Another Set-Up!

It turns out there’s quite a long wait for my canvases to be stretched, so I decided to design another painting, so I can get the canvas order in soon. It’s unusual for me to do two set-ups so close together. Anyway, I recently found this very cool vase at Jonathan Adler. I wanted it to be the star of a new painting. Only one of my three set-up areas was free, so I set the vase there with a few stones to pick up the colors. I felt like I needed more color, so I put the blue painted board down as the tabletop.

The vase seemed crowded here. My other set-up areas are deeper, so I ‘struck the set’ of my last painting on one of them to make room for this new one. You can see this space below. The vase has more room to breath here. I propped up the blue board so that it could serve as a wall. I think that I like it better in this position. I used my old-faithful orange painting box propped up on its side to cast a shadow from the spotlight on the right. The mirrored surfaces on the vase cast amazing reflections onto the wall and tabletop. I substituted a black box for the blue one, and added more stones–lots more stones! I have an idea that I’d like an abundance of stones in this composition.

My husband came in and I wanted his opinion, so I handed him my view-finder to look at the set-up. He first looked at it through the view-finder at an angle from the wall. I told him that he had to stand so that the v.f. was parallel to the line where the table meets the wall. He did, and said that he liked it better at an angle. I looked, and I had to agree! See below for this view.

I always work with the horizon line parallel to the picture plane, so this seemed very strange to me. In this case, I think that the angle makes the composition much more dynamic and energetic. He also suggested adding some more green, so I added the glass bowl. I also added the geode whose rough side adds a contrast in texture.

I thought that the left side needed some more interest, so I moved the green bowl over. Now it cast a fascinating green shadow onto the wall. I really liked how the blue wall looked with all of these colored shadows and reflections.

Above, I added a small red stone between the vase and the bowl so that it caught a bit of the light, but was mostly in shadow. I love the drama of objects emerging from shadow.

As an experiment, above, I replaced the red stone in front of the vase with a piece of fool’s gold. I like the way this echoes the shiny gold mirror surface on the vase.

The shadow area between the vase and the bowl looked a bit empty and dull, so I added another stone, barely visible, above. I lived with this composition for a while. I really liked it, but it seemed that the curved shadow cast by the bowl was leading the eye out of the composition to the left.

To solve this problem, I moved the large red stone on the left side of the black box over to the left, so that it intersected this shadow, cutting it off and leading the eye down and to the right. I also rotated the white stone sitting on top of the large orange stone to further lead the eye around to the right and back into the picture.

Another thing that had been bothering me was that everything seemed to move in a line from lower left to upper right. I thought that I could break this movement up by moving the group of three stones on the far right down a bit, towards the edge of the table.

Now that there was more room in front of the vase, I added a tiny red stone in such a position that it was reflected into the bottom of the vase. I also re-arranged the stones on top of the black box. I’ll live with this for a while, and then see what I think.

Setting Up a New Painting

I went to the antique store to find some new things to paint! I decided to begin with the old oil jug.

I began with simply setting the jug on my table. My first thought was to add some contrasting textures and value contrast. The black cloth served both purposes. I tossed it onto the table, set the jug on it, and turned on the spotlight. It was a good start. I then added the silver bowl. I thought that it complimented the jug without competing with it. After looking at the set-up, I had the idea that I’d like to add something natural from my garden. I found a bunch of branches and twigs that my husband had collected for the fireplace. I found this twig covered in lichen. I loved its curving form and rough texture. I tried several placements, but liked this one, as the curve led the eye from the bowl up to the jug.

The composition was looking a bit monochromatic to me. I added the green stones to echo the green of the lichen. I liked it a lot more now. It seemed to have more life. I also adjusted the spotlight so that the cast shadow on the wall wasn’t just a vertical, but had an angle at the top. I think that this angle keeps the eye moving around the composition in a circle.

Above, as an experiment, I included more of the white cabinet at the bottom in the composition. I found it interesting, but thought that the diagonal white of the cabinet that showed between the two cast shadows on the right was distracting, didn’t echo any other lines, and took attention away from the jug. I liked the composition better without it. I’ll let this sit for a few days, then come back to it to see if I still like it.

