How to Tackle a Busy Scene: Painting an Urban Wharf

Pick up some tips and tricks on how to tackle a busy scene with artist William "Bill" Dunn as he takes on the many elements of an urban wharf.

Pick up some tips and tricks on how to tackle a busy scene with this tutorial, where artist William "Bill" Dunn uses the elements of an urban wharf to create a composition that draws the eye. Want to watch the video version? The full tutorial is available to members of our Beeblys

Materials Used In This Watercolor Class:

  • Reference picture of a busy urban wharf
  • A block of Fabriano's rough watercolor paper (140lb, size 12" x 18")
  • Pentel Graphgear 1000 automatic drafting pencil, 0.7mm lead size with HB lead
  • ¾” Artist’s or masking tape
  • Painting palette for watercolor paints
  • Auxiliary plate or palette for gouache paint
  • A container of water
  • Paper towels or a rag
  • A tabletop easel or a box to prop your painting on
  • A spray bottle with clean water
  • Factis Softer eraser or kneadable eraser

Paints (Holbein Artists’ Watercolors)

  • Naples Yellow
  • Brilliant Orange
  • Pyrrole Red
  • Cobalt Violet Light (a.k.a. “Lavender”)
  • Mineral Violet
  • Leaf Green
  • Olive Green
  • Cobalt Green
  • Viridian
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Prussian Blue
  • Indigo
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Burnt Umber
  • Neutral Tint
  • Ivory Black

Daniel Smith’s Extra Fine Watercolors

  • Chromium Green Oxide
  • Carbazole Violet

Winsor Newton's Professional Watercolors

  • Permanent Carmine

Holbein Artists’ Gouache

  • Permanent White
  • Cadmium Red


  • Neef Rigger Supreme Taklon Series: Long handle rigger brush (no. 6)
  • Neef Rigger Supreme Taklon Series: Long handle rigger brush (no. 8)
  • Neef Rigger Supreme Taklon Series: Long handle rigger brush (no. 10)
  • Neef Rigger Supreme Taklon Series: Long handle rigger brush (no. 12)
  • Escoda Perla Joseph Zbukvic Series: Round brush (no. 6)
  • Winsor & Newton’s Series 7 Kolinsky Sable: Round brush (no. 2)
  • Winsor & Newton Sceptre Gold II Series 303: Short handle lettering/rigger brush (no. 1)

Step 1: Sketching a Strong Foundation

busy-urban-warf-step-1 Painting is already enough of a challenge with one or two objects in your frame, so a busy scene can seem impossible. But not to worry! In this lesson, Bill explains how he approaches and breaks down an urban wharf surrounded by multiple elements. Before you sketch, prepare your workspace and painting area. Lay down a frame of artist's tape (or masking tape) around the edges of your paper so that you'll have a clean border after you've finished. Now, take a good look at your reference photo and decide which of the large elements will be your main subject. Your objective here is to paint an interesting painting, so all other elements in the image should draw the eye towards your subject. Remember that you don't have to sketch in every detail because you can paint them in later. You can also adjust your composition to reflect your vision. The subject for this scene will be the wharf, which has a nice collection of docks, boats, and houses. Sketch it closer to the left side of the frame, rather than in the middle, to create more visual interest. Add in shapes for the trees and the buildings, the winding S-shaped road with cars, and the rock formations. Here's what Bill's sketch looks like: busy-urban-warf-sketch

Step 2: Dabbing in Trees

busy-urban-warf-step-2 To set the tone of the painting, let's start by establishing the trees. We'll inject more color into them instead of sticking to the bland browns in the reference photo. Get a no. 12 rigger brush and load it with clear water. Go over the trees to moisten that section, then dab Naples Yellow into it using the wet-in-wet technique to add wet paint to the wet surface. Add Burnt Umber, then Yellow Ochre, and let the colors blend into each other. Try not to overlap the colors too much though, and focus on covering as much white space as possible. Mix Viridian, Chromium Green Oxide, and Yellow Ochre, and use this to block in the grassy areas in the background. Use the same mixture on the tree line to give it a subtle green tint. Next, mix Viridian and Cobalt Blue for a deep green tint, and dab this into the darker sections of the trees. Add Mineral Violet to darken it even more and to block in the tree silhouettes in the background, then add Olive Green to strengthen the green in the trees on the rightmost side. Finally, use hints of Leaf Green and Naples Yellow to brighten the trees. Use these colors sparingly because you don't want them to overpower the other colors. When painting trees, remember that you're creating an impression of the leaves, so experiment with different kinds of strokes to create interesting textures.

