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.

Drawing Scarf and Bows

I just began to work on drawing the pattern on the scarf. This is where mistakes in my drawing of the basic shapes come back to haunt me. If, for example, the scarf is too wide, the patterns won’t fit correctly within their boundaries. Of course, I know that if the patterns aren’t perfectly correct, it’s fine. No one will know! I do, however, like to get them pretty close. It makes observing and painting easier for me. The shape of the circle on the right was tricky. I’ve gotten so used to drawing symmetrical ellipses, that a ‘bent’ ellipse was difficult.

Below, I’ve started work on another section of the scarf. When I began, I drew the design as a perfect circle. It wasn’t looking right, though. I realized that the scarf is cut on the bias, and that the weight of it draping down stretched it a little. As an experiment, I drew the top hemisphere with a compass, added a a bit of vertical length, then drew the bottom hemisphere using a lower compass point. This effectively stretched the circle. The two parallel lines bisecting the circle show where I stretched it. I’ll erase these guide-lines. I think it looks fine now.

Below, I made a first attempt at drawing the bow in the necklace.

The drawing is just about at the stage where I can pause and do my value study in oil. At my next session, I’ll work on the beads a bit more and continue with the scarf patterns, but I won’t finalize anything until I’ve done the study. If I end up wanting to change the composition as a result of the study, I don’t want to have wasted a lot of time drawing things that would then need to be re-drawn.

Drawing ‘Noguchi Lamp and Scarf’

Now it’s time to turn the set-up into a 2-D drawing. Using the same view-finder that I used to compose the picture, I note where the edges of the composition are and mark them with white tape directly onto the set-up . Now when I view the set-up through the view-finder, I can more easily line it up correctly (you can see this tape on the wall in the last photo.). You can see below that I’ve divided all of the edges of my view-finder opening into halves, thirds, quarters, etc. I draw this same grid onto my paper. Now I use the view-finder to locate points in the set-up, using a skinny knitting needle. If I find, for example, that the top of the orange crate lines up with the 1/3 horizontal mark, I know to place this line in the corresponding place on my drawing.

This method isn’t exact- your hand shakes, your head isn’t in the exact same position every time you measure, etc. You might have to measure several times and take the average. It’s a great way to get started drawing, though, in that it assures you that objects are mostly in the correct position in the frame and are proportioned correctly.

Another measuring device I use is two knitting needles held in front of my eyes in a cross. Using my thumbs to mark off the distances, I can note the height and width of an object, and then without moving them in relationship to each other, hold them up to my drawing at the correct distance to check that the proportions of the object in my drawing are the same. I can also hold a ruler up to measure and compare the lengths of different objects. I might find, for example, that the box is twice the length of the bracelet. These checks are very helpful. In the end, though, you need to put aside all measuring tools and just look at the set-up and the drawing to see if the drawing is correct. Sometimes I find that even after much measuring, the object still looks wrong. Measuring can be misleading, but the un-aided eye is always right! See Drawing Again for more on these techniques.

Once the bigger shapes are in place, I begin to draw the details. The beads that are seen straight-on I measure to be the same length. For the foreshortened ones, I just have to eye-ball it. Everything is placed very intentionally now. I make many small decisions now. The exact placement of the edge of a bead; the angle of a cord, and if it echoes the angle of another cord; where exactly the bend of a lamp leg intersects the edge of the fold of the scarf are all chosen by me to further my design. Though it often happens in setting up a composition, that a fold or the placement of a bead happens by accident, it’s up to me as as artist to judge if these accidental placements are worth keeping or need to be changed. Everything is chosen!

Above, I’ve indicated the basic shape of the lamp. It was hard to draw this, because it isn’t a symmetrical object. It’s hand-made and the edges are not parallel. If I drew it symmetrically, I’d take away its personality.

The small dot of white tape in the picture above is my vanishing point. All receding lines perpendicular to the picture plane will seem to converge to this point. It is the point directly in front of my eyes at my eye-level. I mark the same point on my drawing paper. When I draw the receding edge of the vertical box on the far left, I simply use a straight-edge and draw the line from the vanishing point to the front of the box. It’s simple!

