Starting to Add Color

My underpainting is dry, so i can finally begin to apply color. It always looks like a ghost of a painting at this stage.

I decided to tackle the bottle first. It’s always hard to begin. I reassured myself by remembering that it’s just the beginning, and that many more layers of paint will follow. The more paint that is down, the easier it will be to judge colors and shapes and to adjust. The important thing is to begin. Accuracy and beauty will come later. Below you can see that I started by painting only the basic shapes. On something complicated, like glass, it’s always hard at first, to see all of the complex shapes of the shadows and reflections. Having this rough version down will make it easier the next time I paint it. I’ll have landmarks to judge from, will be able to compare what I see in the set-up to the painting and make adjustments and corrections. Also, I will know the object better.

The blue vase, below, is in shadow. I like to glaze my shadows with a dark, transparent glaze to achieve a shadowy feel. I painted it in a lighter color than it will be, so after I glaze it, it will be the correct, darker value. It will also have light reflections cast onto it. These I will depict by painting some light valued paint into the dark glaze while it is still wet. By doing this, I can get soft, mysterious edges to the reflections.

Above you can see my first attempt at the necklace. This necklace has many fine chains and will be quite a challenge to paint. Here, I simply put in a shadowy base that will serve as a mid-tone between all of the many chains. I also roughed in some color on the sandstone.

Above, I’ve started on the basket. It was extremely frustrating to get the right color for the bamboo strips. No matter what color I mixed, it seemed wrong. Until I cover more of the canvas with paint, I won’t be able to judge colors correctly. I’ll go back many times to adjust the colors. Also, even though I tried so hard to preserve the drawing through this process of drawing, transferring, and underpainting, I still have unclear areas that I had to re-see and re-draw with paint. It’s a complicated basket!

I painted in the background, trying to get a smooth transition from a slightly lighter tone on the left, to a darker one on the right. I mixed three values of the yellowy beige, painted them in stripes, then blended. I also started to indicate the wood grain very lightly. I painted the shadow areas in a very light value, so that I can glaze over them with a dark glaze later, to achieve the correct dark, shadow tone. With layered painting, you have to plan ahead.


I transferred my drawing to canvas, and now I can finally start to put down some paint. It’s been months since I began to work on the set-up for this painting. Even now, I’m still in the preparatory stage! What comes next is my underpainting. I use 9 values of lead white and burnt sienna. I paint very thinly and without much detail. Everything is painted in a lighter value than what it will be in the finished painting, because the finishing colors look fresher over a lighter layer. This first layer of paint gets me painting in a very low-stress kind of way, since I don’t have to think about color or detail. Also, most of it will be covered later. It will serve as the base of the painting and will subtlety provide a consistent hue to the whole canvas. I paint carefully to preserve the detailed drawing I’ve done, but as always, each time I approach the drawing, I see corrections that need to be made. I make them here in paint instead of in pencil.

It was hard to begin. I had to adjust my brain to seeing such complex shapes. I began with the easiest-to-see bits. After an hour, I was able to go a little more quickly. Below is from my next session.

I moved to other parts of the painting after I couldn’t take painting any more small details on the basket. Below is how I left it. I still have several days left before it’s complete. When it is, I’ll let it dry for a week or so, and then onward to color.

Value Study

Before my drawing is complete, I’ll take some time to do a full-size value study in black, white, and gray. I do this for several reasons. First, it’s a great way to judge my composition. I’ve found that if a composition doesn’t look good in black-and-white, it won’t look good in color. If I see anything that doesn’t work, I can quickly make changes. Any changes I like, I’ll make in my drawing also.

To make my study, I tape a piece of tracing paper over my drawing. I can see the drawing underneath and use it as a guide as I paint. This study is very rough and loose. I don’t need many details to judge the composition. I just need the big masses of values. I won’t paint every bamboo strip on the basket. I’ll indicate the major ones, and quickly sketch in an impression of the rest.

