can see in the photo above how you have a lovely dark and light pattern in the water from the cast shadow underneath the gondola, also the reflected sky shape and the cast building shadow.

The canals give you a good sense of depth in front of you and then a focal point (through another building) at the end. And more often than not, these buildings have a great balance of dark and light patterns through the windows and shutters.

St Mark’s Square is a blissfully quiet space first thing in the morning. It quickly fills into a throng of human traffic, pigeons and seagulls. You get these great flashes of red throughout this scene, from the chairs, the pillars on the Basilica and the red coats. It’s such a great place to see dark silhouette shadows of figures against the light greys of the surrounding stonework.

The position for this sketch is based on a painting by one of my favourite artist’s Edward Seago.

Edward Seago, A Winter Morning, The Doge Palace, Venice, Oil on Board (1910 – 1974)

Not much at all had changed with the view and it was interesting quite how far back his position was for capturing the expanse of the monuments, with the Doge’s palace to the left and us looking out towards the silhouette of San Giorgio Maggiore in the distance.

I was working with a Muji 0.5mm marker and a couple of grey Faber Castell fibre tip pens.

The water is such an amazing Phthalo/greeny blue and when the sun shines you get an incredible brilliance of dappled light that adds movement to the water.

San Giorgio Maggiore has a lovely warmth of orange to the brickwork which works so well against the warm sky and then the greener sea.

Back at my studio a small acrylic study is in progress, I’m applying thicker paint with a palette knife for impasto marks.

Wandering over some of the many bridges in Venice can be a great way to change your viewing position for sketches and include some of the man made architectural elements.

The superb wall colours along the canals are framed by the dark accents on the waterline. Here I was drawn to the flash of vivid red in the top right of the image that is then repeated in the triangular shapes of the windows

The rich colours on the buildings give you a great palette to work with.

The contrast in colours you get in Venice are so stunning, the deep green of the water, the warm Venetian reds which have a salmon pink quality to them and then an odd flash of a strong Cadmium Red that helps to bring out the rest of the colours.

When faced with a view straight on, it can be hard to decide what to focus on. You don’t have the depth present in the canal views, so I opted for a quick watercolour sketch of the details of the shuttered windows.

I’d packed with me a home-made acrylic Pochade box from a 59p plastic organiser. (The term Pochade comes from the French verb Pocher – to sketch) I’d cut thin strips of stay-wet palette paper to fit into small sections to create a super lightweight acrylic Plein air kit. Hidden behind the canvas board are some tear-off palette pieces ‘cut to size’ that fit snug inside the lid.

Here’s a close up of the box which worked extremely well for something so compact, I’m always on the look out for a neat, light streamlined kit when hitting the streets.

Detail from a watercolour and ink sketch of a Venetian shuttered window using the Lamy water soluble ink with Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre and Cobalt Blue Winsor & Newton pans.

We couldn’t resist a Grom Gelato, although my personal favourite, the Cioccolato Extra Noir, (super dark chocolate sorbet) has had a slight tweak to the recipe with the new addition of dark chocolate chips. Personally, I preferred it smoother but I can’t show you any evidence that this version wasn’t well received.

Sketching at the top of one of the largest squares in Venice, San Giovanni e Paolo (also known as San Zanipolo in Venetian dialect) You can just see the edge of the impressive Basilica on the right. It was this view, where the light was creating a strong contrast for the shadows under the bridge, the texture from the foliage and smaller buildings receding into the distance that caught my eye.

This was another quick pen sketch with my viewing position further back so I could include the fab shape of the street lamp on the left. Most of the street lamp was sketched with a thicker fibre tip pen and then just a few thin lines with the Muji pen to add detail.

The wide stone bridges can be the perfect resting edge for sketching equipment.

I love how you always see crisp white linens against the darks of the arches and shutters. The sun just catches the edges of the poles in the water and the sides of the frames, and then you have those repeated colours of the different tones of the warm oranges and stronger reds from the crumbling paint on the brickwork to the terracotta pots on the balcony edges.