My next step will be to draw the main shapes of the scarf. Not until I’m sure that everything is right will I draw the pattern on the scarf. There’s no point in doing that until all is correct.

A New Painting

When Covid started, a year ago, I worried that I might not be able to order my custom-made canvases. Fortunately, the business I use remained opened, though their production was way down. The owner told me that he had an extra 2′ square canvas that he had stretched for someone else who didn’t want it. I decided to get it as a reserve, not knowing how long Covid would last. I had two concerns about this canvas. The most important was that I always design my composition to whatever size seems to suit the objects that I choose. Since I paint life-size, I can’t make too many adjustments. If the objects are large or there are many of them, the painting is larger. If they are smaller or fewer, it’s smaller! I move the objects around until I am happy. After my design is complete, I order my canvas. Usually, they end up being very idiosyncratic sizes, like 24 3/8 x 15 1/4 inches. So, the idea of starting from a set canvas size was against my way of working. The second problem is that a square is a tricky shape to design in. I set the canvas away, not knowing how or if I would ever use it.

A few months ago, I was looking through some of my older paintings and found one that featured an illuminated Noguchi lamp. Isamu Noguchi was a Japanese artist who made sculptures, furniture and wonderful paper shade lamps. I own several of his lamps. I had painted another one, also, but sold the painting years ago. It was one of my favorites. I was always a little sad that I had sold it. I decided to paint this lamp again, so I dug it out of storage. Unfortunately, my cats had had a go at it, and it had faded considerably. You can still get replacement shades for these lamps, so I ordered another one and began to design the painting with the old lamp while I waited for my new shade to arrive.

Above you can see the lamp with a few objects I thought might work with it- a crystal bracelet, a bead necklace, and an orange crate. I’ve been wanting to add some more intense colors into my work for a while, so I was excited to add the scarf, too. At first, I just put all of these things on the table without much thought- a process that my fellow-still life artist Tom Strutton calls the “heap of stuff” method! I turned on the lamp to see what shadows it cast on its own with no spotlight.

I decided that a ‘wall’ on the left that would cast a shadow from a spotlight would add some drama to the composition. I used an antique paint box that has shown up in many of my paintings. I up-ended the orange crate and hung the necklace from it, to get some interest at mid-height. Already, I liked it more.

Next, I added the scarf. This was fun, but I felt that it stole the show a bit, drawing attention away from the lamp, my star. An amazing thing happened next. I found that my square view-finder worked the best. Even more amazing is that when I measured the horizontal distance of my set-up (the way I usually determine my canvas size), it was almost exactly 2 feet! I could actually use my ready-made canvas, after all.

Above, I tried a different scarf, still colorful, but more subtle. The scarf shape wasn’t quite right, though.

Above, I re-draped the scarf, placing the bracelet into the empty area on the left, partly in the shadow, for more drama. I arranged the scarf so that both red dots were visible. I think that leads the eye up into the composition towards the lamp. Also, though you can’t tell here, Noguchi’s signature on the lamp (which is faded in this older version, but which will show up on my new shade) features a red dot. Repetition and variety are one of the keys to good composition! I moved the spotlight, so that the beaded necklace cast a shadow. The shadow provided a nice repetition of the shape of the beads. I tied the bow on the necklace to mimic the bows on the lamp- repetition and variety again! As an experiment, below, I turned off the spot to see the effect of just the lamp on. (This photo was taken before I had finalized the position of the bracelet and scarf.) I think it’s not as good without the spot!

I am very happy with this set-up with both the lamp and the spot on, but I won’t finalize the design until I get my new shade installed and the lamp set up again. I’m sure that it will disrupt the scarf, and things will need to be re-arranged. I like every detail to be intentional. This isn’t always possible when working with cloth, because it has a mind of its own, but I try!

