Creating a Feeling of Depth in a Still Life

I was recently asked by a follower on Instagram how I got a feeling of depth in my paintings. I realized that there wasn’t a quick answer, so I thought I’d talk about it here (as I’m still waiting for my canvas to arrive and can’t paint yet)!

I think that the first thing that gives a still life depth is the proper use of perspective. It’s essential to master the basics, or your work will never look convincingly real. Even if you’re the best observer in the world, I find that you need to check your observations with measurements–to locate your vanishing point and make sure that all lines perpendicular to the picture plane recede to it. If objects are at an angle to the picture plane, you have to learn about 2-point perspective, and find or estimate those vanishing points. Ellipses have to be drawn at the correct angle and be symmetrical. Below is the drawing for ‘Books in Box with Ribbon and Glass.’ You can see that all lines parallel to the picture plane recede to a vanishing point above the top of the drawing.

Once you begin the painting process, I have found that the way you treat the shadows vs. the light areas also affects the appearance of depth. I like to keep the paint in the shadow areas very thin and transparent. I use several layers of a dark glaze to achieve this. In the lightest areas of the painting, I use heavier layers of paint. The brushstrokes in these light areas stand out from the canvas and actually catch the light illuminating the canvas. This contributes to the illusion of light bouncing off of the objects, which contrasts with the deep, mysterious thin shadows.

It’s also important to remember that in the shadows, details are difficult to discern. Muting these details in the shadows by leaving out some parts, softening edges, and decreasing value differences also increases the illusion of depth. Below, you can see how I muted the details on the spine of the blue book that is in the shadow.

The way you set up a still life can also create a feeling of depth. Overlapping one object with another is one way to do this. This gives the viewer the idea that there is space for this to happen in. It’s usually not a good idea, though, to completely block the base of an object that is being overlapped. Even just a glimpse of the base of the object in the back clarifies its form and lends a feeling of stability. In the painting below, you can see some of the base of all of the bricks. This helps you understand their form and gives them visual weight. The objects in front of the bricks overlap the bricks and each other, giving you a sense of foreground and background, and hence, depth.

Transferring the Drawing

I made some corrections on my drawing after noticing a few errors while I was doing my value study. The next step was for me to transfer the drawing to the canvas. First, I taped some tracing paper over my drawing and made a careful tracing of it.

I flipped the tracing over and scribbled HB pencil over the lines that I wanted to transfer. When my canvas arrives, I will tape this tracing over it, scribble-side-down, and trace my lines with a 2H pencil to transfer the lines onto the canvas.

I have found that no matter how careful I am, the drawing always gets a bit distorted when I trace it. This is because I’m not drawing by directly observing the set-up, but am just mindlessly tracing lines without reference to reality. For a drawing to be correct, it must always be the result of observation! For this reason, I always go back and correct the transferred drawing on the canvas while observing the set-up.

Now I just need my canvas to arrive and I can start to paint!

Value Study

I’ll use the time waiting for my canvas to arrive to paint my value study. I paint this on tracing paper taped over my drawing, so that I can follow the outlines. I use 9 values ranging from white to black. There will be more values in my finished painting, but this is enough for now. I number them right on the palette for easy reference. This study will be very rough. I don’t need a lot of details to give me an idea of what the finished composition will look like in black-and-white.

The purpose of the study is two-fold. Most importantly, seeing it without color, I can judge the composition more easily. Lightness and darkness and the contrast between them are crucial in the construction of a painting. Color does affect the composition, but I’ve found that if the composition doesn’t look good in black-and-white, it won’t look good in color.

Above is my initial attempt. It’s hard to get it right the first time, as one must compare areas to judge the right values, and until all areas are painted, you can’t judge correctly. I can see already that the lights need to be lighter. Below is the whole picture. I’ll let this dry for a few days so that I can paint in corrections.

A week later, I put in my corrections. You can see this below. Most of the lights have been lightened, especially the tabletop, the wall on the left, and the white stones. I’ve also darkened the box, the shadow cast on the table by the big vase, and the area around the geode on the right. I’ve added reflections on the big vase, especially on its shadow side.

I’m happy with this, though I’ll live with it for a while to see if I want to make any more changes.

