Designing My New Set-up

People often ask me how I choose items to use in my still lifes. The general rule is that I have to love the things I paint. I often spend over 7 months studying them, so it’s great if they’re interesting to look at. I have been enjoying painting pieces of my costume jewelry collection in my last few still lifes, so I decided to feature a favorite Lanvin neckace in my new one. I thought that its bold colors and graphic shapes would make it a good focal point. I’ve often wanted to include a handbag in a composition but could never figure out a way that didn’t look forced and precious. I think that this Lanvin bag has such an interesting form that it might work, and it’s a good contrast to the necklace. I bought the mirror at the antique store last year and have been wanting to experiment with painting reflections in it.

The next step is to put the objects on my table and shine a light on them. My spotlight is on the right. To add dramatic shadows, I placed a tall box on the right to cast a shadow across the set-up. Just for fun, I threw a black cloth down on the table. I tacked up the handle of the bag onto the wall because when it was laying down, the shapes were confusing. Below you can see this first step.

I decided that the fabric was too busy, so I removed it. I needed another object, so I added the black vase. I really like seeing the reflection in the mirror of the red stone in the necklace. It’s a subtle way to get unity in the composition by repeating a color and shape. You also get variety because the shape is a bit different in the reflection.

I liked this, but it needed some more detail. Below, I added the stones.

The front on the right looked a little empty. Also, I wanted some more jewelry to echo the necklace. Below I added a ring and a few pairs of earrings. I draped one of the fabric dangling earring over the mirror. The biggest change is that I tried the set-up as a square. I think that I prefer it as a square. I’ve only used a square format once before, in ‘Noguchi Lamp, Jewelry, and Scarf.’ This set-up almost looks as if it could be a companion piece to it.

I wanted some cool daylight in this painting to balance all of the warm yellow tones. I opened the window shades a bit on the left to let in the indirect north light. You can see this in the blue cast to the lights coming in from the left. Doing this made me wonder what the composition would look like entirely in cool natural light. Below you can see.

I actually like this quite a bit, though I miss the drama and contrast that a spotlight brings to a composition.

As an experiment, I replace the black vase with this glass vase. It’s not bad.

Next, thinking I wanted some more color and a contemporary feel, I tried this Jonathan Adler vase I just bought instead of the glass vase. I like it! I like how the reds in it tie together the red in the necklace and reflection. It adds excitement to the composition.

As a check, I took a picture and edited it to be in black-and-white. I have found that it’s often better to judge a composition this way without the distraction of color. I think it works. It might be a bit busier than I usually prefer, but I’ll live with it for a while and see how I feel.

The Chain Necklace

I knew from the very start of this painting that the black chain necklace, with all of its many reflections, was going to be very difficult to paint. Seen from the from the distance of the viewer, it looks like a mass of sparkles, with very little detail of the actual structure of the chains. I aim to give the viewer the sense of actually seeing the objects that I depict in my paintings. Shiny objects reflect light and light obscures detail. I strive to show these effects in my painting. If I were to somehow paint each link of the chain, it would greatly reduce the effect of reality. Such minute detail would not convey the sense of actually being in the room and seeing the brilliantly lit bracelet, yet to attempt an impression of the chains and reflections without a knowledge of the structure wouldn’t look convincing. I’d have to first understand the structure, and then think of a way to suggest the details convincingly, without being over-specific. I’ll talk more about that later.

Below, in the underpainting, I started by indicating the chains with a rough outline of their mass. No more detail is required in the underpainting.

Below, I’ve begun to put in local colors. I decided to put in a dark area that would serve as the shadow area that would show between the highlighted areas of the chains. I roughly put in the shapes of the chains draped over the stone.

For the next stage, below, I needed to understand some more of the positions of the major chains. I did this as best as I could from my easel, though they were hard to see.

I thought it might be interesting for you to see what the actual bracelet looks like, so here it is, below. It’s complicated and hard to parse what’s going on!

I still wasn’t seeing clearly enough for me to understand the forms, and which reflections were coming from which chains. This is one of the few circumstances where I make use of photography in my painting. When I can’t understand a form because of reflections or small size, I take a photo from close-up so that I can bring it back to my easel and study it. I find that information and knowledge fuels seeing. Once I understand what’s there from the photo, I can then look at the set-up with my un-aided eye and see what’s going on. What looked like a bunch of unrelated pinpricks of light now reveal themselves as reflections off of the top side of tiny links! I don’t paint from the photo, though. The set-up looks remarkably different when seen in a close-up photo and from back at my easel. I need to paint it with all of the obscurities and subtleties that come with distance, if it’s to look convincing.