Controlling the Values

For me, having the correct values in a painting is even more important than having the right colors. Value is the lightness or darkness of an area. The eye is drawn to differences in value. Controlling the values means controlling where the eye will go in a composition. Also, the correct values can make an object look convincingly illuminated and 3-dimensional. Finally, as I’ll show you below, they can make an object appear as though it’s glowing.

Below, I’ll show you two versions of my latest painting. First, you’ll see the older version, and next, the latest version. You’ll see how controlling the values greatly improves the composition and the feeling of reality.

First, let’s compare the Japanese lamp in both versions. My goal was to make the lamp glow. To do this, I needed it to be brightest where the lightbulb inside the lamp shone through. This is the area just below the black band on the left side of the lamp. I painted this area with my lightest valued color–pure lead white with a touch of cadmium yellow. To make this area appear brightest, most every other part of the lamp had to be darker in comparison. The range of values that an artist can represent with paint is extremely limited in comparison to what exists in reality. This means that the artist has to alter what he sees in order to emphasize what he decides is important. So, in order for the brightest spot on the lamp to look bright, the other area had to be painted darker (even if they might not have seemed so in the set-up.) In the second photo, I darkened the other planes of the lamp, leaving the bright spot as light as could get it. I had to be very careful not to get too dark, or the illusion of light would be destroyed. I also added touches of this brightest white along some of the edges of the lamp, making it seem as though light were spilling out. I scumbled some lighter tones over the black band in front of the lightbulb, so show that it was glowing through there, too. This value had to be much darker though, since it was shining through dark paper.

I felt like the scarf wasn’t drawing enough attention now that the lamp had been brightened. Though the lamp is the focal point, I also want the scarf to shine. I decided to address this problem by increasing the value difference in various areas of its pattern, brightening some areas in the light, and adding more darks in the shadow.

Finally, I wanted the hanging necklace to connect the lamp and the scarf, bringing the eye up from the scarf to the lamp. I decided to lighten the value of the beads on the right side, in the light. You can see this in the second photo. Now, the two area of the painting are connected, creating a path for the eye to follow.

I’ll continue to make adjustments until I’m completely satisfied. It’s almost there!

Painting the Silk Scarf

Painting something as complex as this scarf takes time. It’s front and center, so it has to look right. I began, as usual, with the underpainting, where I indicated the patterns and values very simply, following the drawing underneath very carefully.

My first layer of paint, below, is applied very simply. I’m not aiming to capture subtle shadows or reflections. I’m just putting down the local color of the various patterns. It took a surprisingly long time to accomplish this. Below you can see what I finished in one day.

Below, on the second day, I’ve finished the first layer. When this dries, I can begin to refine.

Below, the shot is a little washed out, but you can see that I’ve begun to add some highlights and shadows. I smoothed out some rough edges, and added the white dots. I lightened the black bits of the pattern. Though they seemed so dark at first, they really were reflecting quite a bit of light.

Below, I’ve applied another layer of paint, always carefully observing the edges. Often, an edge seems sharp at first, but when you look closely, the light reflecting around blurs it. I’ve also begun to think about the yellow edge of the scarf, which is hand-stitched, giving it a distinctive puckery look. I’ll refine these areas later. As I work, I always try to observe carefully and correct my drawing. Even at this stage, I often find mistakes. Some aren’t worth fixing, as they don’t effect the design of the painting, but others are. I don’t want accuracy just for the sake of accuracy. Every decision has to be made with the goal of achieving a beautiful result. No one will ever know if the abstract pattern of the scarf in the painting is slightly different than that in the real scarf.

Below, I’ve worked on the cord hanging down from the lamp, softening the edges where it meets the scarf. I’ve added the shadow that the cord makes onto the scarf, keeping its edges very soft. I’ve added some bright highlights directly under the lamp.

