Painting the Lamp

My biggest challenge in painting the paper lamp is making it appear lit from within. Interestingly, the black band covers the brightest part of the lightbulb, so it has to glow, but in a much more subdued way than the white parts. Below is the underpainting.

Below is my first layer of paint. Both the wrinkles in the white parts and the accordion folds in the black are very complex. I simplified them greatly here for my first go. The value range in the white section is very limited. When you squint your eyes, it should all pretty much look the same value. It’s natural when trying to see all of the subtle wrinkles to exaggerate the differences, making the darks too dark. I try not to let this worry me. It’s not hard to lighten up the darks at subsequent sessions. Another very difficult part of painting the white paper is figuring our what pigments to use. There are many ways to mix a pale off-white! Here I used lead white mixed with small amounts of raw sienna, transparent golden ochre and cobalt blue. When I studied the lamp I saw cools and warms seeming to vibrate against one another. To capture the feel of glowing paper, its important to juxtapose these cool and warm tones. This has the effect of making the lamp glow. Paradoxically, it often seemed to me that one spot was both cool and warm at the same time! The more I looked, the more alive with vibrating lights the lamp appeared.

At my next session, below, I clarified the accordion pleats in the black paper. It was so hard to see the details. My inner dialog went something like this: “The third pleat down has a highlight on its top edge. The second pleat has a dark underside adjacent to a thin highlight over the dark of the second pleat.” This went on over and over as I lost my place while shifting my gaze from the set-up to the canvas. It was very frustrating! As I worked, though, I got into the groove of observing, and it became easier. Looking and understanding in not easy. I find it essential to put my observations into words as I’m trying to understand anything complex. Later in the painting process, when I’ve already done a lot of the thinking, the painting process can proceed wordlessly.

A nice way to achieve a pearly glow on a dark is to scumble a lighter tone over a darker one. That is just the look I’m going for in the black section of the lamp where the lightbulb glows from within. To this end, I glazed over the dark section with a transparent glaze of ultramarine blue and raw umber. You can see this below. When this dries, I will scumble a lighter tone over it where the lightbulb is. (Scumbling is dragging dryish paint with the side of a hog bristle brush so that it catches on the weave of the canvas.) I also took a stab at indicating the wire structure at the top of the lamp.

Below, at my next session, I scumbled in some of the lights in the dark band. I’m not happy with the effect, so I’ll keep working on it. I went over the white parts, making the darks more subtle, and observing the wrinkles more carefully. Every time I return to a section of the painting, it’s easier to see more and refine. That’s one reason why I don’t attempt to finish an area all in one go. I learn as I paint, and the more structure that is on the canvas, the easier it is to add to it.

In my last session, below, I took the time to really see what was going on in the wire frame at the top. The trickiest part was not to paint the wires too dark. Though they are black, the glow from the surrounding light areas wash it out, making them appear more of a warm gray. If I were to paint them stark black, the look of the light glowing around them would not be convincing. My brain says they are black, but I have to put that aside to really look.

I scumbled some more lights in the black band. I also added some lights around the edges of the lamp. I have to save the lightest lights for the areas of the white paper nearest to the lightbulb. Since the value range that I can achieve in paint is far more limited than I can see, it can be frustrating to try to paint something like this lamp. I’ll keep returning to the lamp, but for now, I’ll let it sit and move onto another area.

More Work on the Bracelet

I wanted to show more of how the bracelet has evolved. Here, you can still see the underpainting (the orange bits). I’ve barely indicated the bars on the band on the left and roughly sketched in the gray and pale yellow parts of the crystal. At this point, the bracelet was largely a mystery to me. I tried not to let that bother me, knowing that in my layered approach to painting, all need not be accomplished at one sitting. In fact, the end result is better if I can learn about the objects I’m painting by approaching them multiple times.

Below, I had a chance to study the structure of the bracelet as I discussed in my last post. I could put in the parallel bars and herringbone cross-pieces in the band, and show the pattern of lights and darks in the crystal a bit more clearly.

