When the sun goes down and the day’s events are over, the city lights come on and the night feeds our senses with its intense array of images. For Randy Pijoan, that makes it the perfect time for a painting. In fact, urban nightscapes have become a major part of his work. “I began painting nightscapes because it was an intense challenge,” he says. “I’d painted the grayness of the city during the day, but at night the buildings really came alive for me, with so many colors of lights and reflections. It was like discovering a treasure trove, and I thought, Why aren’t more artists dedicating themselves to this?”
“In the city at night, so much happens in a blur,” Pijoan says. “It all happens so quickly—much faster, it seems, than during the day—that your eyes just follow the light. So I’m working just as fast, as well.” Once he finds a scene to paint, he begins by taking as many photos at different exposure settings as he can, with and without a flash, sometimes mixing elements from different photos to make a good composition later. He’ll often make sketches or take notes to jog his memory in the studio, but he’s just as likely to revisit the scene if he can’t recall some aspect of it properly.
What makes Pijoan’s process really stand out is his use of an underpainting, which for him is a remarkably detailed black and white image created with only gesso and the museum board. “I look at the subject,” he says, “and if it’s mostly dark colors—say two-thirds dark—I’ll use a black museum board and add white gesso to it. If the scene has more light colors, I’ll use white board with black gesso.” With only a few coordinates marked for the major elements of the picture, he?ll then begin to draw with the gesso, and in either instance the color of the board can effectively be used to gray the color of the gesso.
Ultimately, it’s those white areas of underpainting that put the glow into Pijoan’s night scenes. “The black and white really seems to work well for these paintings because the city is already very monochromatic, and if there’s any color it’s coming from the cars or the billboards or the neon lights. I see the underpainting in white as more for the lighter areas, like the whites, yellows and light blues. Some of the darker shades of brown, green or purple are so deep that I can’t underpaint for them, so I leave those areas for the paint’s natural values to come through.”
Mark Gottsegen is an associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and chair of the ASTM subcommittee on artist’s materials.