Although I grew up in the countryside, I do love to retreat to the hustle and bustle of the city now and again. It’s hard not to get caught up in the energy of a place, such as London or New York. Everyone and everything are on the move; buildings of all shapes and sizes jostle for space as sounds and smells bombard you from all sides. I’m often inspired to capture the essence of what I see and feel in the city and I admire plein-air maestros who set up shop in the middle of the street to do just that. Personally, I prefer to fit in more experiences and take snapshots with my camera, sketchbook and memory for recollection in the studio later. Often this is for sheer practicality, as my favourite vantage points tend to be in the middle of busy roads or in an awkward low position to gain dramatic effect.
Cityscapes, because of their extreme perspectives, geometric shapes and man-made qualities are ripe for experimentation in paint. Sometimes it’s good to put those brushes down and try to make marks with a different tool. Doing something familiar in an alternative way loosens you up as an artist, it frees your mind and expectations of the outcome, opening you up to (hopefully) happy accidents. It is also a good way of confronting artist’s block as there is no pressure to fiddle with details and produce anything particularly recognisable. My favourite way of doing this is to use painting and palette knives (as well as the odd loyalty card and old ruler) to build up an image with scrapes and dabs of paint.
Once you free yourself from the discipline of using brushes, your mind begins to search for different ways to make those marks that will convey your scene – anything can be up for grabs, even good old potato printing! For now, though, let’s not get too carried away. Let me take you through the painting of a New York street scene using painting knives.
Demonstration: Bus Only, East 42nd Street
I took this reference photo on a visit to New York several years ago. At the time, it felt like I was surrounded by a vast man-made canyon, with shafts of light slicing in from the intersecting streets. It was hot, noisy, busy and an archetypal American scene.
1. Even if your canvas is pre-sealed, I suggest applying another couple of coats of white gesso and let it dry thoroughly. This helps to toughen the canvas and prevent paint soaking too quickly into the surface as it is scraped on.
2. Using a 2B pencil, draw the main shapes of buildings and elements within the scene. It is quite a complex subject so start by dividing the canvas into thirds, with the horizon line being a third of the way up from the bottom (on a level with the heads of the pedestrians and top of the police car).
3. To find the vanishing point, follow the roof, windowsills, paving and road lines of all the surrounding buildings. They converge roughly where the white van sits in the distance. Draw these lines of perspective (a ruler may help) to find the tops of buildings then vertical marks for their edges. You might find it useful to draw the negative shape formed by the sky to find the outlines of the background buildings. Don’t fret too much about the details or accuracy. This is the framework to guide our mark making and we will be painting over a lot of the lines as the artwork progresses.
1. My technique for knife painting is to create a colourful background, upon which a more detailed monochromatic layer is applied (similar in effect to a black photocopy on acetate laid over a multi-coloured base). Therefore, to begin, squeeze small pea-sized blobs of ultramarine blue, yellow ochre and burnt sienna onto your palette. Using a wet paper towel (deliberately avoiding the use of brushes) take up dabs of the colours in turn and smear them onto the canvas in areas where you feel are appropriate. Look into the reflections, the masonry and the concrete, and ramp up what you see – for cream think yellow, for shadow think blue. Finger painting helps to loosen you up after the initial tighter drawing stage.
2. Mix these colours up and add a little cadmium yellow to the blue for the greener areas (mid-building and dump truck). Drag them down and across into the pavement and road to ensure that colours repeat throughout the canvas. I like to work on all areas at once, and this prevents any one area becoming overworked. Allow to dry.
1. To begin painting with the knives, concentrate on the sky area of the scene. The reference photo has a bland, grey-looking sky so inject a bit of colour into the painting of it. Squeeze blobs of cerulean blue and titanium white onto your palette.
2. Using a medium-sized painting knife, such as a No. 10 diamond shape, scrape up an amount of white and push it gently onto the canvas, moving your knife slightly angled and side to side (a bit like buttering bread).
