Some Glazes and Some Details

The initial glazes are dry now, so I can add some more. The shadow cast onto the sandstone and wall from the right needed darkening. Below is how the painting stood when I began. Under that is how it looked after I added the glaze.

The shadow is probably too dark now, but it’s hard to tell at this point. I can always paint over it later in places to lighten it. I noticed that the sandstone casts a shadow onto the wall to its right. This is from light coming in from a window on the left. Because that light is cool, coming from a north window, the shadow will be warm. To indicate this, I used the technique of painting into a wet glaze. While the glaze I just painted was still wet, I painted a cool lighter tone to the right of the shadow. Because the glaze was wet, It was easy to blend a smooth, soft transition. The untouched glazed area now is the warm shadow.

I also added a warm glaze to the shadow on the left, cast by the sandstone onto the wall. I corrected the color on the far left wall with a layer of body color (paint not thinned with glazing medium). The area seemed a bit insubstantial, and needed some thick paint. Glazing is great to darken shadow areas, or to change the color of an area, but if used too much, gives the painting a thin look.

Finally, I wanted to paint the dried sage leaves before they dried up more and changed too much or fell off! I usually wouldn’t paint at this level of detail so early, but this is an exception. Above is a photo of the leaves. I didn’t paint using this photo as reference, just to show what it looked like (though from where I was sitting, I could never see or paint this level of detail!).

I’ll work on this some more, but I have enough now that they’ll look convincing, even if they change on me.

Books in Box- Starting the Drawing

I was happy with the composition, so I ordered my canvas and can start on the drawing!

After locating the major points in the drawing using my view-finder and knitting needle, I located where my vanishing point would be, so that I could get the perspective correct from the start. The v.p. is the point right in front of my eyes, to which all lines parallel to the picture plane seem to converge. It’s easily found by holding up two straight-edges at arm’s length and lining them up with two lines perpendicular to the picture plane in the set-up, (such as the sides of the box). Where they meet is the v.p. I mark this point with a piece of tape above my set-up. (If you look at the last photo in this post, you can see the tape on one of the books on the bookshelf.) I then locate where the equivalent spot would be on my drawing. Sometime, it’s above my drawing, so I mark the spot on my easel, above the drawing. It’s then simple to draw these receding lines, such as the spines of the books, by using a straight-edge and begining each line at the v.p. Of course, objects that aren’t parallel to these lines will have their own vanishing points far off to the side (such as the crystal on the left). I don’t usually bother to find these vanishing points, since they would be too far away to mark on my paper. I just eye-ball them.

I thought that I had calculated the size of this painting to have everything life-sized. As I was drawing, I could actually go to the set-up and measure the thickness of the walls of the box, for instance, and use that measurement in my drawing. I discovered as I went along, though, that things weren’t measuring up. It was very frustrating to have so many discrepancies between what I was seeing and my measurements. After a lot of erasing, I figured out that my drawing was actually a bit less than life-sized. After I adjusted the thickness of the box walls, the heights of the books and the glass to be a bit smaller, everything clicked into place. Always trust your eyes! For more on calculating painting size and drawing, and measuring, see Getting Ready to Draw and Drawing Again.

Above, I’ve roughed in the glass. I drew the ellipse by eye, but I’ll check it with the pin-and-string method before I finalize the drawing.

The ribbon was fairly easy to position after everything else was in the proper place. The drawing is far enough along that I can do my value study. I don’t want to complete the drawing until I know that all is well with the composition and that I won’t want to be moving anything around.

Now it’s Getting Fun

The painting is at the stage where I can begin to get things to look more like they’re supposed to. The first thing I did today was to glaze the bottle so that it was almost as dark as it needed to be. This photo has a bit of glare. The bottle is actually darker.

While the glaze was wet, I painted some reflections right into it. It’s a very nice technique because the wet paint blends into the glaze, so it seems like part of the glass. The trick is getting the values right. Many of them are not much lighter than the glass. I didn’t paint the brightest bits yet. Those, I save for the end. See First Glazes on Bricks and More Work on Basket for more on glazing.

I painted the two dried sage leaves hanging on the sandstone. These were very hard for me to see before, but today, it seemed almost easy. It’s a little bit of magic that happens after you’ve been studying something intensely. I find that it’s very much like when I’m trying to learn something on the piano. I practice over and over again, never seeming to master it. I go away for a few days, and often I perform the tricky bit effortlessly. I suppose my brain continues to work during my time away! There is still more detail work to do on them, but that’s for another day.

I darkened shadows and picked out a few details on the driftwood that were easier for me to see today. Again, the more that’s in place, the easier it is to continue with the painting! I went over the sandstone, adjusting values and colors.

I darkened the right side of the painting with a glaze. I re-painted the shape of the orange geode, darkened the shadows under the dish and the one cast by the sandstone onto the wall on the far left. I worked all over the painting today. Now I can let it sit over the weekend to dry a bit, before I continue to refine.