Below, my goal was to really see what was going on in the crystal. I sat staring at it for quite a while before my brain could begin to make sense of what I was seeing. Giving myself permission not to understand it all, I gradually, I could make out small details. The first thing I saw was a dark bluish triangle in the center-right. The thoughts in my mind went something like this: “I can paint that triangle! No need to worry about anything else, just paint that little triangle. What color is it? It’s a bit bluish and medium value. It’s in the center of the crystal with its bottom edge a bit below the top of the band on the right side.” Next, I noticed a white line underneath it. I painted that. Then I saw an orangey line adjacent to the hypotenuse of the blue triangle. I saw that its value was a bit lighter than the blue triangle. When I’m studying like this, I make no attempt to take in the whole bracelet and judge it. I’m just a seeing machine, recording tiny bits. Later, I can stand back, judge, and make corrections. I go into all of these details here, so that you can see how best to approach a complex form- with baby steps and no pressure to be brilliant. I continued in this manner until most of the crystal was covered in a new layer of paint, more accurate than the first.

I next tackled the band. I saw that the areas between the bars and cross-pieces on the right was really very yellow and light in value. After fixing that with some cadmium yellow mixed with transparent golden ochre, I saw that the cross-pieces closest to the crystal were reflecting a bright orange-yellow. There was also some bits of this color reflected onto the tabletop in the shadow. I put a dark glaze over the part of the band on the left that was in shadow, and picked out a few highlighted areas. When I tried to paint the ring at the end of the band, I was confronted with a very bright highlight shining in my eyes, which obscured the details. I temporarily moved the spotlight to get rid of the highlight. It was still very hard to see, but I managed to get the small dots going around it’s perimeter, and the basic pattern of lights and darks.

It’s not finished yet, but I don’t like to bring any area of the paining to completion before the rest. It’s time to move on to something else for a while. The break is also helpful, as I can approach the bracelet with fresh eyes later and see even more.

Conceptualizing the Bracelet

I was reluctant to start painting the bracelet. It seemed like a mass of confusing reflections with no clear structure. Below is a photo of it. The structure is easier to see here, because I took the photo from close up. From 4 feet back at my stool, though, it was hard to see.

I took a few trips up close to it to study what the structure was. Though I don’t like to paint what I can’t see from my stool, I do find that it is essential to understand a form to represent it properly, even if that representation is simplified when I finally paint it. Below you can see my first attempt at understanding. The chain consists of a series of parallel bars connected with diagonal cross-pieces in a herringbone pattern. Once I had that idea, it was easier for me to see the pattern from back at my stool. I painted a dark background and indicated this pattern in a light gray.

For the crystal, I very loosely painted in the large areas of darks and lights. I’ll let it be for now, and will return to it as other parts of the painting progress. Now that I have this start, I feel much better about it.

Covering the Underpainting

My goal today is to cover as much of the underpainting as possible. As usual, I’m building up to detail slowly, so this first layer of the over-painting is still rather loose. With very subsequent layer of paint, I can see and compare more, fine-tuning values, colors, and details of texture and shape.

Above is my first attempt at the lamp. It was tricky to decide which colors to add to white to get the white of the lampshade. I ended up using a bit of raw umber, transparent golden ochre and cobalt blue in varying strengths. I think that as I progress, I’ll use both cool and warm tones juxtaposed. This causes a vibrating effect that can mimic the look of the lamp glowing. As you’re painting, it’s important to remember that even though some areas of the shade are darker than others, all are a very light value. When you squint your eyes and look at the painting, all of the light areas of the shade should appear quite similar. It’s normal when you’re studying an object to focus on differences and end up over-stating them. The more experience I have, the more I’m able to keep value differences slight.

I plan on painting the dark strip in the center of the lamp darker than it will ultimately appear. I’m doing this so that I’ll be able to scumble light tones over the dark to achieve the look of light glowing through the dark paper. It turned out not quite dark enough. I’ll cover it with a dark glaze when it’s dry, and scumble over that when it’s dry. I’ve found that these kinds of multiple payers add to the richness of the final result.

Above, I’ve very simply put in the tied bows, without any attempt yet to indicate highlights and shadows.

In the first layer of paint on the crate, I wanted to put in some of the textures of the wood. The bottom slat has concentric circular ridges. The upper slat has more typical wavy horizontal wood grain. I used my brush to indicate these textures. These will show through later layers and help me create the illusion of wood.

I’ve covered most of the canvas. Only the thin metal rods in the top of the lamp remain. I’ll put those in next session. If the other areas are dry, I’ll also begin to put in some dark shadow glazes.