Above is my next attempt. The major chains are in their place, with dark and light areas indicated. It’s interesting that even at this early stage, the suggestion of chains is convincing!

There are more refinements above. As I always find, the more that I’ve seen and painted, the easier it is to see more and paint more. I still need to work on the middle of the chain, under and to the left of the Chanel pendant. Also, I’ll be muting some details to suggest the idea of sparkling light.

Progress of the Basket

I thought that it would be helpful to watch the basket progress. For a viewer looking at the finished painting, it might seem bewildering how one can achieve a finished effect. Knowing that it doesn’t all happen at once de-mystifies the process.

As you’ve seen, I start with a simple monochrome underpainting. The paint layer is very thin, with no medium added. Edges are kept sharp, and details are omitted. Below, I’ve begun to paint the local colors on top of the dried underpainting. Since it’s hard to judge colors at this early stage, I just give it my best guess. I can correct later. For now, I’m not worrying about reflected lights, soft edges, or any subtleties.

Below, most of the underpainting is covered, which was my goal for now. In the course of this first layer, I had to correct small errors in my drawing. This always happens no matter how careful I am.

I’m skipping ahead a bit in the next photo, but you can see how I’ve gone back over everything- refining and adjusting colors, values and shapes. I’ve softened edges and smoothed transitions.

Here are some close-ups to help you see the refining process. Everything is pretty simply indicated at the beginning.

At this point, I could see that all of the colors were too saturated. Below, I’ve made the colors less bright, added some shadows and highlights, and began softening edges. I had to re-see and re-do some of the drawing, which was frustrating, but necessary.

I continued to refine in the photo below. It’s getting close to being done, but there’s still much to do before I’ll be satisfied.

Glazing the Vase

My process of painting this blue vase is a good demonstration of painting in layers. I began with a simple underpainting using a palette of 9 values of burnt sienna and lead white.

Below, I’ve painted the basic local color of the vase with no detail. I painted it much lighter than it will ultimately be, since I plan on glazing it in a darker tone later. This color will show through the transparent glaze layers.

Below, I’ve glazed the background closer to its finished value so I could better judge the value of the vase.

The photo below is a little glarey, but you can still see the dark glaze on the blue vase that I added at my next session. I’ll probably darken it even more, but I don’t want to go too far yet, as I can always add another glaze, but I can’t take one away without beginning again! Into the wet glaze, I painted some opaque light paint to indicate the reflections. This method creates mysterious, blurry edges that are just what I wanted. I added a reflected light on the left side of the vase.

Below, (again, not a great photo), I have darkened the bottom of the vase with another glaze and have refined the reflections. I also worked a bit on the top edge

I’ll continue to refine and adjust the vase as I progress. Using this layered approach allows for great subtlety and nuance. The underpainting shows through here and there, unifying the image, the glazes create transparency, and the direct painting on top gives substance to the lights.

Starting to Add Color

My underpainting is dry, so i can finally begin to apply color. It always looks like a ghost of a painting at this stage.

I decided to tackle the bottle first. It’s always hard to begin. I reassured myself by remembering that it’s just the beginning, and that many more layers of paint will follow. The more paint that is down, the easier it will be to judge colors and shapes and to adjust. The important thing is to begin. Accuracy and beauty will come later. Below you can see that I started by painting only the basic shapes. On something complicated, like glass, it’s always hard at first, to see all of the complex shapes of the shadows and reflections. Having this rough version down will make it easier the next time I paint it. I’ll have landmarks to judge from, will be able to compare what I see in the set-up to the painting and make adjustments and corrections. Also, I will know the object better.

The blue vase, below, is in shadow. I like to glaze my shadows with a dark, transparent glaze to achieve a shadowy feel. I painted it in a lighter color than it will be, so after I glaze it, it will be the correct, darker value. It will also have light reflections cast onto it. These I will depict by painting some light valued paint into the dark glaze while it is still wet. By doing this, I can get soft, mysterious edges to the reflections.

Above you can see my first attempt at the necklace. This necklace has many fine chains and will be quite a challenge to paint. Here, I simply put in a shadowy base that will serve as a mid-tone between all of the many chains. I also roughed in some color on the sandstone.

