Covering the Underpainting

My goal today is to cover as much of the underpainting as possible. As usual, I’m building up to detail slowly, so this first layer of the over-painting is still rather loose. With very subsequent layer of paint, I can see and compare more, fine-tuning values, colors, and details of texture and shape.

Above is my first attempt at the lamp. It was tricky to decide which colors to add to white to get the white of the lampshade. I ended up using a bit of raw umber, transparent golden ochre and cobalt blue in varying strengths. I think that as I progress, I’ll use both cool and warm tones juxtaposed. This causes a vibrating effect that can mimic the look of the lamp glowing. As you’re painting, it’s important to remember that even though some areas of the shade are darker than others, all are a very light value. When you squint your eyes and look at the painting, all of the light areas of the shade should appear quite similar. It’s normal when you’re studying an object to focus on differences and end up over-stating them. The more experience I have, the more I’m able to keep value differences slight.

I plan on painting the dark strip in the center of the lamp darker than it will ultimately appear. I’m doing this so that I’ll be able to scumble light tones over the dark to achieve the look of light glowing through the dark paper. It turned out not quite dark enough. I’ll cover it with a dark glaze when it’s dry, and scumble over that when it’s dry. I’ve found that these kinds of multiple payers add to the richness of the final result.

Above, I’ve very simply put in the tied bows, without any attempt yet to indicate highlights and shadows.

In the first layer of paint on the crate, I wanted to put in some of the textures of the wood. The bottom slat has concentric circular ridges. The upper slat has more typical wavy horizontal wood grain. I used my brush to indicate these textures. These will show through later layers and help me create the illusion of wood.

I’ve covered most of the canvas. Only the thin metal rods in the top of the lamp remain. I’ll put those in next session. If the other areas are dry, I’ll also begin to put in some dark shadow glazes.

Adding First Glazes and Color

The under-painting is dry, so I can begin to paint. My first job is to put in the dark glazes on the wall. I like to do this first for a few reasons. First, the glaze smears a bit when I’m tamping and wiping off the excess. If an area adjacent to the glaze is already painted, it’ll get glaze all over it. Second, it can be tricky to get such a large area of glaze smooth and even. I prefer when there’s no other paint on the canvas that would potentially smear into it. I glaze just the darkest areas in this round.

I brushed on a glaze of raw sienna and ultramarine blue mixed with a little glaze medium. I tamped off the excess with a shaving brush help perpendicularly to the canvas, wiping off the bristles when they became clogged with glaze. I often simply wipe off excess glaze with a cotton pad, but that can produce uneven results in a large area such as this.

I’ll let this glaze dry before I work on any adjacent areas. The scarf and tabletop are not touching the wall, though, so I can begin working on those. I start by putting in local colors. I’m not worrying about exact light or color effects at this point. I’m just getting the values and colors closer so that when I paint them again, I can make better judgements. I paused here for the day.

Above, at my next session, I put down another glaze on the back wall, covering all of the wall this time. The area that was glazed the first time, gets another layer. The lighter values areas will have just this one layer of glaze. I carried the glaze down to make the shadows cast by the orange crate on its left and right sides. When this glaze is dry, I can begin to work on the adjacent areas–the lamp, orange crate and box on the left side. Meanwhile, I continued putting in the local colors on the scarf, correcting shapes as I go. Somehow, the drawing seems to get messed up in the transferring process or I discover that I drew things incorrectly in the first place! In any case, it’s always important to observe and correct.

Finishing the Underpainting

My goal today is to cover the whole canvas with paint. That’s a lot of surface to cover!

Above, I’ve started on the scarf. I’m thinning the paint with just a little Turpenoid so that it flows easier. This way, I can control the edges. I don’t want to lose the drawing underneath. As before, I’m keeping everything very light in value. I work from left -to-right so that I don’t smear the paint. I don’t use a mahl stick, so I have to be careful. Both the links and the crystal on the bracelet are very complex. I don’t want to waste time on painting them in detail in the underpainting, since I would just have to re-paint them in the over-layer. I barely suggest their basic forms. That’ll do for now.

I had changed the position of the lamp cord in my study, but didn’t adjust my drawing. I’ll just paint it free-hand here, in the underpainting, without a drawing to guide me. You can see its new position, above.

I very simply indicated the folds in the dark band on the lamp. That’ll be enough to help me when I start to paint. Again, never waste effort in the under-painting. It’s just a guide.

It’s finished! I painted very thinly, so it should be ready to paint on in a few days.

The Underpainting

I transferred my drawing to the canvas and lightly sprayed it with fixative. I mixed up 9 values of burnt sienna and lead white, and began the underpainting. The purpose of an underpainting is manifold. Firstly, it gets me painting in an low-pressure way. There is no color variation, texture, subtle lighting effects, or even exact values to think about. All I have to do is cover the canvas with paint while retaining the drawing. It’s easy. It also takes away the stark white of the canvas, so it’ll be easier to judge color and value when the time comes. Lastly, it provide a consistent color under the top layers, harmonizing the finished painting.

