Drawing Again

Now that I’ve completed my black-and-white study and I’m happy with the design, I can finalize my drawing, knowing that I won’t have to move anything around. Here’s a close-up of the basket as I left it before my study.

Japanese basket #37

Returning to the drawing after a break helped me to see that the overall shape wasn’t correct. The ‘waist’ (narrowest part) under the rim was too thick. Also, the major woven strips weren’t in quite the right positions.

Japanese basket #36

I corrected those mistakes. Now I began to fill in all of the little woven strips. They’re quite difficult to draw. First, I must look at the set-up to locate a detail, then to my paper to draw it, and back again to the set-up to re-check. These quick back-and-forth movements of the eye are crucial in judging if the detail I just drew is in the correct place.  I must see not only the detail, but where it is positioned in relationship to the rest of the basket, quickly comparing reality to my drawing to make sure they are in agreement.  Drawing a complex object is difficult because it’s easy to loose track of which little detail I was observing. By the time my eye leaves the set-up, goes to my drawing and returns to the set-up, I often lose track of which strip I was looking at!  If my eye is confused as to which detail to return to, I lose the ability to compare and judge.

This is where measuring can come in handy. It can help me to locate a spot on my drawing, check the proportions of an object (it’s height to its width, for example), or compare the sizes of different objects in the set-up (one object might measure 1 1/2 times the length of another, for example.). Using my view-finder in the beginning stages of the drawing was another kind of measuring.

I use several tools for measuring. The most handy are a pair of very thin knitting needles. I hold them up at arms length, one in each hand, one horizontal and one vertical, touching each other and forming a cross. To judge the proportions of the Japanese vase, for instance, I hold up the crossed needles, and mark the height on the vertical needle with my thumb. I then line up the horizontal needle with the widest part of the vase, always keeping the needles touching, in the same plane. I mark off the width with my other thumb. Now, holding the two needles together, and keeping my thumbs in place, I bring the whole unit in front of my drawing. If I’ve already determined how tall I want the vase to be, I bring the unit of needles at the correct distance from my drawing so that the vertical distance I’ve marked off with my thumb corresponds to the height I’ve drawn. The horizontal needle will now show the correct width of the vase.

Japanese basket #39

Japanese basket #41

I also use a plain ruler. I hold the ruler up in front of me in such a position that some convenient mark (say 1/2 inch) is the same length of something I want to measure. If I keep the ruler in the same plane, I can shift it around to measure some other object to compare it to the first. For example, the base of the vase might measure 1 inch and the box might measure 1 1/2.”  I now know that if I divide the length of the box into 3 units, the base of the vase should measure 2 units.

Japanses basket # 40

I can also use a knitting needle to show me any angle in the set-up. I hold the needle in front of me and line it up with an angle, say, the receding side of the box. If I rotate my body, keeping my hand holding the needle steady, I can then hold it in front of my drawing and check the angle. I find this method a little iffy, as it’s easy to move the arm too much.

Japanese basket #40

Here’s the drawing after some more measuring and seeing.

Japanese basket #38

Though measuring is helpful, and can be a good check, it can easily become a crutch, and worse, can be misleading. It can lure you into a false sense of security, encouraging you to think that everything you’ve measured is objective and correct.  In fact, hands are shaky, and the measurements can be far from accurate. Also, in a sense, measuring takes you way from seeing the whole picture because you are concentrating on isolated spots. It takes you away from that constant comparing and judging that is the source of good drawing. I find measuring most useful to quickly place items in a composition at the very beginning of a drawing, to check the horizontal and vertical proportions of individual objects, and to estimate the relative sizes of different objects.

So many times after spending a drawing session measuring and re-measuring, I’ll return the next day and see that the proportions are off! In the end, I always trust my eyes, not the ruler.


Final Adjustments


Even though the paint is still a bit wet, I think I’ll make some adjustments to my study. Here’s how it stands.

Japanese basket #30

Below you can see the changes I made. The first thing I did was to put some more detail on the basket handle and add a few highlights on its left side to draw the eye into the top of the composition. I darkened the handle’s right side to keep it in the shadow.  I darkened the wall behind and to the right of the basket. I also added more detail on the basket, especially on its dark left side. On the light side, I added some of the shadows cast by the weave. I want the lit part of the handle on the box to draw the eye, so I spent a little time painting this accurately, and brightening it. The top of the box was too dark, so I lightened it one step. I added some highlights on the decanter and darkened the wall on the far left. I’m mot sure if I like this. I may put it back the way it was.

