Category Archives: Part 3: Project 5: Townscapes Research point: John Virtue and contemporary townscape artists

Part 3: Project 5: Townscapes Research point: John Virtue and contemporary townscape artists

In choosing modern contemporary artists I included a little information on each artist from the site where I found the painting. I researched ‘Best contemporary cityscape painters’… all the results were from America and England so I tried finding an example from Indonesia (my son has just been travelling there and has been telling me about the culture). It occurred to me that by always finding Western examples – which almost by definition would be steeped in Western art culture/contemporary media/training – I was missing out on a world of art with different art histories and cultures. Unfortunately I found it very hard to find examples… all the easy searches threw up westernised versions of Indonesia for sale to the western market!!! However, I eventually found a famous Indonesian artist (Affandi) – now dead but still contemporary and ironically he painted Chicago for his cityscape! And included him.


John Virtue is a contemporary artist who was Associate Artist at the National Gallery from 2003/5… he was tasked with continuing/applying the tradition of famous traditional landscape artists (Rubens, Ruisdale, Turner, Constable) to townscapes.

He works in monochrome using white acrylic, black ink and shellac on large canvases.

Critics say he paintings have elements of oriental brush-painting and American Abstract Expressionism.

At the end of his two years he held an exhibition of his work created over the two years. Here are a couple of quotes taken from the exhibition website:

‘My day consists of getting up early, drawing from the South Bank of the Thames, drawing from the roof of Somerset House, and finally drawing from the roof of the National Gallery. Then I start the day and I work on the images here (in the studio) from drawings that I’m making every day.’

‘I have no interest in recording a rhetorical history of London; really I’m interested in making exciting abstractions from what I perceive. So in a sense I’m not a Londoner painting London out of any roots or any kind of affection – I’m an accidental tourist here, but I intend to go on working particularly on sites around the river Thames.’ 

And some of the paintings he created:



Firstly, I should state a dislike for these paintings… which I looked at in an earlier post.

They have no power or grab on me, are emotionally dead (I can’t find any connection) and feel more like dry academic studies – from somebody with painterly techniques – than passionate paintings.


So… he says he’s looking for abstractions, out of no connection with the city, but merely as a prompt for abstract patterns and shapes. If so then they are not truly abstract but directly linked with the city. In as far as he is using the visual language of the city as his building blocks.

Indeed, these go further and are not abstract. They are representative… if with a Turnerish twist. Turner was misty… unclear… but had a clarity of vision and soul that fill his paintings with humanity… these are Turner packaged without the genius.

Inside the wrapping they are empty!

As to American Abstract Expressionism here’s a painting by Franz Kline:


That’s abstract, powerful and effects us at the deepest subconscious level.

John Virtue’s London drawings are nothing like that!!!!!

Neither abtract nor powerful.

Does he use oriental brush teqhniques?

Well, he uses a brush and black ink… though white acrylic rather than white paper so he can make mistakes?! I had a look at oriental brush painting and it was very diverse (like saying something is like western oil painting!) but this picture came up a lot if we go back to it’s pre Westernised beginnings:


What there is here is (yes, it’s black and white with strong contrasts!) a representational work with great economy which captures the essence of the horses both representationally and emotionally/as living creatures… personality.

Qualities which seem inherent in the style.

John’s paintings, by his own admission, have no human connection with the subject matter (he has no roots in London – he’s looking for visual suggestions for abstractions)… and is trying to paint an abstraction which is the polar opposite to the spirit of oriental brush painting.

He captures nothing of London.

So to another monochrome study of London…


Date: 30 September 2016
Size: 594 x 420mm (A2)
Price: £ 12,950.00

Stephen Wiltshire can draw a lifelike representation of a cityscape after only seeing it for a few minutes. He is world famous and in great demand, as can be seen from the price of this sketch!

If a kid was really, really good and had a photographic memory… so they could sketch a cityscape with infinite detail, this is what it would look like.

It’s very skilled and clever, and must take a long time. But I can’t see the point or the art in it? What’s the message, where’s the empathy… what can I connect with???

It just feels like the overwhelming accumulation of detail.

Skill and memory not art.

Now for some colour!!!!


Wayne Thiebaud – Valley Streets, 2003 (San Fransisco)

Although famous for bright pop art pictures of well-known objects like ice cream cones Wayne also painted many city scapes after he moved to San Fransisco in the early 70’s.

I like this much better.

You can feel there’s a ‘person’ painting this.

It’s a voice… he makes choices…

I love the geometric simplification of the structure and repeated forms… semi circles, domes, rectangles. The way the blue shadows unify the picture. The anonymous back of a tower block in the foreground.

The yellow sky and the yellow building by the road… it’s almost a colourist composition.

And yet for all it’s ‘simplicity’ and ‘abstracted’ form and colour I can feel a real city throbbing beneath his brush.

This is a city the artist is reacting to. We see it through his eyes.

It is a human, vibrant piece of work.

And something completely different…



Richard Estes – oil on canvas h: 96.52 x w: 152.4 cm (American). He was one of the founders of the photorealist movement of the late 60’s.
The skill is wonderful… but why????
I feel like I’m looking at a photograph… if I wanted to look at a photograph I’d go buy one.
The realism is a barrier… a camera is a machine (albeit framed and photo-shopped by a human!).
And so, away from Western painters to an Indonesian artist
And about as far away from photo realism as you can get!!!!


Cityscape of Chicago, 1958

AFFANDI (Indonesian, 1907-1990)

Cityscape of Chicago

I love this.

Black and red and yellow neon… a dour sky… heavy impasto.

Somehow it just captures the feel of looking out of a hotel window onto the city at night.

It’s full of energy and passion – both of its creation and of the city.

It captures an essence of the city, the feel of the living breathing city, you don’t see with your eyes but hold the feeling in your heart.


There are many ways to paint a city (but not abstract as true abstract does not refer to a representational or emotional reality) from photo realist, to detailed child sketch, to personal voice and – thinking of Hopper – the loneliness of the people… the city as backdrop and environment to experienced humanity.

The painting communicates many things apart from a visual accuracy – a trump de l’oeil – or window onto the world.

And what works for me, however it’s done, is when an artist creates a connected vision of the city and captures it’s feel and emotion… their human connection to cold concrete buildings and hard geometric shapes that make a city.

There’s more than one way to draw a city, and it’s not about the style chosen it’s about the message and voice of the artist!!!