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.

An Eye Level Problem

The first photo below is the set-up I liked the most. The second photo is the same set-up as I began to draw. Can you see the difference (aside from a slight color variance, due to the exposure)?

The second view is from a much higher vantage point- from my actual eye level, actually. It turns out that when I took the first photo, I held my camera at chest height to eliminate keystoning (which happens when the sides of a photo angle in due to parallax). This, of course, lowered the vantage point. When I returned to start my drawing, and looked at it from my usual eye level, everything looked wrong! I was viewing the set-up from too high. I could, of course, paint it this way, but I much prefer the look of a lower horizon line. I don’t like the viewer to feel as if they’re above the table looking down. I remember now that I had a similar problem with my bricks painting. I had to lower the horizon line and redraw everything from a lower level.

I tried lowering my stool, but it wouldn’t go low enough. So, after marking everything’s position with a pencil on the tabletop, I removed the set-up and set about raising the table.

Fortunately, bricks are useful not only as the subject of a painting, but also as structural material. I have this handy pile behind my studio, which I find useful for both purposes.

They worked nicely. I also had to raise the spotlight an equivalent amount. All looks in order now. Next session, I’ll figure out how big the painting should be so I can order my canvas.

Second Attempt

Above is the composition I worked on last. I lived with it for a while, and though I liked it, I thought that I’d try another.

I left the bottle where it was, and moved everything else around, just as an experiment. I also wondered how the bottle would look with its label showing. The result is above. The label seems distracting. Also, the wood bowl so close to the middle draws too much attention. Lastly, the pinecone points out of the picture- never a good thing!

I put the pinecone and the bowl back to their original positions, and experimented with moving the driftwood back into the shadow of the bottle. I removed the small brown bowl and added the orange geode and white shell. I turned the label away from the light. I like the label more, but this arrangement seemed fragmented- as if it were pulling the eye in two different directions. I thought I’d try removing the pinecone to shift the focus more to the center of the composition.

This seemed better, but something didn’t seem right. I tried looking at the image upside down. This is a great method for seeing the composition more clearly, since the eye doesn’t focus on the separate objects so much as on their abstract shapes and relationships.

When viewed upside-down, I noticed that I didn’t like the shape of the orange bowl and orange geode. They make a pronounced horizontal and vertical that didn’t seem harmonious with the rest of the composition. Also their brightness both in chroma and lightness in value drew the eye out of the frame.

Above, I eliminated the bowl and re-positioned the orange geode. This is better, but the bottom of the composition seemed rather dull. I thought that I’d try adding the small brown bowl back, but further forward, overlapping the edge of the tabletop.

This seems promising. I like the way that the upward angle made by the top left side of the sandstone is echoed in the line of the fool’s gold, green geode and the lit top of the driftwood. This angle is also echoed in the line of the brown bowl and orange geode. Repeating angles can help to unify a composition. I feel like maybe it could use some more light values and brighter colors.

Here’s the original composition. I don’t know which I prefer. I’d better give it a few days!

A New Set-up

When it’s time to begin a new painting, often I wander around my studio and house, looking for something to paint, feeling like I’ll never have another idea again. Other times, I see some object and I think “That’ll be the start of a new painting!” Last week I was sitting in my herb garden drinking my coffee and looked down and saw this piece of sandstone lying on top of the bricks of the patio. I’m not sure why it was there, or why I hadn’t noticed it before! Immediately, I thought that I wanted to paint it. I liked the shape, and the textures were unusual and beautiful. I set it it the area that I had used for my last Japanese basket painting, which was still set up in my studio. I could use it as a tabletop or as a vertical backdrop. I thought that it would be more visible as a vertical.

I liked the way it looked with the rice paper behind it, so I left that up. Also, the colors were harmonious with the brown board I had used as the tabletop, so that stayed too. Glass would be a nice contrast with the rough stone, so I selected a green bottle, whose color also complemented the stone. Two objects do not a still life make, though!

I gathered some other objects in subdued colors. This set-up didn’t call for any bright colors. The bottle was more visible on the right, so I moved it. It cast an interesting shadow. I added the glass vase. Though it looked nice, I thought that it was competing with the bottle.

I moved the dish with the pinecone to the left and added the driftwood for some more textural interest. The whole set-up was looking very dark. It’s usually a good idea to have a full range of values from white to black in a composition, so I put in the white stone and shell.

