Contemporary British artist Nathan Walsh creates extraordinary cityscape paintings that accurately capture true cityscapes. Each photorealistic oil painting features the perfect perspective, lighting and texture, making it hard to believe that these are paintings.
From the glittering skylines of New York to the rain-slick streets of Chicago, Walsh begins each room by touring the locations in real life. He then takes various photographs and draws small miniature sketches to decide on his composition and color palette. Bringing her research back to her studio, the artist maps out and draws detailed grid-shaped plans of each location on her large-scale canvases. Each painting then comes to life with layers of colorful oil paint.
Rather than referring to a photograph, Walsh composes his own reality of urban environments from a variety of his images. “Freehand drawing is fundamental in all my work, it allows me to fully appropriate the photographic material,” he explains to My Modern Met. “Rejecting the mechanical transfer of imagery forces me to build each object from scratch and allows for a fluid and inventive approach. Smart perspective points allow the viewer to feel as if they are in the center of a realistic scene and could step into the canvas to walk the neon washed streets.
You can see Walsh’s paintings in New York City in his upcoming solo exhibition at the Bernarducci Gallery in Manhattan from September 6 to September 29, 2018.
We recently spoke with Walsh to ask him questions about his inspiration and processes. Read on for our exclusive interview.
What attracts you to represent cityscapes?
Cities seem to offer limitless possibilities for making paintings. I am drawn to their complexity and the excitement of exploring new places.
Do you have a favorite city or piece of architecture?
Perhaps because I visit New York frequently, I have been drawn to certain places in this city. The Queensborough Bridge which connects Queens to Manhattan has appeared a number of times in my work and must therefore be one of the favorite places.
What is your background in art?
I followed a fairly normal path through arts education in the UK. After school I took an art foundation program, and then got a diploma and master’s degree in fine art painting. I started exhibiting my work locally and nationally, which led to some recognition and a permanent teaching position at an art school in the north of England. My teaching job allowed me to spend enough time in the studio to develop my practice and I started to achieve commercial success in London and in European galleries.
About ten years ago, I was able to leave my post and paint full time, it coincided with the representation of New York art dealer Frank Bernarducci. Frank, through various projects and galleries, is a long-time supporter of contemporary realistic painting.
Are there any photorealistic artists, past or present, from whom you draw inspiration?
I am influenced by hundreds of other artists from different movements and periods. The first generation of photorealistic painters certainly had an influence on my activity. However, anyone who would take the time to see my work in person would not call me photorealistic. My work is built on a personal visual language where drawing is the key. The use of paint and color is also exploratory and refers to many other artists.
Can you share your creative process with us?
Before visiting a city I tend not to have a clear idea of what I would like to paint, I just tend to walk around, much like a Flaneur waiting for something to connect with. When I find something interesting, I take many photographs of a place and normally a series of miniature drawings in a sketchbook. Lately I’ve found that the sketchbook is gaining in importance, even for notes on color or whatever I was thinking about at the time. This immediate personal response to the surroundings plays an important role when I am back in my studio in the UK and reliant on the photographs taken.
Back in the UK, I’ll sift through the raw material I’ve collected and make a series of postcard-sized drawings that suggest potential paintings. I pin them to the studio wall and live with them for a while. Most are rejected, but the one I ultimately chose must have the most visual potential to make a large-scale dynamic painting. Once I decide on the size of the board, I start drawing elements in a pretty loose and organic way. The freehand drawing is fundamental in all my work allowing me to fully appropriate the photographic material. Rejecting the mechanical transfer of imagery forces me to build each object from scratch and allows for a fluid and inventive approach. Fixing pictorial elements at separate vanishing points allows the construction of a space independent of both reality and any photographic recording of the scene. A shifting horizon line allows the viewer to look up and down in space and question their position in relation to the scene.
This drawing step can take up to a month for a large painting. In some ways, this could be considered the most creative part of my business. When finished, I brush on an oil paint glaze and start blocking out areas of color with heavily thinned washes of paint. Over the following months, layers of paint are built up and sanded down. The aim is not to imitate the flatness of a static photograph but to refer to a rich lineage of European and American painting, seeing my work up close reveals a personal system of marking and investigating the physical properties of the oil painting. Surface and texture have become more and more important to me; finding new ways to apply and manipulate paint leads to richer and more unexpected results.
What are the most difficult parts of creating your job?
The challenge is to make it difficult! I think it would be easy to keep doing the same painting over and over again. For me, the most exciting aspect of being in my studio every day is trying to do things differently and find more exciting or stylish ways to respond to the modern urban environment.
Can you tell us about your next exhibition at the Bernarducci Gallery in New York?
My September 2018 exhibition brings together most of the works I have produced over the past three years. The last solo show I put on was in 2013, so I hope this one will represent a clear development in my practice. The 6 or so paintings celebrate the modern city and the act of painting itself. Clive Head, one of the most important contemporary realists, sums it all up brilliantly in the essay he wrote to accompany the show. It can be read in the essay section on my website.
Do you have any upcoming projects or exhibitions that you would like to share?
I am doing a miniature painting that will be part of a traveling exhibition across Spain next year. This is the opportunity to do something a little different and fun. Other than that, I’m excited about a great painting I’m doing that is based on the World Trade Center neighborhood in New York City. It connects interior and exterior spaces, a mixture of architectural information and a strong human element. That should be enough to keep me busy in the months to come!