It’s amazing how just a few brushstrokes can evoke an object! Below you can see the study after the first layer of paint is down. I usually find that I need to come back and add more value contrast (darker darks and lighter lights) after the paint is dry. If I try to do it now, it all smears together into mid-tones.

Even unfinished, I can get a good sense of the final composition from the study. You can see that you don’t need small details to get that sense. It’s the large masses of light and dark and how the shapes and lines lead the eye that make a striking composition. Without that, all the accurate details in the world won’t save it. Good composition always trumps precise rendering of forms.

Drawing-Observing and Correcting

Shapes with complex curves can be very hard to draw correctly. As you can see below, I changed my mind about the curve of this bottle many times. Each time I was certain that I was right. I’d come back the next day and look at the bottle, compare it with my drawing, and see that the mistakes were glaring. In the thick of observing and drawing, it is easy to be convinced that you are seeing correctly. I think it is essential to take a step back now and then and quickly glance from set-up to drawing and try to see the object you are drawing as an abstract shape–in this case, not a particular bottle, but a curved shape. I also try to observe the negative spaces between objects as abstract shapes. It’s this odd shift of awareness, like looking at an Escher print of stairs and making the shift of perspective to see it inside-out. You be amazed how errors reveal themselves when you look in this way.

I don’t bother trying to draw both sides of symmetrical objects by eye. I get one side correct, then I place a piece of tracing paper over it and trace it, being careful to include the center line (which I always mark on my drawing), and a horizontal line crossing it that corresponds to some horizontal measuring line on the drawing. I then flip over the tracing paper, aligning the center line and the horizontal mark. Now, using my original line as carbon paper, I trace over the line to transfer a perfectly symmetrical other half. It’s easy and always works.

I’ve made a lot of progress on the drawing of the basket. It’s like putting together a puzzle. The more pieces that are in place, the easier it is to place more. I’ve had to go back and correct earlier work, using my method described above. You can see above that I’ve numbered right on the drawing, adjacent pieces of bamboo on the handle. This is to make it easier to go back-and-forth between drawing and set-up and know where I was looking. I’ll say to myself “strip #3 should be a bit wider,” or “strip #6 should have more of a tilt.” If I don’t do this, I get hopelessly lost in the complexity. Anything I can do to make the drawing easier, is a good thing.

Above, I’ve made my first attempt at the necklace. It’s hard to get everything in the correct perspective. I drew the Chanel logo charm using a circle template. I’ll take another look at it tomorrow to see if I can catch any errors. I won’t bother to draw more than the basic outlines of the complex chain on the necklace. It’s too tiny and complicated. I’ll save that for when I’m painting.

It Begins With a Drawing

My latest painting features this Japanese basket. I couldn’t paint it without a detailed drawing to guide me. I drew it once before when I included it in a commissioned painting, and it wasn’t easy! Looking at that painting now, I can see that the drawing wasn’t entirely accurate (not that it really mattered in the context of the painting!) This time, I want to make sure that the large form is correct before attempting all of the details of the weaving. Here it is! It’s rather daunting.

Below, I’ve begun the drawing. I used my favorite measuring tools- a skinny knitting needle and a view-finder, and a ruler held up in front of me. See Drawing Again for details on how this works and my thoughts on drawing this basket the first time I painted it. I also simply looked at the set-up and tried to reproduce what I saw there without any measuring tools. One of the problems with looking back and forth between the set-up and my drawing, is that the two images naturally appear to be different sizes, and it’s hard to compare accurately. For this drawing, I tried a new method. I snapped a picture of the basket and held up my phone in front of me so that the basket appeared the same size as the basket in my drawing. Then I quickly looked back and forth and compared the overall shapes. Now that they appeared the same size, this was easy to see. I didn’t draw from the photo. I simply used it to do a quick check on the overall shapes. I always draw from life, never from photos. You can’t get the same kind of accuracy from attempting to draw from a photo. After I drew the large overall shape of the basket, I I located a few obvious and clear areas, such as the borders of the large bands of bamboo that encircle the basket. I usually find that even after a lot of measuring and drawing, things often don’t look right to me. In this case, I take advantage of the first few moments of looking at the drawing when I begin a session. At this time, the eye is fresh and can see errors that are impossible to see after hours of staring at something. Measuring is very helpful, but in the end, there is no substitute for simply looking.

