Bright Lights, Dark City

A cityscape presents a wealth of possibilities, sometimes confusing, but always exciting. The challenge is establishing order from chaos without losing the fascinating details that are so important to conveying the city’s vibrant quality. To lend structure to paintings of urban scenes, I’ve learned to effectively use contrasts in color and value. It’s a lesson that applies to any subject or style, but if you want to paint cityscapes, it’s must-know information.

My paintings of New York City say a lot about how I use contrast. Like most metropolises, New York is a city of contrasts; it has visually shaped itself according to the principles of chaos, but it also has an incredible beauty like no other. For a good example of this duality, just watch as the late afternoon sunlight turns grime-encrusted sidewalks into sheets of gold leaf. It seems fitting to paint in a way that maximizes the very elements that contribute so greatly to New York’s exciting visual character.


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Painting a city depends on painting contrasts. One way of establishing contrast is by juxtaposing grays mixed from complementary colors and colors created with pure pigment. I use a variety of rich grays, created by mixing complementary colors, to paint much of the background in my detailed cityscapes. This approach serves two purposes:
1) the grayed-down color keeps my detailed backgrounds from overwhelming other areas of my painting;
2) the rich grays, juxtaposed with the typically pure color of my center of interest, provide powerful visual contrast. You can see examples of the most common grays I mix and use in this demonstration. In addition to mixing grays on my palette, I’ll sometimes “knock back” a too-bright area by glazing over the offending color with its complement.

John T. Salminen, of Duluth, Minnesota, holds signature membership in the Midwest Watercolor Society, the American Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor Society. He recently received the AWS Dolphin Fellowship. His painting Brighton Beach Avenue was awarded the AWS Silver Medal of Honor at the 131st Exhibition.

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