Seeing Takes Time

When confronted with a complex subject, I often despair of ever being able to see it clearly, let alone paint it. I felt that way about this mossy branch. The wood wasn’t so difficult, but the moss bits were very complex. Also, the forms and colors blended together and were mostly indistinct, making them very hard to puzzle out. At first, the best I could do was to just approximately show the positions of the various forms. You can see this stage below.

At my next session, below, I tried to see some further details. Interestingly, the previous stage of just showing the basic positions and shapes helped me here. Unlike before, now my eye had something to fix on in my painting, so that when I looked at the set-up, I knew where to look on my canvas for the corresponding area. The words in my mind were something like: ‘In the set-up, see that clump of moss on the branch near where it forks on the top edge on the right– it actually has a dark greenish bit where it touches the wood.” I could then easily find that bit on my canvas and paint it. I couldn’t have done this right off of the bat at my first session–I was too overwhelmed with detail. For now, I didn’t try to do much more with that little bit of moss, but moved on to another, trying to see just a little more than I had the first time. Below you can see the forms beginning to take shape.

I think it’s important not to criticize yourself for not being able to see and paint details all at once. Until some work has been done, and the eye can identify areas on the canvas that correspond to areas in the set-up, it can’t do the quick back-and-forth studying necessary to accurately observe and capture a color, shape, or relationship. As the painting progresses, and more areas are worked on, it becomes easier and easier to compare and see how the painting needs to be adjusted. Every layer of paint further clarifies the image. It’s amazing to me how after a few sessions, what seemed like chaos in the set-up, is now understandable and paintable.

Above is my latest session. Now that the basics were in, I could begin to see quite detailed bits of shadow, highlights, colors, and forms. Seeing and painting takes time!

Layers of Paint- Glazing and Scumbling

I thought I’d use my painting of the black cloth to demonstrate glazing and scumbling as a way to build up value and texture. After my monochromatic underpainting was dry, I loosely painted over it using grays. I wasn’t trying to get the values correct at this point. I’ll work towards that as I progress, using glazes and scumbles. I’ll let this layer of paint dry for a few days.

Below, at my next session, I painted over all of the cloth with a dark glaze mixed with ultramarine blue, raw sienna, and glaze medium. The shadow areas are now approaching their final dark value, but the lights are now all too dark. Instead of wiping the glaze away in these light areas to lighten them, I leave it. After the glaze is dry, I’ll lighten these areas with a scumble.

Below, I started my scumbles. A scumble is a partially-covering layer of a light-valued dryish paint that is scrubbed onto a darker area with a hogs hair brush held on its side. The paint gets caught on the top layers of the canvas’s weave, creating a sparkling effect through which the darker area underneath can still be partially seen. Scumbling always produces a cool look, so I added quite a bit of raw sienna to the gray mix so that my lights would look warm. Since I’m using a spotlight, the light is warm. If the light was coming from a window, it would be cool, and I wouldn’t need to add the warmer tones.

I’ll continue to refine my lights and darks with more glazes and scumbles. You can achieve quite subtle effects this way. The thin dark glaze looks convincingly shadowy and mysterious, and the thicker, more textured paint in the light areas really convey the look of light falling on cloth.

Oil Jug and Branch Underpainting

I started the underpainting. As usual, I used burnt sienna and lead white, in 9 values from white to pure burnt sienna. I kept all of the values very light, so that the colors I paint over the underpainting will still be bright. I also kept the paint layer thin, so that it would dry quickly. I stayed away from detail, since it will all be painted over, and I don’t want to waste time. I just need a guide for the drawing and the relative values. I also took advantage of this stage to correct my drawing, which still wasn’t seeming right to me, especially the branch.

Above is the completed underpainting. I finished it in two sessions. The drawing of the cloth isn’t perfect. That is frustrating, but I realize that it doesn’t really matter if my painting matches the set-up. No one will know or care that a fold is higher or lower than the set-up. The important thing is that the composition works and looks good.