Since I want this layer to dry quickly, I paint very thinly. Also, I don’t want any texture at this point, since any ill-considered brushstrokes would show through in the final layers. I smooth out the paint with a badger blender. I paint everything in a much lower value key than in the final painting. The darkest dark in the underpainting is only about a 5 on a 1-9 scale. I have found that a darker under-layer can dull the brightness of the over-layers. I’m always careful not to obliterate the drawing. I don’t need any subtle detail at this point. Notice that I show no texture on the orange crate.

This is a big canvas. so covering it with paint takes a while. This is as far as I got after a day of work. Considering how complex the pattern on the scarf is, I probably won’t finish it at my next session either.

Finishing the Value Study

Below is the value study as I left it. Now that it’s dry, I can start correcting.

I thought it’d be interesting to look at the photo of my original conception of the composition back from when I set it up and see if I captured the feel of it in my study. To do this, I edited my photo of the set-up to be black-and-white, and compared them. I don’t expect or want my study to look exactly like this photo, nor will I paint from it, but in a general sense, I liked this composition, so I’ll see if I’d like to make any changes to my study to be more like it.

Above, you can see the photo. Comparing it with the study, above it, and allowing for the glare off of the study, which makes it look paler than it really is, I can see that the scarf had more darks and highlights in the photo. I like this look better, as it gives more interest to the scarf. I also like the way the bottom of the vertical box on the left is darker in the photo. This seems to bring the attention upwards and inwards. The black bows were darker. too, which I also like. The lightest whites in the lamp shade were lighter in the photo. I think that this puts the emphasis on the lamp, which is what I want. I found that I didn’t like the position of the lamp cord on the right side. It led the eye out of the composition and didn’t seem to relate to any other lines. I re-painted it in a more pleasing arc, similar to the one in the photo. Finally, I noticed that I liked the darker tabletop in the photo. I think that it draws the eye more to the scarf and lamp

Above, I’ve painted in these changes (though I still need to make the tabletop darker). I’m happier with the composition now. Note that my goal wasn’t to make my painting look like the photo, but rather to see which value patterns better served my composition. It turned out that the photo had some very pleasing value patterns. There are parts of the photo that I don’t like as well, so I won’t simply try to make my study look like the photo. I’ll make whatever changes I need to achieve that. I don’t have a problem with altering the reality of the set-up to further a good composition. My goal is a great composition, not a faithful adherence to reality. An artist’s job is to improve reality!

Though I will never paint from a photo, I have no problem in using them to help judge a composition. One of the main reasons that I paint these value studies is to judge the composition (which is easier without the distraction of color).

Now that I’m happy with it, I’ll un-tape this tracing paper study from over my drawing, and then make some final corrections in the drawing. After that, I will transfer the drawing to my canvas.

Receding Parallel Lines in Perspective

The wires on the tabletop on the right side proved harder to draw than I’d originally thought. I knew that the spaces between them would look smaller as they receded to the back, and that the wires themselves would appear thinner, but this was surprisingly hard to draw. I decided to construct the effect using perspective.

Well, here’s how to do it! Below, I first drew the rectangle they would occupy, in perspective, by tracing it from my drawing. I found from trial-and-error, that this actual rectangle would yield divisions that were too small, so I extended it to be a few inches longer. Then, to find the center of this rectangle, I drew straight lines from corner to corner. Where they intersected, I drew a line parallel to the picture plane. This is the halfway mark.

I repeated this process, finding the center of the two rectangles I’d created above and drew two more lines parallel to the picture plane. These are marked in below as 1/4 of the length of my original rectangle.

I divided my rectangles in half again, to get 8 rectangles. You can see these below in blue.

Finally, I divided these 8 rectangles in half again to get 16. I only needed 11 rectangles, so I chose the ones that seemed about the right distance apart. These ended up being the top 11.

I transferred these markings to my drawing. I used the tracing paper as transfer paper by rubbing graphite on the back side and tracing the lines onto my drawing.

Here they are, above.

Next, I drew in the thickness of the wires, making them get a bit smaller as they went back in space. It didn’t seem worth the time to try to construct these, so I did it by eye.

I know that the wires are just a small part of the composition, but I’m happy knowing that they are correctly drawn and will look right in the final painting.

Value Study

Before I finalize my drawing, I’ll pause and do a value study in black and white paint. I do this now, so that if I need to make any changes to the composition as a result of the study, I won’t have wasted time drawing something in the wrong position.

After taping some tracing paper over my drawing, I mixed up 9 values of gray from white to black. I labeled these right on my palette so that I could identify them easily. For example, if I tried # 3 gray, and it was too dark, I’d know to try #2 gray. Working from left to right, so that I didn’t smear the paint, I roughed in the basic shapes, judging the values as best I could. After this layer is dry, I’ll go back over it, correcting. I never get it right on the first go! Painting is about comparing, and until some paint is down, there is nothing to compare with!

Below is my set-up and easel in the studio.

