Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Start of a Cityscape Painting

Wash & Dry, 36 x 36 inches, oil on linen

I found some photos on my cell phone that I'd forgotten about. They are some of the early stages of the painting Wash & Dry, which is one of the pieces I did for the upcoming show at the Christopher Hill Gallery.

They're just cell phone snapshots so admittedly not the best quality, but I thought they may be of interest. As usual, I'll try and describe what I was thinking and doing with each shot.

The canvas is 36 x 36 inches. The composition is a variation on a smaller painting that I did several years ago. I made a grid on the canvas and transferred the main elements - just the big shapes, no detail. 

Then I went ahead and used a brown wash (Asphaltum + Gambol) to indicate the shadow areas. With sunny scenes with clear light / shadow patterns, the separation of light and shadow is what I look for. At this point I ignore local values - that is to say, it doesn't matter how light or dark the actual thing is. I'm only interested in describing where the shadows are.

You can see my "underpainting" isn't very tight or tidy. I don't get into details or precise values. Just indicating where the shadows are, is enough. I can move on to opaque colors from here.  I started with the pale yellow wall of the building on the left - I didn't have to start there, but it seemed easy enough and it was a big shape, so I thought, as good a place to start as any.

I moved on to block in –opaquely and thinly– other big shapes; the building next door, the awning, and the sign above the awning, and the sidewalk and the street surfaces. Although I'm still not precise with colors and values, I'm trying to get them in the ball park at this point. Some thought goes into which big shapes are lighter or darker than which other big shapes.

General hue directions for the shapes are decided here, too. But again, just in the ball park. Not yet precisely determined.

Getting the darker shapes darker - all part of establishing value relationships of the major shapes. I cleaned up the edges a little bit while I was at it.

Not the best photo but you can see that the dark window shapes are still very thinly painted. I like to paint everything opaque, except  the dark darks. Notice I didn't say except the shadows.  Some shadows aren't all that dark, and if I can see color or detail in those shadows, I paint them opaque.

Later when I paint sunlight on some parts of these windows, I'll paint those opaquely, because the values won't be as dark.

A little more paint on the surface - cleaning up some shapes and breaking up the awning into two values - top lighter than front. I'm also starting to define some smaller shapes as well.

Above shows the edge of the fire escape. The "balcony" part of the structure is essentially a rectangular box. I think I took this picture to show the importance of getting the perspective correctly.   It's a small shape, but the accuracy of drawing makes a huge difference. If it involves a vanishing point, you'll want to make sure it's done right. Otherwise the building will be a collection of wonky parts that won't look right. If you're lucky, it'll look intentionally expressive. In most cases, it just looks like a badly executed painting.

Simplified block in of the windows. Just the shadows on the window shades, and the dark shapes where the shades don't cover. Details such as trim,  panes, glass, cast shadows from the frames all come later, if at all. 

Sometimes I don't add any detail, if the painting looks good without them. If you put the details in too soon, you don't have that option. Sure, you can always take out detail later, but it takes some experience to recognize which details are unnecessary. 

Here I am trying to figure out the cast shadow from the fire escape. The ladder casts a long shadow across the building's surface, and I wanted to make sure they were believable. I used a straight edge (a $2 wooden yard stick from Lowes) to draw the lines with a sharp pencil. I laid the straight edge right on top of the wet paint to do this. You can see below that it kind a made a mess of things.

I actually do this on purpose now. I've come to realize that the mess is an integral part of the process. It adds to the visual texture (if not physical, tactile texture) of the surface, and though I may paint over it, while it's there it reminds me that the surfaces need some sort of visual activity. It reminds me not to smooth out every shape. Variation within a given shape can happen in many ways - value, color, thickness of paint, the type of brush strokes, etc - but if I'm not mindful, I tend to end up over rendering and end up with a boring color-by-numbers look. The presence of the mess forces me to treat these windows (or whatever I'm painting) as abstract shapes, and not render them literally.

After I got the lines drawn with the pencil, I blocked them in with darker, grayed down colors of what was already there. It's important that the color and value relationship of the original big-shape block-in be more or less established. Otherwise this tedious part of painting straight lines will have to be re-done later when I decide I had the big shapes all wrong. (Which is often the case, I admit) 

If there is one important lesson here, it's this; Work out the big relationships first, details later. Sorta like life, huh?

I'm sorry to say that after this point, I completely forgot to take any more pictures. As I get into the painting, and especially when I start getting more abstract, I really become immersed in the process and it's rare that I remember to take frequent breaks to take photos. 

One of these days, I'll do a proper process thing, I promise!

But for now, I hope you found at least the start of it interesting.

Wash & Dry , and many other new pieces will be on display at the Christopher Hill Gallery. Urban Light, a three-man show with James Kroner and Nobuhito Tanaka opens this Saturday, October 10th. If you're int he area, come on out and check out some great paintings and sip some wine with me!


  1. Thank you for sharing the process of this beautiful painting- such incredible and valuable information for me. Much more than just interesting...

  2. Thank you indeed! I found the information on windows helpful--I think I spend more time on windows than anything else on a building--and I'm never happy with them. Any time you want to write more about windows, I'll be reading gratefully!

  3. Love your work! And the information you provide with some of your posts is invaluable. Thank you for sharing your talent!

  4. Thank you for sharing lots of important information! Learnt a lot and makes me want to go paint buildings now!

  5. Terry, thank you for sharing your beautiful painting and the information.

  6. I love that you are willing to be looser and show the public. It seems with many established artists, the process is so meticulous and seems like second nature; I think "do they ever make a mistake?" I love this painting and look forward to more.