Finally, I decided that the fold in the cloth under the decanter was distracting and leading the eye out of the picture, so I eliminated it.

Japanese basket #34

I’m including a close-up below to illustrate how loose and free the execution is in this study. More care and details would serve no useful purpose here. I’m trying to see the big picture (literally!) and how the composition as a whole hangs together. Details are fun and interesting, but it’s the big shapes and values that determine if a composition will be a success or not.

Japanese basket #33

I’ll tape the black-and-white study on the wall and refer to it when I begin painting my canvas. I’ll use it to make sure I’m getting my values correct. I’ll daub a bit of whatever color I’m mixing onto the corresponding place on the study and compare values. If the color’s too light or too dark it will stand out noticeably. Below is a photo of the study from my last painting where you can see daubs of paint whose values I was checking. If you squint your eyes and the daub disappears, you know its the correct value to match the adjacent area.


If I still like the study in a few days, I’ll order my canvas and start perfecting my drawing.

Black-and-White Study

Before I begin my study, I must mix up a range of greys in values from black to white. I’ve found that for the purposes of the study, 9 values will suffice. (The finished painting will contain many more values than this, but I can save subtlety for later!) I number each value mix right on my palette. That way, if I use a #3 and it looks too light, for example, I’ll know to try the #4.

Japanese basket #26

I usually begin by painting the darkest and the lightest values. I can judge the rest of the values in comparison to these. Seeing values can be tricky. I must compare one area to another constantly. Until all of the paint is in place, it’s very difficult to be sure I’m seeing correctly! This doesn’t bother me, though, because I know that this is just my first approximation.  I will return after this first layer has dried a bit, and make corrections.

Japanese basket #27

I’ve added some more details below.  I don’t try to be exact when painting the study. My style here is extremely loose and free. I just want to see where the basic large shapes and values are. That will be enough for me to be able to judge the composition. Any time I spend painting too carefully will be time wasted.

Japanese basket #25

After a break of a few days, I’ve made some corrections below. The box wasn’t dark enough, the tablecloth was too light, and the left side of the basket needed more shadows. I completed the bottom cloth and geode. I made a few more corrections in other places, but the paint was very wet, and difficult to work with without smearing. I’ll have to wait a few days for it to dry before making my final corrections.

japanese basket #24

I’m always fascinated to see how few details are needed to suggest an object’s form. The Japanese basket is extremely simplified here. I made a few loose brushstrokes to barely represent the weave, and yet it looks pretty good! My husband pointed out that in most modern styles of painting, the basket would be considered just about finished! Of course, my style of painting is quite different. I’ll be spending a lot of time carefully observing and painting the details of that basket. I will essentialize and simplify, of course. My job as a painter isn’t to be a recorder of every detail, but to represent the essence of each object by deciding which are the most important parts to emphasize.


The Drawing

Now that I have a composition that I’m happy with, my next step is to do a full-size, detailed pencil drawing.  In this drawing, I can work out the correct shapes and exact placement of all of the objects in my set-up. I can calculate precise ellipses for the round objects, and  work out the correct perspective. I’ll transfer this drawing to my canvas when I’m ready to paint.

The first step in doing my drawing is to figure out how large I want the finished painting to be. I find that just under life-size works well for still lifes. When painted this size, the painting looks life-like and compelling. I measured the width of the set-up and scaled it down a bit. I drew a rectangle of the correct proportions on sketch paper taped to my drawing board (using the same proportions on the view-finder I used for composing), and divided it into halves, thirds, fourths, eighths, etc., both horizontally and vertically. My viewfinder has all of these divisions marked ono it, as well. By holding up the viewfinder in front of me and looking at the set-up through the window, framing it as I want the finished image to appear, I can use a thin knitting needle as a guide to see where objects line up with the divisions (for example, the top of a vase might line up with the one-third horizontal mark). I can then draw the objects in the corresponding place on the full-size drawing.  Here is a photo of my using a viewfinder when drawing another set-up.


Japanese basket #22

Here is my first shot at locating the major objects. The basket is challenging to draw because it’s very irregular in shape (unlike the decanter!). I’m constantly measuring, sometimes holding up a ruler to compare the length of one object to another. Now that I’m drawing precisely, I can decide exactly where I’d like everything to go, unlike when I was using photos and I had to deal with parallax and the irregularities of a shaking hand. I calculated the position of my vanishing point and marked it on my paper so that I could get the perspective correct. (The vanishing point corresponds to my eye position and is the point to which all parallel lines perpendicular to the picture plane seem to converge.) It is just out of the picture frame above the left side of the basket.

