How to Paint a Cityscape

Written by phil whitmer
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How to Paint a Cityscape
City skylines make interesting painting subjects. (winnipeg cityscape image by Jon R Peters from

The earliest known paintings with elements of the cityscape are frescoes from ancient Greek and Roman times. The first complete true cityscape was painted in fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzitti in 1335. The revival of the use of linear perspective allowed for the detailed representation of cities. Cityscapes were used as backgrounds in many Renaissance paintings. The Delft school of Holland established the cityscape as a serious genre in the late 1600s with Johannes Vermeer's painting "View of Delft." Cityscape painting reached a peak with New York City's Ashcan School of the early 19th century. Cityscapes can be painted in styles ranging from photorealism to complete abstraction.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Camera
  • Drawing materials
  • Sketchbook
  • Paper
  • Canvas
  • Gesso
  • Sandpaper
  • Smock
  • Artist's paints
  • Paintbrushes
  • Thinning medium

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  1. 1

    Choose your favourite city. Visit the town to take photographs and make sketches of urban views in your sketchbook. Draw the entire skyline from far off. Enter the city to draw and photograph scenes of everyday city life among the architecture. Look for picturesque buildings with lots of character. Do thumbnail sketches of compositions for your cityscape. Draw architectural details for use in your painting.

  2. 2

    Finish a compositional drawing using your photos and preparatory drawings as references. Reduce the complexity of the urban landscape into simplified forms and colours. Make the drawing the same size as your final painting for easy transfer onto the canvas. Establish vanishing points and use linear perspective to correctly draw the lines of the streets and buildings. Add people and cars for visual interest.

  3. 3

    Prepare a canvas for your painting. Prime it with three layers of gesso. Thin each coat a little more by adding water. Sand the surface smooth between coats. Transfer your drawing onto the canvas or redraw it freehand. Put on your smock to protect your clothes from paint stains. Brush on the imprimatura, or first layer of paint. Tint the entire canvas with a thinned-out monochomatic wash to unify the painting.

  4. 4

    Block in the basic forms and background colours of your cityscape using your largest brushes. Work in muted colours to set up the value structure of the picture. Vary the tones to suggest shaded and sunlit walls and cornices of the buildings. Establish the direction of the light source and keep it consistent throughout the painting for the proper placement of cast shadows. Paint the shadows with layers of complementary colours.

  5. 5

    Build up your colours with glazes of thinned-out paint laid down one atop another. Allow each layer to dry before overpainting it. Use your smaller bright and filbert brushes to paint in the architectural details on the facades of the buildings. Draw with your brush, using fine dark lines to define linear contours and small details. Add the accented highlights last, including light reflecting off the glass windows.

Tips and warnings

  • Rough in your cityscape on site, then complete it in the studio.
  • Stay alert when painting and drawing in the city; watch out for errant city buses and overly chatty bystanders.

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