Australian Fine Artist

Painting Cityscapes

Workshop Nine of the Course of Nine workshops in Painting by David Chen.

It is with a little sadness that we attended the last of our workshops with David for the year. Each month he has given us so much to think about and a lot of valuable information that I have not learnt anywhere else. His in thorough arts education and teaching ability along with his over thirty years of practical experience as an exhibiting artist make David the ideal teacher for my advancement and improvement as a fine artist.

Our last lesson was very apt as I have been working on a painting based around Princes Bridge in Melbourne. I took the photo earlier in the year and was waiting until I felt confident enough to tackle it. After doing a small pastel drawing and then a preliminary oil sketch on canvas, I was working out all the bits that I was not happy with and decided to take the project in to see what David had to say as I did another small oil sketch of the scene.

David began by talking about how important it is to study from the masters. Go to galleries, sketch from the paintings of other established artists and see how they have tackled certain issues in their work. He also said that we need to study our subject. Learn about perspective, learn to draw and practice it daily. Learn about composition, practice it and if you want to paint the city, go in and look at it. Walk around and see how the light and shadow is at different times of the day and how it reacts with different buildings. Look at reflections, look at the various ways you can divide up your composition and what you can include or leave out for artistic licence.

We looked at four common ways to divide up a canvas. The diagonal composition often has a canopy or porch covering running into the corner of the painting creating a triangular and dominant shape. The L-shape often has larger buildings to one side or the other balanced by shadows cast across the bottom. The Tunnel Vision layout is what you commonly see when looking down a street with buildings on either side to a distant focal point at the end of the road. The Golden Section or Golden Mean, is the composition style that most of us are most familiar with, dividing the area into nine equal squares (like noughts and crosses) and the focal points are where the lines intersect.

We then talked about the addition of foreground, mid ground and background to these compositional tools. With only one or two of these the painting tends to look a bit flat, especially when painting buildings and streets. Keep in mind that a foreground does not have to be composed of objects, it can be the cast shadow from objects in the mid ground, the colour creating the illusion of foreground objects.

If your subject is lacking in one of these items, you may need to consider adding it to the painting yourself, to make sure your painting will work.

Keep an eye on your values as well. Lack of highlights and shadows will also make a painting look flat. Like photos, you need a good dynamic range of tone to give depth and impact to your paintings. Remember also to put all the shadows on the correct side of the buildings by remembering where your light source is. Also allow your colours to “relate” to each other by using them around the painting and not just in one spot. If you have a particular colour in the sky, try to place it somewhere else as well for example (for my painting this meant using a few sky colours on the bridge and on the surface of the river).

Another important point for cityscapes was what you can leave out. We all know that high rise buildings have lots of windows. We don’t have to put them all in. The painting can look too busy and it may also take away attention from your real focal point. Look at the buildings as a whole shape, not as a bunch of intricate details. You can always pop in a few little marks later if you think it will enhance the work. As David said, just don’t get bogged down by details.

As Monet did when he painted in London, David said we need to keep painting, learn to use our materials and to use them to “see” the whole, and then translate it into our own vision. This can be with any variety of colours, complimentary, split complimentary, analogous, or a mix of these on the one work to create depth and colour perspective. Your palette then replaces reality and the painting becomes your own vision of the world.

Monet painted the same scenes at all different times of the day, to learn about light and colour and how he could master them. His work became less about the subject and more about how he transformed it into his own unique work of art. This is what helped to make him the master of impressionism that we admire so much and a good guide to how we can also learn to master the medium to create our own recognisable and unique artworks and not just poor imitations of the real world.

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