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.