Below, I’ve repainted the area around the red dot, and indicated the edge stitching on the far right. I also worked a bit more on the yellow edge. It was tricky mixing the correct color for this edge in shadow. Often, when you try to darken yellow, it ends up looking greenish. I added some transparent golden ochre, cobalt blue and raw umber to get the color in the shadow. The trickiest areas in the scarf to paint were the folds in shadow. They seemed dark at first, but were actually quite light compared to the darkest areas of the painting. I found the pink areas in shadow especially tricky to mix. I ended up using a mix of cadmium red, viridian green, cobalt blue and naples yellow. These pink areas, being somewhat sheer, let the light shine through them, illuminating the shadow cast onto the table top. you can see this in the bottom left of the photo below.

Finally, I lightened the black areas of the scarf again. They seemed so dark at first. I think this was because my mind knew that they were black. However, if I looked carefully at them, I could see that they were illuminated brightly, just like the rest of the scarf. Lightening them made them look like they were being lit by the same light source.

The scarf is mostly finished, but I’ll probably come back to it to make small adjustments.

Painting Wood Grain

Below is the wood box on the left side of the painting. It has received no paint on top of the underpainting yet.

Below, I glazed a dark shadow onto the box’s shadow side and began to roughly paint in an indication of the lines of the wood grain on its light side. These lines don’t have to be exact. My goal isn’t to perfectly replicate the wood grain, just to indicate it convincingly by showing its characteristic patterns and colors. I tried to keep all of the lines in a very tight value range. If the lines are too dark or light, they will stand out too much and look wrong. I adjusted the colors. The underpainting color was close, but not quite right. On the edges where the spot light struck, the color was a surprisingly bright orange. The other colors of the various streaks of the grain were much more subtle. I mixed up many options before finding the right ones. These subtle colors can be hard to mix! Its best to avoid putting too many colors into any one mixture, as it can easily turn muddy.

Below, is a close-up shot. I’ve worked more on the rivet, showing its highlights, cast shadow, and reflected light. Even tiny parts of the painting deserve to be painted in such a way as to show the light. It all adds up. I adjusted colors more, and added some details at the bottom. I softened the vertical edge where the box turns into the shadow. It can be hard to get these smooth gradual transitions. Luckily, oil paint is easy to manipulate and blend.

Below, I’ve continued to refine the grain, carefully observing the values and colors. I added another glaze to the dark side. I used alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue and raw sienna. I painted into the wet glaze with some very dark paint, barely indicating the wood grain. Details are very muted in the shadows, so a bit goes a long way. Painting into a wet glaze produces a very subtle blended effect.

I’m happy with the wood grain. It’s detailed enough to be convincing, but not so detailed as to look fake or to draw too much attention away from the focal point.

Painting the Beads

In this post, I’m going to explain how I approached painting the bead necklace. Below is the underpainting, all dry and ready to receive more paint.

I realized that before I started on the beads, I would have to paint the orange crate. It has continuous patterns going across it. In the top portion, the grain is horizontal. In the lower section, there are diagonal ridges where a cutting blade has marked it. It’s much easier to paint those textures with continuous brushstrokes across the length of the entire crate. If I had to stop and start when I came to the beads, the strokes would be interrupted and wouldn’t look convincing. Another reason I painted the crate first is that after I paint it, I’ll need to glaze the shadow cast onto it. If the beads were already painted, the glaze would invariably smudge into them, and I’d have to paint them again.

Below, I’ve painted the crate, using brushstrokes to show the textures. I’ll return to this area again and again, refining the textures and colors, but for now, this is enough. I roughly indicated the black bow.

Below, I’ve put in the glaze to darken the crate. Next, I finally put in a first rough version of the beads.

Below, I’ve painted the push-pin and some highlights on the bow. I darkened the beads a bit.

Below, I’ve spent a lot of time observing the beads. I warmed up their color, softened their edges, and added some highlights. I painted some texture onto the ribbon and refined its highlights, being careful to keep everything within a very narrow, dark value range. I continued to add details to the textures on the crate. I lightened its top surface, making the bow more visible. I softened all of the shadows that the beads cast onto the crate. I brightened the crate on the right side.