How to Draw an Ellipse

When a circle is seen from above or below your line of sight, the shape that you see is an ellipse. Ellipses look like flattened ovals. Correctly drawn ellipses can greatly enhance the illusion of reality in your paintings. Though it’s possible to draw them free-hand, I’ve found that it works better to construct them using this string and push-pin method.

The first step is to figure out what angle your ellipse is. In other words, how many degrees above or below your eye-level the circle you are drawing is. I use a home-made device using a stand, a string and a protractor. I describe it here Portfolio and Jewelry:¬†Drawing. Next, determine the length of your ellipse (or the diameter of the circle). This is called the major axis of the ellipse. (The minor axis will be the height of the ellipse. We’ll determine that later.) Here, in my demo, I want a 25 degree ellipse whose major axis is 4 inches.

On a piece of paper, draw two intersecting lines, perpendicular to each other, and at least twice as long as your ellipse. Using a protractor, make a tic mark at 25 degrees, using the point where your lines cross as the center point.

Draw the line connecting the center point to your tic-mark.

I next mark the 4 inch major axis on my horizontal line, centering it on the vertical line. See below.

Next, using a compass, strike an arc from the center point to the end of the major axis (the circle’s radius), through the line showing the angle of your ellipse.

Measure the vertical distance from the intersection of these two lines to your horizontal line. Below, you can see it measure a little less than 7/8. “

Mark this same distance on your vertical line, both above and below the horizontal line. This total vertical distance is called the minor axis of the ellipse.

Now, using one of these marks, and keeping your compass set as it was to the circle’s radius, strike two arcs on the horizontal line. Where these arcs intersect the horizontal, will be your foci of the ellipse. This is where you’ll stick your pins.

Stick two push-pins into the drawing at the two foci. It helps if you have your drawing on top of a board so that you can stick the pins in firmly.

Cut a piece of string about 3 times longer than the length of the circle. Tie it around the base of the pushpins, as I am doing below. Your goal is to tie the string tightly enough that when pulled up tautly, the string will just touch either of the tic-marks you made on the vertical line.

The final step is to insert a pencil into the loop you made , and draw your ellipse while pushing to the outside, keeping the string taught. It can take a bit of tying and re-tying to get the string the correct length. Some string is a bit stretchy, so it might take some experimentation.

As you get close to the pins, it can be harder to draw accurately, but you can always correct free-hand!

Below is the finished ellipse, ready o be transferred to your canvas.

This same method works whatever the angle or size of the ellipse. It the ellipse is very small, it’s probably not worth the effort, and can be difficult to manage, but for most sizes, this works very well.

Painting the Blue Book

My first stage in painting the blue book was to block in the local colors. Since I will be glazing the shadows on the cover later, I don’t indicate them yet.

After that layer was dry, I glazed in the shadows. You can see this in the photo below. I then began to indicate the signatures on the book pages, especially near the spine, where they are the most visible. I also painted the end page at the bottom left where it curves away from the other pages. Basically, I’m just painting the most easy to see features first. I scumbled some thick paint to indicate the rough texture of the page ends. I added a little detail to the edges of the book’s cover. I refined the shape of the pages at the bottom of the book. It wasn’t a straight line, as I had shown, but had a more jagged edge. I saw some reflected light from the box on the book’s front cover, which I quickly painted in. I’ll refine this later.

At my next session, below, I’ve painted some cool natural light coming from the window on the right, onto the book’s cover. I was then ready to begin putting in some more detail on the page edges. I can’t paint every page and bump, nor would I want to! I just want to show enough to communicate the textures and feel of the pages. I could see little bumps that caught the light and cast tiny shadows. I painted these using very slight value changes. When I squinted my eyes and looked at my canvas, all of the pages should appear as one value. If I used too dark darks, or too light lights in painting these details, they would stand out way too much. It’s natural to emphasize differences in color and value when studying something, but it takes practice to show restraint and paint details in a more subtle manner than you first think is required. I often put down a color thinking that it’s correct (ie: the faint shadow line between two signatures, and see right away that it’s way too dark! Fortunately, I can always wipe it off and try again!