Above is a close-up. You can see how simple the painting is at this stage. I tried to preserve the drawing underneath and indicate relative values. It will be much easier to begin to paint with this preparatory layer in place, because drawing and value have already been considered and established. I’ll let this dry for a week, or until no paint comes up when I rub with a cotton pad. Next, I can focus on color and light effects.

It’s Time for Something New

I put together this set-up back in July, while I was waiting for the canvas for my recent painting to arrive from the stretchers. The canvas arrived soon after, and I set to work on the other painting. Now, after 7 months of working on that painting, I’m ready to begin on this one. When I first looked at the set-up again, I wasn’t sure if I still wanted to paint it. Lately, my work has taken a turn towards the more colorful and less traditional, and this one didn’t seem to fit. I decided that I do still like it but think that I’ll try to complete it a bit quicker than usual. There are no time-consuming textures to paint (like bird’s nests or woven baskets!), so I think I can do it.

My next step was to do a drawing. It was surprisingly hard to draw the curving shapes of the branch and the folds of the cloth. I kept measuring and checking locations with my view-finder and knitting needles. (For more details see Drawing ‘Noguchi Lamp and Scarf’.) noticed that I was unhappy with the shape of the cloth that flows between the jug and the dish of stones. Rather than mess with the cloth, I just experimented with drawing it differently. I liked this version more. Design always out-trumps slavish adherence to what’s in front of me! You can see the modified line of the top edge of the cloth in the drawing below.

The handle of the oil jug was especially hard to see properly and draw. You can see all of my erasures below.

Before completing the drawing, I did a black-and-white oil study on tracing paper to check the composition. I simply taped some tracing paper right on top of my drawing so that I could see all of my lines, and quickly painted in shades of gray.

I can see some drawing errors now, especially in the jug. I’ll correct these on the drawing, and then proceed to transfer the drawing to my canvas.

Last Minute Changes

I’m almost finished with my painting. It’s time to step back and look at the whole composition to see if I’m satisfied with it. I’ve been working so hard so hard on capturing all of the myriad details that it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. I decided to take a look at the photo I took way back when I was composing the set-up to see if my painting captures that spirit. Below is the photo.

The first thing that struck me was that in the set-up, on the far-left side, a triangular bit of orange board was visible. This was never intended to be part of the painting. The plywood board I had set my objects on was too short, so I placed this other board there to lengthen it, thinking that I wouldn’t show it in the finished painting. Also, the striped edge of the plywood was visible on the right, and I had propped up a piece of gray board under it to serve as a vertical surface, and to cover the contents of the shelf below. Again, I hadn’t thought of these elements as part of the finished piece. Looking at this photo next to my painting, I realized that they were important to the composition. Without the orange triangle on the left, the eye falls off of the left side of the composition. Its presence guides the eye back to the center of the painting. The striped edge of the plywood on the right adds interest and echoes the stripes in the gold mirror section of the vase, as well as its reflections on the wall.

Above, I have painted in these changes. The front edge of the plywood board on the right looked unconvincing. I thought that maybe if I painted a cast shadow under it, it would look more natural. I decided to experiment with my value study before I tried this on the painting. Below you can see the change. I thought that it looked better now.

The orange bit of table on the left was bothering me. It seemed strange that the table would so abruptly change color with no good reason. I decided to paint it as though the tabletop ended there and dropped down, showing a striped edge like the one on the right side.

I still need to glaze the new shadow on the right and probably the new area on the left. I’ll let the painting dry for a week before I do this. I think I’m happier with the composition now.

Progress of the Vase

I began, as always, with the underpainting. There are a few areas of the painting that will be bright green. I’ve already glazed these with cadmium yellow with just the plain canvas beneath. I did this hoping to achieve a brighter green than I could create with solid pigment. Here, I have applied a layer of viridian green over the yellow.

Below, I have applied all of the local colors. The shadow areas aren’t as dark as they will be, because I plan on glazing them darker later. I’ve indicated a few highlights, but most of these will wait for later after all of the colors and values are mostly correct.

