When to Modify and When to Leave it Be

Sometimes I find that something I put down in the very beginning stages of the painting as a first guess, stands the test of time, and still looks good even at the end. These stroke might not be technically perfect and accurate, but often have a spontaneity and freshness that is hard to duplicate at the end, when I’m trying so hard to see details and get it all perfect.

detail for Facebook

For example, the orange strokes on the left side of the silver bowl that reflect the orange box were put down in one of my first painting sessions. On later observation, they are perhaps a bit too bright and aren’t necessarily in exactly the right position. They also ought to be more faded out on their edges. They served their purpose well at the beginning, to show how bright that reflected light was and how important strong reflections are to the painting as a whole. I painted them very quickly and boldly in a looser style than I typically don’t use to finish a painting. I found though, that I ended up liking them at the end, too. Strokes don’t have to be perfectly accurate to convey a light effect in a satisfying way. My goal in painting isn’t to reproduce everything exactly as it appears, (this would be impossible!) but to convey the sense of how light flows over objects and reveals their textures, forms and colors.

Here is another example of preserving an early paint layer without much modification at the end. On the left you can see the shadows and reflections on the wall as I originally painted them. At the time, I thought this was a very rough approximation, to be corrected later with many layers of direct painting, glazing, and scumbling.  On the right is how the painting stands now. I glazed the shadow and reflections a bit darker, and softened some edges,  but it’s largely unchanged. Again, I liked the spontaneity of the passage, and felt that any attempt to improve it would, in fact, not be as successful.

There are also some places on the shell that remain largely unmodified. The bright orange curved area in the front was later scumbled over a bit (as seen in the photo on the right), but still shows through. The impasto brushstrokes also show through. Typically, on a first layer, I’m careful not to lay in heavy impasto strokes, as they will show through subsequent layers of paint. If things need to be moved, this can be a problem, unless you scrape the dried paint off with a palette knife before making corrections. Even at the start, though, I was sure that these heavy strokes were following the form of the shell and wouldn’t be a problem. The small, bluish area in the center of the shell has also remained unchanged throughout.

Black Vase

 

The black vase is the simplest object in the set-up to paint. It doesn’t have any surface detail or complex coloring. I just have to depict the way the light hits it and creates highlights, shadows, cast shadows and reflected lights. Here, the basics are blocked in. The light from the tabletop is reflected up onto the bottom of the vase. The orange from the box is reflected on its right side. A shadow from the wall on the left is cast onto its left side. The direct light coming from the spotlight is seen on the left side, and the brightest area is the reflected light coming from the silver bowl on the right.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box-Black vase 1

At my next session, I glazed a cool blue-black over the entire vase to make it darker. Some areas are now too dark. I did this intentionally, so that at my next session I could scumble a light tone over it. By scumbling a light tone over a darker one, you can create a beautiful mid-tone pearly gray, impossible to achieve with just a layer of opaque body color. You can see these tones in the photo below, in the fat belly of the vase. If you compare these tones to the corresponding area in the photo above, you can see the difference.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box- Black vase 2

I also repainted the orange reflected light on the right, and painted the top rim. The background and tabletop shadows have been glazed darker, getting closer to the correct values.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box- Black vase 3.jpg

Here I have softened the left edge of the vase to show both that its a curved surface, not a sharp edge, and also that it’s in shadow, so indistinct. I added the highlight on the top rim, and scumbled a brighter highlight coming from the spotlight on the left.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box- Black vase 4

The background is now as dark as it should be. The vase is mostly dark now, both because of its local color, and the fact that its in shadow. Also, making it darker puts the emphasis on the silver bowl and orange box.