Finishing the First Layer

My goal today is to cover all of the underpainting with my first layer of paint. I’m not going for a finished look now. Since I judge values and colors by comparing with adjacent areas, I won’t be able to judge correctly until more paint is down. All of the shapes aren’t quite right yet, either. As I build up the paint gradually, I keep correcting.

I knew as I was painting the driftwood, that the colors weren’t right. I tried not to let that bother me. I consider this my getting-to-know-you phase of the painting, where I’m learning about all of the complex shapes and colors. I tend to over-state them now, but that’s part of the process of seeing and learning. I can tone these areas down later.

The colors on the bowl and geode were particularly subtle and obscure. I know that I didn’t get it right, but I’m confident that when I look at them in a few days, the difference between reality and my canvas will be glaringly obvious, and corrections won’t be too hard.

I glazed in the first layer of the cast shadows. I like to do this as soon as the under-layer is dry enough because it’s much easier to judge the values of the surrounding areas. It’s also very satisfying!

I’ll let this dry for a few days, then I’ll add the glazed shadow cast by the wall on the right over the sandstone. After that, the painting will look more like it’s supposed to.

Underpainting for ‘Calvados Bottle, Driftwood, and Sandstone’

Today I began the underpainting. As usual, I mixed up 9 shades of lead white and burnt sienna and numbered them right on the palette for easy reference.

For the underpainting, I work very loosely, while trying to preserve the drawing. I keep everything much lighter in value than it will be in the finished painting because the colors on top look more vibrant with a lighter ground beneath them. Also, if I need to change anything later on, it’s easier to correct on top of a lighter layer. If the under-layer were dark, it might show through the correction. I keep the paint layer very thin because it dries more quickly. Brush strokes are kept to a minimum so that they won’t interfere with the top layer. Any brush-strokes I make this early in the game are bound to be ill-considered, and I don’t want them showing through in the top layers of paint. An exception to this rule is the handling of areas that will be rough-textured, such as the sandstone. These actually do benefit from some roughness showing through, so I don’t bother to smooth them too much.

Another, less- obvious benefit of doing an under-painting is that it breaks the ice. It can be daunting applying finished paint to a white canvas with all of the pressure of having it be right. An under-painting is so simple and un-detailed that it’s easy to approach without fear. Small steps are best!

The drawing that I transferred was a bit light and hard to see in spots, so I sketched it in again right on the canvas. Even though I’d been so very careful to be accurate while I was tracing the drawing onto the tracing paper, and then onto the canvas, I found that many of the lines were incorrect! It reminds me of that childhood game in which everyone sits in a circle and whispers a short story into the ear of the person sitting next to them, on around the circle. By the time the story goes full-circle, it’s unrecognizable! The very act of copying introduces error. Every line drawn must be the result of checking with reality, not the second-hand tracing.

I haven’t painted the shadow cast onto the wall. Later, I will paint the entire wall as though it had no shadow. When that dries, I’ll glaze the shadow over. This nicely mimics the look of an actual shadow with the color and texture of the wall showing through the transparent glaze. The only problem with this method is that I lose the outlines of the shadows that I observed and drew so carefully. For the complicated shadows that I feel I’ll need some guidance with, I indicate them lightly. I will still glaze these, and they will still look transparent. This works especially well with the darker shadows, like the ones on the table-top.

This is as far as I’ll take the under-painting. I’ll let it dry for at least a week before I start painting.

A New Set-up

While waiting for the canvas to arrive for my sandstone painting, I decided to set up another still life. I thought I’d do a smaller one that wouldn’t take as long to finish as my big works. I love painting books and glass, so looked through my cupboards and shelves and picked out some promising specimens.

When I got everything back to the studio, this rough wood crate caught my eye. I loved the way the texture contrasted to the glass vases and glasses. It also echoed the roughness of the worn edges of the old books. Above is my first attempt. Looking at it through my view-finder, I remembered why this crate was always hard to place in compositions. The strong right vertical of the crate always seems to divide the picture in half. This is a very hard barrier for the eye to cross, so the picture reads as two separate sections, not one unified whole. I tried to think of a way to soften that edge and guide the eye across.

After trying placing a glass in front of the edge, I remembered this ribbon I had used in another painting. I draped it an angle trying to lead the eye across the troublesome barrier. It was an improvement! I still didn’t like the strong vertical so close to the middle of the composition, though.

I changed to a more square view-finder, which placed the vertical much further over to the right and eliminated the blue book and vase. I immediately loved this. The ribbon leads the eye through the composition. The crate is an important part of the whole, not just one half. The angles of the books and ribbon add drama and dynamism. I was worried that the ribbon would lead the eye straight out of the bottom right of the picture, so I added the blue stone to turn the eye back up. I replaced the shot glass on top of the crate with a stone. The glass was too big and shiny and was drawing attention away from the more important objects. I also didn’t like the strongly lit left side of the crate. Fortunately, the cupboard where I set this up has a door on the left. When I opened this door a bit, it cast a shadow on the vertical, darkening it. Also, by eliminating the right side of the composition, I’ll now have a small painting- just what I wanted. I might prefer the yellow crystal turned the way it was in the previous photo. I’ll experiment with it a bit more before I start the drawing.

