When Covid started, a year ago, I worried that I might not be able to order my custom-made canvases. Fortunately, the business I use remained opened, though their production was way down. The owner told me that he had an extra 2′ square canvas that he had stretched for someone else who didn’t want it. I decided to get it as a reserve, not knowing how long Covid would last. I had two concerns about this canvas. The most important was that I always design my composition to whatever size seems to suit the objects that I choose. Since I paint life-size, I can’t make too many adjustments. If the objects are large or there are many of them, the painting is larger. If they are smaller or fewer, it’s smaller! I move the objects around until I am happy. After my design is complete, I order my canvas. Usually, they end up being very idiosyncratic sizes, like 24 3/8 x 15 1/4 inches. So, the idea of starting from a set canvas size was against my way of working. The second problem is that a square is a tricky shape to design in. I set the canvas away, not knowing how or if I would ever use it.
A few months ago, I was looking through some of my older paintings and found one that featured an illuminated Noguchi lamp. Isamu Noguchi was a Japanese artist who made sculptures, furniture and wonderful paper shade lamps. I own several of his lamps. I had painted another one, also, but sold the painting years ago. It was one of my favorites. I was always a little sad that I had sold it. I decided to paint this lamp again, so I dug it out of storage. Unfortunately, my cats had had a go at it, and it had faded considerably. You can still get replacement shades for these lamps, so I ordered another one and began to design the painting with the old lamp while I waited for my new shade to arrive.
Above you can see the lamp with a few objects I thought might work with it- a crystal bracelet, a bead necklace, and an orange crate. I’ve been wanting to add some more intense colors into my work for a while, so I was excited to add the scarf, too. At first, I just put all of these things on the table without much thought- a process that my fellow-still life artist Tom Strutton calls the “heap of stuff” method! I turned on the lamp to see what shadows it cast on its own with no spotlight.
I decided that a ‘wall’ on the left that would cast a shadow from a spotlight would add some drama to the composition. I used an antique paint box that has shown up in many of my paintings. I up-ended the orange crate and hung the necklace from it, to get some interest at mid-height. Already, I liked it more.
Next, I added the scarf. This was fun, but I felt that it stole the show a bit, drawing attention away from the lamp, my star. An amazing thing happened next. I found that my square view-finder worked the best. Even more amazing is that when I measured the horizontal distance of my set-up (the way I usually determine my canvas size), it was almost exactly 2 feet! I could actually use my ready-made canvas, after all.
Above, I tried a different scarf, still colorful, but more subtle. The scarf shape wasn’t quite right, though.
Above, I re-draped the scarf, placing the bracelet into the empty area on the left, partly in the shadow, for more drama. I arranged the scarf so that both red dots were visible. I think that leads the eye up into the composition towards the lamp. Also, though you can’t tell here, Noguchi’s signature on the lamp (which is faded in this older version, but which will show up on my new shade) features a red dot. Repetition and variety are one of the keys to good composition! I moved the spotlight, so that the beaded necklace cast a shadow. The shadow provided a nice repetition of the shape of the beads. I tied the bow on the necklace to mimic the bows on the lamp- repetition and variety again! As an experiment, below, I turned off the spot to see the effect of just the lamp on. (This photo was taken before I had finalized the position of the bracelet and scarf.) I think it’s not as good without the spot!
I am very happy with this set-up with both the lamp and the spot on, but I won’t finalize the design until I get my new shade installed and the lamp set up again. I’m sure that it will disrupt the scarf, and things will need to be re-arranged. I like every detail to be intentional. This isn’t always possible when working with cloth, because it has a mind of its own, but I try!