We Built This City (with Watercolor)

Energized by the pace, noise, and scale of the modern burgeoning city, New Jersey native John Marin (1870-1953) pushed color and line to the point of abstraction — and he did it with watercolor! Unusual for an artist coming of age in the 19th century, when watercolor was still associated with amateur, often female, artists, he chose it as his primary medium. For Marin — an improvisational piano player as well — watercolor had much in common with jazz in terms of evoking emotion and sensation.

John Marin, “Woolworth Building Under Construction,” 1912, watercolor and graphite on paper, 19 5/8 x 15 3/8 inches, Arkansas Art Center
John Marin, “Manhattan Skyline from the River,” 1909-12, watercolor over graphite on paper, 11 1/2 x 12 3/4 inches, Arkansas Art Center

An urban scene provides a study in contrasts. Strong horizontals and verticals meet in dynamic fashion; compositions take on a grand scale; and lights and darks are thrown into stark relief. The watercolor paintings showcased here encourage us to slow down and enjoy the complex beauty that can be found amidst the hustle and bustle of the city.

“Morning Light, Boston” (watercolor, 29 x 21 in.) by John Salminen

“When I’m on the street with my camera looking for potential subjects, I’m most concerned with the composition of the scene and the light quality,” says John Salminen. “The composition gives structure and can lead the viewer into and through the scene. The light quality imparts mood and atmosphere. If I can successfully incorporate those things, the audience will invent the story, and it will be, in part, their story. I don’t attempt to tell stories, but rather, I try to elicit a response. It is very gratifying create a watercolor painting that strikes an emotional chord and momentarily bonds me to the viewer.”


“Downtown From the Hollywood Hills” (watercolor, 10 x 14 in.) by Joseph Stoddard
“In a Hurry” (watercolor, 15 x 11 in.) by Marilyn Rose
“The Buzz Begins, Annapolis” (watercolor, 12 x 16 in.) by Catherine Hillis


“Balcony View – Rome” (watercolor, 22 x 15 in.) by Thomas W. Schaller

“Cities are the manifestation of human life, love, ambition, and energy,” says Thomas W. Schaller. “And Rome — with its storied past and vibrant future — is one of the most incredible examples. Here, I am looking out from my terrace over the beautiful Campo dei Fiori to the ever-changing riot of markets and cafes below. I tried to orchestrate a sense of the chaos of lights, darks, colors, shapes, sounds, and movement of this glorious city where the full palette of life is always on display.”

Ever wonder how Thomas W. Schaller designs his compelling cityscapes? He breaks down his process in this video workshop, Thomas W. Schaller: Watercolor — The Power of Design.


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