As daylight hours shrink in the winter, the influence that night and day hold over
our mood and perspective becomes apparent. While day scenes are a common choice
for painting cityscapes, I gravitate toward painting the city at night to show another side
to what goes unseen in broad daylight.
Though I’ve painted cityscapes for years, I’ve only begun painting them as night
scenes within the last year. The little details of a city—the movement of people on a
sidewalk, the reflections in the glass of a storefront, the pattern in a tile or cobblestone
walkway—are what I highlight and preserve in my work. Yet, I found that some of these
subtle sights are actually best seen in the dark.
The glow of street lamps, the colorful neon store signs, even the soft hues of light
reflecting off the street and sidewalk are all easily missed moments of beauty that shine
under the night sky. The cityscapes I create as night scenes are the perfect setting for
falling in love with the warmth of something as simple as city lights.
Painting the way glowing street lamps or shining store signs contrast against the
night’s darkness while other things recede has become a fascination for me. There’s a
poetic element to the way a night sky forces us to focus on what’s directly in front of us,
as opposed to the way daylight permits us to see far off into the horizon. The night has
long been a symbol both for hardship and transformation, both of which reduce our focus from the far off future down to what’s immediately before us—often to what really
matters in life. Sometimes it takes a dark night to remind us of what we hold closest.
Challenges in Painting Cityscape Night Scenes
The daylight is a bit more forgiving when it comes to sourcing reference material.
When it comes to capturing images at night that still have the energy and movement of
people passing by, the window of opportunity is smaller. Particularly in the summer, I
have to go out later to catch the right moments at night while there are still people out
and store lights on. Another environmental challenge I encounter: being that I often
paint scenes of Vancouver, whose weather tends to be rainy, capturing the reference
shots I need isn’t always in the forecast.
Taking reference photos on Granville Street, Vancouver, BC Canada
Unexpected Aspects of Cityscape Night Scenes
Though daylight might illuminate our surroundings more clearly, there are certain
things that can only be seen when the sun sets. Painting cities at night brings so much
more into view that we miss or overlook during the day. One artwork I created featuring
Gastown, Vancouver shows the orb-like street lights whose warm, cozy glow can only
be truly appreciated at night. Subtle changes in the city that occur after nightfall, such as
the atmosphere and appearance, demonstrate that daylight doesn’t necessarily show us
more of our world, but instead only shows us a certain view of it. As day gives way to night, there are changes and details in the same city that come into view in a way they
Of all the visual changes brought on by street lamps and street signs, one aspect
of seeing a city by night that is easily overlooked lies with the people in that city. Just
like night affects the way we see a place, it also affects the way we act in that place;
there’s a marked difference between a crowd on the same sidewalk at 10 AM and 10
PM. Instead of busy, hurried people heading to and from work or running errands,
painting a cityscape night scene captures the more relaxed or playful side of
people—couples out to dinner, families laughing together, and friends meeting at a bar.
It’s these subtle differences in our surroundings as the day shifts into night that draw me
into depicting the unexpected beauty in cities after sunset.