Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Cityscape Tips

Coastin', 18 x 36 inches, oil on linen

This is one of the larger pieces for my upcoming show, Urban Aria

If you've tried painting cityscapes, you know it's not an easy thing. (As if landscapes and figures were, right?) Obviously, there are many ways to approach it and no one way is the correct way. Sometimes I do a fairly tight drawing and use a grid system to blow it up onto a larger format. Other times, I just go in with a brush without a carefully laid out drawing on a blank canvas. 

I prefer the free-hand way, because it just meshes with my personality better. The tight initial drawing is just so tedious!  But sometimes I want a level of accuracy that I can only get from a carefully measured under drawing, like when I'm doing a recognizable landmark architecture. 

This isn't one of those paintings, so I started it free-hand. Even so, I do end up using the straight edge to get long straight lines correct, like the perspective lines on the buildings on the right. There's no way I can eye ball those at this scale. (The painting is 36 inches wide) My hand is not that steady, see.

After the loose block-in of the main elements, I just lay my straight edge right on top of the wet paint and draw lines by scratching into it with a sharp tool (a pencil, or the back end of a brush). Does that mess up the layers underneath? Yes, but mine is a push-and-pull-back-and-forth type process painting, so it doesn't really matter. I rather like the mess the straight edge makes. It helps to integrate shapes and add visual activity.

Here are some of the points that I consider helpful in painting the kind of cityscapes that I've been doing;

  • Know which lines are critical. I don't have to draw every line. Perspective lines are obviously more important than those that describe little things like window trim and street signs.
  • Simplify the color scheme. Overall color theme (harmony) is more important than local color. Consequently, many of my cityscapes have a tonal structure that's almost monochromatic. Local colors are expressed as slight variations of this tonal color theme.
  • Most of the local color happens in the foreground. 
  • In the distance, the color of the atmosphere (the color theme for the painting) dominates, and the local colors of things (trees, cars, buildings) become irrelevant.
  • When the painting is structured tonally like this, the jump between warm and cool temperatures need to be very subtle. If you want a big temperature shift, be subtle with value shifts between light and shadow lest you end up with completely unconvincing visual "reality". (If you're going for expressionist color, this stuff doesn't apply, of course)
  • Simplify by asking what is the minimum amount of detail I need for this object (car, tree, building) to be recognizable as such? 
  • Integrate every shape into the painting. No shape or object should look like they're pasted on.
  • Lose an edge on every shape, if you can.
  • Have a strong focal point.
  • Never be afraid to scrape a perfectly good passage. If you can do it once, you can do it again.
  • Take out that detail on that building you just painted!
  • Take out that other detail too.
  • Take out a little more detail while you're at it.
  • Now put it back in to see if it's better with it or without it. Ask if the detail makes for a stronger statement, or distract from the overall impact.
  • Cars - pretend it's all the same surface - no glass in the windows, but it's solid painted metal surface. If the car doesn't read correctly by differentiating values of the planes, making glass look like glass will only look stupid. 
  • Cars - pay close attention to ratios and draw them carefully;  height:width, length:height, etc. Just how high is the trunk compared to the top of the car? You might be surprised to find out just how small a space the rear window occupies in the silhouette.

I'd better stop before this turns into a book!  Anyway, these are some of the things I think about.


  1. Fantastic points to keep in mind! I LOVE the question about asking how much detail is needed to make an object look like what it's supposed to be. This is such a hard concept for beginning painters to grasp but so essential. I'm going to share this on my FB and Twitter. And I've got a cityscape I've been waiting to try....

  2. Thank you so much Terry, I am in the process of doing a series of urban landscapes so I really appreciate your insights. You are a good person to spend the time to share your knowledge with other artists.

  3. Terry, this is a gerat post! And just in perfect time as I am starting to do more of cityscapes. This really helps.

  4. Thanks Bill! Glad you like it :-D

  5. Thanks Donna! Your Chamber of Commerce painting is lookin' pretty sweet~!

  6. Thanks Dado!

    And it looks like you had a fab workshop with Bill this summer, too. Beautiful sketches you did@ Sardine :-D

  7. This is a wonderful post, illustrated by a marvelous painting.
    I love to add architctural elements to my figurative work but find the precision and perspective needed both hard and tedious.
    Your post will help me often and in many many ways.

  8. Thank you for this list of great tips for cityscape painting. They'll apply just as much in pastels as in wet mediums like oils, acrylics and watercolor.

    Pastels brush out as easily as oils scrape off - I'm going to have fun with this!

  9. Thanks Shirley~ Thanks Robert~ Happy to know my rambling was informative :-D

  10. Just looked at your amazing paintings. You truly are a master of the urban landscape. Thank you so much for your advice and being so generous in sharing your expertise. I will bear all this in mind when I attempt mu first city scape of Brisbane. It may not be a masterpiece like yours but its got to be better than before your tips! Thank you again.