This study is very loose and undetailed. My goal is to see the whole composition and how the values relate to each other. Below you can see how loose it is. It’s amazing how much you can express with just a little paint in the correct values.

I can already tell that I’ll need to reserve the brightest whites for the glowing lamp and the highlights on the crystal bracelet, tempting though it will be to use them all over the painting. The value range of oil paint is never going to be as wide as what you see in nature. You have to trick the eye into thinking that the painting captures the whole range. One way to do this is to use pure white and pure black only in the lightest and darkest areas, and scale everything in between, even if it means that some areas aren’t as bright or as dark as you want them.

Below is my first pass, completed. I’ll wait 4-5 days for this to dry, and then make corrections.

Drawing Scarf and Bows

I just began to work on drawing the pattern on the scarf. This is where mistakes in my drawing of the basic shapes come back to haunt me. If, for example, the scarf is too wide, the patterns won’t fit correctly within their boundaries. Of course, I know that if the patterns aren’t perfectly correct, it’s fine. No one will know! I do, however, like to get them pretty close. It makes observing and painting easier for me. The shape of the circle on the right was tricky. I’ve gotten so used to drawing symmetrical ellipses, that a ‘bent’ ellipse was difficult.

Below, I’ve started work on another section of the scarf. When I began, I drew the design as a perfect circle. It wasn’t looking right, though. I realized that the scarf is cut on the bias, and that the weight of it draping down stretched it a little. As an experiment, I drew the top hemisphere with a compass, added a a bit of vertical length, then drew the bottom hemisphere using a lower compass point. This effectively stretched the circle. The two parallel lines bisecting the circle show where I stretched it. I’ll erase these guide-lines. I think it looks fine now.

Below, I made a first attempt at drawing the bow in the necklace.

The drawing is just about at the stage where I can pause and do my value study in oil. At my next session, I’ll work on the beads a bit more and continue with the scarf patterns, but I won’t finalize anything until I’ve done the study. If I end up wanting to change the composition as a result of the study, I don’t want to have wasted a lot of time drawing things that would then need to be re-drawn.

Drawing ‘Noguchi Lamp and Scarf’

Now it’s time to turn the set-up into a 2-D drawing. Using the same view-finder that I used to compose the picture, I note where the edges of the composition are and mark them with white tape directly onto the set-up . Now when I view the set-up through the view-finder, I can more easily line it up correctly (you can see this tape on the wall in the last photo.). You can see below that I’ve divided all of the edges of my view-finder opening into halves, thirds, quarters, etc. I draw this same grid onto my paper. Now I use the view-finder to locate points in the set-up, using a skinny knitting needle. If I find, for example, that the top of the orange crate lines up with the 1/3 horizontal mark, I know to place this line in the corresponding place on my drawing.

This method isn’t exact- your hand shakes, your head isn’t in the exact same position every time you measure, etc. You might have to measure several times and take the average. It’s a great way to get started drawing, though, in that it assures you that objects are mostly in the correct position in the frame and are proportioned correctly.

Another measuring device I use is two knitting needles held in front of my eyes in a cross. Using my thumbs to mark off the distances, I can note the height and width of an object, and then without moving them in relationship to each other, hold them up to my drawing at the correct distance to check that the proportions of the object in my drawing are the same. I can also hold a ruler up to measure and compare the lengths of different objects. I might find, for example, that the box is twice the length of the bracelet. These checks are very helpful. In the end, though, you need to put aside all measuring tools and just look at the set-up and the drawing to see if the drawing is correct. Sometimes I find that even after much measuring, the object still looks wrong. Measuring can be misleading, but the un-aided eye is always right! See Drawing Again for more on these techniques.

Once the bigger shapes are in place, I begin to draw the details. The beads that are seen straight-on I measure to be the same length. For the foreshortened ones, I just have to eye-ball it. Everything is placed very intentionally now. I make many small decisions now. The exact placement of the edge of a bead; the angle of a cord, and if it echoes the angle of another cord; where exactly the bend of a lamp leg intersects the edge of the fold of the scarf are all chosen by me to further my design. Though it often happens in setting up a composition, that a fold or the placement of a bead happens by accident, it’s up to me as as artist to judge if these accidental placements are worth keeping or need to be changed. Everything is chosen!

Above, I’ve indicated the basic shape of the lamp. It was hard to draw this, because it isn’t a symmetrical object. It’s hand-made and the edges are not parallel. If I drew it symmetrically, I’d take away its personality.

The small dot of white tape in the picture above is my vanishing point. All receding lines perpendicular to the picture plane will seem to converge to this point. It is the point directly in front of my eyes at my eye-level. I mark the same point on my drawing paper. When I draw the receding edge of the vertical box on the far left, I simply use a straight-edge and draw the line from the vanishing point to the front of the box. It’s simple!

My next step will be to draw the main shapes of the scarf. Not until I’m sure that everything is right will I draw the pattern on the scarf. There’s no point in doing that until all is correct.

A New Painting

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!