Still life in the fast lane


One of the most eagerly awaited packages in our sea freight was my box of painting stuff. If you don’t know me all that well, my primary non-alcoholic interest is painting – so the first thing I did when all our boxes arrive was crack open a bottle of wine. The second thing I did was set up my easel.

Because my paintings can take me a long time (months; years) , it’s important to carefully consider the subject matter. I’d just completed a landscape of Scotland which took a long long long time to finish, so didn’t fancy another marathon landscape. I have been keen to get back into portrait painting but hadn’t been overly inspired by any faces yet. Instead, I decided to try and capture an atypical element of the city. Typical Shanghai images are of the Bund or the skyline containing the Pearl tower. They’re pretty, but ubiquitous.

One of my little pleasures has been to wander off around the Puxi districts exploring some of the side streets. One of the most curious aspects I’ve found has been the contrast between adjacent neighbourhoods, some of which consist solely of giant skyscrapers of glass and steel and others which are small cramped residential warrens. Though these little residential ‘lanes’ aren’t exactly historic, they are more traditional Shanghai; and typically it is these areas that get flattened to make way for the modern malls and apartment blocks.

The lanes are fascinating. They seem to almost always feature clothes drying from suspended hangers, people washing in outdoor sinks or sat on tiny plastic chairs playing cards. They’re almost always strewn with something; litter, scooters, animals, stacks of cardboard or plastic. Occasionally people set up a few tables and chairs and sell food to passersby. When you take a stroll down one of these lanes, you often experience a number of unusual smells, sounds and sights.The last time I walked through one, the back of my throat hurt with all the chilli in the air from the cooking. I imagine it like a bee-hive; people will emerge from the tiny ‘lane houses’to undertake a bit of frenetic activity in the street, and poke their heads out of windows and doors to partake in animated conversations with their neighbours. Sometimes these dwellings consist of only 1 room; which is astounding given some of the wealth and prosperity you will see in adjacent neighbourhoods (or even adjacent streets!). Given the possibility that these areas will make way for more gentrified buildings, I thought it would be appropriate to make it my first painting.

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To get back into the swing of things, I chose to take a departure from my usual painstaking approach to constructing a painting. Normally with these lanes, you’re walking through or past them rather than taking time to soak it in so I wanted to try and represent the essence, not the detail. I also wanted to reflect some of the charming griminess that many of the lanes seem to have.  I didn’t think I could capture the human element at the same time, so I chose not to include any people in it. I’ve got plenty of time to do some character studies. The finished painting is below.


It didn’t take a huge amount of time to do – around 4 hours i’d say in total. It’s painted with oil paint on canvas and I tried to use a limited colour palette; there are only 2 reds, 2 yellows, black, white, a tiny bit of blue and a brown called ‘Burnt Sienna’. Almost all of it I did with a palette knife (a type of blade used for mixing and spreading paint that you can get in various shapes). One of the characteristics of oil paints is that they don’t dry very quickly at all. This is very unhelpful if you ever drop a wet painting (the same physics that apply to buttered toast apply here too), but it is very helpful if you want to mix and blend paints while on the canvas. This can produce the kind of effect I achieved in the central pathway- where you have separate colours that are blend unevenly across a surface and give the impression of multiple shades of colours.

Palette knives are also great for creating texture. You can apply paint and then scratch it off in parts to reveal the white underneath, or to reveal the grainy texture of the canvas. This was useful when trying to differentiate between one surface and another, and was particularly helpful when creating the bricked areas. With a picture like this, where the composition relies heavily on perspective created by having straight lines disappearing into the central area, getting the lines right can be very important. Bricks are a challenge, because you need to deal with vertical and horizontal lines across 3 dimensions, as well as having to make them look bricky. I found that I could ‘cut’ the bricks into the picture by loading the knife up with paint and chopping in to create the desired impression. Much easier and much more effective, as the illusion of depth is maintained.

My other aim was to create some interest at the focal point (the end of the lane). I tried to do this by just contrasting some black and white to represent the extremes of light. There are hints of some ‘stuff’ towards the further recesses, but I put a bit of detail into the bike as one of the handful of elements you’d have time to notice if you only glanced up the lane.

My next picture is more in line with my usual style (painstakingly detailed) so it’ll be a few more weeks until i can post about it but I will do so once it’s done 🙂

– Matt

6 thoughts on “Still life in the fast lane”

    1. Hi Ro, Emma here. I’ve not painted anything yet, but I’ve promised Matt that I will also do a lane picture; I’ll keep you posted on my progress 🙂 Glad you’re still enjoying the blog, you’re our number one fan (apart from my mum!!)


  1. Thanks for sending the link Emma xx. Great post Matt and I love the painting. 4 hours eh? That must be a record! Dad and I visited one of these areas which is supposed to be protected as an historic area – and we went into one of the houses. In our case, it was very much a tourist put up job, but nevertheless we caught something of what you describe. Thanks for sharing. Xxx


  2. I loved the way you explained how you painted the picture. I feel I could almost go away and paint one of my own . Get the paints ready for when we arrive.🎨🎨🈶🈷🇨🇳🇨🇳


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