Below I’ve started to adjust the drawing on the rim which got a little out of whack. It’s still not quite right, but it’s better! I try not to worry about perfection. I can always correct things. I’ve started to observe the subtle reflections and values on the left side of the vase. I’ve painted more of the reflections of the set-up and room in the gold mirror section. I added some detail on the base. I stared to indicate the narrow gold outline between the colored sections. These change color quite dramatically depending on if they are in shadow or reflecting the spotlight. I’ve begun to soften some edges. A round shape looks more convincingly round if its edges aren’t hard and sharp. Also, the light reflecting off of the light part of the vase will make the apparent edge look fuzzy.

I didn’t like the look of the lighter parts of the vase when I glazed them darker to show that they were in shadow. They ended up looking speckly, and not shiny like porcelain. Above, you can see in the light pink and the green sections that I re-painted the areas in shadow with body color, painting over these glazes that I didn’t like. It can be tricky using glazes to indicate shadows on light areas if the weave of the canvas interferes with the texture that you want to portray. In this case (trying to indicate smooth porcelain), the bumpy weave of the canvas didn’t help me. If I had been painting an object with more texture, it would have been great.

Above, I’ve mostly finished correcting the rim. The left side was too long, and the angles of the neck were uneven. I added the highlights. I also added a highlight on the blue section on the right. I make the highlight radiate out, obliterating details, suggesting a brilliant glowing light. I’ve re-worked the reflection of the room in the gold mirror section. You can see several of the stones, the tabletop, and the blue box reflected here. The details were easier to see now. At first, they looked very confusing and hard to pin down, but because I took a stab at it, and got something down, even if it wasn’t correct, it made it easier to see and paint this time. I love that oil paint allows you to keep correcting as your vision and observation skills increase as the painting progresses.

The Changing Light

When I composed this set-up, it was late summer, and the Pacific Northwest was bright and sunny until it finally got dark around 9pm. Now, it is winter, and the sky is dark at 4:30 on a cloudy day, and most days are cloudy. My studio is set up to let in some northern, cool, outside light, so the weather and time of year really make a difference (more about that at the end). At my last painting session, the set-up was looking rather dark, so I decided to go back and check my reference photo. It was, indeed, significantly brighter. You can see this in the photos below, though the photos don’t quite do it justice. The first was from September, and the second yesterday.

My painting is below. (Please forgive the terrible sinking in of the paint on the orange box on the right. This happens when the new layer of paint sinks into the lower level, producing this matt, light look. I’ll correct it at my next session with a layer of glaze medium, which will bring back the vibrance and shine.) Though I haven’t worked on the blue wall in shadow very much yet, it was certainly looking pretty dark–more like the second photo. I kept checking to see if it was correct. It was–for a cloudy day in January! I’m glad that I thought to check the reference photo. All things considered, I’d rather paint what is in front of me, but in this case, I really prefer the light and bright look of the September light. It’s supposed to be sunny tomorrow, so hopefully, if I paint early in the day, and open my blinds a bit, I’ll be able to replicate the brighter look.

If I painted in a studio that could block out all outside light, and painted only under artificial light, this issue with seasonal differences wouldn’t be an issue. I, however, love the look of some cool, secondary outside light providing a contrast to my warm spotlight. Warm light is always dominant in my work, but if you look, you can always see this blue light.

How the Painting is Progressing

I thought it would be interesting to see how the painting has progressed in the last few weeks. Below, I’ve just begun to put down the first layer of color. I’m not being super-detailed yet. I’m just putting in local colors and getting the values closer to being correct.

Below, I painted the blue wall that’s in the shadow. I made it lighter than it will ultimately be so that I can glaze over it later. I’m doing this now so that it will have time to thoroughly dry before glazing. It’ll take at least a week.

Below, I finished covering the underpainting with local colors, except for the top of the vase. I couldn’t do it because I had no place dry to rest my hand. It’s inconvenient, but I never got used to using a mahl stick (a rod that you rest on the top of the canvas to support the painting hand).