I find this beginning part of a complex drawing very difficult and taxing. There are several reasons for this. First, every bamboo strip must be correctly located. Second, it is hard to keep exactly what you are looking at in mind as you move your gaze from set-up to drawing. As it progresses, and more things are in place, it is easier to know where you are and to fill in the details.

Seeing Takes Time

When confronted with a complex subject, I often despair of ever being able to see it clearly, let alone paint it. I felt that way about this mossy branch. The wood wasn’t so difficult, but the moss bits were very complex. Also, the forms and colors blended together and were mostly indistinct, making them very hard to puzzle out. At first, the best I could do was to just approximately show the positions of the various forms. You can see this stage below.

At my next session, below, I tried to see some further details. Interestingly, the previous stage of just showing the basic positions and shapes helped me here. Unlike before, now my eye had something to fix on in my painting, so that when I looked at the set-up, I knew where to look on my canvas for the corresponding area. The words in my mind were something like: ‘In the set-up, see that clump of moss on the branch near where it forks on the top edge on the right– it actually has a dark greenish bit where it touches the wood.” I could then easily find that bit on my canvas and paint it. I couldn’t have done this right off of the bat at my first session–I was too overwhelmed with detail. For now, I didn’t try to do much more with that little bit of moss, but moved on to another, trying to see just a little more than I had the first time. Below you can see the forms beginning to take shape.

I think it’s important not to criticize yourself for not being able to see and paint details all at once. Until some work has been done, and the eye can identify areas on the canvas that correspond to areas in the set-up, it can’t do the quick back-and-forth studying necessary to accurately observe and capture a color, shape, or relationship. As the painting progresses, and more areas are worked on, it becomes easier and easier to compare and see how the painting needs to be adjusted. Every layer of paint further clarifies the image. It’s amazing to me how after a few sessions, what seemed like chaos in the set-up, is now understandable and paintable.

Above is my latest session. Now that the basics were in, I could begin to see quite detailed bits of shadow, highlights, colors, and forms. Seeing and painting takes time!

Layers of Paint- Glazing and Scumbling

I thought I’d use my painting of the black cloth to demonstrate glazing and scumbling as a way to build up value and texture. After my monochromatic underpainting was dry, I loosely painted over it using grays. I wasn’t trying to get the values correct at this point. I’ll work towards that as I progress, using glazes and scumbles. I’ll let this layer of paint dry for a few days.

Below, at my next session, I painted over all of the cloth with a dark glaze mixed with ultramarine blue, raw sienna, and glaze medium. The shadow areas are now approaching their final dark value, but the lights are now all too dark. Instead of wiping the glaze away in these light areas to lighten them, I leave it. After the glaze is dry, I’ll lighten these areas with a scumble.

Below, I started my scumbles. A scumble is a partially-covering layer of a light-valued dryish paint that is scrubbed onto a darker area with a hogs hair brush held on its side. The paint gets caught on the top layers of the canvas’s weave, creating a sparkling effect through which the darker area underneath can still be partially seen. Scumbling always produces a cool look, so I added quite a bit of raw sienna to the gray mix so that my lights would look warm. Since I’m using a spotlight, the light is warm. If the light was coming from a window, it would be cool, and I wouldn’t need to add the warmer tones.

I’ll continue to refine my lights and darks with more glazes and scumbles. You can achieve quite subtle effects this way. The thin dark glaze looks convincingly shadowy and mysterious, and the thicker, more textured paint in the light areas really convey the look of light falling on cloth.

Oil Jug and Branch Underpainting

I started the underpainting. As usual, I used burnt sienna and lead white, in 9 values from white to pure burnt sienna. I kept all of the values very light, so that the colors I paint over the underpainting will still be bright. I also kept the paint layer thin, so that it would dry quickly. I stayed away from detail, since it will all be painted over, and I don’t want to waste time. I just need a guide for the drawing and the relative values. I also took advantage of this stage to correct my drawing, which still wasn’t seeming right to me, especially the branch.