Drawing Ellipses on the Vase

My drawing of the vase is far along enough now that I can calculate the exact ellipses of the designs as well as the shape of the vase. See How to Draw anĀ Ellipse for complete instructions on the ‘pin-and-string-method’ of ellipse construction. Below you can see tracings taped to my drawing of several of the ellipses that I constructed. These were transferred to the drawing by flipping the paper over and tracing over the lines to transfer.

It’s important not just to get the shape of the ellipse correct and symmetrical, but also to make sure that the angle of the ellipse is correct. The closer it gets to eye level, the more shallow the ellipse appears. As it goes below eye level, it looks increasingly closer to a circle. I check these angles with a string and a protractor. The string is tied to a stand at my eye level and I then carry it over to the appropriate circle in my set-up. I measure the angle from the horizontal with a protractor. I use this number to construct the ellipse.

You can see that I’ve drawn the ellipses not just to the edge of the form, but a little further, around the curve, This helps ensure that you don’t draw the ellipse as coming to a point at the edge- a common mistake. If you get this detail correct, your ellipses will look very convincing!

Drawing Correctly Takes Time

I’ve been taking my time with the drawing for my latest painting because I’m waiting for the canvas to arrive from the stretchers. This one seems particularly difficult. I think that part of the problem is that I thought that the large vase should be life-sized. I had calculated the size of the canvas to insure this. I measured the actual vase to get the width of the base, top, and widest part of the middle in the drawing. I used these measurements to figure out other measurements. For example, the width of the vase at its widest should be equal to the length of the box on the left (I could tell this by holding up a ruler in front of my eyes and comparing distances). Unfortunately, the box kept seeming wrong to me, no matter how much I checked its proportions. I left it for the day. There is a phenomenon that I call ‘fresh eyes.’ That happens after you work very hard on a drawing and are unable to judge it objectively, and then leave it for a day. The following day, in the first few moments of observation, mistakes jump out clearly. It seems unbelievable that such errors could have passed you by unnoticed. When I looked at the drawing the next day, it was clear that I had drawn the vase too large. It actually should have been a bit smaller than life-sized. Subsequently, the box had to be reduced as well. The box looking wrong now made sense. You can see in the picture below where I erased and reduced the size of the large vase.

I also ended up lowering the box. I also think that I’ll raise the two stacked stones so that they overlap the box, I don’t like that they are now just touching. It’s confusing and destroys the feeling of depth.

I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not that important to get every detail of the drawing just like the set-up. The important thing is the composition. The viewer will never know if the box is lower than in the set-up or if a stone is too large. As long as the perspective is mostly correct, symmetrical objects are symmetrical, and ellipses are correct, the drawing will look convincing.

My next step will be to calculate the ellipses for the vases.

Getting Paintings Ready to Ship

I spend most of my working time creating paintings, but sometimes I need to think about how to get them to a collector or a gallery. Shipping paintings can be a little stressful. I’ve had the most success using strongboxes, which are heavy-duty corrugated boxes, with a customizable interior foam lining. I get those mail-order. For this batch of paintings, I didn’t have enough time to order these. Luckily, I kept the boxes that my canvases were shipped to me in. They’re not as strong as a strongbox, but they are padded with foam cut to the correct sizes.

The first step (after using tape to remove dust and cat hair!) was to cover the surface of the painting with a sheet of glassine. This protects the paint layer. I folded the edges over and taped this on using artist’s tape.

Then I put the painting into it’s pre-cut nest, put on the lid and used packing tape to close. For extra strength and cushioning, I’m having the shippers put all four boxes into a larger box which will be padded with paper coils.

That took quite a while, but it’s worth it for my peace of mind.

Another Set-Up!

It turns out there’s quite a long wait for my canvases to be stretched, so I decided to design another painting, so I can get the canvas order in soon. It’s unusual for me to do two set-ups so close together. Anyway, I recently found this very cool vase at Jonathan Adler. I wanted it to be the star of a new painting. Only one of my three set-up areas was free, so I set the vase there with a few stones to pick up the colors. I felt like I needed more color, so I put the blue painted board down as the tabletop.