Finishing the Drawing

I’m happy with my study, and don’t need to move anything around on the drawing. Now I can go back and finalize the ellipses and correct the perspective.

Above, you can see all of the ellipses I drew and then transferred onto the drawing. You can see the construction lines and my notes on the right. 3@15, for example, means that the length of the ellipse (the major axis) is 3″ and it is 15 degrees below my eye level. To see more on how I construct an ellipse, see Portfolio and Jewelry: Drawing.

Above, I’ve transferred the ellipses to the drawing, using tracing paper rubbed on the back with graphite. Sometimes, even after all of the measuring, the ellipse looks wrong to me! I always believe my eyes, not the measurements. I adjusted the ellipse at the bottom of the bottle. It looked too shallow, so I deepened it. You can see both lines. I marked the shallow one with a tic-mark to remind me. It was easier than trying to erase.

I checked that the bottle was symmetrical by tracing the side I was most confident in. I included the vertical center line in my tracing. I then flipped the tracing over, lined up the center line, and traced the original line onto the other side. Amazingly, both lines matched up.

I took a little time indicating where the text would go on the label. This was probably wasted effort, as I like to paint in the whole label, getting the value transitions and colors right before painting the text. Because of this, all of my drawing would be covered up with opaque paint! Oh, well!

My canvas should arrive this week from my canvas guy, and I can finally begin to paint!

Finalizing the Value Study

My value study looked a bit bland to me today, so I decided to compare it to the photo I took of the set-up. I immediately noticed that there were more dramatic darks in the photo. I think that I composed the set-up and photographed it on a cloudy day, but painted the study on a sunny day. Being me, when painting the study, I had to paint all of the light that I saw in the set-up. At the time, I suspected that the darks weren’t dark enough. However, it’s much easier for me to begin with what I see. It’s not too hard to adjust later when all of the values are in.

Above, I’ve darkened most of the shadows. I’m much happier with the composition now. I’ll have to remember to work on the shadows on cloudy days or closer to evening. One of these days, I’ll have to replace the window coverings in my studio, so that I can control the light better!

Value Study

Before I finalized the ellipses and perspective, I wanted to paint my value study to make sure that I was happy with the composition. Sometimes it’s easier to judge a composition without the distraction that color can bring. The large areas of darks and lights must be harmonious and interesting, and serve to guide the viewer’s eye to the focal point. Details are unimportant at this point. I aim to work quickly and just roughly indicate the big shapes.

Above is the result of my first session. I’ll let this dry for a few days. If I tried to continue now, the different values of paint would smear together, and it’d be hard to achieve crisp lights and darks. Also, my first guess at the correct values is usually wrong. I need to see some paint covering the whole study, so that I can compare adjacent areas. Painting is all about comparing!

Above is the study after the second session. I adjusted values, corrected the drawing, and added some details. Ill live with this for a few days, and see if I’m satisfied with the composition.


I wanted the painting to be slightly smaller than life size. To achieve this, I measured the horizontal distance of my set-up and subtracted a bit. Since the view-finder I used to compose the painting was in a ratio of (2-to-3), I could then calculate the height. I drew a rectangle of that size on my drawing paper. I sub-divided the rectangle into halves, quarters, and thirds to correspond to the tic-marks on my view-finder. Using a thin knitting needle and the view-finder, I quickly sketched in the bottle, so that I could judge if it was the correct size. I found it to be a bit larger than life. I reduced the size of my rectangle, and tried again. Now, when I sketched the bottle, it measured a bit smaller than life-perfect!

Now I proceeded with the drawing. Using the view-finder and knitting needle again, I located major points (where objects begin and end) on my paper. I find this much more effective than just guessing where all of the lines should be. I tend to draw things sight-sized- that is, the actual size they appear to my eyes. If I did this, the objects in the drawing would be way too small. Having some guidance helps me to draw larger, and get everything placed properly within my picture frame. For more on measuring techniques, see Getting Ready to Draw and Drawing Again.

Once I have determined where objects begin and end using my measuring method, I begin to draw simply by observation. I’ve discovered that if I stay in measuring mode for too long, errors are likely to creep in, because of the natural shaking of my hand while holding the view-finder. My measuring will tell me that one thing is correct, but when I stand back and observe, I can see that it’s not right. It seems like a conflict, but I know by now that my eye doesn’t lie! No measuring can replace the quick observing and comparing I do when sketching.

Above, I’ve put in some more detail on the driftwood, geode, and crystal.

After leaving the drawing for a day, I can return to it and see it with fresh eyes. I like to take advantage of these first few moments of fresh observation to spot errors. They really jump out! I’ve learned that time needs to pass for this to work. The longer I look at my drawing and work on it, the more I accept whatever is there as correct. It’s amazing what errors you accept by the end of the drawing session! Now I noticed that some of the shapes in the driftwood were off, and that the geode was placed too high. Also, the far right edge of the sandstone was drawn incorrectly.

I’ll postpone perfecting the ellipses and perspective until I’ve done my value study. I don’t want to spend time drawing these details now, in case I decide to change things around as a result of my study.