Japanese basket #23

This is about as far as I’ll take the drawing of the basket for now. I’ll finish it later, after completing my black-and-white study. I don’t want to spend time drawing details that I might have to erase if I decide I need to move the basket to a new position! I added the stone and crystals.

Japanese basket #19

This is just about finished except for the basket details and the exact ellipses on the round objects. As with the basket details,  I didn’t calculate and draw the ellipses correctly yet. That’s time-consuming and can wait until after my black-and-white study. I did however, measure the angles of the ellipses. If I know how far below my eye level a round object is, I can calculate the exact ellipse to draw.  Using a stand with a string attached at my eye level, I placed the stand in my painting position, and brought the string over to the object whose angle I wanted to measure.

Japanese basket #20

After taping the string to the object, I held up a scale and read off how many degrees below my eye level it was.

Japanese basket #21

SELRES_bacbbf22-be81-4622-afa7-2e302ae7bc3fNext week I’ll write a post showing exactly how I calculate and draw ellipses.SELRES_bacbbf22-be81-4622-afa7-2e302ae7bc3f

My next step will be to tape some tracing paper over the drawing and paint my black-and-white study.


Some Final Tweaks

Japanese basket # 18I didn’t look at my set-up over the weekend, so that I could have a fresh eye this week. Looking at it today, it struck me that perhaps the composition was a bit busy. Particularly, the paint box on the right, though interesting, might be pulling attention away from the basket. They are similar enough in size and color that there is a potential competition between them.  I cropped the right side to eliminate the paint box to see how it would look.

japanese basket #13

I think that this version might look more unified and strong, though I miss the more horizontal aspect of the original. Another option would be to keep the box, but darken its value. Or, I could simply show less of it. Also, maybe moving the position of the handle on the box would improve the composition.

japanese basket # 12

Here I’m showing just a little of the paint box. I like this better. I miss the little bit of tabletop showing on the far right under the paint box. I think I’ll put a bit of that back in. Also, I don’t think that the geode’s shape is clear in the position I placed it. Rotating it a bit should help. I’ll also experiment with replacing the pale yellow crystal with the grey stone again.

Japanese basket #17

It always surprises me how a little thing like the small triangular bit of tabletop showing on the far right can change a composition. Just that little bit of light balances the light areas on the left side. I notice that I prefer this triangle to be small, as it is here. Before, when more of the paint box was included in the picture, that bit of tabletop was larger, and had the effect of attracting too much attention, as well as pointing the eye down to the right, out of the picture (see the first photo of this post).  This triangle of tabletop is important for another reason, too. Its shape echoes other triangles in the composition- the geode, (whose triangular shape is more apparent now that I’ve rotated it), the weave of the basket, the cast shadow on the back wall, and even the top of the decanter.

I think I’ve carried composing as far as I can using my camera. Photography is limiting, both because of  the distracting distortions of parallax, and the lack of consistency and precision of my camera angle. I can be much more precise using my pencil, T-square, and ruler to precisely position all of the elements, fine-tune the design and work out the perspective. It’s time to do a basic drawing! I’ll then use the drawing as the basis for a full-sized black-and-white painted study. When I’m happy with that, I’ll go back and perfect the drawing. There’s no point in spending a lot of time drawing that basket if I’m going to make changes based on the black-and-white study!


New Things to Paint!

Some friends who own a collection of antique objects invited me to come to their house to select some things to paint. I’m so excited to have some new subject matter! I brought home candlesticks, a brass box, a crystal wine decanter and 3 beautiful antique Japanese baskets. One of the baskets was particularly fascinating, and I decided to use it as my main subject.

Japaese basket set-up #1

When I got home, I didn’t have much time to work, but I was eager to see what the basket would look like under the spotlight. I covered the table with a black cloth for contrast and placed a wood paint box on its edge on the right side to cast a shadow. I added the brass box and decanter because of all of the things I borrowed, they were among the simplest. I didn’t want anything to compete with the basket for attention! This preliminary set-up took about 5 minutes. I thought that the basket looked very dramatic and cast an intriguing shadow on the wall.

The next day, I decided to move the decanter to the left and move the light so that the edge of the cast shadow onto the backdrop from the paint box wasn’t dividing the set-up vertically in two. It’s generally not a good idea to have an eye catching line positioned in the center of a composition.This also changed the position of the basket’s cast shadow, shifting it to the left. I liked this better.

