The Underpainting


I’m using burnt sienna and lead white for the underpainting. I use these colors for two reasons. One is that they have a low oil content. In oil painting, there is a fundamental rule to always paint fat over lean. In other words, to only use oily pigments in the top layers of a painting, and less oily ones in the bottom layers. If you break this rule, the paint films won’t be stable, and the paint layers could crack over time. The second reason is that I use a lot of warm, earthy colors in my work. Because bits of the underpainting show through in the finished painting, I want its color to be a harmonious one.

Here, I’ve premixed 9 values. The darkest value, #9, which is pure burnt sienna with no white added, is my darkest value. This is much lighter than the darkest value in the finished painting, which is a pure black. I always make my underpainting lighter in value than the finished work will be. I find that painting over dark values can dull the final colors. A lighter underpainting produces more brilliancy in the final painting. Also, if I decide to glaze directly over my underpainting, only a lighter ground will let light bounce back through the glaze.

One of the reasons for doing a monochrome underpainting is that it helps to unify the finished painting. Because burnt sienna is a useful color that I use a lot in my work, I often leave bits of the underpainting uncovered, to show through in the finished work. These areas of color showing throughout the painting help give the impression that the whole work is existing in the same space, lit by the same light. If you were looking at a snow scene, for example, everything would have the same bluish cool cast. The objects on a sunlit window sill all are bathed in the same warm, yellow glow. If any of the objects from the snow scene were painted with a yellowish tinge, or if one of the things on the sill were painted with a cool, blue light, they would stand out  and not be seen as belonging in the picture.

Japanese basket #57

I don’t paint in many details in the underpainting. I would just end up painting over them in the final layers, and I would have wasted my time. I am careful, though, not to loose the drawing. To this end, I leave edges much sharper than they’ll ultimately be. The underpainting serves as a guide for the painting to show me the outlines of objects, their placement and their relative values. Subtleties, such as the reflections in the vase, the shadings of color in the box, or the variations of values in the cloth are dealt with in the later painting stage. There’s no need for subtlety yet!


Japanese basket #61

I do have to paint some details in the basket, though. If I were to loose the drawing at this stage, all of my work in locating the strips of bamboo would be lost. As I was painting the basket, I found that some parts of my drawing weren’t quite right, so I made corrections as I painted. Every time I redraw or paint an area, I take it as an opportunity to re-see and correct. As I’ve mentioned before, not all of these details will make it into the final painting, but I’d rather have them there in case I need them!

Japanese basket #65

An advantage of doing an underpainting is that it makes it so much less intimidating when you begin to paint in full color. It’s easier to judge the correct value to paint if the area is already close to the correct value, as opposed to the stark white of the canvas. Also, it’s so nice to have all of the problems of drawing already solved!

Japanese basket #66

I’m careful to keep the paint layer very thin in the underpainting. The thinner it is, the quicker it dries, and the earlier I can begin painting over it! I’m also careful not to leave many brush strokes in the paint. Brushstrokes can’t be very well-considered at this point in the painting, so I wouldn’t necessarily want them to show through to my finished layers! Also, if I were to need to re-paint anything, or move an object’s position, I wouldn’t want the texture of brushstrokes to reveal the original location. I use a feather brush to smooth away visible strokes.

Japanese basket #67

With the drawing conquered, and the values set, I can begin the final painting with a lot of the difficulties behind me. Now, in the next stage of painting, I’ll be free to observe the subtleties of color and light without having to worry about placement, perspective, and values.


Transferring the Drawing to the Canvas

Japanese basket #49

My canvas has finally arrived! Before I can begin painting, I need to get my drawing onto it. First, I tape tracing paper onto the drawing and trace all of the lines in pencil.

Japanese basket #51

Below is the finished tracing untaped from my drawing.

Japanese basket #46

I flip the tracing over to the wrong side, and using a soft pencil, I scribble over all of the areas containing lines that I want to transfer.

Japanese basket #54

After trimming the excess paper away, so the tracing is the exact size of the canvas, I tape the tracing paper, right side up, to the canvas, and carefully trace all of the lines, using a hard pencil.

Japanese basket #55

As I lift up the tracing below, you can see all of the marks transferred to the canvas.

