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!

When to Modify and When to Leave it Be

Sometimes I find that something I put down in the very beginning stages of the painting as a first guess, stands the test of time, and still looks good even at the end. These stroke might not be technically perfect and accurate, but often have a spontaneity and freshness that is hard to duplicate at the end, when I’m trying so hard to see details and get it all perfect.

detail for Facebook

For example, the orange strokes on the left side of the silver bowl that reflect the orange box were put down in one of my first painting sessions. On later observation, they are perhaps a bit too bright and aren’t necessarily in exactly the right position. They also ought to be more faded out on their edges. They served their purpose well at the beginning, to show how bright that reflected light was and how important strong reflections are to the painting as a whole. I painted them very quickly and boldly in a looser style than I typically don’t use to finish a painting. I found though, that I ended up liking them at the end, too. Strokes don’t have to be perfectly accurate to convey a light effect in a satisfying way. My goal in painting isn’t to reproduce everything exactly as it appears, (this would be impossible!) but to convey the sense of how light flows over objects and reveals their textures, forms and colors.

Here is another example of preserving an early paint layer without much modification at the end. On the left you can see the shadows and reflections on the wall as I originally painted them. At the time, I thought this was a very rough approximation, to be corrected later with many layers of direct painting, glazing, and scumbling.  On the right is how the painting stands now. I glazed the shadow and reflections a bit darker, and softened some edges,  but it’s largely unchanged. Again, I liked the spontaneity of the passage, and felt that any attempt to improve it would, in fact, not be as successful.

There are also some places on the shell that remain largely unmodified. The bright orange curved area in the front was later scumbled over a bit (as seen in the photo on the right), but still shows through. The impasto brushstrokes also show through. Typically, on a first layer, I’m careful not to lay in heavy impasto strokes, as they will show through subsequent layers of paint. If things need to be moved, this can be a problem, unless you scrape the dried paint off with a palette knife before making corrections. Even at the start, though, I was sure that these heavy strokes were following the form of the shell and wouldn’t be a problem. The small, bluish area in the center of the shell has also remained unchanged throughout.

Black Vase


The black vase is the simplest object in the set-up to paint. It doesn’t have any surface detail or complex coloring. I just have to depict the way the light hits it and creates highlights, shadows, cast shadows and reflected lights. Here, the basics are blocked in. The light from the tabletop is reflected up onto the bottom of the vase. The orange from the box is reflected on its right side. A shadow from the wall on the left is cast onto its left side. The direct light coming from the spotlight is seen on the left side, and the brightest area is the reflected light coming from the silver bowl on the right.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box-Black vase 1

At my next session, I glazed a cool blue-black over the entire vase to make it darker. Some areas are now too dark. I did this intentionally, so that at my next session I could scumble a light tone over it. By scumbling a light tone over a darker one, you can create a beautiful mid-tone pearly gray, impossible to achieve with just a layer of opaque body color. You can see these tones in the photo below, in the fat belly of the vase. If you compare these tones to the corresponding area in the photo above, you can see the difference.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box- Black vase 2

I also repainted the orange reflected light on the right, and painted the top rim. The background and tabletop shadows have been glazed darker, getting closer to the correct values.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box- Black vase 3.jpg

Here I have softened the left edge of the vase to show both that its a curved surface, not a sharp edge, and also that it’s in shadow, so indistinct. I added the highlight on the top rim, and scumbled a brighter highlight coming from the spotlight on the left.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box- Black vase 4

The background is now as dark as it should be. The vase is mostly dark now, both because of its local color, and the fact that its in shadow. Also, making it darker puts the emphasis on the silver bowl and orange box.

The Shells

I thought I’d document how the shells developed. This is the first layer of the over painting. I did a rough approximation of the basic shapes, colors and values. The underpainting is still showing through in many places.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box-Shells 1st 1st

I corrected the drawing on the scallop shell and indicated its ridges and the shadow cast on it by the larger shell. I glazed the shadows cast by both shells on the tabletop. Here, the table top has its first layer of paint.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box- Shells first attempt

Next, I added the brightest bright areas. It’s helpful to put these in now so that I can judge the other values correctly. I added some blue light coming in from the right from the window, especially on the scallop shell. I glazed the cast shadows even darker, and added some alizarin crimson directly under the shells to show the warmth of the color reflecting down from the shell.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box-Shells 2nd attempt.jpg

Here I softened the edge of the shadow cast by the larger shell onto the scallop. I also tried to paint the ridges on the top of the scallop more precisely.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box- Shells- transition

I worked on the larger shell. I strengthened the highlights and added some nicks and details. I corrected the colors and painted the far right underside more clearly. This area is very cool both because its in the shadow, and because of the cool light coming in from the window on the right.

Silver Bowl & Orange Box- finished shells

On the scallop shell, I added some yellow on the top and some cool tones at its base. I softened the edges of both cast shadows onto the tabletop, and added some cool blue light at the edges.

The shells are mostly complete now!


Silver Bowl

It’s time to tackle the silver bowl again! I’ve been avoiding it, because it’s so difficult to see all of the shapes and colors. Here’s how it stands:

Silver Bowl and Orange Box- Silver Bowl detail

The first thing I did was to soften some edges. At first, I had to paint all of the forms clearly and sharply, so that I could see them clearly. Now that they’re mostly indicated, I can blur the edges to suggest their softer contours and light flowing over them.  Also, now that the basic shapes and values are in, I can begin to see more detail.

Silver Bowl and Orange Box-bowl detail

I adjusted some of the values and colors on the top of the bowl, and softened the orange reflections on the left. I added some highlights on the orange stone and its reflection.

Silver Bowl and Orange box- perfecting silver bowl

At my next session, I did some major value-correcting. I darkened the right side and the top of the left with a cool glaze. I also darkened the top of the left side above the bright highlighted area This will make the light highlights stand out. A light can only look light if it can contrast with a darker value! I darkened the patterns on the right side, and overall tried to correct shapes, values and colors. I refined the reflections of the shells on the right side of the bowl, adding detail and correcting color.

I worked on the stones, deepening their colors with glazes. I added details, such as the little nicks and patterns. I darkened the reflection of the green stone.

I added a lot more white and yellow paint to the reflections. I put this on very heavily, as a strong impasto suggests light bouncing off of an object (as opposed to a glaze, which suggests shadowy depths).

Silver Bowl & Orange Box- finished bowl

At my last session, I added some small highlights in the middle of the bowl. Also, I wasn’t happy with the ellipse on the small ring, so I repainted it, correcting the drawing. I now took the time to paint the small details of the ring, indicating where exactly the shadows were, and the highlights. Its easy to overstate these at first, painting the darks too dark, for example. This is because when you’re studying a small part of the set-up, the darks do seem very dark compared to the lights. It’s not until you step back and see that dark in the larger context of the whole painting that you realize that though darker than the highlight, it’s still relatively light.  This is because the ring is actually bathed in direct light from the spotlight and reflected light from the bowl.

detail for Facebook

It seems that I could keep refining the bowl forever, because of the complexity of the reflecting lights. At some point, though, I’ll need to decide if it conveys the feeling of the bowl. It needs to satisfy the eye, but it doesn’t need to be (nor could it ever be!) an exact replica. I think it’s pretty close to being finished now.