Lessons in Color Strategy and Composition from the “Azure & Asphalt” Series



Abstract urban landscape painting by Mitchell AlbalaFresh off the easel: North, Beneath the Rooftops, another entry in the Azure & Asphalt series. This painting puts into practice several lessons from two of my workshops. I will illustrate each of the key ideas as I walk you through my process.

Color Strategies

One of the lessons from “Building Landscape Harmony through Color Strategies, Limited Palettes, and Color Groups” is that structured color strategies are a reliable way to bring order and harmony to the complex problem of managing color. In one exercise, we find an effective color strategy in another artist’s work — and then try to apply that same strategy to our own painting.

Urban landscape painting by Terry Miura

Terry Miura, Descent, 48 x 60 inches, oil on linen

While perusing Terry Miura‘s Instagram stream, I came across one of his large urban landscapes, which was similar in subject to my Azure & Asphalt series — rising streets and rooftops lit up by sunlight. Terry’s painting showed me a strategy I had not yet considered.

Bright or saturated colors have more impact when they are played off neutral colors. In Descent, the orange colors are not super saturated, but they are much more meaningful when juxtaposed against the neutral shadows.

Don’t copy photographic color

In the studio I work from photos all the time, but I never copy the color I see in the photograph. (See Using Photographs Like an Artist.)  I figure out the color strategy that works best for a particular subject by doing color studies. This can be a traditional study, done by hand, or a digital study, a photograph with its color modified in Photoshop. That way I still have something to reference, but it is now my own color.

Digital color study modified in Photoshop

On the left, the original photo, monochromatic and lacking any color contrast. Right, the Photoshop color study, in which I shifted the color toward the neutral-saturated strategy I found so compelling in Terry Miura’s painting.

Limited Color Groups

Another “big idea” from the workshop is the principle of limited color groups. A landscape painting has a better chance of achieving color harmony — and of suggesting the unifying qualities of colored light — when the colors fall into a few main groups. When I introduce the idea of limited colors, students sometimes think I am suggesting that a painting should be made up of only two or three colors. Limited color groups impose no restrictions on the number of individual colors. But grouping does propose that while there may be  hundreds of different colors, they can and should fall into a few main “families” or groups which are related in hue and value. North uses a “tight” two-color grouping: the yellow-orange of the streets and rooftops and the gray colors of the buildings. However, limited color groups can certainly be implemented with more than two groups. For additional examples, see The Power of Limited Color Groups in Landscape Painting.

Movement and Eye Paths

Composition in Winslow Homer's "Breezing it Up"

Lines of movement diagrammed in Winslow Homer’s “Breezing it Up.” Hand: mine.

Now, let’s slip in the back door of another workshop, “Real World Composition.” There we do an exercise in which we diagram the pathways of movement we find in a masterwork. The week we spent on this exercise made a lasting impression on me, so I must have been doing something right! I have been paying more attention to these pathways, especially those that might carry the eye around the painting in a circular motion.




Landscape composition indicating pathways of movementFor a painting like North, which is dependent on so many strong horizontals and verticals, a circular route may seem like a surprising pathway. But movement in composition can also be implied; that is, our eye doesn’t only follow continuous, unbroken lines or edges. It can jump from point to point along implied pathways, in a connect-the-dots fashion.

Movement in North is created as the eye hops from rooftop to rooftop. The strongest eye paths are indicated by the two curving arrows in the lower half,  and the vertically rising street. There is also a secondary path that flows up along the sides and follows the river along the top. Collectively, these movements integrate all areas of the composition.

North, Beneath the Rooftops

Abstract urban landscape painting by Mitchell Albala

Mitchell Albala, 2017, North, Beneath the Rooftops, oil on panel 14.5 x 12 inches.


About Author

Mitchell Albala is a Seattle-based painter known for his semi-abstract and atmospheric landscapes. His book, "Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice," is a national bestseller with nearly 37,000 copies in print. Mitchell is also a popular workshop instructor at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, Winslow Art Center, Daniel Smith Artist’s Materials, and Arte Umbria in Italy. He has lectured on Impressionism and landscape painting at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines. His popular painting blog, which serves as a companion to his book, was awarded #12 on feedspot.com’s Top 75 Painting Blogs.


  1. Gerald Conley on

    Thanks for the powerful lessons in your excellent painting. Your precise color harmony and contrast and extremely tight values is impressive as usual. My immediate reaction to the painting was shock that the vertical street did not run its normal course, and instead have my eye figuratively crash into the blocking building. The dark spot and vertical pole provides an escape but then is blocked by the next building! Again some help is provided by the roof shadows and one is passed those blockages only to hit the next shadowed horizontal dam. Again help is provided with some key verticals and one finally nearly reaches the canal and discovers blocking trees. But you rescue the blocked eye with some carefully placed stepping stones — rooftops!

    One thing that impresses me is that you made a central path, but not an easy path. This reminds me of the discussion in the book “Thinking Fast and Slow” which demonstrates that people change the portion of their brain used when they are forced to think slow; a simple a demonstration is making text hard to read whereby the nature of the conclusion reached is radically changed. In this case you have taken the painting from the nanosecond assessment “I already know this painting” to “what is going on?” Your painting offers a rich reward for anyone who wants that answer which in itself is key part of making the painting masterful. The power and shape of the dark section of the lower right trees adds velocity to my eye movement in a surprising way, because there is no detail in that dark, just weight and direction! The height of vertical poles is clearly arbitrary and deliberate! The chimney in the upper right has a power I would not have anticipated; your diagram shows its import. Ditto for the three blue windows/shed roofs? in the middle right which combine musically with similar blue notes elsewhere to orchestrate eye movement. There is lots of eye movement in this painting, but none by accident! Well done!

  2. Mitchell Albala on

    Thanks, Gerry. I knew I could count on you for your astute observations. I’m glad you “get” all the subtle compositional interactions and manipulations that are going on. Not everyone does, but hopefully more will see it now with this blog post.