Japanese basket set-up #2

Now I wondered what it would look like if I included more of the paint box on the right.

Japanese Basket set-up #5

I liked its vertical mass. It also pushed the basket further into the middle of the composition, giving the basket more importance. Finally, the curved shadow of the handle mimicked the basket handle’s shadow on the back wall. Repeated shapes unify a composition.

I noticed that he foreground looked a little plain and empty. I wondered if I needed to add some more objects.

Japanese Basket set-up #6

I added a geode and some crystals in front of the basket. I liked the way the basket was reflected in the top plane of the yellow crystal. I also placed a stone peeking out from the shadow of the basket, and another stone to the left of the decanter, catching the light that it’s casting on the table top, and bringing some orange to the left side of the composition, balancing all of the orange on the right.

Looking at the set-up today, I think I’d like to make a few changes. I’d like the orange stone to be bigger. Also, I’m not happy with the way the top left edge of the decanter lines up with the edge of the back wall. The decanter would look more convincingly in front of the wall if it appears to overlap it. I need to move the decanter a bit to the right or the left. For now, I’ll try the left.

Japanese basket set-up #7

I like the changes. At this stage, it’d be interesting to see what the set-up looks like in black and white. It can be easier to judge a composition with the distraction of color eliminated. The pattern of values stands out more clearly.  For this reason, I always paint a black and white full-size study before I commit to a set-up, but I can do a quick preview using the black and white setting on my iPhone.

Japanese basket #8

Seeing the set-up in black and white, I’m wondering if the bright crystal in the front is drawing too much focus and leading the eye out of the composition  I think I’ll try replacing it with something darker.

Japanese basket #9

I think that I prefer this, but I’m not sure. Often, after working on a set-up I find that I loose objectivity. I think I’ll live with it for a few days!


Creating a New Still Life

With the New Year comes the time for a new painting! I was wandering around my house looking for something I wanted to paint. I found amongst the Christmas wrappings, some crinkled, stiff brown paper that had been used as packing material. I thought it might work for a backdrop in the same way I might use fabric. I pinned it up on the wall behind my set-up table and shone a light on it. I had a Greek vase nearby, so I added it to the new scene.

Crinkled Paper- initial set-up

I have an orange and black woven wooden box I got at an antique store whose colors were harmonious, so I added that. I needed some smaller objects, so I put in some stones (as usual!) and a geode.

Crinkled Paper-first try

I was pretty pleased with this. I liked the crinkled surface of the paper and the play of light and dark across it.

I got busy and didn’t look at the set-up for a few weeks. When I did, I was surprised to find that I didn’t like it so much. The pattern of light and dark wasn’t as strong as I like. It seemed a bit dull.  I wanted to try again.

I’m often surprised by how often I work on a new set-up and think I’m pleased with it, only to discover later that it is flawed. Somehow, after trying so hard to make the relationships between the objects work,  and coming up with a possible solution, I become blind to other possibilities. It’s as though I convince myself that the current set-up is somehow inevitable. I focus on the good points that I’ve been working so hard on, and ignore the problematic ones.  I think that I need some time to pass to return to the set-up and judge it objectively.

I also think that it is tempting to try to solve a problem quickly. Composing is a tricky business that requires a lot of thought and hard work. Sometimes part of me wants to skip the work and get right to the painting! Looking back at some of my paintings, I wish that I’d taken the extra time to work a bit harder on the compositions, and not settle for the first solution. This time, I decided to try again!

If I had used fabric in the background I would now be reluctant to make changes for fear I could never put the fabric back the way it was if my experiments weren’t successful. Fabric has a mind of its own! A pleasing pattern of folds casually created by tossing down a cloth, can never be repeated! However, these paper wrinkles were stable. I could move the paper around as I liked, and be sure that I could replace its original position if I wanted. I felt free to take down the paper, reverse it, and see if I liked the other side better. I moved the vase closer to the center, and placed the box on the right side. I balanced these with the rocks on the left.

Crinkled Paper- second try

I like this so far. I like the way the darks all interconnect into one large dark mass in the upper right, as do the lights into a light one on the lower left. At certain points, the light shapes make in-roads into the dark area, and vice versa. I remember reading in a very old painting composition book that it was a good idea to connect your lights and darks in this way. I think the reason is that massing them prevents a spotty appearance and gives the composition solidity and weight. Also having the dark and light areas intermingle unites them and adds interest.

I do notice that perhaps I like the other side of the paper better. Next time I’m working, I think that I’ll reverse it. Maybe I’ll change everything around!