Where is my Pochade box now!

Piazza San Marco for the sun setting and you get these gorgeous pinky hues and the Basilica becomes a muted tonal silhouette. The dark shapes of the gondolas and street lamp help to frame this classic Venetian view.

Here’s a quick shot of the main painting I’ve been working on for a new Impressionistic Acrylic Course bringing pastel colours together onto a larger scale studio piece.

Early morning at the Rialto fish market, where the energy of traders and fresh produce available is fantastic to sketch.

It’s housed in such an elegant building, with the red canvas within the arches contrasting against the white details.

Even the letter boxes look exciting!

Carnival preparations were in progress during our stay and the mask shops are plentiful.

We meandered up over to the Ca’d’oro Museum. I’d gone to see a Van Dyck Portrait on display on the second floor but unfortunately, that area of the gallery was closed on our visit. But we had the treat of wandering through the Palace entrance which is usually closed to visitors, it was stunning and we were fortunate enough to have it all to ourselves that morning.

Loved the pattern of the mosaic floor to the diamond shapes in the wall behind, the craftsmanship and detail are fantastic.

This unfinished portrait on display is a great way to observe the under-painting and process of the piece.

You can see the warm Imprimatura ground that has stained the canvas and then the crisp line drawing on top. The lines look like they have been transferred using charcoal.

Well, it wouldn’t be a trip to Venice without a hot chocolate at the oldest coffeehouse in Europe, the most beautiful Caffè Florian in Piazza San Marco. Established in 1720, frequented by Casanova, Lord Byron, Proust and Dickens we were in good company. I opted for the extra cream option, let the good times roll!

Moonlight view on the Grand Canal next to the Ponte dell’Accademia.

We left feeling totally inspired and to put your mind at rest if you are thinking of visiting Venice, the return Alliguna boat journey was super, smooth sailing!

The New Venice – Light & the Landscape Course is now available.

You Might Also Like:
1. Landscape Sketching in the Highlands
2. Beginners Urban Sketching Course
3. Painting, Pasties & Padstow – A Cornish Painting trip

This Post Has 322 Comments

  1. Daljit Kaur

    Thank you for sharing the photographs and various tips !your style of writing is very encouraging . Thanks again .

    1. Will Kemp

      My pleasure Daljit, glad you enjoyed them.

  2. lynn

    Hi Will,
    I’m thoroughly enjoying the Venice course and learning a tremendous amount. The drawing-out section was especially challenging and rewarding, but I seem to have come a cropper in brush technique, particularly when it comes to the impressionist style of the water . Could you possibly offer some guidelines or direct me to a source that would teach me to loosen my brushwork and become a bit bolder with my strokes. Ta, Lynn.

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Lynn, pleased you’ve been enjoying the course, it terms of looser brushstrokes and boldness in your work it really comes down to the confidence to make a mark and then leave it. Try working on a small 6 x 8-inch board, find a subject to paint, and limit yourself to 15 brushstrokes for the whole painting. By adding this extreme limitation will force you to really think which areas or colours are the real essence of the scene. Then, when you go back to the original painting it will help to assess your next moves more clearly.
      Hope this helps,


  3. Cecilia Capitanio

    Wow Will, absolutely marvelous !
    Viewing your pictures and sketches bring so many wonderful memories of my trip to Venice ! It is a magical place ,perfect for your mind to wonder thinking ahead the many ways to paint or sketch what is in front of us .
    Thank you Will for sharing your sketches and ideas ,very helpful ,and i loved your paint box ,and the gelato !!!mmm

    1. Will Kemp

      My pleasure Cecilia, so pleased you enjoyed the photos and it brought back some fond memories for you.

  4. Mary L Martin

    Hi Will. You are THE best thing that ever happened to me on Facebook! (At least I think it was FB…) I’ve been struggling with a landscape and decided to pop for your beginning acrylics lesson. It is brilliant. Can’t wait to pick up my brushes and my much simpler palette…I’ll let you know how it goes.

