UART Tip #20: How to Capture the City While Keeping it Calm with Nancie King Mertz

This painting is from reference photos I took late in the afternoon while attending a benefit in a Chicago hotel!  We’re always looking for our next painting, right?

The rush hour traffic was soon to start and the slanted light on the Chicago River sparkled, forming intricate, glistening silhouettes through the metal.  The bridges have always fascinated me and I’ve painted them many times, once from a helicopter and most often from below or eye level.  Each bridge in Chicago varies–no two are alike–and when 3 or more are included in the same image, the variety is obvious.

I’ve included 5 steps in this process so you can clearly understand the technique I use.  Nearly every pastel I create begins with these “tick marks” in charcoal–a map that helps me determine where every element belongs, right from the start.  Have you ever begun a painting with such enthusiasm that you attacked it with paint before clearly knowing where everything should go?  Didn’t many of those elements become larger than you had intended, so much so that you “ran out” of space on your surface?

Step 1 is: carefully look at what you want to include, examine the perspective, and make the correct directional map on your surface to capture what’s important.  I use “tick marks” as shown–others do a smaller thumbnail in the same proportion as their painting surface.  I’m embarrassed to say I’m not patient enough for that.  When I paint–especially plein air–I am SO excited to start that I have to work right on the surface.  So “tick marks” it is.

Using those marks as a map, broad strokes of dark and mid-value pastels are added.  I’m having fun and it’s fast…


When I’m plein air painting and a few folks have gathered around to watch, it’s always at this step where I lose them….they can’t understand why I would mess up and smear a painting that looked like it might have some possibilities.  They just shake their heads and walk away.  So it’s in this step when I wash down (thin out) the darks and create very loose brush strokes that will stay somewhat visible in the finish.  So what if those people thought I’d really goofed and didn’t have the slightest idea of what I was doing?  This is the step that tells me whether the painting is going to work or not.  To get this effect, I pour some denatured alcohol into my trusty peanut butter jar lid and liberally brush it onto the surface with a fan brush.  My favorite brush is a Grey Matters by Richeson because of it’s not-reflective ferrule and its ability to withstand the pastel paper.  I use both 320 and 400 UART and soft fan brushes can get chewed up in a hurry.

I digress…the alcohol runs and spatters, connecting the shapes and creates surprises that I let peek through at the end.  The alcohol dries very quickly (especially outdoors) and allows new strokes to be placed on top right away.


As you can see, revisions are now being made to the wash areas and I’m keeping an eye on perspective to make certain I’ve drawn it correctly.  The lights are finally starting to build up with layers of light lemon yellow.  I try to avoid using lights early-on, but rather let the surface stand-in for the lights until I have the darks where they need to be.  You’ll find if you place the lights too soon and need to make corrections, you’ll struggle with creating a muddy dark as the result.


In the final step, more refinement has occurred, cars and buses were added to make it a working city, and reflections were introduced to match the sparkle of the water.


“Lingering Sun”, 22.75 x25 pastel, 2017

Nancie King Mertz, PSA-M, CPP-M, IAPS-MC

Visit Nancie’s website at For more information about tips and techniques on UART paper, check out her upcoming UART workshop here.