To add even more light tones, I took out the yellow crystal and substituted the geode with the white center. I arranged all of the objects in the front in a shallow curve bending downwards.

The curve drew too much attention away from the top of the composition, so I re-arranged the objects in front in more of an upward curve. I substituted some fool’s gold for the white stone. I didn’t like that the geode was almost dead center. That can be very distracting in a composition. I switched it with the brown dish. I prefer this.

I wasn’t fully satisfied with the driftwood. I rotated it to find a more pleasing angle. I also raised the geode so that it intersected the sandstone.

Above, I tried yet another angle with the driftwood.

And another! I think that maybe in this position, the driftwood attracts the eye too much. I prefer the version two photos up.

I’ll let it sit for a while before I decide.

Fine-Tuning the Composition

Since I was almost finished with the painting, I decided to stand back and see if the composition was working as I had intended. I wanted the eye to start at the basket on the left, then follow a curve through the blue paperweight, the turquoise, up to the top of the black bottle, and then over to the small blue crystal on the left and out. I was mostly satisfied, but thought that the trip up from the turquoise to the top of the bottle could be stronger.

I made many subtle adjustments to achieve this. First, I strengthened the vertical highlight on the right side of the vase to lead the eye up. For the same reason, I then brightened the reflected light on the left side of the vase (though this is hard to see in the photo). Also hard to see, I made the highlights at the top rim of the vase stronger because bright lights against a dark background draw the eye. I added some more details to the front surface and edges of the brick behind the vase (smudges and tiny nicks). Detail also draws the eye. I lightened the bit of brick showing to the right of the neck of the vase to contrast more with the vase. I lightened the third brick from the left so that it contrasted more with the brick behind the vase. Contrast in value draws the eye. I thought that all of these details would attract attention and lead upward. The brightness of the tabletop was directing the eye down, so I painted in the woodgrain. This both darkened it and added some horizontal movement that keeps the eye from exiting through the bottom. Lastly, I lightened the brick on the far right, adding more highlights on its top.

I’m pretty happy with it now!

The Evolution of the Textured Brick

The second brick from the left had curving ridges forming a concentric pattern. I indicated this right from the beginning with the first layer of the over-painting with thick brush strokes.

At my next session, above, I roughly painted in the larger ridges and shadows. They didn’t necessarily line up with the ridges in the first layer, but that didn’t really matter. I knew that it’d contribute to the textured look in the end. Everything was difficult to see clearly at this point. It was frustrating, but I knew that I’d see more at every session.

I noticed a greenish cast in many areas, so I scumbled in a medium, green tone. A glaze would have made the area too dark. I added a few more details, but it’s still very rough. I scumbled in a light tone over the right side of the brick facing the light.

I painted painted over the greenish areas with some orange tones, and continued to add details. At this point, I wasn’t sure how detailed I wanted the brick to be. Partly I wanted to just suggest the texture, but since the brick was is a prominent position, I wanted the details to reward close inspection. I knew that I couldn’t paint every ridge and hollow, though!

Above, I’ve started to put in some tiny, sparkling highlights. I was careful to give every ridge I painted a shadow and a highlight. It’s important to keep these very subtle. It’s tempting to make the shadow very dark and the highlight very bright, but they both have to fit into the general medium value of the brick when I squint my eyes and look at it. Even though the shadows seemed very dark black when I first studied them, they were actually a darkish, muted red. The highlights were not white, but a dull medium orange. I didn’t figure this out until I had tried many alternatives. Sometimes it surprises me to see what the correct colors and values actually are. I added more to the top of the brick.

Now that a lot of details were in place, it was easier to observe more of them. I thought that maybe the whole brick was too light, so I glazed it all a bit darker. I also began adding highlights and more details to the top of the brick. Rather than paint every ridge, I tried to suggest a few of them.

In my last session, above, I decided that there was actually more reflected light onto the brick than I had thought, so I brightened up many areas. I noticed many sparkling, tiny highlights, so I indicated them with tiny dots of a medium value, muted orange.

I could go on refining this forever, but I think that it’s looking good with enough details to satisfy the eye, but not over-worked.

Refining the Dish and Stones

The painting is mostly complete. Values, colors and shapes are pretty accurate. Now I can spend some time carefully observing and recording subtle details such as reflected lights, exact colors, edge quality, and comparative values. I couldn’t work on these things earlier, because all areas weren’t complete and available for comparison (essential for painting accurately), and also there was no point addressing small details if the larger objects weren’t correct first.

