The Changing Light

When I composed this set-up, it was late summer, and the Pacific Northwest was bright and sunny until it finally got dark around 9pm. Now, it is winter, and the sky is dark at 4:30 on a cloudy day, and most days are cloudy. My studio is set up to let in some northern, cool, outside light, so the weather and time of year really make a difference (more about that at the end). At my last painting session, the set-up was looking rather dark, so I decided to go back and check my reference photo. It was, indeed, significantly brighter. You can see this in the photos below, though the photos don’t quite do it justice. The first was from September, and the second yesterday.

My painting is below. (Please forgive the terrible sinking in of the paint on the orange box on the right. This happens when the new layer of paint sinks into the lower level, producing this matt, light look. I’ll correct it at my next session with a layer of glaze medium, which will bring back the vibrance and shine.) Though I haven’t worked on the blue wall in shadow very much yet, it was certainly looking pretty dark–more like the second photo. I kept checking to see if it was correct. It was–for a cloudy day in January! I’m glad that I thought to check the reference photo. All things considered, I’d rather paint what is in front of me, but in this case, I really prefer the light and bright look of the September light. It’s supposed to be sunny tomorrow, so hopefully, if I paint early in the day, and open my blinds a bit, I’ll be able to replicate the brighter look.

If I painted in a studio that could block out all outside light, and painted only under artificial light, this issue with seasonal differences wouldn’t be an issue. I, however, love the look of some cool, secondary outside light providing a contrast to my warm spotlight. Warm light is always dominant in my work, but if you look, you can always see this blue light.

How the Painting is Progressing

I thought it would be interesting to see how the painting has progressed in the last few weeks. Below, I’ve just begun to put down the first layer of color. I’m not being super-detailed yet. I’m just putting in local colors and getting the values closer to being correct.

Below, I painted the blue wall that’s in the shadow. I made it lighter than it will ultimately be so that I can glaze over it later. I’m doing this now so that it will have time to thoroughly dry before glazing. It’ll take at least a week.

Below, I finished covering the underpainting with local colors, except for the top of the vase. I couldn’t do it because I had no place dry to rest my hand. It’s inconvenient, but I never got used to using a mahl stick (a rod that you rest on the top of the canvas to support the painting hand).

Below, I’ve glazed the shadows on the tabletop and front.

Finally, below, I’ve painted a glaze onto the backwall shadow. It’s still not quite dark enough, but until I work more on the adjacent areas, it’s hard to judge. It’s easy to add another glaze, and impossible to take one away! The glaze caught on the brushstrokes, making it look streaky. This often happens when you glaze over a very light area. I stippled it with a shaving brush to even it out. This back wall area is going to get a lot more attention soon.

I refined the stones on the left on top of the box, thinking more about value, color, edges and details. I put another glaze on the green glass bowl and the shadow side of the vase. I began to study the details of the vase, painting the patterns more carefully, and adjusting colors and values. At my next painting session, I’ll try to get the value of the shadows finalized, and dive into the details of the vase.

Starting to Work with Color

The parts of my underpainting that I worked on first were dry, so I started to put down the first layers of local color. First, I put a green glaze over the yellow portions. This will serve as the lightest parts of the glass bowl and reflections on the wall. I’ll continue to add darker glazes for the darker parts when this layer is dry. Next, I tackled the blue box. It’s hard to judge values correctly at the beginning, since I have no basis for comparison. This is where my value study comes in handy. I can dab a bit of paint on it. It’s easy to see if the dab is too dark or too light. When it’s just right, it blends right in. To judge the color (and value, too), I make a tiny window with my fingers and thumb, with each hand. One, I use as a window to frame the area I’m studying in the set-up, the other, as a frame to view the equivalent area I painted on my canvas. Framed this way, and viewed simultaneously, it’s easy to compare for value and hue. Some areas I paint lighter than they’ll be, to allow for future glazes (such as the shadow sides of the stones and box, and the cast shadows on the box and tabletop.

I’m not super careful about edges and subtleties at this point. I’m just trying to cover the under-painting with the approximately correct local colors. Below, you can see I also put a quick layer of paint on the geode and fool’s gold.

Tomorrow, the rest of the canvas should be dry, and I’ll begin to work on the back wall with all of its complicated reflections. I’ll paint the shadow area lighter than it will be so that I can glaze over it. I like all of my shadows to be glazed. This gives them a luminosity and transparency that can’t be achieved with body color. I’ll also add another layer of glaze to the green glass bowl.

