Organising a painting trip to Manhattan is easier than you might think.  A good range of Winsor & Newton watercolours and a full set of brushes, various sizes of Winsor & Newton pre-stretched watercolour blocks, your travel bag and you’re ready to paint the world!

I am always pleasantly surprised at how laid back the Americans are.  Generally, when painting in the public domain, you are vulnerable to all sorts of interruptions but New Yorkers have a respect for the painter.  Perhaps they don’t get to see very many in the flesh!

Downtown view

Lexington Avenue, New York. 16” x 12” (40.6cm x 30.5cm)

Lexington Avenue (above) was painted in the early morning from a café window, which happened to have this striking view downtown. As the morning progressed the sun rose through the gaps in the skyscrapers to the left of the picture and reflected light was heating up the stone façades, giving a warm glow to the early morning of bustle and energy.  Every second car seemed to be a yellow cab.  It is an amazing city to watch grinding into action from the early hours in the morning when I started painting to around midday when the work was completed.  The Chrysler building in the distance was the focus of the composition and I used it as an anchor for the activity to develop around.

The Palm Lounge on Madison (below) was painted inside the grand interior of the Roosevelt hotel – one of the most famous hotels of the ‘20s and the art deco period.  The hotel has over 1000 rooms and some 30 floors!  The Americans really know how to go ‘over the top’ when it comes to interior décor, with huge displays of flowers and porcelain.  The elaborate wallpaper and highly polished surfaces of the mahogany furniture are all set to give a feeling of importance and significance in the grand scheme of things.

The Palm Lounge on Madison. 12” x 16” (30.5cm x 40.6cm)

As a rule, I always ask permission to paint in this kind of place because you never know what may have been planned.  In fact, there was a wedding party with 200 guests arriving later that day.  All credit to the boss who let me paint there.  “I don’t want no artist’s mess’, he told me in a genuine New York drawl befitting the owner of such an establishment.  To which I assured him that I was tidiest painter in Britain!

Manhattan Skyline from Central Park (below) was painted looking through the boathouse window over the frozen lake.  Studying the strong winter sun glinting on the skyscrapers.  I felt a great sense of self-confidence at the breathtaking achievement of this city perched on a tiny Island on the Hudson River.  The days are short in January and the light goes quickly after lunch, so capturing the skyline at this time of year involves working at speed.  My aim was to convey the mood of this majestic city.  Here the siennas and ochres of the winter landscape created a striking contrast with the imposing buildings of Carnegie Hall and The Lincoln Center.

Manhattan Skyline from Central Park. 12” x 16” (30.5cm x 40.6cm)

Painting process

I start with the brushes immediately and rarely use a pencil.  Mapping out your composition with pencil and then applying the paint can become a bit like ‘painting by numbers’ where the brush simply follows the pencil lines.  I like to let the colour lead the composition.  In this way I can take advantage of ‘happy accidents’ where the watercolour mixing on the paper can be used to full effect.

Deciding on the direction and source of light is very important early on, as is building up the colour from light to dark.  I apply thin glazes of colour and am careful about saving the paper itself for white highlights.  In Manhattan Skyline from Central Park I also used a wax resist to preserve some white for the skyline reflections.  Occasionally I used white gouache to reinstate a lost highlight or to enhance a reflection.  Although the use of gouache in watercolour painting is frowned upon.  I was encouraged to try the combination after seeing watercolours by both Turner and Singer Sargent where gouache, or ‘body colour’ had been used.  In New York Conversations (below) I have applied white gouache to accentuate the people silhouetted against the backdrop of warmly-lit marble.

New York Conversations. 10” x 14” (25.4cm x 35.5cm)

New York Conversations was painted in one of the busy bar diners on Madison Avenue, full of people unwinding after a day’s work. Adopting the Impressionist approach to convey the activity and mood of the scene, I used large washes of yellow and red to establish the evening mood. Then swift marks made with a flat sable describe the figures and their angular suits and coats to emphasise the movement and elegance of the Metropolitan night life – a hint of the theatre to follow, perhaps Broadway to take in a show – just another Manhattan evening.

Sitting in good light is essential for working indoors as you need light to tell one colour from another on your palette as well as your painting surface.

My choice of subjects give perhaps a more personal view of New York.  I tried to resist the tourist attractions and chose instead subjects that caught my imagination so that I could capture my own observations of life in this amazing city.  New York, New York, - no wonder they named it twice!