Reflective Cityscapes

Jersey City-born watercolourist John DuVal strives to capture the light and colour of urban landscapes to create a fresh, yet familiar feel for the viewer. His brushstrokes convey energy and spontaneity, injecting life into his paintings.

A: What provoked your transition from oil painting to watercolour? And how has that affected your practice?
JD: At first, I didn’t have much space for oil painting indoors, and this was before I discovered plein air painting. Painting was a slower process in oil, and I was looking for something that I could be a bit quicker and looser with. I started using watercolor and my process changed dramatically. I went from completing a painting every week or so, to completing one or two paintings a day. This helped me improve my technique and kept things fresh.

A: What techniques do you employ in order to capture a sense of familiarity within your compositions?
JD: I try not to be too literal in a painting. However, my work is still fairly realist, and I try to capture one or two qualities of the landscape that make it recognisable. I leave out a lot of details that are unnecessary and distract too much from the core message.

A: As a plein air artist, how does working directly within the landscape affect your creative process?
JD: Working en plein air has helped my creative process by really forcing me to make quick decisions and plan out my paintings on the spot. I find much more creativity in natural landscapes than in trying to come up with ideas of what to paint next, or waiting for inspiration to strike. By going outdoors and experiencing the city, the countryside, or wherever I happen to be, I can see paintings almost everywhere. The natural habitat of my location inspires everything I do. There’s nothing like experiencing the sounds and sensations of being on location. With weather and sunlight, the subject changes so rapidly that I’m forced to just get it down on paper.

A: What is it about the urban landscape that your find particularly inspiring?
JD: Since I’m from the city, I really identify with the urban landscapes that I paint. I’m fascinated by sunlight hitting the street in different ways, and people and cars invading the landscape and imbuing a sense of life and bustle everywhere. It’s also a challenge to post up on a street and start painting – it’s never a dull moment and it keeps you on your toes.

A: There is a sense of spontaneity within your work, how do you retain this original energy, particularly when working within recognisable landscapes such as New York?
JD: I try to inject energy into my paintings by noticing the subtle differences that exist in each landscape, especially with something as recognisable as New York City. Every scene has its own mood that can only really be felt on location, and that’s really what I’m after. The buildings and familiarity take a back seat to the mood and atmosphere that initially attracts me to the painting. Once I have that, I can paint the backdrop and still maintain spontaneity.

A: What do you aim to evoke emotionally within the viewer? And how do light and colour influence this?
JD: I’d love for the viewer to identify with the mood of the scene, and feel as if they’re experiencing that moment. Light is probably the most important aspect, because it dictates the mood and really sets the stage for energy and feeling to happen. Color comes secondary for me, and I’ve been gradually limiting my palette to really focus on the effect of the painting as a whole, without colour being a distraction.

A: Do you ever find you are daunted by the landscapes within which you work?
JD: Some landscapes are tougher than others for me. I always try to approach subjects that interest me, and if it’s a complex scene, I’ll try to simplify as much as possible. I actually prefer landscapes that are a bit more complicated, since this gives me more room to simplify and abstract.

A: How is your practice developing? And what are your plans for 2017?
JD: I have been painting a lot of New York scenes for a show in Brooklyn. After this, I may look to new material to shake things up. I’m also planning to travel abroad later this year for some inspiration and look forward to painting in Europe.

1. Courtesy of John DuVal.