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Painting a Watercolor Cityscape: The Luminous Works of Igor Sava

These pieces capture not just the sites but also the mood and character of some of the world’s greatest cities.

Laguna Blue (watercolor on paper, 15×22) by Igor Sava

Igor Sava was born in Moldova, an Eastern European country that was formally part of the Soviet Union. For the last 20 years, however, the artist has made his home in Rome, where a regular supply of sunshine has cultivated a fascination for capturing light and an area’s essence in a watercolor cityscape. Whether it’s a romantic fountain, a charming piazza or a Renaissance church, Sava’s new homeland has supplied endless inspiration for paint and brush.

Sava also has traveled the world, taking his painting kit on the road to other inspiring cities, among them Paris, Barcelona and Saint Petersburg. Wherever he goes, the artist’s aim is the same: to paint a scene that stirs the memory, evoking the character of a city and the power of place.

Save travels around the world leading watercolor workshops. We caught him at home long enough to answer these questions about his artistic practice.

Moscow (watercolor on paper, 36×51) by Igor Sava

The quality of light in your watercolor is mesmerizing. What’s your secret?

I don’t have any special techniques. I think all artists become connected to a place. I’ve lived in Italy, a very sunny country, for 20 years. For me, this is a fundamental part of my motivation to search for light.

You draw viewers into your work and lead them around with carefully placed pops of color. Can you talk about that technique?

By placing objects and characters on the “stage,” the watercolor becomes part of the history of the piece. I can add to or remove color from these characters and, by doing so, shift interest. Imagine a monochromatic picture and a dot of color; by creating this conflict, that point in the painting becomes very important. Sometimes you can create a visual game inside the picture, moving the viewer’s eye.

Paris (watercolor on paper, 15×20) by Igor Sava

Tell us about your approach to color and value.

I love observing a scene. In analyzing every detail, I see thousands of colors and the relationships between them. I’d love to bring all of this onto the paper. Despite all of that, however, it’s the tonal value that is, for me, far more important than the color, so I prioritize the tonal value.

You paint a lot of watercolor works en plein air. How often do you work from photos in the studio?

I often make a fast sketch en plein air, and then continue the painting back in the studio. I think that both practices are important. When painting en plein air, there’s a direct relationship between the artist and nature. Everything is more complicated when you’re working on location, for many reasons, but there’s so much opportunity for learning from the challenge. For the most part, the painting I do inside the studio serves to refine my technique, which is also important.

Venezia, San Marco (watercolor on paper, 21 1⁄2 x 9) by Igor Sava

How does your process differ when working on site versus in the studio?

Photography is two-dimensional; it doesn’t allow you to see the color, the smell, the noise, the proportions and many other things. When I paint a landscape, for me, it’s important to be in that place, even if only for a short time. In the studio, we have the situation under control. Lights and shadows don’t move. The wind and rain doesn’t bother us. We have the opportunity to take a coffee break. We can stop and continue working later. When working in the studio, we lose concentration, but we get the technical experience.

What is it about watercolor that particularly appeals to you? Do you ever use other media?

When you have a clear idea of what you want to get, you can achieve great results in watercolor scenes. I may sometimes paint with acrylics or oils on canvas, but the techniques for these media seem like a little dog listening to everything I order him to do. Watercolor, on the other hand, is like a cat. To get a good result, I have to find the balance between me, as an artist, and the cat that I can’t completely control. When we learn to have patience, we learn to find balance. We learn to play and express ourselves.

The Perfect Day (watercolor on paper, 151⁄4×231⁄4) by Igor Sava

Do you use transparent watercolor only, or do you also use opaque colors? If you use opaque color, where and why?

The great quality of watercolor, compared to other media, is its transparency. I prefer transparent watercolor, but you could choose semi-transparent or opaque colors based on the elements you want to create — sky and clouds, water and boat, trees and figures, etc. Or, you could choose one with respect to the other based on the visual perspective. Using transparent colors creates the illusion of entering inside the picture.

Is there another artist who has had an influence on your painting style?

About 15 years ago, when I first started painting the landscapes of Rome, I discovered the beautiful watercolor works of Ettore Roesler Franz. For some time, I tried to follow his every brushstroke, attempting to understand the reason behind each stroke. Afterward, I discovered many other great artists whose work I loved, and I tried to learn something from each. For days I was immobile in front of the computer, looking for new artists on the internet. At some point, I came to understand one thing: The more you look at others, the less there is to say.

Demo: Constructing a Watercolor Cityscape

Venice (watercolor on paper, 15×22) by Igor Sava

After working out a composition for Venice (above) and making the line drawing, Sava begins with complementary tones in the sky and earthy tones in the foreground. He continues to build the watercolor cityscape, adding detail and a few juicy bits of color.


This article is an excerpt from a full-length profile that appeared in the February 2018 issue of Watercolor Artist. Check out the Digital Edition for the entire interview.

Anne Hevener is the editor-in-chief of Artists Magazine, Watercolor Artist and Pastel Journal.

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