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City Painting Ideas: How To Paint A Busy City Landscape

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Step 1: Start With A Good Ol’ Sketch Of A City Landscape

Sketching the city landscape

Even the most complicated painting must start somewhere, and for this city landscape, instructor William “Bill” Dunn begins with the basics: how to get a good sketch without over-cluttering the composition, and how to simplify this busy scene without accidentally taking out the “busy” atmosphere. To start, he has a picture of Clay Street (in the Chinatown district) he himself photographed, so already he has full control over exactly what kind of composition he wants to paint. He also plans on using an impressionistic style, so stresses on the importance of a hand-drawn sketch rather than getting a photorealistic tracing via using a ruler or projector.

To begin, prepare the paper by cutting it to size so its dimensions are scaled proportionally to the picture. This will make the measuring process easier. Use artists’ tape to tape the edges down for a clean edge afterwards, and to minimize the effects of the paper from warping (you can pre-stretch the paper, but this is optional).

With the pencil, start your sketch of the city landscape by lightly outlining the road, beginning from the vanishing point (i.e. the point where the background is the furthest away, which creates a “tunneling effect”) and widening the vertical street as you near the foreground for this tunneled perspective. Next, draw the intersection and horizontal streets. With these street lines in place, you have a visual reference for which buildings go where. Lay in the skyline of the buildings on the upper-right side, using one-point perspective as a visual reminder of how the buildings should be drawn to follow the reference photo. Work from large to small details, outlining the buildings before adding smaller details like building signs, windows, and corners to give the buildings more dimension. Continue downward, drawing the big sage building (in the reference photo) as a corner point, then rounding it off with a sidewalk on the right side of the street. Remember that not all details have to be included, as this will be more impressionistic than realistic. Try to be selective and only draw in enough detail to give the object a place in your painting.

Continue sketching signs, posts, and people along the pavement to capture the atmosphere of a busy Chinatown. Move to the left-side of the painting, sketching the buildings in the same way as before. Add signage and even Chinese characters where necessary, slowly making your way towards the foreground details to include a variety of vehicles for the atmosphere. Part of getting the design and composition right is to pick and choose the necessary details to include, which makes this planning process so important. Make sure to keep stepping back to check the overall proportions and composition, exaggerating perspective of the area around the vanishing point if necessary. Also, keep thinking ahead on what colors to use, which will help speed up the painting process. Finish off the city landscape sketch by drawing cars in the lower corners of the composition and zebra crossings for the crossroad, and add any further details on the buildings you feel would become necessary guidelines.

Below is a close-up of Bill’s compositional sketch:

Initial sketch of city landscape