Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Simplifying Cityscapes


A Long Afternoon, 36 x 36 inches, oil on linen


I had a request from a student to talk about how I go about simplifying when painting cityscapes. If you've ever tried painting an urban scene, you know it can be very challenging, what with all the complex man-made elements that must be drawn correctly in perspective.

If you were painting a pure landscape, you can bend a tree and it'll still look convincing. But if you draw a building or any element within it askew, your painting just looks wrong. Man-made objects are much less forgiving than organic things...for the most part.

Anyway, let's talk about some strategies in simplifying this very complex subject matter so that we can tackle it without being overwhelmed.

The very first thing you might try, is to find a view which allows you to not have to deal with perspective drawing too much. Don't get me wrong, I firmly believe that every representational artist should study and be competently versed in perspective drawing. It's a fundamental skill and there's no way around it.

But when you are learning the craft of painting, it might be a good idea to keep things simple so that you can focus on other things such as color, value, edges, etc.

The top painting, A Long Afternoon is set up so that there is very little perspective drawing. You're looking straight at a facade of a building - it's basically an elevation view, and as such, we are not dealing with depth nor vanishing points.

That's not strictly true - the two sides of the green awning converge to a vanishing point, and also we see the underside of the fire escape, which shows a little bit of perspective. But for the most part, the drawing is just a bunch of flat shapes.  In terms of perspective, this is the simplest way to do it. The resulting painting doesn't necessarily have to look simplistic - there are plenty of ways to add complexity to a piece - but it sure makes it less daunting when you only have to deal with flat shapes.




Evening Palms, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen

Evening Palms is a one-point perspective set up. It has one vanishing point to which all the parallel lines converge (lines on the street surface, the curb, roof height of the cars, palm trees...). Obviously more complex than a facade in elevation view, but not as complex as a two point perspective view.

Another way to simplify is to limit the palette. This one uses a single-color structure. By using a near-monochromatic structure, I don't have to worry about color harmony, which is a really difficult thing  even if you weren't painting a cityscape. The cityscape compounds the difficulty of color harmony because there are so many elements of seemingly unrelated, and sometimes garish colors. Although theoretically, all the unrelated local colors would be unified by the color of the light, the artist has to consciously pull them closer in order to achieve color harmony. Not easy to do. 

Often, a beginning to intermediate painter has this idea that the more faithfully he reproduces the color he sees, the better his painting will be. This is not true. There I said it. (you can disagree if you want. I'm not going to have a flame war with you :-) 

I believe that the ability to precisely reproduce colors is an essential skill for the representational painter, but that doesn't mean copying colors is going to make a better painting. The skill you want is the ability to control  your colors, to suit your needs. To make a statement. To express an idea. Matching colors isn't the point, but the ability to do so is important because that same ability is necessary to mix the colors to say what you want to say.




Modes of Transportation, 12 x 16, oil on panel


But I digress. Simplify your palette! I sometimes just do black and white  cityscapes. and they can be just as compelling as a full palette painting. If I were having a hard time with a complex subject matter, why not take color out of the equation? Give your self permission to disregard a big chunk of what's confounding your efforts. You can always do another study in full color.

OK, now we come to the part where, I suspect, the student who asked the question was really interested in. How to reduce the amount of information described? Is there a rule? A trick?
I wouldn't go so far as to call it a trick. But rules, yes. There are many "rules" in representational painting that we must be aware of in order to make a painting look believable. Rules of perspective, color harmony, edges, effects of light on form, effects of atmosphere on depth, these are all things that anyone can -generally- agree on.

But when we talk about the rules of editing, we start to move into the areas of individual expression. These rules are closely tied to the artist's style. In a word, they are subjective. So I have my own rules, which may or may not be applicable to your painting. You can learn them to may be make your painting look like mine, but shouldn't you want your painting  to look like yours?





Aria Redux, 36 x 36 inches, oil on linen

Identity. I think that's what it comes down to, but that's a topic we can dig much deeper into on another day's post. I don't mean to hold out on the rules of simplification, so here goes. Please remember these are just rules that I made for myself, and they apply to the paintings I'm showing today, but they don't necessarily work in every situation. Not even on my own paintings.

1. Make sure you (that is, I) have a strong light / shadow pattern. Direct lighting is a must because...

2. You can reduce the picture to just two values; one for the light, and one for the shadows. Just light and dark. Two values are much, much simpler than say, a hundred, don't you think? And more often than not, if you have a good strong light / shadow pattern to begin with, you can describe an environment with just those two values. All shadows touching one another would be connected, and all light shapes touching one another would be connected. In the top painting, A Long Afternoon, you can see this applied in the shadows of the firescape. I'm not differentiating the shadows on the surface of the building from the shadows within the windows. I'm only dealing with light and shadow shapes, not windows and walls. You can see that the edges get completely lost where you might expect to see the outline of a window, and yet, the picture is still readable.

3.  Now that you've reduced it to two values - it's as simple a value structure as you can have - you can add complexity by breaking up the shadow side into a couple of levels of varying values. In Aria Redux, and also in Rhythm and Blues, below, the cars in the shadows are described in just a few values. The distant ones especially are done in just two values. Take a look at the distant cars in Aria - they are defined just by defining the planes facing the sky, which takes on a lighter value. The rest of the planes on individual cars and the road surface are all the same.