The Shells

I thought I’d document how the shells developed. This is the first layer of the over painting. I did a rough approximation of the basic shapes, colors and values. The underpainting is still showing through in many places.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box-Shells 1st 1st

I corrected the drawing on the scallop shell and indicated its ridges and the shadow cast on it by the larger shell. I glazed the shadows cast by both shells on the tabletop. Here, the table top has its first layer of paint.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box- Shells first attempt

Next, I added the brightest bright areas. It’s helpful to put these in now so that I can judge the other values correctly. I added some blue light coming in from the right from the window, especially on the scallop shell. I glazed the cast shadows even darker, and added some alizarin crimson directly under the shells to show the warmth of the color reflecting down from the shell.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box-Shells 2nd attempt.jpg

Here I softened the edge of the shadow cast by the larger shell onto the scallop. I also tried to paint the ridges on the top of the scallop more precisely.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box- Shells- transition

I worked on the larger shell. I strengthened the highlights and added some nicks and details. I corrected the colors and painted the far right underside more clearly. This area is very cool both because its in the shadow, and because of the cool light coming in from the window on the right.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box- finished shells

On the scallop shell, I added some yellow on the top and some cool tones at its base. I softened the edges of both cast shadows onto the tabletop, and added some cool blue light at the edges.

The shells are mostly complete now!

 

Silver Bowl

It’s time to tackle the silver bowl again! I’ve been avoiding it, because it’s so difficult to see all of the shapes and colors. Here’s how it stands:

Silver Bowl and Orange Box- Silver Bowl detail

The first thing I did was to soften some edges. At first, I had to paint all of the forms clearly and sharply, so that I could see them clearly. Now that they’re mostly indicated, I can blur the edges to suggest their softer contours and light flowing over them.  Also, now that the basic shapes and values are in, I can begin to see more detail.

Silver Bowl and Orange Box-bowl detail

I adjusted some of the values and colors on the top of the bowl, and softened the orange reflections on the left. I added some highlights on the orange stone and its reflection.

Silver Bowl and Orange box- perfecting silver bowl

At my next session, I did some major value-correcting. I darkened the right side and the top of the left with a cool glaze. I also darkened the top of the left side above the bright highlighted area This will make the light highlights stand out. A light can only look light if it can contrast with a darker value! I darkened the patterns on the right side, and overall tried to correct shapes, values and colors. I refined the reflections of the shells on the right side of the bowl, adding detail and correcting color.

I worked on the stones, deepening their colors with glazes. I added details, such as the little nicks and patterns. I darkened the reflection of the green stone.

I added a lot more white and yellow paint to the reflections. I put this on very heavily, as a strong impasto suggests light bouncing off of an object (as opposed to a glaze, which suggests shadowy depths).

Silver Bowl & Orange Box- finished bowl

At my last session, I added some small highlights in the middle of the bowl. Also, I wasn’t happy with the ellipse on the small ring, so I repainted it, correcting the drawing. I now took the time to paint the small details of the ring, indicating where exactly the shadows were, and the highlights. Its easy to overstate these at first, painting the darks too dark, for example. This is because when you’re studying a small part of the set-up, the darks do seem very dark compared to the lights. It’s not until you step back and see that dark in the larger context of the whole painting that you realize that though darker than the highlight, it’s still relatively light.  This is because the ring is actually bathed in direct light from the spotlight and reflected light from the bowl.

detail for Facebook

It seems that I could keep refining the bowl forever, because of the complexity of the reflecting lights. At some point, though, I’ll need to decide if it conveys the feeling of the bowl. It needs to satisfy the eye, but it doesn’t need to be (nor could it ever be!) an exact replica. I think it’s pretty close to being finished now.

 

 

Refining the Orange Box

Silver Bowl & Orange Box- refining orange box

I decided to work on the orange box next. I painted a first approximation of the metal rivets using raw umber and cadmium yellow. The highlights are naples yellow light, and the darks are raw umber. I tried to get their ellipses right. They are not seen straight on, but are at a slight angle.

I added more glazes to darken the shadow areas both on the right side of the box (the form shadow), and the left side and top (the cast shadow from the black vase). There were some bluish reflections coming in from the window on the right, which I indicated. Next I brightened the reflections coming off of the silver bowl that hit the right side of the orange box. I’ll wait for this layer to dry before I attempt more.

Silver Bowl and Orange Box- Refining box

At my next session, I noticed that the reflections on the box from the bowl were not bright enough. I brightened them using pure cadmium orange and yellow. I also saw some cooler reflections that looked almost white. I scumbled these in using a dry brush. The paint catches on just the tops of the canvas fibers, mimicking the look of light bouncing off of the box.  I also strengthened the cool light coming in from the window on the right.