Japanese basket #56

The tracing process always results in some loss of detail. Any time you are drawing without reference to the set-up, precision is lost, and to some extent, you are guessing.  I have to go back to the set-up and correct any errors that found their way in.

Japanese basket #53

Next I’ll spray a light coating of fixative on the canvas to set the pencil, so that it won’t dissolve when I apply the first paint layer. Then, I’ll finally be ready to paint!


How Precise Must a Drawing Be?

Japanese basket #42

As you can see, my drawing is very precise and detailed! It can be frustrating to see and draw all of these details now, but it’s even harder to do it in paint later, without any guide underneath. Even thought they are drawn, I certainly won’t show all of these details in the painting. Details are obscured both in shadows and bright light, so in those areas I will only subtlety suggest a few of the important spots. I’ll show much more detail in the mid-tones, though I won’t show every weave! I draw most of them now, so that when I’m deciding what to show, I’ll have a guide to help me be convincing.

Realistic still life demands a high level of detail in order to be satisfying. The objects are presented up-close, for the viewer to study, so they must appear realistic. However, the painter is not a photographer. He must stylize his subject, choosing only the most important parts and eliminating or muting the unimportant. It is tricky to decide how much to show!

Japanese basket #43

I constructed an ellipse for the base of the basket and transferred it to my drawing. You can see this is in picture above. I noticed that it wasn’t quite lining up with my measurements of the other parts of the basket. It finally occurred to me that the basket is very irregular in shape. For once, a perfect ellipse was not called for! It’s hard for me to just draw what I see in all of it’s asymmetry. Trust your eyes!

Japanese basket #44

Perfect ellipses are called for in the decanter, though! I calculated these and transferred them to the drawing. I indicated some of the other reflections, but not many of them. The two small ellipses seen inside the decanter are not perfect ellipses, but are distorted. The top one is a reflection of the base, and the lower is the base seen through a layer of glass. I didn’t try to be too exact here.  Unlike the weave of the basket, reflections don’t need to line up exactly, so I can paint them without a drawing to guide me. Also, since reflections are so subtle, I end up painting and repainting them. A detailed drawing would just end up being lost under layers of paint.

Japanese basket #45

Here’s the drawing just about finished. I have just a bit more to do on the basket.

Usually when I’m drawing objects such as these, I think that it really doesn’t matter if they’re exact or not. Unlike in a portrait, where an eye being off by 1/4″ would ruin the likeness, in a still life, who really would know or care that a vase was a bit thinner or wider than in reality?   The important thing is that it looks good in the context of the painting. I’m not trying to create an exact rendering of an object, like in a botanical illustration. I’m trying to create a beautiful composition.

Drawing Again

Now that I’ve completed my black-and-white study and I’m happy with the design, I can finalize my drawing, knowing that I won’t have to move anything around. Here’s a close-up of the basket as I left it before my study.

Japanese basket #37

Returning to the drawing after a break helped me to see that the overall shape wasn’t correct. The ‘waist’ (narrowest part) under the rim was too thick. Also, the major woven strips weren’t in quite the right positions.

Japanese basket #36

I corrected those mistakes. Now I began to fill in all of the little woven strips. They’re quite difficult to draw. First, I must look at the set-up to locate a detail, then to my paper to draw it, and back again to the set-up to re-check. These quick back-and-forth movements of the eye are crucial in judging if the detail I just drew is in the correct place.  I must see not only the detail, but where it is positioned in relationship to the rest of the basket, quickly comparing reality to my drawing to make sure they are in agreement.  Drawing a complex object is difficult because it’s easy to loose track of which little detail I was observing. By the time my eye leaves the set-up, goes to my drawing and returns to the set-up, I often lose track of which strip I was looking at!  If my eye is confused as to which detail to return to, I lose the ability to compare and judge.

This is where measuring can come in handy. It can help me to locate a spot on my drawing, check the proportions of an object (it’s height to its width, for example), or compare the sizes of different objects in the set-up (one object might measure 1 1/2 times the length of another, for example.). Using my view-finder in the beginning stages of the drawing was another kind of measuring.