Step 3: Beginning the Wharf

busy-urban-warf-step-3 While the trees dry, let's move on to the main subject of our busy scene: the wharf! Take a no. 8 rigger brush and mix together Burnt Sienna and a touch of Cobalt Blue. Block in the roof of one of the houses. For a subtle difference in value, add Olive Green to the mixture and use it to block in the second roof. Pick up Cobalt Blue and run it along the tops of the roofs to produce a graded wash, working wet-in-wet. Now use diluted Naples Yellow and add a light wash over the deck above the water. To dull the brightness of the yellow, add a touch of Olive Green and Burnt Sienna, working wet-in-wet. Mix together Prussian Blue with Burnt Sienna and use this to block in the shadowy posts that support the deck. Next, add Cobalt Blue to the mixture and layer it into the posts. Dilute your blue-gray mixture and paint horizontal streaks underneath the dock to represent the water, then use Indigo to darken the posts along the deck. Mix together Indigo, Olive Green, and Burnt Sienna, then paint the group of posts on the leftmost side of the wharf. Drop in hints of Indigo and Burnt Sienna to darken and add interest to this part of the painting.

Step 4: Detailing a Busy Scene

busy-urban-warf-step-4 The boats on the wharf are a distinct feature of this busy scene, even if they are very small. To block them in, grab a no. 2 round brush and use Cobalt Green, Pyrrole Red, and Cobalt Blue respectively on each of the three boats' hulls. Switch to a no. 6 round brush. With diluted Cerulean Blue, block in the building in the upper-right corner, working wet-in-dry so it's easier to paint around the tree tops. Next, mix together Carbazole Violet, Cobalt Violet Light, and a hint of Chromium Oxide Green, and block in the buildings on the left side of the frame. Dilute the mixture for the lighter sections of the building, and use a subtle Indigo for the shadows. To paint the base layer of the roofs, use Yellow Ochre mixed with a hint of Burnt Sienna. Do a graded wash by layering in some Cobalt Violet Light, then Brilliant Orange along the top of the wet layer. Finally, dab Brilliant Orange onto the trees on the opposite side of the buildings for a sense of balance in the background.

Step 5: Building Up the Wharf

busy-urban-warf-step-5 Mix Indigo and Burnt Sienna for a blue-gray tint, and block in the buildings on the wharf. Make the walls facing the left side darker to create the illusion of depth, and do this on all similar elements for consistency. Work wet-in-dry and paint around the boats, being careful not to muddy them. While the paint is still wet, work in a graded wash of Olive Green, using a diluted Indigo for the shadows. Go back to your blue-gray mixture and build up your busy scene by detailing the outpost with the tip of your brush. Add some Indigo to strengthen the gray tint where necessary. Next, pick up Burnt Sienna and block in the post sticking out of the water on the left side of the reference photo. Add a hint of Olive Green, Cobalt Violet Light, then Brilliant Orange while the paint is wet and allow the colors to blend together. Finally, draw a line of Indigo on the left side for the post's shadow.

Step 6: Turning Boxes into Cars

busy-urban-warf-step-6 Next, you'll add cars to this busy scene. Let's start on the right side of the reference image. Pick up Neutral Tint mixed with Cobalt Green and lay down a light gray wash. Since the cars are in the distance, there's no need to be careful about details. Use loosely painted boxes to represent their shape. You can add in the details later. Next, use different colors on each car: Permanent Carmine, Brilliant Orange, Pyrrole Red, Naples Yellow, and Prussian Blue. Cars further in the back should have a muted tint, so use diluted Indigo to mute areas where needed. Use Prussian Blue and Indigo to add details like tires, and try not to let your details bleed into surrounding areas. Leave the cars to dry, then use a mixture of Permanent Carmine and Indigo to add small details to the wharf, like windows on the houses. Finally, dilute the gray mixture and add a wash to the light-colored building behind the wharf houses.

Step 7: Painting Cars in Perspective

busy-urban-warf-step-7 Let's shift our attention to the cars coming down the road on the left side. Since these cars are even further back, they need to be more muted in value compared to the cars on the right. To start, mute Permanent Carmine, Cobalt Blue, and Prussian Blue with the gray mixture from earlier. Lay down a wash of loose boxes with the muted colors, working wet-in-dry. Vary the values by diluting your paint with water or adding more gray tint. Remember: the further back the car, the more muted the color. Once all the cars have dried, use Neutral Tint to add shadows and details with your brush tip. Cars on the right should be more detailed as they're closer to the front.

Step 8: Painting the Road, Seawall and Rock Formation

busy-urban-warf-step-8 Now that the the cars have been established, you can work on another section of your busy scene. Add a shadow to the upper-right corner building using a mixture of Cobalt Blue and Neutral Tint, and use Permanent Carmine muted with Neutral Tint for the roof. Next, switch to a no. 10 rigger brush and mix a diluted Neutral Tint, Burnt Sienna, and Indigo. Block in the road, starting from the winding slope on the left. Overlap the road with some of the trees along the side to create the effect that its shape is filtered through the leaves. Carefully paint around the cars and block in the rest of the road on the left. While that dries, mix Olive Green and Neutral Tint for the base layer of the seawall. Use the wet-in-wet technique to work in a Olive Green and Cobalt Blue mixture, then a Prussian Blue and Cobalt Green mixture to give the seawall a more interesting texture. Add hints of Neutral Tint to any spots that need to be darker. Pick up Yellow Ochre and block in the rock formation underneath the sea wall. Establish more texture by dabbing an Olive Green and Neutral Tint mix into the layer while it's still wet. Finally, mix together Prussian Blue, Yellow Ochre, and Burnt Sienna, and paint the darker part of the rock formation.

