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Photo or Painting? With These Cityscapes, It's Almost Impossible to Tell

Photo or Painting? With These Cityscapes, It's Almost Impossible to Tell

The works of British artist Nathan Walsh are so rich in precise details that they look like photographs, but so full of texture that they give the impression of a world you can reach out and touch.

"Photography can only do so much," he says. "It sort of tends to reassert its own flatness. What I do more than anything is try and introduce a sense of volume and space and form. So you feel as if you can kind of enter into these things."


"Central Camera" (2012), a scene from Chicago.

Walsh, who's in his early forties, works out of a studio in York, in the north of England. After years of splitting time as an art lecturer, he says he began to paint full-time about five years ago. His photo-like paintings depict scenes in cities across the globe: from Chicago and New York to Venice and Prague to Jerusalem and beyond.

"I've always been fascinated by cities," he says. "The idea of going to a new one, where all of the sudden you're presented with a completely different visual culture, I find really exciting."


"Venice" (2007).

Walsh begins each project by taking hundreds of photos of a city. He also makes a few sketches on site and tries to encode the general feel of the place in his memory. Then, back at his studio, he considers how to render all these images into some composite form that represents the experience of actually being where he was.

The paintings themselves start as a series of pencil studies that help Walsh isolate the key individual components of the scene. When it's time to transfer his ideas to the canvas, he plots a vanishing point for every pictorial element he intends to include, as a way of approximating what it's like to stand in that part of the city. Walsh's preparation even involves a good bit of math (though, as he points out, "it's not quantum physics").


Draft and final renderings of "Chicago in the Rain" (2012).

All told, the process is so intensive that Walsh says he paints no more than four urban landscapes a year.

"When you're in front of one of my paintings, hopefully it's a little bit like entering into another world," he says. "It's still very much a realist sort of genre, but it's not quite reality. It's somewhat removed from that."

Up until about a year ago, Walsh was showing his work in London, but he was recently taken on by the Bernarducci Meisel Gallery in New York. (He calls Bernarducci Meisel "the gallery I always wanted to be with," for its rich realist and photo-realist tradition.) He has an exhibition of American urban landscapes scheduled for this fall, and he's currently at work on a scene in the Flatiron district of New York.

"I think if the paintings are about anything, they're a celebration of the city," says Walsh, "and an investigation of how we interact with the city and space."

All images courtesy of Nathan Walsh.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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