Settling on a Composition

This is the set-up I ended up liking the most. I preferred the edge-on view of the basket handles, and the simpler shadow that they cast on the wall. I wanted to confirm that the proportions of the composition were good. I had been composing it using an 8-9 ratio view-finder, which is slightly taller than a square. After looking at the set-up through a few different view–finders, I decided that I’d stick with the 8-9.

I noticed that more light than I liked was coming through my shades. My spot light is on the right side of the set-up, and the window is on the left. It can be confusing to have more than one light source, though I do find that I often like the effect of having a little cool light reach my set-up from the window on the opposite side of my spot light. It can add a balancing coolness to all of the warm light and warm-colored objects I tend to favor. In this case, I only want a touch of cool outdoor light. My shades aren’t very effective at blocking out a lot of light, so I improvised by covering them up with cardboard.

Here’s everything ready to go!

The last step before starting my drawing is to figure out how large the painting will be. I have found that still lifes look best when the objects are life-sized because the illusion of reality is enhanced. I begin by measuring the length of my set-up towards the front, and using this measurement as a starting point for the length of my drawing.

Using a T-square and triangle, I drew a rectangle on a sheet of drawing paper taped to my drawing board. The length was the length I measured above. I calculated the height using the 8-9 ratio. I now sub-divided the space into halves, quarters, thirds, and sixths both horizontally and vertically. These marks correspond to marks on my view-finder. For an explanation of how I use a view-finder to locate objects in my drawing, see I then quickly located and drew the main objects to see how large they’d be using this size paper. I found that they were smaller than life-sized. I thought that life-sized would look better, so I increased the size of the drawing a bit, using the same proportions. I had to redraw all of my guide-lines, too! I added 1/4″ to both height and length to allow for the overlap of a frame when the painting is complete. I can now order my canvas! I’ll use the time before it arrives to work on my drawing. If past experience is my guide, I’m sure that this basket will take quite a while to draw!

A Different Set-Up

This is the set-up as I left it. I found I was reluctant to try a different one. Partly it was because I didn’t want to damage the bird’s nest. Every time I picked it up, it fell apart a little more. Also, I was afraid that I’d never get everything back in the correct position with the correct lighting. Underlying these reasons though, was the reluctance to start from scratch. Creating something new is always daunting. It’s tempting to stick with my first idea because that’s easier. To come up with something different (and maybe better!) takes a lot of work. I decided that none of these reasons was good enough not to try another set-up.

I moved everything over to a different table. I used a darker board as the tabletop, but decided to keep the rice paper on the wall. I missed seeing the shadow cast by the loose weave of the basket in the first set-up, so I put the basket on the right side to leave more room for its shadow. All of the other objects now fit to the left of the basket, instead of on the right, as before. Otherwise, their arrangement is similar. The green glass box is now in shadow. I think that I prefer this. The nest stands out a bit more against the darker tabletop.

Above, I experimented with casting a dark shadow from the right side to add more drama. The top edge of this shadow is a little strange, but I could always fix its shape in the painting. Adding this shadow has eliminated the bits of the light background showing through the interstices of the weave, but overall, I think it’s better. If I adjust the light a bit, some spots should show on the left side of the basket where some parts of the wall are lit.

Above, I decided to rotate the basket. I was intrigued by the new shadow cast onto the wall. I might decide that it’s too distracting, though. I don’t want the shadow to draw too much attention. Also, in this position, the V-shape of the handle where it meets the body of the basket can’t be seen. I’ll live with both options for a day or two.

A New Basket, a New Painting

The Collectors who loaned me the Japanese basket for my recent painting were kind enough to lend me another! After that painting was finished, I swore that I wasn’t going to ever try to draw (let alone paint!) such a complicated thing again. Well, here I am! I just love the rustic shapes, the warm colors and the complexity these baskets have. This one is more loosely woven than the last. If it’s lit right, the background should show through the interstices.