Step 9: Enriching Colors Through Layers

busy-urban-warf-step-9 Pick up Neutral Tint and add more shadows under the wharf. Add another layer of the Olive Green and Neutral Tint mixture to the rock formation, working from back to front. Use the same mixture to block in the small platform above the rock formation. While it's wet, work in a hint of Leaf Green to brighten it. Mix Neutral Tint, Burnt Sienna, and Cobalt Green, and add another layer to the road. Pick up Naples Yellow, then Olive Green, and cover any leftover white sections in the tree line. As before, use a dabbing technique to create a hedge-like feel to your strokes. With a no. 6 round brush, add Burnt Umber, then Neutral Tint to the rock formation. Use the same mixture to add details to the seawall and wharf. Take the Neutral Tint and Burnt Umber mixture, and add another layer of paint to the group of posts on the left side of the wharf. Use the same mixture to block in the path next to the grassy area above it. Whenever you introduce a new color into your painting, remember to use it in different parts of a busy scene so that everything looks tied together.

Step 10: Creating Character with Architectural Details

busy-urban-warf-step-10 With a no. 8 rigger brush, pick up Olive Green and dab it into the tree line. Add some foliage at the end of the winding road to make it seem like the road is emerging from it. Mix in Prussian Blue for a deeper green tint and use it to add more contrast to the trees, then add a hint of Mineral Violet to the mixture and work this into the shadow layers via wet-in-wet. Mix Olive Green and Permanent Carmine, and detail the building in the upper right corner. Even though the buildings are quite far, drawing in architectural features will give them character. Do the same with the buildings along the left side, using a deep brown mix made of Burnt Sienna and Cobalt Blue.

Step 11: Finishing off Trees With Delicate Brushwork

busy-urban-warf-step-11 Use a no. 6 rigger brush to finish off the main elements in your busy scene. Mix Burnt Sienna and Prussian Blue, and paint in the tree trunks and branches. Keep your lines thick at the base and thin towards the top to make it look as if the branches disappear into the leaves, and work wet-in-dry for those crisp lines. Improve the values of your painting by adding more layers to darker areas. Add Mineral Violet with Olive Green to the tree shadows, and use it to add hints of human figures along the right side of the painting. Use a Burnt Sienna and Prussian Blue mix to strengthen the shadows and details on the other wharf elements. Finally, use Ivory Black on the shadows, rock formation, and other details to make them "pop". It's a strong color, so use it sparingly and work wet-in-dry so that it doesn't muddy your other colors.

Step 12: Streaking Paint to Create Choppy Water

busy-urban-warf-step-12 It's now time to paint the final two elements in this busy scene: the the choppy water and calm sky. Since these sections are pretty big, use a no. 12 rigger brush and mix Cobalt Blue and Olive Green for your initial wash. Starting from under the wharf, block in the water in horizontal streaks that get increasingly wider as they reach the foreground. Layer diluted Cobalt Blue on top in big strokes, then lay down a light wash of Olive Green when you reach the bottom of the frame. While the initial water layers are still wet, add more streaks of Cobalt Blue and Olive Green for a softer effect. Switch to a no. 6 rigger brush to add thinner streaks of Cobalt Green, and use a hint of Neutral Tint to strengthen the shadows under the wharf. With Cobalt Green, Pyrrole Red, and Cobalt Blue, add subtle streaks in the water for the boats' reflections. To paint the sky, wet it with clear water before dropping in a mixture of Yellow Ochre and Neutral Tint. Keep it a light wash so that it doesn't overpower the other elements in your busy scene.

Step 13: Final Details with Opaque Watercolors

busy-urban-warf-step-13 In the final stages of your painting, study what you've done and determine which areas need better contrast. Improve your values by applying opaque watercolor (i.e. gouache) for highlights or dark tints to strengthen shadows, but try not to do too much because you risk overworking your painting. Squeeze out Permanent White gouache onto an auxiliary palette, then add highlights to the headlights, poles along the wharf, and rails by the seawall. Add Cadmium Red gouache to your auxiliary palette, and switch to a no. 2 round brush to paint red rear lights on the cars and boats. Next, mix Naples Yellow with Permanent White for the lane markers along the road and highlights on the tree trunks. To make your painting more interesting, you can add a small American flag in the upper-right corner building with Cobalt Blue and the red tint from earlier. Since the road is also looking bare, add street signs along the edges, using Ivory Black for the poles and a light gray mixture for the signs on top. Finally, use diluted Ivory Black to strengthen your shadows where necessary.

Step 14: Signing Your Busy Scene

busy-urban-warf-step-14 For the final step of the process, dab a lettering brush into your deep red paint, and sign your work! Once your paint is dry, you can erase any leftover pencil lines to brighten your painting. If your paper buckles (i.e. wrinkles up due to being oversaturated with water), cover it with a wet cloth and carefully go over it with a hot iron until it flattens. A busy scene is definitely a challenge, but hopefully this tutorial has taught you that with proper planning and a good sketch, it is very possible to achieve!

by William Dunn

October 10th, 2018