The vase seemed crowded here. My other set-up areas are deeper, so I ‘struck the set’ of my last painting on one of them to make room for this new one. You can see this space below. The vase has more room to breath here. I propped up the blue board so that it could serve as a wall. I think that I like it better in this position. I used my old-faithful orange painting box propped up on its side to cast a shadow from the spotlight on the right. The mirrored surfaces on the vase cast amazing reflections onto the wall and tabletop. I substituted a black box for the blue one, and added more stones–lots more stones! I have an idea that I’d like an abundance of stones in this composition.

My husband came in and I wanted his opinion, so I handed him my view-finder to look at the set-up. He first looked at it through the view-finder at an angle from the wall. I told him that he had to stand so that the v.f. was parallel to the line where the table meets the wall. He did, and said that he liked it better at an angle. I looked, and I had to agree! See below for this view.

I always work with the horizon line parallel to the picture plane, so this seemed very strange to me. In this case, I think that the angle makes the composition much more dynamic and energetic. He also suggested adding some more green, so I added the glass bowl. I also added the geode whose rough side adds a contrast in texture.

I thought that the left side needed some more interest, so I moved the green bowl over. Now it cast a fascinating green shadow onto the wall. I really liked how the blue wall looked with all of these colored shadows and reflections.

Above, I added a small red stone between the vase and the bowl so that it caught a bit of the light, but was mostly in shadow. I love the drama of objects emerging from shadow.

As an experiment, above, I replaced the red stone in front of the vase with a piece of fool’s gold. I like the way this echoes the shiny gold mirror surface on the vase.

The shadow area between the vase and the bowl looked a bit empty and dull, so I added another stone, barely visible, above. I lived with this composition for a while. I really liked it, but it seemed that the curved shadow cast by the bowl was leading the eye out of the composition to the left.

To solve this problem, I moved the large red stone on the left side of the black box over to the left, so that it intersected this shadow, cutting it off and leading the eye down and to the right. I also rotated the white stone sitting on top of the large orange stone to further lead the eye around to the right and back into the picture.

Another thing that had been bothering me was that everything seemed to move in a line from lower left to upper right. I thought that I could break this movement up by moving the group of three stones on the far right down a bit, towards the edge of the table.

Now that there was more room in front of the vase, I added a tiny red stone in such a position that it was reflected into the bottom of the vase. I also re-arranged the stones on top of the black box. I’ll live with this for a while, and then see what I think.

Setting Up a New Painting

I went to the antique store to find some new things to paint! I decided to begin with the old oil jug.

I began with simply setting the jug on my table. My first thought was to add some contrasting textures and value contrast. The black cloth served both purposes. I tossed it onto the table, set the jug on it, and turned on the spotlight. It was a good start. I then added the silver bowl. I thought that it complimented the jug without competing with it. After looking at the set-up, I had the idea that I’d like to add something natural from my garden. I found a bunch of branches and twigs that my husband had collected for the fireplace. I found this twig covered in lichen. I loved its curving form and rough texture. I tried several placements, but liked this one, as the curve led the eye from the bowl up to the jug.

The composition was looking a bit monochromatic to me. I added the green stones to echo the green of the lichen. I liked it a lot more now. It seemed to have more life. I also adjusted the spotlight so that the cast shadow on the wall wasn’t just a vertical, but had an angle at the top. I think that this angle keeps the eye moving around the composition in a circle.

Above, as an experiment, I included more of the white cabinet at the bottom in the composition. I found it interesting, but thought that the diagonal white of the cabinet that showed between the two cast shadows on the right was distracting, didn’t echo any other lines, and took attention away from the jug. I liked the composition better without it. I’ll let this sit for a few days, then come back to it to see if I still like it.

Controlling the Values

For me, having the correct values in a painting is even more important than having the right colors. Value is the lightness or darkness of an area. The eye is drawn to differences in value. Controlling the values means controlling where the eye will go in a composition. Also, the correct values can make an object look convincingly illuminated and 3-dimensional. Finally, as I’ll show you below, they can make an object appear as though it’s glowing.

Below, I’ll show you two versions of my latest painting. First, you’ll see the older version, and next, the latest version. You’ll see how controlling the values greatly improves the composition and the feeling of reality.