I use several tools for measuring. The most handy are a pair of very thin knitting needles. I hold them up at arms length, one in each hand, one horizontal and one vertical, touching each other and forming a cross. To judge the proportions of the Japanese vase, for instance, I hold up the crossed needles, and mark the height on the vertical needle with my thumb. I then line up the horizontal needle with the widest part of the vase, always keeping the needles touching, in the same plane. I mark off the width with my other thumb. Now, holding the two needles together, and keeping my thumbs in place, I bring the whole unit in front of my drawing. If I’ve already determined how tall I want the vase to be, I bring the unit of needles at the correct distance from my drawing so that the vertical distance I’ve marked off with my thumb corresponds to the height I’ve drawn. The horizontal needle will now show the correct width of the vase.

Japanese basket #39

Japanese basket #41

I also use a plain ruler. I hold the ruler up in front of me in such a position that some convenient mark (say 1/2 inch) is the same length of something I want to measure. If I keep the ruler in the same plane, I can shift it around to measure some other object to compare it to the first. For example, the base of the vase might measure 1 inch and the box might measure 1 1/2.”  I now know that if I divide the length of the box into 3 units, the base of the vase should measure 2 units.

Japanses basket # 40

I can also use a knitting needle to show me any angle in the set-up. I hold the needle in front of me and line it up with an angle, say, the receding side of the box. If I rotate my body, keeping my hand holding the needle steady, I can then hold it in front of my drawing and check the angle. I find this method a little iffy, as it’s easy to move the arm too much.

Japanese basket #40

Here’s the drawing after some more measuring and seeing.

Japanese basket #38

Though measuring is helpful, and can be a good check, it can easily become a crutch, and worse, can be misleading. It can lure you into a false sense of security, encouraging you to think that everything you’ve measured is objective and correct.  In fact, hands are shaky, and the measurements can be far from accurate. Also, in a sense, measuring takes you way from seeing the whole picture because you are concentrating on isolated spots. It takes you away from that constant comparing and judging that is the source of good drawing. I find measuring most useful to quickly place items in a composition at the very beginning of a drawing, to check the horizontal and vertical proportions of individual objects, and to estimate the relative sizes of different objects.

So many times after spending a drawing session measuring and re-measuring, I’ll return the next day and see that the proportions are off! In the end, I always trust my eyes, not the ruler.


Final Adjustments


Even though the paint is still a bit wet, I think I’ll make some adjustments to my study. Here’s how it stands.

Japanese basket #30

Below you can see the changes I made. The first thing I did was to put some more detail on the basket handle and add a few highlights on its left side to draw the eye into the top of the composition. I darkened the handle’s right side to keep it in the shadow.  I darkened the wall behind and to the right of the basket. I also added more detail on the basket, especially on its dark left side. On the light side, I added some of the shadows cast by the weave. I want the lit part of the handle on the box to draw the eye, so I spent a little time painting this accurately, and brightening it. The top of the box was too dark, so I lightened it one step. I added some highlights on the decanter and darkened the wall on the far left. I’m mot sure if I like this. I may put it back the way it was.

Finally, I decided that the fold in the cloth under the decanter was distracting and leading the eye out of the picture, so I eliminated it.

Japanese basket #34

I’m including a close-up below to illustrate how loose and free the execution is in this study. More care and details would serve no useful purpose here. I’m trying to see the big picture (literally!) and how the composition as a whole hangs together. Details are fun and interesting, but it’s the big shapes and values that determine if a composition will be a success or not.

Japanese basket #33

I’ll tape the black-and-white study on the wall and refer to it when I begin painting my canvas. I’ll use it to make sure I’m getting my values correct. I’ll daub a bit of whatever color I’m mixing onto the corresponding place on the study and compare values. If the color’s too light or too dark it will stand out noticeably. Below is a photo of the study from my last painting where you can see daubs of paint whose values I was checking. If you squint your eyes and the daub disappears, you know its the correct value to match the adjacent area.


If I still like the study in a few days, I’ll order my canvas and start perfecting my drawing.

Black-and-White Study

Before I begin my study, I must mix up a range of greys in values from black to white. I’ve found that for the purposes of the study, 9 values will suffice. (The finished painting will contain many more values than this, but I can save subtlety for later!) I number each value mix right on my palette. That way, if I use a #3 and it looks too light, for example, I’ll know to try the #4.