    You are a superb painter in addition to being the best art teacher I’ve ever had. And I used to be one myself.
    Many thanks from Albuquerque, NM. (and sorry about Donald Trump!)

    Mary Martin

    1. Will Kemp

      Ha,ha, hi Mary, that’s very kind of you to say so and so pleased you’ve been inspired by the tutorials and are looking forward to experimenting with a limited palette, it can help so much with your colour mixing progress and overall balance within paintings.

  5. Salma Shirin

    Dear Kemp,
    Wishing you a very Happy New Year and Season’s Greetings to you and your friends and family.
    It is indeed a great information and photographs that you have shared here like I am really moving around Venice with you and painting and sketching. You literally made me a virtual but with a feeling of live tour in Venice. Its so beautiful and made for the artist and made by the artists. Thank you very much for sharing the thing.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks very much Salma, very kind of you. So glad you enjoyed the photos and sketches.

  6. Frances

    Hi Will, thanks so much for sharing so many beautiful photos. I love Venice though it has been many years since I was there. Wish I had been into painting the way I am now, but circumstances were very different back then. Your work always amazes me. Is it o.k. to use any of your photos to paint from if it’s not to sell and just for personal use? Hope you have a very happy New Year, Frances.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Frances, so pleased you enjoyed the images from Venice.

  7. Annalise

    Hi Will,
    I love your writing style, together with snippets of scenery, your sketchbook art, the close-up details and tasty treats, it gives a feel of the place that you have visited. Come visit Hawaii, it’s not all hula girls and coconut trees! We have huge green sea turtles (very drawable), hawksbill turtles (endangered), live lava, craggy terrain, waterfalls, jungles and yes blue seas. Remember, the Big Island, not Honolulu (bleh, another big city).

    1. Will Kemp

      Cheers Annalise, really pleased you’ve been enjoying the articles, Hawaii does indeed sound a fantastic inspiration!

  8. Andrew Moore

    Yes a fantastic place to sketch, draw and paint. The natural earth tones of the buildings, strong tonal contrasts are a visual treat. Thanks Will for sharing your experiences on the trip and also the images, a very inspirational place. As you say, it is almost made with an artist in mind.

    1. Will Kemp

      My pleasure Andrew, it really does lend itself to sketching, so pleased you enjoyed it.

  9. Reggie Tibbetts

    Oh My…….what an awesome offering of wonderfulness!
    I went in 2014 with a camera, a sketch pad and pencils. I spent quite a bit of time with my camera and a series of pencil drawings. Not at your level, but OK. You bring a soothing delivery of images and writings that draw you in. Wish I could post a few of mine for your comments.
    Thank you.

    1. Will Kemp

      That’s great to hear Reggie, glad you had an inspiring time in Venice.

  10. Steven


    I have taken many of your free acrylic painting courses over the last year. Today I just finished the Venice Sunset painting course that you are selling. It was a great experience for me. It is probably my best painting ever. My wife gave me the course as a Christmas present, now she wants to frame the picture, she loves it. I learned a great deal starting with the stay wet pallet that kept the premixed colors wet for three weeks (I’m slow). The exercises before the main painting were very instructional and fun. I learned a great deal on the color mixing and color tone instruction. The use of the glazing gloss to smoke the edges of colors is something I will use in the future. I have only been painting for about a year and a half but have learned the most from your instruction. My first painting ever was the acrylic painting of an apple that you offer. You are very talented as both a painter and instructor, the lessons were well thought out and detailed. After finishing this painting I had to write and say THANK YOU! Now whats next!

    1. Will Kemp

      Hey Steven, great to hear from you. So pleased to hear of your results from the Venice course. The scale of the Venice painting is quite a challenge so pleased the stay-wet palette worked well, 3 weeks is great going!. The glazing mixing is ace isn’t it. Thanks so much for writing Steven, made my day!

  11. victoria

    hi will, for drawing the marble figures – which do you recommend – Rome or Venice? for November 1 week visit

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Victoria, Rome has more marble figures in museums, Venice is amazing for the architecture and street scenes.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.