First, let’s compare the Japanese lamp in both versions. My goal was to make the lamp glow. To do this, I needed it to be brightest where the lightbulb inside the lamp shone through. This is the area just below the black band on the left side of the lamp. I painted this area with my lightest valued color–pure lead white with a touch of cadmium yellow. To make this area appear brightest, most every other part of the lamp had to be darker in comparison. The range of values that an artist can represent with paint is extremely limited in comparison to what exists in reality. This means that the artist has to alter what he sees in order to emphasize what he decides is important. So, in order for the brightest spot on the lamp to look bright, the other area had to be painted darker (even if they might not have seemed so in the set-up.) In the second photo, I darkened the other planes of the lamp, leaving the bright spot as light as could get it. I had to be very careful not to get too dark, or the illusion of light would be destroyed. I also added touches of this brightest white along some of the edges of the lamp, making it seem as though light were spilling out. I scumbled some lighter tones over the black band in front of the lightbulb, so show that it was glowing through there, too. This value had to be much darker though, since it was shining through dark paper.

I felt like the scarf wasn’t drawing enough attention now that the lamp had been brightened. Though the lamp is the focal point, I also want the scarf to shine. I decided to address this problem by increasing the value difference in various areas of its pattern, brightening some areas in the light, and adding more darks in the shadow.

Finally, I wanted the hanging necklace to connect the lamp and the scarf, bringing the eye up from the scarf to the lamp. I decided to lighten the value of the beads on the right side, in the light. You can see this in the second photo. Now, the two area of the painting are connected, creating a path for the eye to follow.

I’ll continue to make adjustments until I’m completely satisfied. It’s almost there!

Painting the Silk Scarf

Painting something as complex as this scarf takes time. It’s front and center, so it has to look right. I began, as usual, with the underpainting, where I indicated the patterns and values very simply, following the drawing underneath very carefully.

My first layer of paint, below, is applied very simply. I’m not aiming to capture subtle shadows or reflections. I’m just putting down the local color of the various patterns. It took a surprisingly long time to accomplish this. Below you can see what I finished in one day.

Below, on the second day, I’ve finished the first layer. When this dries, I can begin to refine.

Below, the shot is a little washed out, but you can see that I’ve begun to add some highlights and shadows. I smoothed out some rough edges, and added the white dots. I lightened the black bits of the pattern. Though they seemed so dark at first, they really were reflecting quite a bit of light.

Below, I’ve applied another layer of paint, always carefully observing the edges. Often, an edge seems sharp at first, but when you look closely, the light reflecting around blurs it. I’ve also begun to think about the yellow edge of the scarf, which is hand-stitched, giving it a distinctive puckery look. I’ll refine these areas later. As I work, I always try to observe carefully and correct my drawing. Even at this stage, I often find mistakes. Some aren’t worth fixing, as they don’t effect the design of the painting, but others are. I don’t want accuracy just for the sake of accuracy. Every decision has to be made with the goal of achieving a beautiful result. No one will ever know if the abstract pattern of the scarf in the painting is slightly different than that in the real scarf.

Below, I’ve worked on the cord hanging down from the lamp, softening the edges where it meets the scarf. I’ve added the shadow that the cord makes onto the scarf, keeping its edges very soft. I’ve added some bright highlights directly under the lamp.

Below, I’ve repainted the area around the red dot, and indicated the edge stitching on the far right. I also worked a bit more on the yellow edge. It was tricky mixing the correct color for this edge in shadow. Often, when you try to darken yellow, it ends up looking greenish. I added some transparent golden ochre, cobalt blue and raw umber to get the color in the shadow. The trickiest areas in the scarf to paint were the folds in shadow. They seemed dark at first, but were actually quite light compared to the darkest areas of the painting. I found the pink areas in shadow especially tricky to mix. I ended up using a mix of cadmium red, viridian green, cobalt blue and naples yellow. These pink areas, being somewhat sheer, let the light shine through them, illuminating the shadow cast onto the table top. you can see this in the bottom left of the photo below.

Finally, I lightened the black areas of the scarf again. They seemed so dark at first. I think this was because my mind knew that they were black. However, if I looked carefully at them, I could see that they were illuminated brightly, just like the rest of the scarf. Lightening them made them look like they were being lit by the same light source.

The scarf is mostly finished, but I’ll probably come back to it to make small adjustments.