Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Making of a Cityscape

Last fall, I did this cityscape commission for a private collector. At 34 x 46, it was a fairly good sized painting, and I had great fun working on this. I don't do commissions unless it's the kind of painting that I would do anyway– that is, with or without a client. 

One of the main reasons why I no longer take illustration commissions (I was an illustrator for 17 years) is that I got tired of fulfilling someone else's vision, so if I went back to being art-directed by a client, it kind of defeats the purpose of my being a fine artist. Fortunately, there are collectors out there who understands that to get the best possible work out of an artist, the artist needs the freedom to create. My client was one such collector, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to create this painting with complete freedom. It was smooth sailing all the way!

I recorded a few process shots along the way and I noticed I had some studies as well, so I thought I'd share them here, and talk a little bit about my working methods.

First thing I did was to work up a pencil sketch.  The sketch pad is 11 x 14 so you can get a sense of the size of this sketch. I used three different reference photos. One for the environment, another for the trolley, and another for the car on the right.  Because all three photos were taken from a similar position, the perspective was more or less consistent. I tweaked them a little to fit, but that wasn't a big deal.

The pencil wasn't very dark, and it being a linear tool, it would have taken forever to achieve the kind of tonalities I was looking for. So I scanned the sketch into my computer, and using Photoshop, took it further.  Most of my illustrations were done with Photoshop and Wacom tablet, so painting digitally is well within my comfort zone.  

This is what I presented to my client, before moving on to paint. 

We discussed how the finished piece might be displayed in the client's home,  and we had decided that it wasn't going to be framed. Instead, I would use a thick 2 1/4 inch stretcher bars and wrap the linen around its sides, and paint the edges black for a more contemporary presentation. 

While waiting for my stretcher bars to arrive, I worked on some value studies on 6 x 8 panels just so I can become familiar with the tonal structure and the overall feel of the composition.

I did several such studies, and I can't remember in what order I did them, but I was trying to answer the question, just how much or how little color is needed for a monochromatic painting to start feeling not monochromatic. 

You see, a purely monochromatic painting doesn't have any color, so color temperature shifts from light to shadow (warm to cool) is irrelevant. But as soon as you add just a little bit of temperature shift, it becomes a color painting in which the color of the light source becomes extremely important, whether it's obvious or subtle.

And I was looking for that tipping point, or if there was such a thing.  So I started with just black and white, then tried a few different blacks, then added a little warmth in the white, and pushed the coolness in the shadow a little bit, as you see in the image below.

The black in this case was Paynes Gray, which is a lot bluer than Ivory or another black.

Then I decided to do some in brown, or sepia. Since I knew I wanted a very warm tonal painting, it was necessary for me to do some studies to get a feel for it.

This one is brown, black and white. (except for the tail lights and the yellows) Basically a monochromatic structure, with just a little hint of temperature shift that you can see in the big cast shadow on the building on the right. I wasn't looking for precision obviously. But this is still monochromatic and I don't feel a sense of natural light. 

I added more warmth in the lights, which separates the light and shadow colors a bit more. 

The color scheme of this one and the previous one is the same, except in the previous one, the sky is lighter than the buildings. In this last one, the buildings are lighter. Flipping those values makes a big difference in the climate conditions, and thus the mood. I ended up with the lighter sky in the end. 

I also made a bunch of value scales just to see how the dark color and light color combinations looked.  On the dark side are some combinations of Transparent Oxide Red and various blacks,
and on the light side is Titanium white and Yellow Ochre in varying amounts.  Again, I was looking for at what point does warm / cool become an issue?

I didn't arrive at an answer, but doing these value charts gave me a pretty good idea of which direction to take the painting.

After assembling the stretchers and securing the canvas (Claessen's 66) on it, I proceeded to transfer the drawing onto it by gridding. I made a grid on the sketch in Photoshop, and a corresponding one on the canvas and proceeded to draw the more critical lines. 

I don't draw every little detail at this point. Just the landmarks and lines that are likely to be difficult to to find by freehand later on. Perspective lines need to be accurate, so I made sure I got those in.  I also indicated some windows on the buildings. 

Using thin paint (black+transparent oxide red), I started in with some darker values. To thin the paint, I'm using Gamsol and Liquin. 