Above, I’ve started on the basket. It was extremely frustrating to get the right color for the bamboo strips. No matter what color I mixed, it seemed wrong. Until I cover more of the canvas with paint, I won’t be able to judge colors correctly. I’ll go back many times to adjust the colors. Also, even though I tried so hard to preserve the drawing through this process of drawing, transferring, and underpainting, I still have unclear areas that I had to re-see and re-draw with paint. It’s a complicated basket!

I painted in the background, trying to get a smooth transition from a slightly lighter tone on the left, to a darker one on the right. I mixed three values of the yellowy beige, painted them in stripes, then blended. I also started to indicate the wood grain very lightly. I painted the shadow areas in a very light value, so that I can glaze over them with a dark glaze later, to achieve the correct dark, shadow tone. With layered painting, you have to plan ahead.


I transferred my drawing to canvas, and now I can finally start to put down some paint. It’s been months since I began to work on the set-up for this painting. Even now, I’m still in the preparatory stage! What comes next is my underpainting. I use 9 values of lead white and burnt sienna. I paint very thinly and without much detail. Everything is painted in a lighter value than what it will be in the finished painting, because the finishing colors look fresher over a lighter layer. This first layer of paint gets me painting in a very low-stress kind of way, since I don’t have to think about color or detail. Also, most of it will be covered later. It will serve as the base of the painting and will subtlety provide a consistent hue to the whole canvas. I paint carefully to preserve the detailed drawing I’ve done, but as always, each time I approach the drawing, I see corrections that need to be made. I make them here in paint instead of in pencil.

It was hard to begin. I had to adjust my brain to seeing such complex shapes. I began with the easiest-to-see bits. After an hour, I was able to go a little more quickly. Below is from my next session.

I moved to other parts of the painting after I couldn’t take painting any more small details on the basket. Below is how I left it. I still have several days left before it’s complete. When it is, I’ll let it dry for a week or so, and then onward to color.

Value Study

Before my drawing is complete, I’ll take some time to do a full-size value study in black, white, and gray. I do this for several reasons. First, it’s a great way to judge my composition. I’ve found that if a composition doesn’t look good in black-and-white, it won’t look good in color. If I see anything that doesn’t work, I can quickly make changes. Any changes I like, I’ll make in my drawing also.

To make my study, I tape a piece of tracing paper over my drawing. I can see the drawing underneath and use it as a guide as I paint. This study is very rough and loose. I don’t need many details to judge the composition. I just need the big masses of values. I won’t paint every bamboo strip on the basket. I’ll indicate the major ones, and quickly sketch in an impression of the rest.

It’s amazing how just a few brushstrokes can evoke an object! Below you can see the study after the first layer of paint is down. I usually find that I need to come back and add more value contrast (darker darks and lighter lights) after the paint is dry. If I try to do it now, it all smears together into mid-tones.

Even unfinished, I can get a good sense of the final composition from the study. You can see that you don’t need small details to get that sense. It’s the large masses of light and dark and how the shapes and lines lead the eye that make a striking composition. Without that, all the accurate details in the world won’t save it. Good composition always trumps precise rendering of forms.

Drawing-Observing and Correcting

Shapes with complex curves can be very hard to draw correctly. As you can see below, I changed my mind about the curve of this bottle many times. Each time I was certain that I was right. I’d come back the next day and look at the bottle, compare it with my drawing, and see that the mistakes were glaring. In the thick of observing and drawing, it is easy to be convinced that you are seeing correctly. I think it is essential to take a step back now and then and quickly glance from set-up to drawing and try to see the object you are drawing as an abstract shape–in this case, not a particular bottle, but a curved shape. I also try to observe the negative spaces between objects as abstract shapes. It’s this odd shift of awareness, like looking at an Escher print of stairs and making the shift of perspective to see it inside-out. You be amazed how errors reveal themselves when you look in this way.

I don’t bother trying to draw both sides of symmetrical objects by eye. I get one side correct, then I place a piece of tracing paper over it and trace it, being careful to include the center line (which I always mark on my drawing), and a horizontal line crossing it that corresponds to some horizontal measuring line on the drawing. I then flip over the tracing paper, aligning the center line and the horizontal mark. Now, using my original line as carbon paper, I trace over the line to transfer a perfectly symmetrical other half. It’s easy and always works.