I Finally Begin the Underpainting

I almost always do my underpaintings in burnt sienna and lead white. The warm earthy orange of burnt sienna works well with the colors I tend to use. They are both low-oil content pigments, which is important for the underlayer. This follows the ‘fat-over-lean’ rule, which states that higher-oil content pigments must be used only in the top layers of a painting, with the leaner layers beneath. If you don’t follow this rule, the painting won’t dry properly, and some layers might crack.

If I want to achieve certain bright colors, however, I often use glazing. A glaze is a layer of paint, mixed with a medium, which makes it transparent. (Some pigments are naturally transparent, which enhances the effect.) When painted over another color, the glaze allows the under-layer to shine through. In this case, I wanted a bright green for the glass bowl, parts of the vase, and the fluorite crystal. Glazing viridian green over cadmium yellow produces a vibrant green. If I were simply to mix cadmium, yellow, viridian green, and lead white, the resulting mix would look dull by comparison. Because a glaze is transparent, it will always look clearer and more luminous than opaque body color.

Everything in the underpainting is lighter in value than the finished image will be. I think that the top layers of color look brighter over a lighter base. You’ll also notice that I don’t worry too much about detail in this stage of painting. All of this will be covered up, so there is no point in spending a lot of time on things that will be re-painted. I’m also careful to stay in the lines and not lose the drawing. I’ll need those lines as a guide later on. One last reason to do an underpainting is just to get some paint down on the canvas, with no pressure for it to be correct and finished. An oil painting like this is layered and evolves over time. It’s important for me not to feel pressured to be brilliant, especially at the beginning. There is always time for that later!

I’m finished. Now I need to let it dry for at least a week before I can paint over it.

Creating a Feeling of Depth in a Still Life

I was recently asked by a follower on Instagram how I got a feeling of depth in my paintings. I realized that there wasn’t a quick answer, so I thought I’d talk about it here (as I’m still waiting for my canvas to arrive and can’t paint yet)!

I think that the first thing that gives a still life depth is the proper use of perspective. It’s essential to master the basics, or your work will never look convincingly real. Even if you’re the best observer in the world, I find that you need to check your observations with measurements–to locate your vanishing point and make sure that all lines perpendicular to the picture plane recede to it. If objects are at an angle to the picture plane, you have to learn about 2-point perspective, and find or estimate those vanishing points. Ellipses have to be drawn at the correct angle and be symmetrical. Below is the drawing for ‘Books in Box with Ribbon and Glass.’ You can see that all lines parallel to the picture plane recede to a vanishing point above the top of the drawing.

Once you begin the painting process, I have found that the way you treat the shadows vs. the light areas also affects the appearance of depth. I like to keep the paint in the shadow areas very thin and transparent. I use several layers of a dark glaze to achieve this. In the lightest areas of the painting, I use heavier layers of paint. The brushstrokes in these light areas stand out from the canvas and actually catch the light illuminating the canvas. This contributes to the illusion of light bouncing off of the objects, which contrasts with the deep, mysterious thin shadows.

It’s also important to remember that in the shadows, details are difficult to discern. Muting these details in the shadows by leaving out some parts, softening edges, and decreasing value differences also increases the illusion of depth. Below, you can see how I muted the details on the spine of the blue book that is in the shadow.

The way you set up a still life can also create a feeling of depth. Overlapping one object with another is one way to do this. This gives the viewer the idea that there is space for this to happen in. It’s usually not a good idea, though, to completely block the base of an object that is being overlapped. Even just a glimpse of the base of the object in the back clarifies its form and lends a feeling of stability. In the painting below, you can see some of the base of all of the bricks. This helps you understand their form and gives them visual weight. The objects in front of the bricks overlap the bricks and each other, giving you a sense of foreground and background, and hence, depth.

Transferring the Drawing

I made some corrections on my drawing after noticing a few errors while I was doing my value study. The next step was for me to transfer the drawing to the canvas. First, I taped some tracing paper over my drawing and made a careful tracing of it.

I flipped the tracing over and scribbled HB pencil over the lines that I wanted to transfer. When my canvas arrives, I will tape this tracing over it, scribble-side-down, and trace my lines with a 2H pencil to transfer the lines onto the canvas.

I have found that no matter how careful I am, the drawing always gets a bit distorted when I trace it. This is because I’m not drawing by directly observing the set-up, but am just mindlessly tracing lines without reference to reality. For a drawing to be correct, it must always be the result of observation! For this reason, I always go back and correct the transferred drawing on the canvas while observing the set-up.

Now I just need my canvas to arrive and I can start to paint!

Value Study

I’ll use the time waiting for my canvas to arrive to paint my value study. I paint this on tracing paper taped over my drawing, so that I can follow the outlines. I use 9 values ranging from white to black. There will be more values in my finished painting, but this is enough for now. I number them right on the palette for easy reference. This study will be very rough. I don’t need a lot of details to give me an idea of what the finished composition will look like in black-and-white.