Below, I further softened the shadows cast by the beads onto the crate. Shadows are often a lot softer-edged than they seem at first glance. I think that our brains are attracted to contrasts of light and dark, exaggerating the difference. Also, a shadow will get softer the further away it gets from the object casting it. Next, I darkened the beads laying on the table, and softened all bead edges. Rounded objects will always have softer edges, since their form has no hard edge, but just curves away.

Below, I re-painted the push-pin. I re-painted many of the beads, adjusting their color and trying to see all of the subtle shadows, highlights, and reflected lights in them. They were very difficult to get right. The beads on the left are in shadow, but dimly illuminated by the Japanese lamp on the right, which also casts a very subtle shadow on their left. The beads on the right are emerging from the shadow, and are lit by the spotlight on the left. They are also dimly lit by the lamp on their right side. Their right sides also have reflected light bouncing onto them from the lit orange crate. In addition to all of that, their value is very close to that of the orange crate. I am trying to achieve subtle difference in value in a very limited range.

It’s not finished yet, but for now, I’ll move onto other areas of the painting.

Painting the Lamp

My biggest challenge in painting the paper lamp is making it appear lit from within. Interestingly, the black band covers the brightest part of the lightbulb, so it has to glow, but in a much more subdued way than the white parts. Below is the underpainting.

Below is my first layer of paint. Both the wrinkles in the white parts and the accordion folds in the black are very complex. I simplified them greatly here for my first go. The value range in the white section is very limited. When you squint your eyes, it should all pretty much look the same value. It’s natural when trying to see all of the subtle wrinkles to exaggerate the differences, making the darks too dark. I try not to let this worry me. It’s not hard to lighten up the darks at subsequent sessions. Another very difficult part of painting the white paper is figuring our what pigments to use. There are many ways to mix a pale off-white! Here I used lead white mixed with small amounts of raw sienna, transparent golden ochre and cobalt blue. When I studied the lamp I saw cools and warms seeming to vibrate against one another. To capture the feel of glowing paper, its important to juxtapose these cool and warm tones. This has the effect of making the lamp glow. Paradoxically, it often seemed to me that one spot was both cool and warm at the same time! The more I looked, the more alive with vibrating lights the lamp appeared.

At my next session, below, I clarified the accordion pleats in the black paper. It was so hard to see the details. My inner dialog went something like this: “The third pleat down has a highlight on its top edge. The second pleat has a dark underside adjacent to a thin highlight over the dark of the second pleat.” This went on over and over as I lost my place while shifting my gaze from the set-up to the canvas. It was very frustrating! As I worked, though, I got into the groove of observing, and it became easier. Looking and understanding in not easy. I find it essential to put my observations into words as I’m trying to understand anything complex. Later in the painting process, when I’ve already done a lot of the thinking, the painting process can proceed wordlessly.

A nice way to achieve a pearly glow on a dark is to scumble a lighter tone over a darker one. That is just the look I’m going for in the black section of the lamp where the lightbulb glows from within. To this end, I glazed over the dark section with a transparent glaze of ultramarine blue and raw umber. You can see this below. When this dries, I will scumble a lighter tone over it where the lightbulb is. (Scumbling is dragging dryish paint with the side of a hog bristle brush so that it catches on the weave of the canvas.) I also took a stab at indicating the wire structure at the top of the lamp.

Below, at my next session, I scumbled in some of the lights in the dark band. I’m not happy with the effect, so I’ll keep working on it. I went over the white parts, making the darks more subtle, and observing the wrinkles more carefully. Every time I return to a section of the painting, it’s easier to see more and refine. That’s one reason why I don’t attempt to finish an area all in one go. I learn as I paint, and the more structure that is on the canvas, the easier it is to add to it.

