Seeing New York

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how to paint the city
Tim Saternow, Untitled. Watercolor (triptych), 40 x 78 in.

How to paint the city: Wander around a lot. The more aimless, the better.

Buy a good camera and always carry it with you. Take many, many photos.

When wandering look for the common, the unexciting, the ordinary. Take note of these scenes knowing that you will make them extraordinary.

Look for the contrasts: bright light and dark shadow; old brick next to newer glass; colored signs on empty walls; stuff that’s been there a long time. The best light is an hour or two after sunrise or an hour before sunset. It’s the sunlight at its most interesting and most dramatic. I look for the light to reveal textures and details that usually go unnoticed. With contrast you create drama.

I am one of thousands of painters who make New York our subject. This is a painter’s city as much for its complex and storied history, as for the generations of great painters who have tried to capture its essence. It’s the energy of so many artists wanting to make their mark here that makes New York so vital.

Tim Saternow, West 15th Street, Morning, 2009.

Watercolor (diptych), 52 x 40 in.

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Watercolor (diptych), 52 x 40 in.

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Watercolor, 30 x 22 in.

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Watercolor, 40 x 26 in.

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Watercolor, 40 x 26 in.

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Watercolor (diptych), 52 x 40 in.


The sheer size of New York and its buildings humbles me, and I am keenly aware of its grandeur and prominence. It reminds me how insignificant and puny I am in the grand scheme of things. So scale is important with my paintings, not just for the large buildings, but also using large paper, something that is not usually seen with watercolor painting. Looking at a large painting is a powerful experience for me and I feel as if I’m falling into the work, my intellect drops away, and my emotions take over. A small painting is a distinctly different experience, even with the exact same subject matter.

Where a large watercolor is based on the standard paper size of 22 x 30 in., I start with 26 x 40 in., also called “single elephant” size paper by Arches. I also use “triple elephant” size paper, 40 x 60 in., the largest single sheet made. Then I double or triple this paper for my diptyches and triptychs, some up to ten feet wide.

But painting is flat and two-dimensional, so I try to create greater depth and distance—the illusion of three-dimensionality—in these streets and buildings. The tools I use are numerous: shading, overlapping, linear perspective, aerial perspective, relative size, cool and warm tones. All very old painting techniques, but very effective.

My work is really about the lights and the darks. I find that this value contrast not only increases the three-dimensionality of the painting but also creates great mood and powerful emotional responses. The best revealing light is “sidelight.” It’s that light, late afternoon, from one side that skims across a surface and reveals the object, the building, the street, the surface texture. Side lighting not only increases depth, it can also pull an object or person from the background to make it significant. It creates interest, depth, and a focal point.

Look at Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning (1930). Low sidelight reveals the texture and the rhythm of this street, turning a seemingly ordinary section of Seventh Avenue into an ethereal and magical silent place. It’s potent with the possibility of noise and activity, but now it’s wordless. New York taking a breath.

The gritty parts of the city are the best, but they’re becoming harder and harder to find here in Manhattan. My series of paintings of the High Line was about the massive steel structure cutting between the old warehouses, but before it was all cleaned up. Now this area is too clean and beautiful and is much less interesting to me.

I take hundreds of photographs. As I look through all those images there will be something that catches me, something inexplicable, a glimpse of an idea. And it’s about making this my own, so I reserve the right to add, enhance, and move stuff around. It’s all to create my kind of hushed drama.

I take great care to make my paintings as representational as possible, but not photorealistic. It’s not about duplicating this photo. I deliberately break the illusion of depth by splashing and dripping all over the surface. It’s a way to remind me it’s just a painting. I like that I’m breaking the illusion, creating a very unique contrast in perception.

I love the silence of Hopper, but trying to capture his unique quiet in the noise of New York is extremely difficult. I wish I could sit down in the street and just sketch that idea when I see it. But everything moves too fast here. So my job is to hold it for a moment, so I can show others what I see.

I know a painting is successful if I hear people say that they’ve never seen New York in that particular way. I want people to wander into my world of New York City and share my light and darkness, my dirt and magic.

Watercolor (diptych), 52 x 40 in.
Watercolor, 30 x 22 in.
Watercolor, 40 x 26 in.
Watercolor (diptych), 52 x 40 in.

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