The purpose of the study is two-fold. Most importantly, seeing it without color, I can judge the composition more easily. Lightness and darkness and the contrast between them are crucial in the construction of a painting. Color does affect the composition, but I’ve found that if the composition doesn’t look good in black-and-white, it won’t look good in color.

Above is my initial attempt. It’s hard to get it right the first time, as one must compare areas to judge the right values, and until all areas are painted, you can’t judge correctly. I can see already that the lights need to be lighter. Below is the whole picture. I’ll let this dry for a few days so that I can paint in corrections.

A week later, I put in my corrections. You can see this below. Most of the lights have been lightened, especially the tabletop, the wall on the left, and the white stones. I’ve also darkened the box, the shadow cast on the table by the big vase, and the area around the geode on the right. I’ve added reflections on the big vase, especially on its shadow side.

I’m happy with this, though I’ll live with it for a while to see if I want to make any more changes.

Drawing Ellipses on the Vase

My drawing of the vase is far along enough now that I can calculate the exact ellipses of the designs as well as the shape of the vase. See How to Draw anĀ Ellipse for complete instructions on the ‘pin-and-string-method’ of ellipse construction. Below you can see tracings taped to my drawing of several of the ellipses that I constructed. These were transferred to the drawing by flipping the paper over and tracing over the lines to transfer.

It’s important not just to get the shape of the ellipse correct and symmetrical, but also to make sure that the angle of the ellipse is correct. The closer it gets to eye level, the more shallow the ellipse appears. As it goes below eye level, it looks increasingly closer to a circle. I check these angles with a string and a protractor. The string is tied to a stand at my eye level and I then carry it over to the appropriate circle in my set-up. I measure the angle from the horizontal with a protractor. I use this number to construct the ellipse.

You can see that I’ve drawn the ellipses not just to the edge of the form, but a little further, around the curve, This helps ensure that you don’t draw the ellipse as coming to a point at the edge- a common mistake. If you get this detail correct, your ellipses will look very convincing!

Drawing Correctly Takes Time

I’ve been taking my time with the drawing for my latest painting because I’m waiting for the canvas to arrive from the stretchers. This one seems particularly difficult. I think that part of the problem is that I thought that the large vase should be life-sized. I had calculated the size of the canvas to insure this. I measured the actual vase to get the width of the base, top, and widest part of the middle in the drawing. I used these measurements to figure out other measurements. For example, the width of the vase at its widest should be equal to the length of the box on the left (I could tell this by holding up a ruler in front of my eyes and comparing distances). Unfortunately, the box kept seeming wrong to me, no matter how much I checked its proportions. I left it for the day. There is a phenomenon that I call ‘fresh eyes.’ That happens after you work very hard on a drawing and are unable to judge it objectively, and then leave it for a day. The following day, in the first few moments of observation, mistakes jump out clearly. It seems unbelievable that such errors could have passed you by unnoticed. When I looked at the drawing the next day, it was clear that I had drawn the vase too large. It actually should have been a bit smaller than life-sized. Subsequently, the box had to be reduced as well. The box looking wrong now made sense. You can see in the picture below where I erased and reduced the size of the large vase.

I also ended up lowering the box. I also think that I’ll raise the two stacked stones so that they overlap the box, I don’t like that they are now just touching. It’s confusing and destroys the feeling of depth.

I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not that important to get every detail of the drawing just like the set-up. The important thing is the composition. The viewer will never know if the box is lower than in the set-up or if a stone is too large. As long as the perspective is mostly correct, symmetrical objects are symmetrical, and ellipses are correct, the drawing will look convincing.

My next step will be to calculate the ellipses for the vases.

Getting Paintings Ready to Ship

I spend most of my working time creating paintings, but sometimes I need to think about how to get them to a collector or a gallery. Shipping paintings can be a little stressful. I’ve had the most success using strongboxes, which are heavy-duty corrugated boxes, with a customizable interior foam lining. I get those mail-order. For this batch of paintings, I didn’t have enough time to order these. Luckily, I kept the boxes that my canvases were shipped to me in. They’re not as strong as a strongbox, but they are padded with foam cut to the correct sizes.

The first step (after using tape to remove dust and cat hair!) was to cover the surface of the painting with a sheet of glassine. This protects the paint layer. I folded the edges over and taped this on using artist’s tape.

Then I put the painting into it’s pre-cut nest, put on the lid and used packing tape to close. For extra strength and cushioning, I’m having the shippers put all four boxes into a larger box which will be padded with paper coils.

That took quite a while, but it’s worth it for my peace of mind.