I went ahead and pushed the darkest darks. I knew that much of the bottom part of the painting would end up very dark and shadowy, so it would be easier to get that established early. As you can see, I tried not to lose the lines on the street's surface.  That didn't last long. I ended up losing all of it, and had to bring it all back later. Which turned out to be not as big a chore as I'd thought, since the vanishing point was clear. Would have been much more tedious if it were a two point perspective. 

This is the finished painting. Sorry, I completely forgot to take photos after the grisaille.  But I just went in with  opaque colors, and pushed and pulled with brush, rag, scrapers, palette knives, and my thumbs. As is typical of my cityscapes, I painted it in several layers of unplanned attacks. Not a neat, sequential technique, but just going in and dealing with what seems most obvious. All the time trying to balance the representational and the abstract.

Here are some detail shots:

Sometimes I let the layers dry completely between sessions. Other times, I work right into semi-dry painting. If I want to do a clean glaze or a stain, I let it dry first. If I'm going in with more opaque, I don't necessarily wait for it to dry completely.

Some thick paint action with palette knife. It looks like I glazed afterwards too.

The big car. This could be another painting just like this, huh? I like this composition. I tried very hard to not literally describe things. Most of the shapes are abstract suggestions, and not depictions. The dark shadow helps to simplify  much of the boring stuff. 

Same with the trolley side of the street. The photo reference showed a lot more detail in the shadows. I could clearly see the tires and the hubcaps on the parked cars. I no longer have the photo reference, but suffice to say that having done all the studies really helped me to see just how little information was needed in this area and still make it convincing. 

So if you suffer from putting-too-much-detail-in-your-painting syndrome, do a bunch of studies where you vary the amount of detail. You'll see that less really is more.


  1. Pretty awesome, really.

  2. This is a wonderfully informative and inspiring post about the stages you go through and your use of studies to simplify - this may seem like an odd question, but do you ever make use of pastels or other media in this approach or any approach for that matter?

  3. Thanks Eden, Isabel, and Cohen!

    Cohen, the last time I touched pastels was 20 years ago. I'm afraid to start up again because I know I'll like it.

  4. Absolutely wonderful post packed with great info. Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. This is one of the best posts I've seen you do! Your "illustrator" is definitely showing in this one!

  6. This is so informative Terry and such a beautiful painting. Thanks for sharing your thought and method process.

    I think that creating studies and value scales really do help ease the stress of painting a final piece.

  7. wow thank you so much for posting all your process here, it is very very informative, I'm impressed to see how much you worked out your value/warm cool charts to get an idea where you should go. good lesson. thanks for your generous post!

  8. Thanks Kim, Sergio, Jeanette, and Sally~!

    To be sure, I don't always do this much prep for a painting. But if I have any questions about the direction I'm taking on a large painting, I want them answered sooner rather than later, so that's what happened with this one.

  9. I agree with the others about being a great post. I appreciate all the work you put into this. You know you have a great painting when all of the close ups work as stand alone paintings! That is pretty remarkable. Love the crop of the car tail lights.

    Okay, you have been hinting at a book of your collected how to's...I think now is a a good time!

  10. Mr. Miura,
    What a wonderful and effective teacher you are. Going through this post was like taking a very user-friendly class. You simply and clearly explain your thinking and painting process and I feel like I should send you a check for the lesson.
    I have always been a slave to detail, but you have shown a way to avoid this trap without simply telling readers to avoid it. It's an invaluable lesson and method which I plan to attempt.
    Thanks for the help!

  11. Thanks Randy~ yeah I'm thinking of working up paintings from the crops. Love how the project keeps generating new projects!

    As for a how-to book, I'll do one when I figure out how-to, myself! There's so much I don't understand yet!

  12. Thanks Gary! I hadn't realized that this would be a good way to teach! but I think you're absolutely right. I'm going to have to incorporate this into my lessons!

  13. Thanks for a wonderfully sharing post. I particularly like the distant soft golden light that you are able to create, and the reminder about doing colour / value combinations to resolve issues before one starts painting. I need to try Transparent Oxide Red, to see if I get less purple in my mixes. Do you use the Rembrandt TOR which seems to be the brand of choice.

  14. Hi Fred, and thanks!

    I most often use Gamblin's TOR, but Rembrandt's is also a favorite.

    If you purples are too intense, try mixing with an orange-leaning red, or with less intense reds and blues. Permanent Red + Ivory Black + white, or Venetian Red + Ultramarine + white, or Permanent Red + Ultramarine + white and then bring it down with TOR or Black.