This is also a good time to see if there is anything about the painting that I’m dissatisfied with. This can be difficult since I’m so immersed in the painting that it’s hard to be objective. I did notice, though, that I’ve always been unhappy with the turquoise. Something about it’s shape displeased me. Also, I never seemed to be able to get it to look bright enough. Below are photos of the dish and stones as it stood, and after I worked on it.

The biggest change was that I altered the shape of the turquoise where the long ridge casts a shadow. I was able to make the change pretty easily since I wasn’t changing anything major. A major change would have been hard for me to invent in a convincing way. The altered shape looks much more pleasing to my eye. I then added many details, highlights and shadows, always trying to observe carefully. Much of this was very hard to see before, but now seemed comprehensible. I put in some reflected lights from the turquoise down onto the dish. Last, I glazed pure phthalo blue in a few areas. I worked on the stone a little bit, softening edges, refining the reflected light from the turquoise, and adding a few streaks. I brightened the top left side of the dish, and added a highlight at the front edge. I repainted the right side, muting the blue reflection, and brightening the rim.

Overall, I think that the dish and stones look more refined and life-like.

The Basket Evolves

I thought that it’d be interesting to track the progress of the basket. Above is a photo I took of the set-up. I should say here that I’m not interested in making my painting replicate the photo. Photos can be very misleading, and painting from them discourages the artist from truly seeing and painting their subject. A photo puts a layer of separation between the artist and reality. In a photo, parallax distorts perspective and all of the subtleties of light are lost. The artist’s job is to take what he sees in his subject, edit out the unimportant and accentuate the important according to his ideas of beauty and order. This is very difficult, if not impossible to do when you’re slavishly copying a photo. That being said, the photo is a useful reference for you to get an idea of what my set-up looks like.

Above, I’ve completed the drawing. I numbered the coils so I could keep track of them better while drawing. It was easy to lose track of which one I was drawing as there were so many similar shapes. I found the basket difficult to draw. Because the basket is constructed of one rope coiled around, none of the ellipses are parallel to the horizontal. There is a slight tipping upwards from left to right.

Next, I did a black-and-white study in oil on tracing paper laid over my drawing. My style is very loose here. Details aren’t important at this stage. I just want to get a general idea of the value pattern and composition.

After I transferred the drawing to the canvas, I did my underpainting in burnt sienna and lead white. I tried to keep the lines precise so I’d have a guide for my overpainting. All values are lighter here than in the finished painting. The colors will look more vibrant over a lighter base. I kept the paint layer very thin so that it would dry faster and not contribute a lot of texture to the finished work.

Here is my first layer of paint. I made the blues and yellows a bit light so that I could glaze them later. The lines are still very apparent. Until I glaze the cast shadows and the bricks adjacent to the basket to their true values and colors, I can’t judge the colors and values of the basket. I stopped here until the surrounding areas were further along.

Above, the surrounding areas are closer to their finished colors and values, so I could begin painting the basket in earnest. I muted the lines between the coils and put down some thinker paint, beginning to indicate the darks and lights. I glazed the blues areas and corrected the colors. I glazed the underside a warm muted orange, and began to indicate the fibers wrapped around each coil.

At my next session, I continued to suggest the fibers and the highlights on the coils

Above, I’ve put in some reflected lights from the tabletop onto the left underside of the blue section. I darkened the shadow cast by the basket onto the tabletop and added more highlights to the rim. I glazed another layer on the interior shadow.

At my next session I strengthened the highlights and darkened the underside. I’m not sure if I like this. I night add back some reflected light onto this area.

Above is the latest version. I added reflected lights in the inside shadow area on the right side. I added more details of the fibers in the lighter areas. I glazed the lower left outside a bit darker. I brightened up the highlighted right side where it meets the paperweight. Finally, I softened up the top front edge.

Here is the photo again. What differences can you see? I notice right away that the edges in the painting are much softer. The highlights are emphasized. Also, the painting doesn’t attempt to show all of the detail. Do you prefer the painting? I do!

Progress of Stones and Dish

I thought that it’d be interesting to track the progress of a part of the painting from the beginning. Above is a photo of the stones on the dish from my set-up.

