The Anonymous Society of Painters

How to Paint Urban Landscapes Like the Impressionists

A friend and I were recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and she was adamant—as my sore wrist can attest—that we go immediately to see one particular painting. She grabbed me none-too-gently and we dodged, whirled and scooted our way through the crowds to get to it fast.

Garden at Sainte-Adresse by Monet, 1867, oil on canvas, urban landscape.
Garden at Sainte-Adresse by Monet, 1867, oil on canvas, urban landscape.

It was Monet’s Garden at Sainte Adresse, and I completely understood what the rush was all about. You see, cityscapes of the Impressionists are some of my absolute favorites, too.

Though the Impressionists (when they first exhibited as a group they took the name of the Anonymous Society) painted so many subjects, it is the revitalized Paris scenes of the public gardens, the dance halls, the concerts and the cafes that capture my gaze with the most intensity. They seem most in keeping with the idea of “impressionist” painting with its high spirits, looseness and energy.

If you paint urban landscapes, finding the right scene and the right balance of what can be an overwhelming number of elements can be tough. That’s why I recommend keeping in mind these tips:

1. Paint Davids and Goliaths

Cityscapes by their very nature are going to have people—lots of them. Make sure one or two figures stick out—maybe they are in motion or are wearing bright colors—and the rest of the figures appear to recede, presented with less detail and in more muted colors.

Bridge by Caillebotte, oil sketch, 1876, urban landscape.
Bridge by Caillebotte, oil sketch, 1876, urban landscape.

2. Don’t Forget the Directions

Cities or urban landscapes have lots of things that adorn them: trains, bridges, broad avenues, public sculptures, ports and more. As a visitor to these places, you can get mixed up and turned around easily.

The same can be said for a viewer of a cityscape that lacks direction or focus. Too many elements pointing us every which way can be confusing. Pick a point of view that enhances the elements you depict, not tangles them all together.

3. Right Off the Edge

Cityscapes are unlike other paintings because there is a unique kind of energy to such a setting. To capture that pulse, consider sweeping your composition right off the canvas so the viewer realizes how vibrant and larger-than-life the place you depict is.

4. Color Isn’t the Answer

An urban landscape filled with color is like a jewelry box full of sparkling goodies. But you don’t put on every piece of jewelry in your collection, do you?

You want to be tasteful and balanced in your color schemes for cityscapes. In fact, paring down to a few pops of color can be just as, if not more, effective than including every color you see.

The Impressionists embraced the city of Paris and its people as a beloved subject. If you have the same ken for cityscapes, you will absolutely love Thomas Schaller’s Capturing Light in Watercolor: How to Paint Cities.

This video workshop (preview trailer above) gives you the tools to take on the city and see it come alive at the tip of your paint brush. If you want to put your skills to the test with Schaller, just head to ArtistsNetwork.tv to start streaming the full-length video. Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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