Below, I’ve glazed the shadows on the tabletop and front.

Finally, below, I’ve painted a glaze onto the backwall shadow. It’s still not quite dark enough, but until I work more on the adjacent areas, it’s hard to judge. It’s easy to add another glaze, and impossible to take one away! The glaze caught on the brushstrokes, making it look streaky. This often happens when you glaze over a very light area. I stippled it with a shaving brush to even it out. This back wall area is going to get a lot more attention soon.

I refined the stones on the left on top of the box, thinking more about value, color, edges and details. I put another glaze on the green glass bowl and the shadow side of the vase. I began to study the details of the vase, painting the patterns more carefully, and adjusting colors and values. At my next painting session, I’ll try to get the value of the shadows finalized, and dive into the details of the vase.

Starting to Work with Color

The parts of my underpainting that I worked on first were dry, so I started to put down the first layers of local color. First, I put a green glaze over the yellow portions. This will serve as the lightest parts of the glass bowl and reflections on the wall. I’ll continue to add darker glazes for the darker parts when this layer is dry. Next, I tackled the blue box. It’s hard to judge values correctly at the beginning, since I have no basis for comparison. This is where my value study comes in handy. I can dab a bit of paint on it. It’s easy to see if the dab is too dark or too light. When it’s just right, it blends right in. To judge the color (and value, too), I make a tiny window with my fingers and thumb, with each hand. One, I use as a window to frame the area I’m studying in the set-up, the other, as a frame to view the equivalent area I painted on my canvas. Framed this way, and viewed simultaneously, it’s easy to compare for value and hue. Some areas I paint lighter than they’ll be, to allow for future glazes (such as the shadow sides of the stones and box, and the cast shadows on the box and tabletop.

I’m not super careful about edges and subtleties at this point. I’m just trying to cover the under-painting with the approximately correct local colors. Below, you can see I also put a quick layer of paint on the geode and fool’s gold.

Tomorrow, the rest of the canvas should be dry, and I’ll begin to work on the back wall with all of its complicated reflections. I’ll paint the shadow area lighter than it will be so that I can glaze over it. I like all of my shadows to be glazed. This gives them a luminosity and transparency that can’t be achieved with body color. I’ll also add another layer of glaze to the green glass bowl.

I Finally Begin the Underpainting

I almost always do my underpaintings in burnt sienna and lead white. The warm earthy orange of burnt sienna works well with the colors I tend to use. They are both low-oil content pigments, which is important for the underlayer. This follows the ‘fat-over-lean’ rule, which states that higher-oil content pigments must be used only in the top layers of a painting, with the leaner layers beneath. If you don’t follow this rule, the painting won’t dry properly, and some layers might crack.

If I want to achieve certain bright colors, however, I often use glazing. A glaze is a layer of paint, mixed with a medium, which makes it transparent. (Some pigments are naturally transparent, which enhances the effect.) When painted over another color, the glaze allows the under-layer to shine through. In this case, I wanted a bright green for the glass bowl, parts of the vase, and the fluorite crystal. Glazing viridian green over cadmium yellow produces a vibrant green. If I were simply to mix cadmium, yellow, viridian green, and lead white, the resulting mix would look dull by comparison. Because a glaze is transparent, it will always look clearer and more luminous than opaque body color.

Everything in the underpainting is lighter in value than the finished image will be. I think that the top layers of color look brighter over a lighter base. You’ll also notice that I don’t worry too much about detail in this stage of painting. All of this will be covered up, so there is no point in spending a lot of time on things that will be re-painted. I’m also careful to stay in the lines and not lose the drawing. I’ll need those lines as a guide later on. One last reason to do an underpainting is just to get some paint down on the canvas, with no pressure for it to be correct and finished. An oil painting like this is layered and evolves over time. It’s important for me not to feel pressured to be brilliant, especially at the beginning. There is always time for that later!

I’m finished. Now I need to let it dry for at least a week before I can paint over it.