Painting Cityscapes: Capturing a Busy Urban Scene Without Getting Lost in the Details
Just as you wouldn’t explore a new city without a map, don’t start your next cityscape without a plan for where you want to go and how you intend to get there.
by Nancie King Mertz
As a pastel and oil plein air painter, I feel very fortunate to live in a truly beautiful city — Chicago, which hosts a limitless array of wonderful painting sites, from Michigan Avenue to the river, with its many varied bridges; Millennium Park and its expansion overlooking Lake Michigan; as well as the restored historic buildings that dot the city landscape. Of course, a favorite subject of mine, and an iconic part of Chicago that has existed since its infancy, is the “L,” the city’s rapid transit system. The elevated tracks create challenging value patterns on the ground and silhouettes in the sky that beg to be painted.
Most Saturdays, the Plein Air Painters of Chicago (PAPC) gather to paint in or near the city. In July, we met along the popular Riverwalk, under the Wabash Avenue Bridge. It was a beautiful day, and we shared the path with hundreds of joggers, bikers, and skateboarders. Adding to our painting challenge, the dazzling reflections on the water and deep shadows created by the bridge overhead made it difficult for our eyes to adjust as we shifted our focus from the bright scene to our dark canvases. Perhaps it’s no wonder that “Layers of Steel,” the oil painting I made that day, just didn’t live up to my expectations.
The next morning, I returned to have another go at the subject — this time from the top of the bridge, with the plein air medium I find much more forgiving and fast — pastel. Since pastels are made with the very same pigments used to create oil paint, just compressed into dry stick form, my approach to both mediums is similar: transparent darks to start, value shapes that connect, and the buildup of mid-tones as the painting moves toward completion. The essential difference between working with the two mediums is that oils require mixing time and pastels are “grab and go.” Follow along as I demonstrate the steps I took to create my follow-up painting, “West From Wabash.”
7 Tips for Painting Cityscapes
1. Before setting up, observe how people move through the area in which you want to paint. If possible, place your easel near a large object that pedestrians naturally flow around, to give yourself some space.
2. Map out your composition with tick marks to be certain you include all the elements you intend to paint.
3. Edit and simplify. Omit the bits that are awkward or distracting.
4. Squint to get the values correct. Our eyes fatigue much more quickly during a plein air session due to changing light, and squinting helps.
5. Don’t overdo windows in a multi-story building. Let the darker underpainting, combined with a few verticals, create the suggestion of windows.
6. Rarely are windows black in a building. The glass reflects the sky, the buildings across the street, and the city lights.
7. Review a book on perspective. Getting your drawing right is the key to successful cityscapes.
Related Article > Taking Artistic License with Iconic Locations
Pastels: My home studio is filled with many wonderful brands of oil paints and soft pastels, but for plein air or travel painting in pastel, I rely solely on the two Richeson sets of 80 that they asked me to hand-select — the Nancie King Mertz Urban Set and the Nancie King Mertz Atmospheric Landscape Set — along with 18 of Richardson’s hard pastels. I’ve merged the two sets into 80 cools on one side and 80 warms on the other, leaving them in their protective boxes.
Misc.: Around the two boxes of pastels, I constructed a coroplast table, reinforced with duct tape and metal corner angles, with a thin board on the bottom that accommodates my quick-coupling camera tripod. A separate easel (one for tall people!) is what I use to hold my mounted, sanded papers, most often by UArt. My setup is quick to assemble, lightweight, and everything slides into a vertical rolling cart that fits comfortably in a plane’s overhead bin.
About Nancie King Mertz
Although Nancie King Mertz (nanciekingmertz.com) has traveled to nearly 20 countries and all around the United States for inspiration, Chicago remains her favorite city to explore and paint landscapes and cityscapes. She shares what she’s learned about simplifying complex structures in her Urban Pastel Painting DVD from Liliedahl (preview below!).