Adding First Glazes and Color

The under-painting is dry, so I can begin to paint. My first job is to put in the dark glazes on the wall. I like to do this first for a few reasons. First, the glaze smears a bit when I’m tamping and wiping off the excess. If an area adjacent to the glaze is already painted, it’ll get glaze all over it. Second, it can be tricky to get such a large area of glaze smooth and even. I prefer when there’s no other paint on the canvas that would potentially smear into it. I glaze just the darkest areas in this round.

I brushed on a glaze of raw sienna and ultramarine blue mixed with a little glaze medium. I tamped off the excess with a shaving brush help perpendicularly to the canvas, wiping off the bristles when they became clogged with glaze. I often simply wipe off excess glaze with a cotton pad, but that can produce uneven results in a large area such as this.

I’ll let this glaze dry before I work on any adjacent areas. The scarf and tabletop are not touching the wall, though, so I can begin working on those. I start by putting in local colors. I’m not worrying about exact light or color effects at this point. I’m just getting the values and colors closer so that when I paint them again, I can make better judgements. I paused here for the day.

Above, at my next session, I put down another glaze on the back wall, covering all of the wall this time. The area that was glazed the first time, gets another layer. The lighter values areas will have just this one layer of glaze. I carried the glaze down to make the shadows cast by the orange crate on its left and right sides. When this glaze is dry, I can begin to work on the adjacent areas–the lamp, orange crate and box on the left side. Meanwhile, I continued putting in the local colors on the scarf, correcting shapes as I go. Somehow, the drawing seems to get messed up in the transferring process or I discover that I drew things incorrectly in the first place! In any case, it’s always important to observe and correct.

Finishing the Underpainting

My goal today is to cover the whole canvas with paint. That’s a lot of surface to cover!

Above, I’ve started on the scarf. I’m thinning the paint with just a little Turpenoid so that it flows easier. This way, I can control the edges. I don’t want to lose the drawing underneath. As before, I’m keeping everything very light in value. I work from left -to-right so that I don’t smear the paint. I don’t use a mahl stick, so I have to be careful. Both the links and the crystal on the bracelet are very complex. I don’t want to waste time on painting them in detail in the underpainting, since I would just have to re-paint them in the over-layer. I barely suggest their basic forms. That’ll do for now.

I had changed the position of the lamp cord in my study, but didn’t adjust my drawing. I’ll just paint it free-hand here, in the underpainting, without a drawing to guide me. You can see its new position, above.

I very simply indicated the folds in the dark band on the lamp. That’ll be enough to help me when I start to paint. Again, never waste effort in the under-painting. It’s just a guide.

It’s finished! I painted very thinly, so it should be ready to paint on in a few days.

The Underpainting

I transferred my drawing to the canvas and lightly sprayed it with fixative. I mixed up 9 values of burnt sienna and lead white, and began the underpainting. The purpose of an underpainting is manifold. Firstly, it gets me painting in an low-pressure way. There is no color variation, texture, subtle lighting effects, or even exact values to think about. All I have to do is cover the canvas with paint while retaining the drawing. It’s easy. It also takes away the stark white of the canvas, so it’ll be easier to judge color and value when the time comes. Lastly, it provide a consistent color under the top layers, harmonizing the finished painting.

Since I want this layer to dry quickly, I paint very thinly. Also, I don’t want any texture at this point, since any ill-considered brushstrokes would show through in the final layers. I smooth out the paint with a badger blender. I paint everything in a much lower value key than in the final painting. The darkest dark in the underpainting is only about a 5 on a 1-9 scale. I have found that a darker under-layer can dull the brightness of the over-layers. I’m always careful not to obliterate the drawing. I don’t need any subtle detail at this point. Notice that I show no texture on the orange crate.

This is a big canvas. so covering it with paint takes a while. This is as far as I got after a day of work. Considering how complex the pattern on the scarf is, I probably won’t finish it at my next session either.

Finishing the Value Study

Below is the value study as I left it. Now that it’s dry, I can start correcting.

I thought it’d be interesting to look at the photo of my original conception of the composition back from when I set it up and see if I captured the feel of it in my study. To do this, I edited my photo of the set-up to be black-and-white, and compared them. I don’t expect or want my study to look exactly like this photo, nor will I paint from it, but in a general sense, I liked this composition, so I’ll see if I’d like to make any changes to my study to be more like it.