Japanese basket #26

I usually begin by painting the darkest and the lightest values. I can judge the rest of the values in comparison to these. Seeing values can be tricky. I must compare one area to another constantly. Until all of the paint is in place, it’s very difficult to be sure I’m seeing correctly! This doesn’t bother me, though, because I know that this is just my first approximation.  I will return after this first layer has dried a bit, and make corrections.

Japanese basket #27

I’ve added some more details below.  I don’t try to be exact when painting the study. My style here is extremely loose and free. I just want to see where the basic large shapes and values are. That will be enough for me to be able to judge the composition. Any time I spend painting too carefully will be time wasted.

Japanese basket #25

After a break of a few days, I’ve made some corrections below. The box wasn’t dark enough, the tablecloth was too light, and the left side of the basket needed more shadows. I completed the bottom cloth and geode. I made a few more corrections in other places, but the paint was very wet, and difficult to work with without smearing. I’ll have to wait a few days for it to dry before making my final corrections.

japanese basket #24

I’m always fascinated to see how few details are needed to suggest an object’s form. The Japanese basket is extremely simplified here. I made a few loose brushstrokes to barely represent the weave, and yet it looks pretty good! My husband pointed out that in most modern styles of painting, the basket would be considered just about finished! Of course, my style of painting is quite different. I’ll be spending a lot of time carefully observing and painting the details of that basket. I will essentialize and simplify, of course. My job as a painter isn’t to be a recorder of every detail, but to represent the essence of each object by deciding which are the most important parts to emphasize.


The Drawing

Now that I have a composition that I’m happy with, my next step is to do a full-size, detailed pencil drawing.  In this drawing, I can work out the correct shapes and exact placement of all of the objects in my set-up. I can calculate precise ellipses for the round objects, and  work out the correct perspective. I’ll transfer this drawing to my canvas when I’m ready to paint.

The first step in doing my drawing is to figure out how large I want the finished painting to be. I find that just under life-size works well for still lifes. When painted this size, the painting looks life-like and compelling. I measured the width of the set-up and scaled it down a bit. I drew a rectangle of the correct proportions on sketch paper taped to my drawing board (using the same proportions on the view-finder I used for composing), and divided it into halves, thirds, fourths, eighths, etc., both horizontally and vertically. My viewfinder has all of these divisions marked ono it, as well. By holding up the viewfinder in front of me and looking at the set-up through the window, framing it as I want the finished image to appear, I can use a thin knitting needle as a guide to see where objects line up with the divisions (for example, the top of a vase might line up with the one-third horizontal mark). I can then draw the objects in the corresponding place on the full-size drawing.  Here is a photo of my using a viewfinder when drawing another set-up.


Japanese basket #22

Here is my first shot at locating the major objects. The basket is challenging to draw because it’s very irregular in shape (unlike the decanter!). I’m constantly measuring, sometimes holding up a ruler to compare the length of one object to another. Now that I’m drawing precisely, I can decide exactly where I’d like everything to go, unlike when I was using photos and I had to deal with parallax and the irregularities of a shaking hand. I calculated the position of my vanishing point and marked it on my paper so that I could get the perspective correct. (The vanishing point corresponds to my eye position and is the point to which all parallel lines perpendicular to the picture plane seem to converge.) It is just out of the picture frame above the left side of the basket.

Japanese basket #23

This is about as far as I’ll take the drawing of the basket for now. I’ll finish it later, after completing my black-and-white study. I don’t want to spend time drawing details that I might have to erase if I decide I need to move the basket to a new position! I added the stone and crystals.

Japanese basket #19

This is just about finished except for the basket details and the exact ellipses on the round objects. As with the basket details,  I didn’t calculate and draw the ellipses correctly yet. That’s time-consuming and can wait until after my black-and-white study. I did however, measure the angles of the ellipses. If I know how far below my eye level a round object is, I can calculate the exact ellipse to draw.  Using a stand with a string attached at my eye level, I placed the stand in my painting position, and brought the string over to the object whose angle I wanted to measure.

Japanese basket #20

After taping the string to the object, I held up a scale and read off how many degrees below my eye level it was.

Japanese basket #21

SELRES_bacbbf22-be81-4622-afa7-2e302ae7bc3fNext week I’ll write a post showing exactly how I calculate and draw ellipses.SELRES_bacbbf22-be81-4622-afa7-2e302ae7bc3f

My next step will be to tape some tracing paper over the drawing and paint my black-and-white study.