I’ve made a lot of progress on the drawing of the basket. It’s like putting together a puzzle. The more pieces that are in place, the easier it is to place more. I’ve had to go back and correct earlier work, using my method described above. You can see above that I’ve numbered right on the drawing, adjacent pieces of bamboo on the handle. This is to make it easier to go back-and-forth between drawing and set-up and know where I was looking. I’ll say to myself “strip #3 should be a bit wider,” or “strip #6 should have more of a tilt.” If I don’t do this, I get hopelessly lost in the complexity. Anything I can do to make the drawing easier, is a good thing.

Above, I’ve made my first attempt at the necklace. It’s hard to get everything in the correct perspective. I drew the Chanel logo charm using a circle template. I’ll take another look at it tomorrow to see if I can catch any errors. I won’t bother to draw more than the basic outlines of the complex chain on the necklace. It’s too tiny and complicated. I’ll save that for when I’m painting.

It Begins With a Drawing

My latest painting features this Japanese basket. I couldn’t paint it without a detailed drawing to guide me. I drew it once before when I included it in a commissioned painting, and it wasn’t easy! Looking at that painting now, I can see that the drawing wasn’t entirely accurate (not that it really mattered in the context of the painting!) This time, I want to make sure that the large form is correct before attempting all of the details of the weaving. Here it is! It’s rather daunting.

Below, I’ve begun the drawing. I used my favorite measuring tools- a skinny knitting needle and a view-finder, and a ruler held up in front of me. See Drawing Again for details on how this works and my thoughts on drawing this basket the first time I painted it. I also simply looked at the set-up and tried to reproduce what I saw there without any measuring tools. One of the problems with looking back and forth between the set-up and my drawing, is that the two images naturally appear to be different sizes, and it’s hard to compare accurately. For this drawing, I tried a new method. I snapped a picture of the basket and held up my phone in front of me so that the basket appeared the same size as the basket in my drawing. Then I quickly looked back and forth and compared the overall shapes. Now that they appeared the same size, this was easy to see. I didn’t draw from the photo. I simply used it to do a quick check on the overall shapes. I always draw from life, never from photos. You can’t get the same kind of accuracy from attempting to draw from a photo. After I drew the large overall shape of the basket, I I located a few obvious and clear areas, such as the borders of the large bands of bamboo that encircle the basket. I usually find that even after a lot of measuring and drawing, things often don’t look right to me. In this case, I take advantage of the first few moments of looking at the drawing when I begin a session. At this time, the eye is fresh and can see errors that are impossible to see after hours of staring at something. Measuring is very helpful, but in the end, there is no substitute for simply looking.

I find this beginning part of a complex drawing very difficult and taxing. There are several reasons for this. First, every bamboo strip must be correctly located. Second, it is hard to keep exactly what you are looking at in mind as you move your gaze from set-up to drawing. As it progresses, and more things are in place, it is easier to know where you are and to fill in the details.

Seeing Takes Time

When confronted with a complex subject, I often despair of ever being able to see it clearly, let alone paint it. I felt that way about this mossy branch. The wood wasn’t so difficult, but the moss bits were very complex. Also, the forms and colors blended together and were mostly indistinct, making them very hard to puzzle out. At first, the best I could do was to just approximately show the positions of the various forms. You can see this stage below.

At my next session, below, I tried to see some further details. Interestingly, the previous stage of just showing the basic positions and shapes helped me here. Unlike before, now my eye had something to fix on in my painting, so that when I looked at the set-up, I knew where to look on my canvas for the corresponding area. The words in my mind were something like: ‘In the set-up, see that clump of moss on the branch near where it forks on the top edge on the right– it actually has a dark greenish bit where it touches the wood.” I could then easily find that bit on my canvas and paint it. I couldn’t have done this right off of the bat at my first session–I was too overwhelmed with detail. For now, I didn’t try to do much more with that little bit of moss, but moved on to another, trying to see just a little more than I had the first time. Below you can see the forms beginning to take shape.

I think it’s important not to criticize yourself for not being able to see and paint details all at once. Until some work has been done, and the eye can identify areas on the canvas that correspond to areas in the set-up, it can’t do the quick back-and-forth studying necessary to accurately observe and capture a color, shape, or relationship. As the painting progresses, and more areas are worked on, it becomes easier and easier to compare and see how the painting needs to be adjusted. Every layer of paint further clarifies the image. It’s amazing to me how after a few sessions, what seemed like chaos in the set-up, is now understandable and paintable.

Above is my latest session. Now that the basics were in, I could begin to see quite detailed bits of shadow, highlights, colors, and forms. Seeing and painting takes time!