Above, you can see the photo. Comparing it with the study, above it, and allowing for the glare off of the study, which makes it look paler than it really is, I can see that the scarf had more darks and highlights in the photo. I like this look better, as it gives more interest to the scarf. I also like the way the bottom of the vertical box on the left is darker in the photo. This seems to bring the attention upwards and inwards. The black bows were darker. too, which I also like. The lightest whites in the lamp shade were lighter in the photo. I think that this puts the emphasis on the lamp, which is what I want. I found that I didn’t like the position of the lamp cord on the right side. It led the eye out of the composition and didn’t seem to relate to any other lines. I re-painted it in a more pleasing arc, similar to the one in the photo. Finally, I noticed that I liked the darker tabletop in the photo. I think that it draws the eye more to the scarf and lamp

Above, I’ve painted in these changes (though I still need to make the tabletop darker). I’m happier with the composition now. Note that my goal wasn’t to make my painting look like the photo, but rather to see which value patterns better served my composition. It turned out that the photo had some very pleasing value patterns. There are parts of the photo that I don’t like as well, so I won’t simply try to make my study look like the photo. I’ll make whatever changes I need to achieve that. I don’t have a problem with altering the reality of the set-up to further a good composition. My goal is a great composition, not a faithful adherence to reality. An artist’s job is to improve reality!

Though I will never paint from a photo, I have no problem in using them to help judge a composition. One of the main reasons that I paint these value studies is to judge the composition (which is easier without the distraction of color).

Now that I’m happy with it, I’ll un-tape this tracing paper study from over my drawing, and then make some final corrections in the drawing. After that, I will transfer the drawing to my canvas.

Receding Parallel Lines in Perspective

The wires on the tabletop on the right side proved harder to draw than I’d originally thought. I knew that the spaces between them would look smaller as they receded to the back, and that the wires themselves would appear thinner, but this was surprisingly hard to draw. I decided to construct the effect using perspective.

Well, here’s how to do it! Below, I first drew the rectangle they would occupy, in perspective, by tracing it from my drawing. I found from trial-and-error, that this actual rectangle would yield divisions that were too small, so I extended it to be a few inches longer. Then, to find the center of this rectangle, I drew straight lines from corner to corner. Where they intersected, I drew a line parallel to the picture plane. This is the halfway mark.

I repeated this process, finding the center of the two rectangles I’d created above and drew two more lines parallel to the picture plane. These are marked in below as 1/4 of the length of my original rectangle.

I divided my rectangles in half again, to get 8 rectangles. You can see these below in blue.

Finally, I divided these 8 rectangles in half again to get 16. I only needed 11 rectangles, so I chose the ones that seemed about the right distance apart. These ended up being the top 11.

I transferred these markings to my drawing. I used the tracing paper as transfer paper by rubbing graphite on the back side and tracing the lines onto my drawing.

Here they are, above.

Next, I drew in the thickness of the wires, making them get a bit smaller as they went back in space. It didn’t seem worth the time to try to construct these, so I did it by eye.

I know that the wires are just a small part of the composition, but I’m happy knowing that they are correctly drawn and will look right in the final painting.

Value Study

Before I finalize my drawing, I’ll pause and do a value study in black and white paint. I do this now, so that if I need to make any changes to the composition as a result of the study, I won’t have wasted time drawing something in the wrong position.

After taping some tracing paper over my drawing, I mixed up 9 values of gray from white to black. I labeled these right on my palette so that I could identify them easily. For example, if I tried # 3 gray, and it was too dark, I’d know to try #2 gray. Working from left to right, so that I didn’t smear the paint, I roughed in the basic shapes, judging the values as best I could. After this layer is dry, I’ll go back over it, correcting. I never get it right on the first go! Painting is about comparing, and until some paint is down, there is nothing to compare with!

Below is my set-up and easel in the studio.

This study is very loose and undetailed. My goal is to see the whole composition and how the values relate to each other. Below you can see how loose it is. It’s amazing how much you can express with just a little paint in the correct values.

I can already tell that I’ll need to reserve the brightest whites for the glowing lamp and the highlights on the crystal bracelet, tempting though it will be to use them all over the painting. The value range of oil paint is never going to be as wide as what you see in nature. You have to trick the eye into thinking that the painting captures the whole range. One way to do this is to use pure white and pure black only in the lightest and darkest areas, and scale everything in between, even if it means that some areas aren’t as bright or as dark as you want them.

Below is my first pass, completed. I’ll wait 4-5 days for this to dry, and then make corrections.