The lightest part of the box, on the left, was still not light enough. I mixed a very bright yellow-orange (much brighter than I thought!). I mixed some transitional colors to blend this new color into the existing ones on the darker right side. It’s not easy to achieve a smooth, even blending of colors. It is essential, though, if the cylinder of the box is to look convincing. It’s also difficult to blend this new, opaque paint into the transparent glazed area on the right. I don’t want to get too much of the new paint into the glazed area, or I’ll loose my transparency. It’s not perfect yet, but I do the best I can, knowing that I can keep refining!

 

Painting the Orange Box

I’m ready to begin painting the orange box in more detail. In the last session, I tried to glaze bright orange over the underpainting to get its rich, bright color, but I didn’t like the result. The transitions from light to dark weren’t smooth, and the color wasn’t saturated enough. Also, the box didn’t look solid. These defects illustrate some of the problems you can run into when using glazes.  Since a glaze is transparent, what is underneath shows through and needs to be well-painted. I hadn’t painted the light-to-dark transitions very smoothly in the underpainting, and this unevenness was showing through. Also, the cadmium orange glaze wasn’t the bright color I wanted (cadmium orange isn’t a transparent pigment). Most importantly, I thought that the box needed to look more solid, since it’s so brightly lit. Sometimes glazes can look insubstantial- a good thing in a shadow, but not in a brightly lit area. I needed to build up some solid paint for the box to look convincingly 3-dimensional.

Silver Bowl and Orange Box-box detail

I mixed up some color to match the orange in its brightest spot. In the set-up the box looked orange with a slightly alizarin hue, dulled down with orange’s opposite color, blue. When I put down the color on the canvas, though, it kept looking too dull. Finally, I used pure cadmium orange mixed with a little pure cadmium yellow. It looked perfect when I applied it to the canvas. If I brought my palette knife loaded with the mixture over to the actual bowl, however, it looked way too bright! How a color looks on the canvas is not necessarily an exact match to the actual object.

This bright orange on the left side has to transition over to the darker shadow side of the box. My first guesses at these transitional colors aren’t perfect. I’ll smooth them out at my next session when this paint layer has dried a bit.

I darkened the glaze on the lid, and indicated the brass buttons. I modified the color and value of the gold stripe on the lid. Since it’s reflective, it’s tricky to get right.  Even though its in the shadow, it glows.

 

The First Glazes

The first layer of paint is dry, so I can put down my first glazes. Usually, if my set-up is lit by a warm artificial light, the shadows appear cooler and bluish. In this case, there were so many warm colors bouncing around from the orange box and warm tan walls, that many of the shadows looked warm, so I mixed up two glazes. One was my usual cool mix of ultramarine blue and raw umber (with more blue in the mix).  The other was a warmer mixture using the same pigments, but with more of the raw umber, plus transparent golden ochre and alizarin crimson. All of these colors (except for the raw umber) are naturally transparent, and make good glazes. You can glaze with any color, but the effect is always better with a transparent pigment.

Silver Bowl and Orange Box-First glazes

I made the glazes rather thin. I can always add more layers to adjust both the color and the value. I let this layer dry for a day before applying the next glazes.

Silver Bowl and Orange Box-Second Glaze

Next, I darkened the left side of the vase, the left side of the orange box, the shadow on the wall above the silver bowl, and the rest of the cast shadows. Now that the shadows are closer to their true values and colors, I can begin to paint my objects more carefully.

Silver Bowl and Orange Box- Silver Bowl detail

Here I’m struggling with all of the complicated shapes and reflections on the silver bowl. As often happens with repetitive designs, it’s hard to keep track of which section I’m studying. By the time my eye flicks back to the set up to check if a stroke is correct, I’ve lost track of where in the bowl I am! My little piece of black tape helps as a reference. I try not to worry too much about if everything is correct. Every painting session I’m able to see more and record more. What at first looks like a wild mess of obscure reflections will eventually be easier for me to see clearly (and paint clearly!), after I get the basic shapes and colors down. It doesn’t even matter if these are completely correct or not. A first guess at the shapes and colors can serve as a means of comparison from which I can later say “Actually, this is more yellow,” or “this has a sharper edge” or “this angle should be more shallow.” The more information I’ve recorded, the easier it is to compare and judge if something is correct or not. Oil paint is very forgiving. I can change shapes and colors as I go along.