Painting a Rainy City with John Salminen

In the March 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, John Salminen explains the joys and challenges of painting a rainy city. Salminen emphasizes the importance of design.

Reflections on a Rainy Day

Contrast value, color and clarity to bring out the moist, misty feeling of a rain-soaked city.

By John Salminen

The reflective street in Midtown Reflections (watercolor, 32×39) becomes especially dramatic at night as New York’s Time Square comes alive, in spite of the rain.

The tour group members standing in the hotel lobby were scaling back their expectations for a day of fun-filled activities as they peered through the windows at the steady rain. Their first bite of the Big Apple—New York City—wasn’t what they’d anticipated. As I watched, sipping a cup of strong New York deli coffee, it occurred to me that I was probably the only person in the lobby who felt excitement over the dismal weather conditions.

As a painter of urban scenes, I love rainy days. Bright sunshine can bring out a strong, high-contrast subject with great clarity and detail, but rainy days transmit mood. The contrast between the foggy atmospheric haze and the intense reflections—which seem to gather and magnify light—adds interest, and the flat black umbrellas provide contrast to all that detail—wonderful ingredients for the creation of evocative paintings. As the tour group boarded the bus, I left to explore the busy streets of New York on foot, impatient to capture some of the drama that only a rainy day can provide.

While these rainy days seem to provide an ideal subject for my chosen medium of watercolor, the romantic, atmospheric subject translates well into any medium. The effectiveness of the painting isn’t dependent on choice of materials, but rather on considerations of design.


Step-by-Step Demonstration


1. Arrange shapes

Working from photographs that I shoot on the street, I often combine and alter images to enhance the composition and design. A simple value study helps me determine placement of shapes and values. I arrange the dark, medium and light values, linking them to transform the visually cluttered scene into an understandable composition. By eliminating distracting details, I simplify the image.

2. Mask to prepare for wash

I then create a detailed drawing, transferring the outline from the photographic source by means of a grid. To achieve the luminous, wet look on the street’s surface, I’ll apply the paint in a bold, wet-into-wet manner with a continuous wash. Masking with both tape and liquid will allow me to work quickly without having to paint around intricate shapes.

3. Keep the spontaneity

Watercolor artist and instructor Edgar A. Whitney once said, “Water and pigment, left to their own devices, will do beautiful things.” Avoid overworking the surface or you’ll lose spontaneity. I use vertical brushstrokes to give the surface the illusion of depth.

4. Add detail and values

I introduce a reflective puddle and more defining detail to establish the street’s surface. Light values were already in place, thanks to the masking, so I now paint in shapes of medium and dark values. The puddle gives me a chance to add color—in this case, a reflection of an unseen, brightly lit billboard.

5. Go for clarity and color

Notice how the clarity of the forms adds to the reflective quality of the puddle in this detail. Hard edges offer a contrast to the softer, wet-into-wet surface of the street. This illusion of textural change gives life to the puddle, which needed a contrasting identity to establish its importance in telling the story of this rainy day on a New York street.

6. Create priorities

I create a mental priority list, establishing the most important, next most important and least important aspects of the painting. Knowing the wet street and glistening puddle will be crucial, I need to maintain their importance in the composition. The figures will be secondary and the buildings in the background will be least important.

I de-emphasize the background by reducing the contrast and clarity. By using closely related middle values for the distant buildings, I take them out of the spotlight but still allow them to remain interesting. My goal is to avoid boring passages while preventing the buildings from stealing attention from the wet street.

I also slightly reduce the color, value, contrast and importance of the figures. As a result, the buildings become background, the figures middle ground and the streets foreground. By treating all three differently, I’m able to create an illusion of depth.

7. Assess the work

Now complete, Midtown, April (watercolor, 22×30) lends a sense of New York’s endless parade of passersby and highlights one of the city’s ubiquitous yellow taxicabs—but the real subject of the painting remains the wet street.

John Salminen is one of America’s most highly awarded watercolorists. For more information, visit his website at

This article appeared in the March 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, which is available for order as a digital download. Click here to learn more.

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