Above is the completed underpainting. I finished it in two sessions. The drawing of the cloth isn’t perfect. That is frustrating, but I realize that it doesn’t really matter if my painting matches the set-up. No one will know or care that a fold is higher or lower than the set-up. The important thing is that the composition works and looks good.

Above is a close-up. You can see how simple the painting is at this stage. I tried to preserve the drawing underneath and indicate relative values. It will be much easier to begin to paint with this preparatory layer in place, because drawing and value have already been considered and established. I’ll let this dry for a week, or until no paint comes up when I rub with a cotton pad. Next, I can focus on color and light effects.

It’s Time for Something New

I put together this set-up back in July, while I was waiting for the canvas for my recent painting to arrive from the stretchers. The canvas arrived soon after, and I set to work on the other painting. Now, after 7 months of working on that painting, I’m ready to begin on this one. When I first looked at the set-up again, I wasn’t sure if I still wanted to paint it. Lately, my work has taken a turn towards the more colorful and less traditional, and this one didn’t seem to fit. I decided that I do still like it but think that I’ll try to complete it a bit quicker than usual. There are no time-consuming textures to paint (like bird’s nests or woven baskets!), so I think I can do it.

My next step was to do a drawing. It was surprisingly hard to draw the curving shapes of the branch and the folds of the cloth. I kept measuring and checking locations with my view-finder and knitting needles. (For more details see Drawing ‘Noguchi Lamp and Scarf’.) noticed that I was unhappy with the shape of the cloth that flows between the jug and the dish of stones. Rather than mess with the cloth, I just experimented with drawing it differently. I liked this version more. Design always out-trumps slavish adherence to what’s in front of me! You can see the modified line of the top edge of the cloth in the drawing below.

The handle of the oil jug was especially hard to see properly and draw. You can see all of my erasures below.

Before completing the drawing, I did a black-and-white oil study on tracing paper to check the composition. I simply taped some tracing paper right on top of my drawing so that I could see all of my lines, and quickly painted in shades of gray.

I can see some drawing errors now, especially in the jug. I’ll correct these on the drawing, and then proceed to transfer the drawing to my canvas.

Last Minute Changes

I’m almost finished with my painting. It’s time to step back and look at the whole composition to see if I’m satisfied with it. I’ve been working so hard so hard on capturing all of the myriad details that it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. I decided to take a look at the photo I took way back when I was composing the set-up to see if my painting captures that spirit. Below is the photo.

The first thing that struck me was that in the set-up, on the far-left side, a triangular bit of orange board was visible. This was never intended to be part of the painting. The plywood board I had set my objects on was too short, so I placed this other board there to lengthen it, thinking that I wouldn’t show it in the finished painting. Also, the striped edge of the plywood was visible on the right, and I had propped up a piece of gray board under it to serve as a vertical surface, and to cover the contents of the shelf below. Again, I hadn’t thought of these elements as part of the finished piece. Looking at this photo next to my painting, I realized that they were important to the composition. Without the orange triangle on the left, the eye falls off of the left side of the composition. Its presence guides the eye back to the center of the painting. The striped edge of the plywood on the right adds interest and echoes the stripes in the gold mirror section of the vase, as well as its reflections on the wall.

Above, I have painted in these changes. The front edge of the plywood board on the right looked unconvincing. I thought that maybe if I painted a cast shadow under it, it would look more natural. I decided to experiment with my value study before I tried this on the painting. Below you can see the change. I thought that it looked better now.

The orange bit of table on the left was bothering me. It seemed strange that the table would so abruptly change color with no good reason. I decided to paint it as though the tabletop ended there and dropped down, showing a striped edge like the one on the right side.

I still need to glaze the new shadow on the right and probably the new area on the left. I’ll let the painting dry for a week before I do this. I think I’m happier with the composition now.