Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Cityscape Strategies

Racing Down Market Street, 18 x 36 inches, oil on linen 

All of October my friend Lori Putnam had many of her friends to be guest bloggers on her blog, and there are some really, really good articles that you'll find most interesting, insightful and instructional. Be sure to take a look at them when you get a chance. I picked up some great tips and ideas myself~

So this is my contribution to Lori's blog - I thought I'd post it on Studio Notes as well for your reading pleasure. 

. . . 

One of the reasons why cityscapes gives us so much trouble is that there’s just way too much information to deal with. If you started painting every window on every building, every tire on every car, it would take forever. I mean not only do you have to draw every little thing, you have to draw them in perspective, to begin with. If your drawing is off, it shows. 

Nope, cityscapes aren’t as forgiving as painting trees and boulders.  So at least for me, a lot of what makes cityscapes doable has to do with strategies in simplification. How to edit down the amount of stuff that gets described, how to suggest rather than describe, how to say more with less. How not to draw everything. The following are my strategies. Some are pretty basic, but I thought it might be interesting to see how they were applied in a specific painting, the picture you see at the top of this post. 

Use a limited palette. My basic color structure is near monochromatic. Except for the red of the brake lights and a little bit of the green foliage, I kept it very gray and tonal. I just had Ivory Black, Titanium White, Yellow Ochre, Transparent Oxide Red, and Asphaltum on my palette (again, except for the accent colors). Asphaltum is just a brown color made from black and red. I don’t really need it, but it’s convenient since it’s a versatile warm dark color that’s a little lighter than straight black. By using it as the darkest value to structure the painting, I can reserve the even darker straight black for accents and punctuation. It's also less intense than T.O.R., another reddish brown color that I love, but can wreak havoc on your colors if you rely on it too much.

I ignored all local colors, (again, except for the accent colors) but did make the lit areas a little warmer by adding Yellow Ochre. A little bit of temperature shift between light and shadow goes a long way when there’s hardly any color in the basic set up. 
And, a little bit of bright accent colors also go a long way toward making the painting not look monotonous even though most of the surface is just grays.

Here’s another example of this strategy in action: 

View from the Top, 7 x 14 inches, oil on linen

Backlighting. Because the sunlight has to travel through all that particulate matter in the atmosphere, the atmospheric effect is amplified. You can’t see much detail, so pretty much everything is reduced down to silhouettes. I didn’t even have to paint windows on the tall buildings! And my trees and pedestrians are mostly reduced to silhouettes, too. You really don’t need different colored pieces of clothing on every figure. 

As I said, backlighting amplifies the atmospheric effect which simplifies the visual elements. Other conditions can also do the same, like haze, fog, rain, and nocturne views. The basic idea is that silhouettes can be described with just one value, where as if the figure (or the building or the car) were directly lit, it requires at least two values–light and shadow–to describe it. One value is obviously much simpler than two. The trick is to make sure that the silhouette has a recognizable, if not strong and interesting, shape, either by itself or by context. 

Crosswalk Shadows, 12 x 19 inches, oil on linen

Spot focus. Actually, the buildings having no detail is not just because of the atmosphere in backlighting, it’s also because I’m being selective as to where I show detail and where I don’t. If you consider that only about 25% of our field of vision is in focus at any given moment, you can see how this spot-focus thing mimics how the eye sees (in terms of amount of detail). 

If you were painting from observation, try this: focus your sight on one spot. (that would be your focal point) and paint the periphery while you’re still focused on your focal point. If you can’t see detail, you can’t paint it, can you. 

Another good trick (not really a trick…technique?) is to squint. Yes we’re all nagged to squint to see values. But here I’m suggesting to squint specifically to limit your ability to see detail. Paint only what you can see while squinting. Then open your eyes to paint your focal area. 

If you’ve struggled to paint “loosely”, you may find it helpful to shift your thinking from trying to use “loose brush work” to painting with limited vision, as described above. 

To and Fro, 14.5 x 24 inches, oil on linen

Lower key. This one is pretty obvious. I made my shadows really dark, so I can lose a lot of information in the darkness. This works really well when working tonally, but not so well if you have a lot of color a la the Impressionists. Color-filled shadows still can be simplified so that it has very little detail, but if you’re going to push the color of secondary light in the shadows, (reflected and ambient) you are saying that the shadows are illuminated. If they’re illuminated, you can see stuff in the shadows, right? Dark shadows color-ful shadows can't really coexist too well.

Sure, you’ve seen paintings that has both bright colors and dark shadows in them. Next time you see one, you might ask yourself these questions; is the artist pushing the intensity of the color of the light (primary and/or secondary), or is he pushing local colors? and is the artist deviating from a naturalistic depiction by pushing these colors and having dark shadows? 

There’s nothing wrong with deviating from naturalistic depiction, as long as that’s your intention and you like the result. That’s expression. However, if your aim is to describe a more or less believable environment, it’s a good idea not to mix a tonal approach and an Impressionist one. 

Under the El, 12 x 18 inches, oil on linen

Connecting shapes. If you connect two shapes by losing the edge between them, you now have one shape. One shape is simpler than two shapes. So whenever there’s an opportunity–two adjacent shapes have similar values–lose the edge in between and connect them. 

This is pretty easy to do with dark shapes because as I mentioned above, we are already losing information, (including edge information) in the dark shadows. You can also lose edges between two light shapes, like between the brightly lit street surface and its reflection on the side of the bus. Or between one building and another. 

I do a considerable amount of experimentation in this area. I try to lose edges everywhere, and if I lose so much information that I can’t tell what I’m looking at, I can always redefine it. But I won’t know if losing an edge messes up my painting until I try it. 

It may be scary to lose an edge - after all, you may have an uncommonly beautiful passage there and are reluctant to lose it. But as they say, no risk, no glory. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned over the years is that you have to be willing to lose it in order to move forward and grow. You’ll discover that indeed, sometimes you will ruin a passage, or the painting even. But in most cases, you’ll be able to redo an edge, or a passage, or the whole painting, and if you do it enough times you’ll start to trust your ability to redo it. At that point, losing a passage becomes not so scary, and when you've lost that fear,  you will start to see a big difference in your strokes. That difference? Confidence. If there’s one  thing that I see in all great painters’ works, it is that confidence in their strokes. (OK, so you can’t even see brushstrokes in some of those realist painters’ works. But you know what I mean.)

Dusk, Firenze, 20 x 16 inches, oil on linen

It looks like I’ve gone off on a tangent so I’d better wrap this up. Yes, cityscapes can be intimidating, but with some simplifying strategies, they’re doable. It takes a little practice, and a little patience, but I hope you now feel like you have the tools to tackle a complex city scene!

Thanks for reading! And thanks Lori for inviting me to contribute to your blog!

Oh by the way, the painting at the top, Racing Down Market Street, is on display at the Brattleboro Museum in Vermont as part of an exhibition curated by my friend Charlie Hunter.
Boxcars runs through March, 2016. Check it out if you're in the area!