In Rhythm and Blues, the sky-facing planes of the distant cars in shadow are the same as the planes of the road surface. I suggested the cars by using a darker value to indicate the non-sky-facing planes. Still two values.

Here and there, I sneak in a third value to give it a sense of complexity, but really, there's not much of that happening, is there.

An important thing here is to keep these value variations within the shadows fairly close, so that they don't become fragmented. And if you're using a lighter variation, like in Aria, the value of these lighter shadows must still be darker than sunlit areas. When you squint at the image, you want the value structure to reduce back to the original two value organization. If your values are not subtle enough, the squint-test will reveal a fragmented structure.

4. The sunlit side too, can have a couple of levels of values to add complexity. I like to keep these close, too, to maintain the big two-value organization.

5. Simple color schemes. I like to keep my colors simple. Having a full range of colors is confusing, and it goes against unifying the various elements into a cohesive whole. This unity,  to me, is faaaarrr more important than having a lot of unrelated splashy colors. Nor do I care about faithfully copying actual local colors.

6. Simple color schemes, in this case, is based on single-color structure. It's almost monochromatic. In fact, I start painting nearly monochromatically - I say nearly because I'm not looking for strictly monochromatic paintings, so I don't mix colors too precisely in the beginning. Once an overall block-in is established, I can start to add complexity by throwing in slight color variations.  Accents, or bling, come toward the end, and these can deviate from the overall color theme - red tail lights, green traffic lights, yellow center line, etc.

Again, they add a sense of complexity without really being all that complex. The underlying structure is still very simple.



Rhythm and Blues, 27 x 18 inches, oil on linen


The greens of the trees in Rhythm and Blues are a slight variation from the overall blue structure. That is to say, it's a blue that's bent slightly toward green, rather than an isolated green that's mixed by itself on the palette. The point is, other than accents, all colors are just slight variations of the initial near-monochromatic structure. Simple, unifying, and organized. That's key.

The trees in Aria are even simpler; they don't have any local color! They're just dark values of the purple theme, but they're so dark that there's hardly any chroma. 

7. Connecting shapes and losing edges in as many places as possible. Remember that with just two values, you could describe a believable environment. That means you don't necessarily need more information to make it believable. So why separate one shape from the next? If you have a good reason, do it. If you don't, consider leaving that edge obscure. Connect buildings shadow to shadow, light to light. Connect trees. Shadow to shadow, light to light. Connect ground plane to vertical planes if both are in light, or if both are in shadow.

8. Soft and sharp edges. Soft edges can say a lot without actually saying things out loud. Use sharp edges sparingly. They're the loud notes. Use them only when you want to punctuate. 

9. don't paint signage lettering, unless they're big enough to do it neatly with a no.2 flat bristle brush. Again, this is just my rule. 

10. Don't paint faces.

11. Just paint planes on cars. Forget the local colors. Add a few headlights and tail/brake lights.

12. If you paint in a lower key, you don't have to paint anything in the shadows! It's all dark!

13. One point perspective is simpler than two point. An elevation view is simpler than one point. But where you do show linear perspective, these have to be accurate. No way around that one.

14. When deciding whether to include a particular element, ask yourself, "does it support my concept?" Obviously, you need to know what your concept is before you get started. 

OK, that's about all I can think of off the top of my head. Simplifying a cityscape really is about connecting shapes and losing edges, and having a strong light/shadow pattern makes it a logical task. If you do it in a simple, single-color structure, you've got a very good foundation. From there, you can add complexity by adding one or two value variations, color variations, and bling.

I want to stress again that these are just my rules for myself, and they help me to make the kind of paintings that I do. You'll have to come up with your own set of rules, but you're welcome to use mine to see if they work for you. I know that in the end, you'll end up with your own voice and not mine, even if you use all of my rules. 

If you give it a try, let me know how it went! I'd love to hear about it :-D




15 comments:

  1. thanks for sharing so much! LOVE your 1st painting!

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  2. Thanks for your post. Love the top painting too.

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  3. Hi Terry! This is so much good information. I'm going to read this a couple times. I've always been attracted to your less-is-more style of painting. I love all of these paintings but A Long Afternoon is truly stunning. Thanks for sharing your "rules".

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    1. Thanks Stephanie! Glad you enjoyed it. 'Hope all's well with you!

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  4. Thank you for sharing your knowledge so generously. Try to have your words in my mind painting my next cityscape.

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  5. Awesome post! I will be reading this one again and again.

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  6. You are so generous with sharing your working methods and knowledge. I hope someday to be able to take an in person workshop with you. Thank you!

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  7. It's great to see your article in the new Plein Air magazine; coming across your work while thumbing through the magazine was like encountering someone familiar and assuring. And to learn the fact that it hasn't been all that long since you started working more abstractly gives me hope that the learning can continue all along.
    Thanks as always for the helpful explanation of your process.

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    1. Thanks Mitch! The truth is, I've been *trying* to work more abstractly for years, but only recently found a way to do it without pretending to be someone else. There's still so much to learn!

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  8. I love all your paintings and really appreciate you sharing your techniques and tips. Your painting on FB today of a work you did in the past, the intricate facade of a cathedral, is awesome! When painting complex architecture do you use a straight edge or ruler to get those clean lines?

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