At this point, I had no idea what else would be in the painting. The first thing I did was to set it down on the table and shine a light on it. Then I sat back and looked. I definitely wanted to be able to see some light through the weave of the bamboo, so I think I’ll have a light background. Also, the cast shadows are intriguing, so I’ll want to see some of those. To make it different from the last basket painting, I tried placing it on the left side of the composition. Also, in the last painting, the background was very dark. I’m curious to see what the basket will look like against a lighter background.

I found a bird’s nest in my garden a few weeks ago, and it’s been sitting outside my front door on a bench. It caught my eye as I was going into the studio to work. I thought it’d look great with the basket. It does! The man-made rustic basket harmonizes very well with the bird-made nest. My next thought was that I needed something smooth and shiny as a contrast. I tried the green glass bowl. I added the brown box on the left to create a ‘wall’ for the cast shadow to be cast onto.

Above, I’ve added a brown box to give the green bowl some height and stature. Also, I framed the composition more vertically.

Above, I’ve framed it more horizontally. I think the composition looks more suited to the vertical.

I opened up the box of wooden blocks for some more interest.

The set-up was looking very warm and orange, so I put up a piece of textured Japanese rice paper against the wall in a cooler tone. My paintings are usually warm, so this looks very different to me. I think I like it, though. Now, the green of the bowl brings out a greenish quality in the nest.

I think I’ll stop for now, and live with this set-up for a while. Tomorrow, I’ll try something different. I can always set this one up again if I decide I like it. I just have to be careful moving the nest. It’s very fragile!

Prints of My Paintings

Over the years, many people have requested that I make posters of my paintings available for sale. I did do this many years ago, but I stopped for a variety of reasons. The printer I liked went out of business, and the whole enterprise took up a lot of my time. I had to physically bring transparencies of my paintings to the printer, pick up the prints and mail them myself. Now, of course, I can simply e-mail a file of my painting to the printer and have them print and ship to my buyers directly.

I like the idea of having my work available to people who either might not be able to afford an original work, or who might not want to deal with the care of one.

I decided to give it a try! I attended an Objectivist conference this summer and had an opportunity to display some prints and offer them for sale. I made two full-sized prints- one of ‘Japanese Basket and Wine Decanter,’ and one of ‘Wrinkled Paper, Greek Vase and Obsidian.’ I had them mounted on Gatorfoam (a kind of classy foam core), complete with hanging hardware. I’m usually very critical of the way that my work looks when reproduced. The limitations of photography are very frustrating. It’s very hard to keep details in the darks and the lights in the same print. You have to sacrifice one or the other. Since I try to paint the whole range of values, from lightest to darkest in my work, this is a big problem. However,after I accepted that they wouldn’t look perfect, I decided that they looked pretty good!

I think that I’ll offer prints of all of my paintings that I have good images of for sale. I’ll add a page to my web-site for orders. We’ll see how it goes!

Knowing When You’re Done

After working on it for so long, I decided that I’m finished with Wrinkled Paper. I could have worked on it forever, observing subtle differences in color and value, correcting the drawing, but in the end, my goal wasn’t to make a perfect reproduction of reality, but to create a beautiful picture.

It’s interesting to reach that point in a painting where suddenly, it feels complete. Sometimes, I think that I’m merely tired of it! I’m sure that’s part of the desire to move on, but I think that more importantly, I realize that the picture is saying what I wanted it to say, for better or worse. It’s almost as if it has a life of it’s own, formed when I completed the set-up. I realize that vision in paint, and then it’s done. No amount of fussing with small details will change the overall effect.

I find that it’s very difficult for me to judge the worth of a painting soon after I complete it. I’ve been so involved with it that I can’t be objective. I might look at it in a few months and love it, or I might see glaring faults. I really don’t know!

I don’t have any idea what my next painting will be! For now, I’m going to take a little break over the summer to travel, be with my family, and work in the garden.

The Fun Part

When viewed from a distance, the painting is mostly finished at this point. The composition is complete. The large areas of light and shade as well as the colors are set. All that remains is to refine the details. Many of these will only be discernable up close, but to me, they are a large part of what makes a good still life so interesting to study. The subtleties of reflected lights, lost edges, colors in highlights, colors in the shadows all enhance the feeling of a heightened reality.