The first thing I did was to draw them. I ended up changing the positions of the stones a bit, and making the turquoise longer.

Above is my black and white study. This was a very quick and loose rendition done in oil on tracing paper. I did this to better judge the composition as well as to serve as a value guide when I started to paint.

After the drawing was transferred to the canvas, the next step was to paint the under-painting in various tones of burnt sienna and lead white. I have omitted details and painted everything much lighter than it’d be in the finished work.

Above is my first layer of the over-painting. I left the shadow areas lighter, because I will glaze them darker after this layer dries. I indicated some of the details on the turquoise, but at this point they were difficult to see and paint. I know that I can add and correct later, as the forms and colors become clearer to me.

As the surrounding areas developed, I could better see the colors and values on the stones and dish. I lightened the dish and glazed all of the shadows darker. I added bright blues to the turquoise and lightened the right side of the green stone.

This is the latest picture. I added a highlight to the green stone, put in some reflected blues on the right top side of the dish and continued adding details to the turquoise. I’m finding it frustrating that I can’t seem to get the turquoise bright enough. I’m using phthalo blue, which is a very bright, strong pigment. However, when I add white to it in order to lighten it, the color appears more and more chalky and not bright. I tried underpainting the bright areas with white paint, letting them dry and then glazing the blue on top. I thought that this would result in a bright color, since a glaze will usually appear more intense than body color. It still didn’t seem bright enough! Another trick to make a color seem more intense is to juxtapose it with touches of its opposite color. Since orange is blue’s opposite, I painted bits of orange around the stone. It’s easy to go overboard on this and end up with an unnatural look. I’m still thinking about if this idea is successful. One of the frustrating aspects of painting is that no pigment can mimic the intensity of nature. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just because you see a color in your set-up you can mix it in paint. It’s the artist’s job to make the colors convincing within the context of the painting, relating well to the surrounding colors.

Glazing and Painting the Bricks and the Stone Dish

Above is the first layer of paint on the stone dish. The colors and values aren’t quite right, but that’s ok. When first painting something, especially when it’s surrounded by an unpainted area, it’s almost impossible to correctly judge values and colors. Painting is about comparing and correcting- both the painting to the set-up and the parts of the painting to each other. It’s only when you have something down on the canvas that you can begin this process. Once I let go of the idea that my first attempt had to be correct, I relaxed and became a better painter. When I can see that something’s not right, I can decide how to correct it!

The first thing I did was to glaze the shadows on the dish. After that, the first thing that struck me was that the dish was too green and a bit too dark. Above you can see how I’ve corrected that with a lighter, yellower tone. I painted in the rest of the dish. I then glazed the shadow side of the green stone and repainted the rest of it, adding some highlights. I then glazed the shadows and added some more details to the turquoise.

Next I wanted to finish glazing the shadows on the bricks so I could get a better idea of the finished values of the painting. Above, just the two bricks on the left are glazed.

Above, I’ve glazed the rest of the bricks and the shadow on the right tabletop. On the lighter areas of the middle brick, I’ve scumbled a lighter, greener tone both to show the texture and to neutralize the bright orange, bringing it closer to the right color and value. I added a thin glaze of a greenish color to the forth brick to darken and neutralize it.

My next goal was to begin indicating the distinctive texture on the second and fifth bricks. I always end of over-stating this sort of texture at first. I’ve accepted that this is a result of trying to see intricate details. When I’m studying and staring at a small ridge, it seems more like a crevice, so I paint it that way, accentuating the darks and lights! Only later can I see that the changes in color and especially value are way more subtle than I originally thought. I try to correct this tendency as I’m painting by squinting my eyes when looking at the set-up. If the detail I’ve been painting disappears, then I know that it should be painted in a value very close to the area surrounding it. Another reason that I sometimes overstate details is that sometimes I’m drawing them without the aid of the underpainting. Since I usually don’t indicate small details on my underpainting (such as small holes in the bricks), I end up having to draw them in paint. I can see the details better if I put them in darker than they really are. On the brick on the far right you can see where I’ve indicated where some of the holes will be. I’ve also overstated the details on the second brick from the left.

At my next session, I scumbled a greenish tone over the second brick to mute the details and neutralize the orange hue. I also scumbled the lighter areas of bricks 4 and 5. I made the tiny holes less dark on brick 5, and added highlights on them. I added some more of the circular ridges, managing to keep them subtle!