Depicting The Urban Environment: Interview with Whitney Babin

In my art, I explore the world in which I live. My artwork is a personal exploration of my environment and emotions. Each individual views his or her surroundings in a unique way. As an artist, I have an opportunity to portray images of my everyday life through my line of vision. Living in Philadelphia and Lancaster has had a vast influence on my subject matter. My interest in depicting an urban environment gradually developed into a fascination with the city at night, and the depiction of light and motion. For me, the city has always been an intriguing environment. I experience it as something that never sleeps; it seems more like a living organism than a place. During the day, people overpower the city. The buildings become a backdrop to the diverse crowd wielding its way through the streets. However, at night, the city itself comes to life and the people are the backdrop. The lights and the sounds create an atmosphere all their own. This energy of changing light and motion makes it a place of constant interest for me and has created a vast subject for me to work with in my paintings.


Tell us about your background in the arts. When did you decide to pursue painting?

Growing up, my family moved frequently during middle school / high school. The only place I felt instantly accepted into a new school was when I was in the art room. It wasn’t until college that I took my first painting class. After taking one class, I decided to focus my major in painting. I traveled to Rome to study art history, and received a BFA from University of the Arts.


When did you start painting the urban landscape? How do you feel your work has developed over the past few years?

My first urban landscape came after a series of portrait paintings I was working on. I liked painting portraits, but was feeling frustrated and not sure about the future direction of my work. I was living in Philly at the time and would spend a lot of time walking around the city listening to music. I came to realize that city itself was a source of inspiration. At night, the city emitted a kinetic energy. It was as if the building and the cars came to life around you. I realized that I wanted to capture the energy of the city in my work, more so than the actual architecture. As my work progressed, I became interested in light and how it could depict life, motion, and energy with one brushstroke. My original work was dark, with limited light. As my work progressed and developed, color and abstract marks that represented cars, or buildings became a focus. My tools have expanded beyond brushes to also include, squeegees, brayers, and palette knives.


How does each piece come to life? Tell us about your inspiration, references, and process.  

I travel between Philadelphia and New York as often as possible. On every trip I take photos of the city, as well as lights reflected on the streets, or reflected on rain splattered roads. While many city scenes I paint have a specific location that I focus on, many are made up of a collection of images or lights.

I recently started painting on wood rather than canvas. I’ve enjoyed working on a smooth surface and it’s allowed me to build paint in a different way.

I start by sketching a rough outline of the skyline and road. I put a base layer of color down then use, brayers and squeegees to streak paint and create blurs. I then go back into the piece with brushes to build detail and light. Each painting is unique and I try to experiment with at least one new process or technique to keep evolving my work.


Name a few artists that you look up to.

Jeremy Mann, Michael Chamberlain, Edward Hopper, John Wentz, Gavin Glakas

We noticed you have several different bodies of work, which is exciting. How do you feel they relate to each other? How are they different? 

I’m a strong believer that every piece of art you create, regardless of the theme, leads to development and growth. I love experimenting with abstract painting styles. It’s helped me to understand how streaks of color relate to one another and has influenced the way I paint buildings and streets. I don’t think it’s safe to only paint one subject matter. I love painting urban landscapes, but I’m also a fan of taking a day to paint flowers with watercolor, or push acrylic around a canvas with a squeegee. I had a teacher once tell me that I should “stick to what I’m good at.” That advice bothered me for years because, as an artist I want to constantly be challenging myself to refine my techniques and to explore new approaches to art. I want to keep it fresh and invigorating.  

What is a must-have item in the studio? 

Music! I can’t express how much a great song (preferably an entire album) can lead to an entire day in the studio flying by. My studio is in my house, and anytime I paint I have a candle going, music on, and plants and paints scattered throughout the room. 

What do you love to do when you are not in the studio?

My husband is a woodworker. I draw all the designs for his furniture and help him on his projects. It’s an entirely different creative outlet and I’ve really come to love it. We’ve slowly restored our house from the 1840’s entirely on our own, one room at a time. We’re now building furniture for friends. Since working as an artist, can be very isolating at times, I like that I get to collaborate in a creative way in a new medium.