A famed artist Edgar Payne taught that Art is always in the procedure and that the goal in oil painting should never be the picture but the means which produces it. It is that aesthetic of lostness, when creating an oil painting that intrigues us to paint.
In writing this oil painting tutorial on cityscape painting, I sought not to define my methods exactly, to be used as some “how to recipe”, but merely as guidelines on how I achieve realistic painting results in my work. My oil painting techniques are neither unique nor definable. I merely endeavor to set them forth through this oil painting lesson as they have been tough to me by artists much more knowledgeable. It is up to you and your creative juices to sprout up new ideas in your painting adventures. If I’ve inspired your creative process then I’ve succeeded.
A realistic city painting is held together by the drawing and its geometric connections. The structure of the buildings, pleasing basic shapes of the various elements and correct perspective, will form the basis of your painting’s “anatomy”. Beyond that, the main consideration for the artist will be, how to take the information that the eye sees and organize it in a pleasing and sensible way for the observer.
When faced with a vast urban cityscape sprawl, the information and the multiplicity of shapes can be daunting and overwhelming for the eye. Don’t panic! All shapes you see in front of you don’t necessarily need to go on your canvas exactly, or at all. Creating pictorial unity while composing your cityscape art will take time to master and from experience will almost always be achieved through deduction.
Figure 1: “Deeper snow” by Zoran Rnjak. A complex artificial surface of this city painting was simplified by lifting the horizon line and leaving the majority of this oil painting “positive” through Notan principles.
An oil painting is a complex mix of various elements, arguable the most important of which is its notan design. Notan is a Japanese word referring to the relationship of dark and light inside a composition. Designing a strong Notan structure automatically increases a likelihood of creating a dramatic and strong oil painting.
Through Notan, you will find the essence of you city painting in the design process. Simplifying shapes to just black and white is extremely useful in making complex subject matter like cityscape, more manageable.
1. Try to assess the cityscape you intent to paint in terms of positive (light) and negative (dark) space. If you work from photographs, this will be relatively easy with Photoshop.
Figure 2: This strong notan design depicts a crowded highway overpass during rush hour.
2. Reduce picture elements so that they complement and not conflict, within you city art. In a way, you’re trying to create a unity of opposites.
3. Once you have the abstract idea for the design and the composition, paint shapes in accordance to that Notan unity, using correct colour values.
Figure 4: This is an example of a picture that has a poor Notan design. Simplicity, which should be the goal, is lost in this jumbled mess of light and dark. The eye of the viewer does not know where to lead and is instead left to wander aimlessly.
Make Notan the cornerstone of your oil painting and you’ll find that these value studies in the beginning will stop you wasting hours painting a cityscape that will never work.
Once the abstract building blocks of your cityscape have been established, it’s time to commence the painting process.
But how? By placing correct color in the correct place. That’s oversimplifying things a bit but it’s true. Painting realistic city art can be a tedious process, so being mindful of every color values that are applied is a challenge.
If I can sum up my painting process in a few words it would be that I construct and then deconstruct constantly. The ongoing challenge in my work and especially in city paintings, is how not to make works look formulaic. Keeping the oil painting looking spontaneous and loose but still maintaining that realistic look. Richard Schmid summed it up best in his book Alla Prima, that the goal should be to make your oil painting appear like it was painted effortlessly and loosely, but the process should be far from loose and instead highly controlled.
Step 1. I usually start applying correct color values on the main subject matter or in the area of greatest value contrast. These are good and safe places to commence as every subsequent color will be judged according to those first strokes.
Step 2. Then at some point, the painting starts to become too stagnant and uninteresting so I bring out my trusty friends: palette knife, squeegee and of course the soft rubber brayer.
Step 3. With my “painting friends” I begin a process of elimination. By altering edges and making the painting more spontaneous, it starts to come back to life again.
Step 4. Because this process of elimination is soooo fun, it’s easy to overdo it, thus losing some or most of your hard worked drawing that you started with. So therefore, in step 4 I usually start to rebuild the drawing back up by establishing the lines and edges.
Step 5. “Rinse and repeat.” How many times should you build and then deconstruct? As many as you need to until the end of the painting. You’ll only know the right answer as it will be different for every artist.
1. Find a cityscape that inspires you. Paint the main subject, whether people, cars or buildings in as realistic manner as you can, paying close attention to the 4 pillars: Edges, color, values and drawing.
Figure 6: In this beginning stage for my painting “Lonely movement of life”, I’ve already gone through a few stages of adding and eliminating sections of the work. The main cityscape cars have been added as well as the buildings on the right, which will lead the viewer’s eyes down the horizon.
2. During the drawing process and when you’ve gotten to that “This is looking good” phase, put down your brushes and take one of the “painting friends” mentioned. Experiment what you can do with the wet oil painting while still keeping it looking realistic.
Here are the full steps involved in my city painting method in time-lapse video:
There it is in a nutshell. I tried not to cover the obvious cityscape painting blunders like poor perspective or incorrect shape relationships. There are many books that go into details about these.
Instead I wanted to point out oil painting techniques that may be lessor known but will certainly add uniqueness and originality to your city paintings.
George Eliott said: “Nothing will give permanent success in any enterprise in life, except native ability cultivated by honest and persevering effort.”
So get out there and make your mistakes. And remember: Maybe it’s not about the happy ending. Maybe it’s about the story.