Below, I took a shot at indicating the lettering on the front of the book. These letters were hardly visible, so I’m not even going to try to actually letter them. I never like to paint a detail that I can’t actually see from where I’m observing the set-up!

Below, I’ve strengthened the reflected light onto the cover, and continued to add some more definition to the pages. I lightened the edge of the back cover on the left side of the book. I also lightened the inside of the box a tiny bit, so that you could see where the book ends and the background begins

I’m happy with the results! I’ll see how I feel about it in a few days.

Painting Letters

Of all of the things I’ve painted, letters give me the most trouble. There are so many tiny nuances to their shapes and spacing. Sometime, you can just suggest letters, but if a book is front and center, it would look very strange if everything was well-defined except the letters! Though it’s tempting to perfect the letters in the drawing, (because it’s so much easier to depict tiny details in pencil) I have found that in painting the body colors of the book, I lose the drawing! There is no practical way to paint around the letters, keeping them visible. My usual method, then, is to complete the book, and then when it is dry, to do the lettering.

Above, you can see my first attempt. I very lightly paint in guidelines for where the letters begin and end, then sketch in a bare-bones version of the letters. I usually end up wiping this off many, many times before I’m happy with it. I always end up making the letters too big! This is where working on a dry surface comes in handy. I can wipe off my mistakes over and over again

It’s tempting to just paint in a generic version of each letter, but it looks much better when you pay attention to the particular font and its look. It helps to look at the space between each letter, too, not just at the letters. The trick is to see the shapes, and not depend on your previously-formed idea of what letters look like. I mix up the color of the book, and the color of the type. I switch back-and-forth between them, using the color of the book almost like an eraser, teasing the paint to perfect each letter. I try not to get too obsessive about this. It doesn’t fit into my style of painting to be super-exact and make the painting like a photo. This is an oil painting, after all, and I like for it to look painterly. After all, from the distance I’m viewing the book, the letters aren’t super-clear. Its never a good idea to paint more detail than the eye could really see! (In this photo, you can also see an example of just suggesting lettering in a shadowy area on the front cover of the book.)

Above, I’ve begun to indicate the subtle reflections in the gold lettering. These were hard to do . When I looked at them, they looked bright, but when I painted them that way, they looked way too bright. I think that it’s natural that when you’re studying something, you tend to see it in a more focused and detailed way. When you take in the whole scene, though, you can see relationships better. I also tried to show some of the shadows and highlights from the embossing, in a very general way. All of these ideas also apply to the painting of the small boat illustration!

I’ll probably work on the letters a bit more. A few of them are a bit crooked, and I still need to ‘erase’ some gold paint in places.

Adding the Cool Lights

When I set up this still life, I intentionally let in a bit of cool daylight from a window to the right of the set-up to contrast with the warm spotlight on the left. This variety in the temperature of the light adds vibrancy to the painting.

Since the warm spotlight is so bright, it can be difficult to see the cool lights, so I turned off the spot for a while. The first photo below is the set-up with the spotlight on. In the second, I’ve turned the spot off.

I’m at the po

They are dramatically different! It’s now easy to see where the cool natural light is. The right side of the green book, the right edges of the box, and the right-facing surfaces of the ribbon are all quite cool and blue. There are some blue highlights on the glass as well. The table top on the right is also very cool. Some of these effects will become invisible when I turn the spot on, but many of them can still be seen.

Above is the ribbon as I first painted it. I used mostly warm hues, because that’s how it looked to me at the time. Now that I’ve seen the cool lights with the spot off, it’s easy for me to see them with the spot on! Below, I’ve added the cool tones. I think that it looks more vibrant now.

Below you can see where I’ve added a blue edge to the right side of the box, the glass, and the right-facing side of the rest of the ribbon

I have found that just looking is not enough. The brain has to understand what is causing the effects that we see. Only then can you really begin to see what is in front of you! I encounter the same issue when drawing. If I don’t understand the perspective, no matter how much I observe and try to re-create what I see, it never looks convincing. When I take the time to study and understand, then I can actually see more and draw it properly.