3. Replenishing the paint on your knife as you go, push the paint around the sky area until you have covered it all in the titanium white. Where the paint meets a building, start your mark on the edge of the wall and scrape away from it into the sky area. This is a tip for any area where you need to make a straight edge. The knife blade will make a straight line when pushed onto the canvas and, as you scrape the paint on, the final marks will appear more ragged as the paint runs out. Always work away from straight edges if possible.
4. Wipe off the white from your knife and scrape up an amount of cerulean blue. Starting from the top of the sky area, sweep the blade lightly from side to side, leaving sporadic gaps over the previous coat of paint. The two colours will merge and marble to create wispy cloud shapes.
5. Mix some of the blue and white together on the palette to produce a lighter blue and apply to the mid-portion of the sky, leaving the horizon a bright white.
6. If there is any light blue paint left over, use this up in the rest of the painting. Look at lighter reflections, signs or cars that you could apply this colour to, perhaps using a smaller knife.
1. Now to drawing and sculpting the structure of the painting with your darks. On the palette, mix a good quantity of roughly even amounts of burnt umber and ultramarine blue. This should be a dark, almost black, hue.
2. Use a larger painting knife to block in any darker areas of shadow and reflection. It may help to squint at the reference photo, which reduces details to broad regions of tone. Dark lines can be impressed onto the canvas, almost as if you are printing onto the surface. For the edges of the buildings, start at the edge and work towards the centre, scraping the colour on. Areas of reflection and the road are almost abstract. Using broader, lighter strokes, smear paint over the surface; imagine plastering a wall.
3. In some sections of the canvas, by painting the dark windows and leaving the lighter surrounds or painting the asphalt of the street and leaving the paler road markings, you are effectively ‘negative’ painting. It may all look a mess to begin, but quickly the shapes will coalesce and make sense.
4. As there is a bisecting road along which the dump truck is running, don’t forget to leave a horizontal strip of lighter colour.
5. For a speedy way to produce longer or thinner lines, grab a business card, loyalty card or a small ruler, dip it into your paint and impress the edge onto the canvas. Better still, bend your card to produce curves, which is great for the arching lamp posts.
1. Once the structure of the painting is in place, it’s time to turn to those smaller elements of colour, such as traffic lights, posters, clothing and details on the vehicles. First, lay out on your palette a series of primary colours (cerulean blue, cadmium yellow and cadmium red along with white). I suggest starting with blue. Take up a little of the colour with a small point-ended knife and look for places within the painting that require small dabs or smears, such as shirts or road signs. Carefully place the colour and leave it to dry. If there are places with lighter blues, add a touch of white and make your marks.
2. Mixing the cerulean blue and the cadmium yellow makes a lovely green, which can be toned down using the previous dark mix for the truck or lighter with white for the buildings. Do the same in turn with yellow (with a tint of red for an orange) for the taxi and again with red for the traffic lights and truck cab. This needs a little more care and try to choose an appropriately sized knife edge to delineate the edges of the box shape. Leave these to dry.
1. Finally, we arrive at the highlights and sparkles within the painting! Assess your painting and compare it to the reference photo. Are there any areas that need lightening up or picking out from the darker background?
2. Squeeze fresh titanium white onto your palette and drag some off to a separate section. Add a little of the colour you want to brighten, mix and apply to the painting. For instance, add a little yellow ochre to the white for a soft cream. This is ideal for the window surrounds of the stepped building in the background and is great for the arching lamp posts. These can be printed again with the curved edge of a business card.
3. Using pure titanium white and a smaller painting knife, carefully impress highlights onto the edges of the vehicles and buildings. I was happy with the street markings and kerb being suggested by the underpainting but, to emphasise depth, paint some of the lines in the foreground with white.
4. Try painting the words ‘bus lane’ on the road with white. Work on the straight lines first using the edge of a small knife. Then, with the tip, draw and scrape on the curves. Don’t worry if it looks a bit wobbly. The less sharp and graphic it looks, the more it is in keeping with the rest of the painting.
The finished painting
Bus Only, East 42nd Street, Daler-Rowney System3 acrylics on canvas, (41x30cm)