Above, I’ve finished the stacked stones. On the red stone, I painted the pattern on its surface, and added a small nick in the front. I muted the reflected light under the shadow on the left side, and added more yellow to the top surface on the right to better represent the light coming from that side. I added some bits of bright yellow and orange to the highlight to make it appear to glow.On the yellow stone, I added some reflected orange light on its bottom from the orange stone below. I softened its edges, and added some bright orange on the edge on the lighted side. I modified the triangular light spot between the stones and the obsidian by softening its edges with yellow to make it appear that light is radiating out from it.

On the stone above, I darkened the shadow side with a glaze. I softened all edges and refined the drawing of the patterns on the surface. I added some blue to the light areas in the highlighted side.

Above, I added some lighter details on the cut side of the geode. I also softened some edges on the blue stone.

Above, I adjusted small details- a bit of light here, a darker shadow there. Sometimes the changes are so subtle that it’s difficult to remember or even see what’s different! It is satisfying, though, to try to get the image closer and closer to reality (up to a point!)

I softened edges on the orange stone, and darkened the light reflected up from the table onto it’s bottom side. I worked on making subtle transitions in color and value in the double shadow that crosses it.

On the orange bowl, I lightened the left upper rim towards the back where it turns into shadow, so that it is lighter than the vase behind it. I added some pure cadmium red to the upper edge of the front rim to show the light bouncing off of it contrasted with the dark interior. I brightened the highlights on the right side of the front of the body of the bowl, and lightened the bottom where it catches reflected light from the tabletop below.

On the vase, I added black outlines to the triangular designs at the top, and corrected some wobbly lines all over. The original vase and mine (mine is obviously a reproduction!), was painted by hand, so the patterns aren’t perfectly even, so I don’t have to be too perfect.

Here’s what the painting looks like now. I think that I’ll put it away for a week to get some distance from it. If I’ve been working very hard on a painting, I can develop blind spots and it can be hard to make judgements. I don’t want to wait too much longer, though. If too much time passes, I lose my connection to the painting process and it’s very difficult to get back in the proper frame of mind to continue. Maybe when I look at it next week, something will strike me that needs changing. I wonder if I need to keep working on the paper. I know that I could keep refining it, but eventually to diminishing effect. I have to reach a point where it looks real and rewards close study, but not where it looks over-labored and focus-pulling. The vase- not the paper- is after all, the focal point!

Vase Details

I never work from photos. The camera both distorts and doesn’t provide enough information. It doesn’t pick up subtleties of color and tone, and can be deceiving about shapes and perspective. That being said, I have found one use for photos. Details on objects that are focal points should be clearly painted. If those details are too far away from my easel for me to see clearly, I need a little help. I could hop up and down from my stool to get closer to the set-up for a look, but that is exhausting and creates too much lag time between seeing and painting. It’s much easier to glance down at a photo on my phone held in my hand. One danger in this is that I might easily end up showing more detail than looks natural for an object seen at a distance of 5 feet with some of the areas in shadow. To avoid this, I only use the photo for the ‘drawing’ of the details. Before I paint them in earnest, I return to looking at the set-up to judge if some of them need to be muted or made more hazy, especially as the object turns into shadow. I can de-emphasize an area by dulling the intensity of its color, reducing value contrast, or making the drawing more hazy.

Above, I’ve begun to paint in details on the vase. You might notice that my painting isn’t exactly like the photo. Partly that’s because my drawing isn’t perfect! Partly it’s the result of the perspective in the photo being distorted because I was very close to the vase when I took the photo. As long as my perspective is correct, the disparities between my drawing and reality don’t bother me, because my goal isn’t to create an exact replica of the vase. It’s to create a beautiful painting!


Above, I’ve completed most of the designs. You can see how I’ve muted all detail in the highlighted areas. Also, as the vase turn toward the shadow, I’ve made the images much hazier with less value contrast. This makes the vase look believably rounded and the designs seem to be part of the vase.