In my last session, below, I took the time to really see what was going on in the wire frame at the top. The trickiest part was not to paint the wires too dark. Though they are black, the glow from the surrounding light areas wash it out, making them appear more of a warm gray. If I were to paint them stark black, the look of the light glowing around them would not be convincing. My brain says they are black, but I have to put that aside to really look.

I scumbled some more lights in the black band. I also added some lights around the edges of the lamp. I have to save the lightest lights for the areas of the white paper nearest to the lightbulb. Since the value range that I can achieve in paint is far more limited than I can see, it can be frustrating to try to paint something like this lamp. I’ll keep returning to the lamp, but for now, I’ll let it sit and move onto another area.

More Work on the Bracelet

I wanted to show more of how the bracelet has evolved. Here, you can still see the underpainting (the orange bits). I’ve barely indicated the bars on the band on the left and roughly sketched in the gray and pale yellow parts of the crystal. At this point, the bracelet was largely a mystery to me. I tried not to let that bother me, knowing that in my layered approach to painting, all need not be accomplished at one sitting. In fact, the end result is better if I can learn about the objects I’m painting by approaching them multiple times.

Below, I had a chance to study the structure of the bracelet as I discussed in my last post. I could put in the parallel bars and herringbone cross-pieces in the band, and show the pattern of lights and darks in the crystal a bit more clearly.

Below, my goal was to really see what was going on in the crystal. I sat staring at it for quite a while before my brain could begin to make sense of what I was seeing. Giving myself permission not to understand it all, I gradually, I could make out small details. The first thing I saw was a dark bluish triangle in the center-right. The thoughts in my mind went something like this: “I can paint that triangle! No need to worry about anything else, just paint that little triangle. What color is it? It’s a bit bluish and medium value. It’s in the center of the crystal with its bottom edge a bit below the top of the band on the right side.” Next, I noticed a white line underneath it. I painted that. Then I saw an orangey line adjacent to the hypotenuse of the blue triangle. I saw that its value was a bit lighter than the blue triangle. When I’m studying like this, I make no attempt to take in the whole bracelet and judge it. I’m just a seeing machine, recording tiny bits. Later, I can stand back, judge, and make corrections. I go into all of these details here, so that you can see how best to approach a complex form- with baby steps and no pressure to be brilliant. I continued in this manner until most of the crystal was covered in a new layer of paint, more accurate than the first.

I next tackled the band. I saw that the areas between the bars and cross-pieces on the right was really very yellow and light in value. After fixing that with some cadmium yellow mixed with transparent golden ochre, I saw that the cross-pieces closest to the crystal were reflecting a bright orange-yellow. There was also some bits of this color reflected onto the tabletop in the shadow. I put a dark glaze over the part of the band on the left that was in shadow, and picked out a few highlighted areas. When I tried to paint the ring at the end of the band, I was confronted with a very bright highlight shining in my eyes, which obscured the details. I temporarily moved the spotlight to get rid of the highlight. It was still very hard to see, but I managed to get the small dots going around it’s perimeter, and the basic pattern of lights and darks.

It’s not finished yet, but I don’t like to bring any area of the paining to completion before the rest. It’s time to move on to something else for a while. The break is also helpful, as I can approach the bracelet with fresh eyes later and see even more.

Conceptualizing the Bracelet

I was reluctant to start painting the bracelet. It seemed like a mass of confusing reflections with no clear structure. Below is a photo of it. The structure is easier to see here, because I took the photo from close up. From 4 feet back at my stool, though, it was hard to see.

I took a few trips up close to it to study what the structure was. Though I don’t like to paint what I can’t see from my stool, I do find that it is essential to understand a form to represent it properly, even if that representation is simplified when I finally paint it. Below you can see my first attempt at understanding. The chain consists of a series of parallel bars connected with diagonal cross-pieces in a herringbone pattern. Once I had that idea, it was easier for me to see the pattern from back at my stool. I painted a dark background and indicated this pattern in a light gray.

For the crystal, I very loosely painted in the large areas of darks and lights. I’ll let it be for now, and will return to it as other parts of the painting progress. Now that I have this start, I feel much better about it.

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.