A Night Street Scene

For this masterclass I'll show you how I created a nightime street scene.  The place is the market square in Salisbury. Without the market its a large paved square with pubs and eateries along the sides.  In this view I'm facing straight on to a row of old pub buildings.

 

The first place to start with any scene involving buildings is to sketch out the rough positions of the main features.  I use a pencil for this, but you can use a light wash of paint if you prefer.  In this instance I've divided the original view and the canvas board into sixteen roughly equal rectangles (i.e. four across and four up).  This can help get things proportional particularly on larger canvases.  For each rectangale I've drawn up the main linear features.  You don't need to spend too long on this - the aim is to get everything in balance rather than exact.

 

 

Now for some paint.  As I do in most pictures I've begun with the sky.  Its a particularly dark one with a tinge of blue just showing, so I've put down a layer of my darkest blue - Prussian blue, and dabbed in a few small spots of white, which I've blended away.  This does two things - first its lightens it enough that you can see the blue coming through, and then it adds opacity so the paint marks aren't so obvious.

 

Prussian blue is a particularly staining colour, so I've gone on to do all the dark areas that require it before the tedium of trying to get it out the brush.  For the dark building on the right I've mixed it with Vandyke brown to get a very dark shade indeed, and then applied the remaining mix for the dark windows in the centre.  On dark areas any wayward brush strokes can be distracting in the final picture, so I always finish by brushing the dark areas in the same direction.  It may not be obvious below but in good daylight you can see the difference between sky and building in the picture.

 

 

Leaving the dark colours to dry (overnight) I've next moved onto some of the bigger blocks of colour in the buildings.  For me this is the more enjoyable part - applying a base shade and blending in colours to get variation.  For the two central buildings I've started with a grey created from vandyke brown and cobalt blue, with a little naples yellow added for warmth and opacity, and titanium white for lightness.  I've also blended in some chrome yellow for the subtle lighting with a very small amount of crimson for the blurred edges of light areas.  I've also tackled the lit windows using chrome yellow, orange and naples yellow in varying combinations with white for lighter areas and left over grey for the darker areas - all blended to give an indistinct image of what is inside.  Note this will be later partly obscured by dark glazing bars, so it doesn't need to be too detailed.  The edges are a little wonky as yet, but these will be obscured by dark lines later.  However it is important to try and get the verticals close to vertical.  I do this by measuring the top and bottom of an edge with a brush gripped in fingernails against the edge of the painting.

 

 

I allowed that layer to dry for a couple of days - not so much as I needed to, but because commitments didn't allow me to continue.  I next worked on the more complex building on the left doing the changing light of the sign background (with cadmium yellow toned down with naples yellow and a familiar mix of cobalt blue and vandyke brown).  The lettering I did with a small brush using vandyke brown.  I made a mistake but was able to scrub it out and redo it as I was working wet into wet.  Contrast that to the window frames and beams on the other buildings which I painted wet onto dry.  With wet onto wet you get a clean edge.  With wet onto dry you get a ragged edge that can be difficult to smooth without resorting to thinners.  The technique I use is to paint the edge in both directions and vibrate the brush gently on any gaps to work the paint into them.  Any mistakes can be picked off to some extent with a dry brush.  I use thinners as a last resort as it affects the underlying paint and can lead to a dull patch in the finished painting.

 

One small additional touch here - a very gentle brushing of a tiny amount of white over some of the window in the building with the orange light, to give that element of reflection without making it too obvious.  For this I wiped most of the paint off the brush before gently stroking the canvas so only a smidgen came off.  This technique is also handy for giving masonry a little texture.

 

 

For the building on the left I used a dabbing motion with the brush aligned horizontally, applying vandyke brown, chrome yellow, white and a little crimson to create a textured brick effect.  The lighter areas had more of the lighter colours. 

 

At this point I had a chance to revisit most of the spot light sources, going over the top of now dry paint with pure white or white with a tinge of naples yellow.  For the bright band on the central building I used a smidgen of cobalt blue to edge the white, and then dry brushed a darkening shade over the adjacent unlit areas to enhance the contrast.

 

I then started on the ground floor - the trickiest part of the painting due to the large amount of indistinct detail.  Starting with the large canopy in the centre, I gradually worked on different patches, constantly referring to the source material to make sure that my alignments were at least vaguely right.  The windows below the canopy were done with purple and naples yellow toning it down and adding highlights - a combination that crops up again in the band on the far right building.

 

I also made a start on the bright areas of the adjacent building using the same range of hues and techniques discussed so far.

 

 

I'm now around ten hours into the painting (spread over a fortnight) and about halfway through.  Each session has been a couple of hours or so with drying time between.  I could have skipped most of the drying time, but I've decided not to stop whenever I get the urge to rush things.

 

A lot of the ground floor is in semi darkness, so here I've found it best to fill an area with my usual brown/blue dark colour, and then add dashes and splodges of lighter colours to show the figures and furniture - or at least the lit parts.  For flesh tones (white skin) I mix one part red, two parts naples yellow and three parts white - varying the proportions to get different skin tones - its a trick I figured way back in my school days.  These figures are in semi darkness so I've blended that with the a touch of vandyke brown and a hint of blue where necessary so they are the appropriate brightness.

 

 

With the painting starting to fill the canvas I took the opportunity to go back on colours that seemed right at the time, but now look out from what they should be.  Most noticeable is the 'pub and dining' building - the light shade of the upper storey is too light, so I've brushed over with a gradated version of the colour combination (white, vandyke brown, cobalt blue and naples yellow), using more of the darker shades higher up.

 

Then on the leftmost building it was simply a matter of repeating the same processes for light and dark areas that I used elsewhere. Note I used a touch of sap green in the facade.

 

 

The final touch is to create a smeary foreground reflecting the lights.  This took two attempts with me wiping off the accumulated paint after the first attempt failed.  The technique is simple enough, but doesn't always work first time.  I first create the pools of lighter colours larger than they need to be, and in between I create the darker shade (vandyke brown and prussian blue).  Then using a large brush I lightly broush them together, moving the brush left and right, being careful to remove paint that accumulates on the brush to avoid dirtying the colours too much.  Finally I dab with the large brush to make it a bit more blocky so it looks like a solid surface rather than a body of water.

 

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© Richard Paul