Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cityscape Challenge - Mine

High Noon, 12 x 16 inches, oil on panel

Well! It has been an interesting and fun experiment to see all the different interpretations from the same photo. Thanks to all of you who participated! I was really surprised by how many responses I received. When I posted the challenge, I seriously thought, "meh, I'll probably get five or six responses."  Boy was I wrong.  If we were to do this sort of thing again, I'll have to think about how to do it more efficiently. More thoughts on that in a future post. 

But for now, here's my own contribution, with a couple of thoughts on the process;

First thing, I cropped. The patterns of dark/light created by the back lit traffic was what interested me, how the shapes could be linked to make abstract patterns and yet with a little bit of visual cues you can tell exactly what's going on.  with this in mind, I determined that the sky was not part of my concept, so I cropped that out.

The farthest left car and buildings didn't have much to offer in way of dark /light pattern, so I took those out, too. I also needed it to be a rectangle of 3 : 4 proportion, since I already had a 12 x 16 panel ready to go.  

Next I converted the reference photo to black and white. When I do cityscapes, I usually like to work from a b/w reference so as to not be dictated and distracted by predetermined colors. If I really need local color information, I can always go back to the original photo, but I rarely do that. Actual local color isn't relevant in the way I work.

I made a grid on my reference photo in order to transfer the drawing onto my panel.

...like this.  By "transfer the drawing" I just mean using the grid as a guide to draw. As mentioned above, the panel is 12 x 16 inches, and I'm using a gessoed surface on this one. I seem to have an easier time controlling values in underpaintings, on a gessoed panel surface than on oil primed linen.

Next I establish my simplified design using two or three values. This is the underpainting. I do rely on underpaintings when doing cityscapes, because drawing is so critical. I want to make sure the design reads at this stage, and the drawing is more or less accurate.

The underpainting is done with just one dark color (in this case, Ivory Black) and a medium like Liquin. It's painted entirely transparently, and I try to keep the value structure as simple as possible.

I then start painting opaquely, keeping very close to the simple value structure established in the underpainting. Where I start to move away from the crude 2 value design (separating the distant areas from the closer areas, for example) , I do so slowly, and carefully,  making sure I'm not fragmenting the overall structure.

As the painting develops, I start sneaking in color variations. In doing so, I make sure the value of the added color stays very close to what's underneath, unless I have a very good reason to do otherwise. 

I also start integrating adjacent shapes and manipulating edges, sometimes sharpening, sometimes softening or losing entirely. I try to make variety of different types of soft edges, so that they have interesting qualities on their own, in a purely abstract way. Sometimes I do that with the painting upside down so that I don't think about the "thingness" of the shape I'm painting.

And that's it~ 

I really enjoyed seeing all your interpretations on this little challenge. And I hope you did, too!


  1. Terry, thank you for this challenge. It’s so brilliant to see your own thoughts and work in progress on this now, and so much better than if you had posted your painting first, so that everyone was not influenced by it. I love your cityscapes, and have really enjoyed looking at everyone’s work.
    I have a couple of questions for you if you don’t mind…. when you did your underpainting using black and Liquin did you use white to mix the values or another colour? Does this layer have to dry before over painting with colour…sounds daft, but I’m not much of oil painter! Did you use Liquin in all the layers and are your colour mixes applied with thin glazes or more thickly with more of a direct approach?

  2. Thanks Maggie~

    To answer your questions, the underpainting is transparent, so no white. If I need lighter values, I just use more Liquin and less pigment.

    Most of the time the underpainting is painted really thinly, so it doesn't need to be completely dry, strictly speaking, before putting more paint on top. It seems easier if I do let it dry, but it's not that big a deal. If it's drippy wet, however, it's problematic so I do let it settle a bit.

    I don't use Liquin in all layers. After the underpainting, I paint mostly directly, with no medium. I may use Liquin towards the end of the process if I want to glaze, or make drippy mixes to make abstract marks, but I'd say, 99% of the post-underpainting process is just direct painting.

  3. Thanks, Terry. I re-read your post after I asked questions, and you explained most of it there.... but thank you for your answers. I can never get my mind around how to paint with oils (lol)…..

  4. I really appreciate you sharing your approach to the subject. Although, I paint alla prima, spending time before the paint hits the canvas is so critical. Finding the challenge late on Sat., didn't allow me quite as much time but I certainly learned a lot. Look forward to the next one. Love your interpretation and limited color palette. Thanks.

  5. Terry, thank you so much for the detailed explanation of your working process. Unfortunately I could not join the challenge fun, but reading and watching your lesson is priceless experience.

  6. Found the ivory black underpainting really interesting. I guess it makes the slightest hint of any color really stand out. I've used brownish underpaintings which I can see now create a distinct bias. Seems like the black might let you push the color in more directions.

  7. Yes, it was so helpful doing this challenge, remembering my struggle, then seeing yours. I noticed my brush mark direction seemed important for me to be effective, but it looks like your strokes are mostly vertical- is that deliberate, does that give a certain effect for you?
    Thanks Terry!

  8. thanks Kelley, Irina, John, and Judy!

    John, you may be right about Ivory Black. Although I don't usually think of it in those terms. I do like more neutral color for underpainting - at least less saturated than what I put on top.

    Judy, I do actually consider the brush stroke direction very carefully. In this painting, you may be seeing a lot more vertical strokes than there are. A lot of it is just the brushed on texture of the gesso underneath, and not the actual paint application on top. Usually the brushstroke direction describe form, or topography, or movement. If I want to emphasize the flatness of something, I may deliberately use repeated vertical strokes, but in this painting, I think it's just the gesso.

  9. OH my, I love the way you document your creative journey with this. I found your blog in too late to join the challenge, but will be keeping an eye open for the next one.

  10. Wow! And this is how it's done! I very much appreciate you showing the process.
    I have no pointers on how to improve the challenge, I like how you also posted all the paintings in one gallery.

  11. Thank you for this challenge and for all the information you shared in this post! There is so very much to learn and since I have no formal art education under my belt I really appreciate all that I can glean from workshops and informative posts. I am a big fan of your work!

  12. Thanks Beach Cat, Bibi, and Linda~! Your thoughtful comments are much appreciated!!