Above on the left, is the basket as I left it at my last session. On the right I’ve begun to work between the two large diagonal sections and the upper right portion of the basket. I’m pretty sure that the colors will need to be adjusted later, but at this point I just want to get some paint down. I’ve added some shadows and deepened the left side with another glaze. I also added some glazes and details on the stone and crystals.

Japanese basket #86

Above you can see the results of my next session. After darkening the left side again with a glaze, I thought I was losing some details under all of the glazes. It also had a uniform, flat, washed-out look. To fix this, I applied thick strokes of wet paint over the glazed area to bring out some of the more important bamboo strips. This technique is called painting into a wet glaze, and it can bring dimension and texture to a flat glazed area. I’ve also begun to work on the rim of the basket


The wine decanter needed some work to catch it up to the rest of the painting. I found seeing all of the shapes very challenging, because the reflections are very complex. In the end, I just started at the top, going very slowly, comparing the canvas to the set-up, and trying to decide if it needed to be darker or lighter, warmer or cooler. Gradually, as I studied and applied some paint, I could begin to see more. The more one area is correct, the easier it is to judge the adjacent area.

Japanese basket #84

I know I’ll go over this again and again, but it’s a lot closer than it was!

Japanese basket #85

Next, it was time to work on the handle. A lot of this will be glazed over later to darken it. I could have simply painted it dark to begin with, but I think that a dark glaze over lighter paint mimics the look of a light object in shadow.

Japanese basket #87

The colors didn’t seem quite right. No matter what pigments I mixed, the dark areas didn’t seem warm and rich enough! Maybe glazing over some of them when they dry with alizarin crimson might help. At my next session I’ll glaze the parts of the handle that need to be in the shadow.

Glazing and Covering the Underpainting

Japanese basket #75

It’s hard to judge the correct values on the basket until the adjacent areas are closer to their true values. I decided it would be a good time to glaze the background darker. I mixed a dark glaze of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna. I often use this mixture as my black, as true black pigment reads as very lifeless. It’s always scary putting down a big dark area like this! I put the glaze down rather thickly, and then gently wiped away all but a thin layer with a clean cotton pad. I plan on putting down several layers in subsequent sessions, so it’s fine that it’s not yet dark enough. I often like to use several thin layers instead of one thick one. This gives me a chance to adjust the color by painting over with a different colored glaze if I need to, and also gradually to work up to the value I’ll need. It’s easier to make a  glazed area darker than lighter!

Japanese basket #76

Here’s the first glaze down. I discovered that my drawing for the shadow on the wall on the  left was incorrect, so I didn’t follow the underpainting there. The edges of the shadows will need to be softer and more blurred. I’ll need to feather out the edges of the next glaze layer. I can also blur the edges of the shadows with the background colors when I rework that area.


Japanese basket #79

Now that the background is closer to it’s correct value, I can start shading the left, shadow side of the basket. Above, it’s been glazed with a mixture of ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, and alizarin crimson. This area will eventually be much darker, but I want to go slowly. Now I could see that large band of bamboo in the center of the basket was too light, so I darkened it with a glaze of transparent yellow ochre and alizarin crimson.

I painted the group of the stone and crystals with my first guess at their local colors. I also made a start on the black cloth. I left the cast shadows uncovered, so that the glaze underneath shows through. Shadows look more convincing if indicated with thin transparent glazes, not with thick body color. (Body color is thick, covering paint undiluted with glaze medium, often with some white mixed in, as opposed to a glaze, which is pigment mixed with glaze medium to make a transparent layer.)

Japanese basket #78

I’m often frustrated at this point in a painting, because I’m not ready to refine anything yet. It all has to grow together. I get more subtle as I go!

Japanese basket #80

At my next session, I’ll darken the background close to it’s finished value, so I can then paint the handle and top of the basket. I can’t paint this part of the basket before the glaze is down, because when I wipe off the extra glaze, it would smear all over it! I’ll also finish my first layer of paint on the cloth in the lower left, and put in the local colors of the stone. I don’t like to let any part of the painting progress too far beyond any other part. If I brought any part to completion before the rest, I would have had little to judge it’s color and value against, and it would inevitably be wrong!



Time to Begin Painting

!Japanese basket #68

The underpainting is dry, so I can begin to paint! These are the colors I usually have on my palette. They are, from left to right:

lead white, naples yellow light, naples yellow dark, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium orange, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, pthalo blue, cobalt blue, viridian, transparent ochre, raw sienna, burnt sienna, and raw umber.

In the container, I have some alkyd glaze medium which I mix into the paint to make it transparent for glazes. As you can see, I wear gloves to protect my hands from the paints, some of which are toxic, and all of which are messy.

Japanese basket #70

I always start in a very simple manner, just trying to indicate the local colors of objects, without too much detail.  Here I’ve made a first guess at the color of the box. It’s impossible to judge colors correctly until the adjacent areas also are painted. As I progress, I’ll keep making corrections as I can compare one area to another. For the decanter, I’m making my first stab at seeing and painting the reflections, which are very complex and hard to make sense of at first. Eventually, as I get more of the shapes and colors in the right places, I’ll be able to see and add more detail. I’ve put down a dark glaze over the cloth in the upper part of the painting to make it easier to judge the values of the adjacent areas. I’ll glaze the rest of the cloth later. I didn’t want to put the glaze in on the bottom yet, because I was resting my hand on the canvas, and didn’t want to smear it.

Japanese basket #73

Above you can see the local colors of the background painted in. I’ve indicated the shadows in slightly darker values. These areas will be glazed over later to make them even darker. I discovered that my drawing of the shadows wasn’t quite right, so I corrected the shapes.

Japanese basket #72

Above, I’ve started to paint the basket. After all of my careful observation and drawing, I found that it wasn’t too hard to see the shapes. I did find it hard to judge the colors, though. As I said, it’ll be hard to see these correctly until I get more paint down. For now, I do the best I can, judging the correct values by dabbing a bit of paint onto my black-and-white study, and the hues by giving it my best guess. I’m sure I’ll go over most areas again, correcting, always correcting!

Japanese basket #71

I’ve put a dark glaze over all of the cloth now. As I mentioned, I did this now so that I could more easily judge the values of the other objects. I’ll eventually paint the cloth over in a covering layer of paint, so I can model the forms of the cloth wet-in-wet. When that dries, I will then add glazes to show the darker areas and the shadows, and scumbles of whites to indicate the highlights.


The Underpainting


I’m using burnt sienna and lead white for the underpainting. I use these colors for two reasons. One is that they have a low oil content. In oil painting, there is a fundamental rule to always paint fat over lean. In other words, to only use oily pigments in the top layers of a painting, and less oily ones in the bottom layers. If you break this rule, the paint films won’t be stable, and the paint layers could crack over time. The second reason is that I use a lot of warm, earthy colors in my work. Because bits of the underpainting show through in the finished painting, I want its color to be a harmonious one.

Here, I’ve premixed 9 values. The darkest value, #9, which is pure burnt sienna with no white added, is my darkest value. This is much lighter than the darkest value in the finished painting, which is a pure black. I always make my underpainting lighter in value than the finished work will be. I find that painting over dark values can dull the final colors. A lighter underpainting produces more brilliancy in the final painting. Also, if I decide to glaze directly over my underpainting, only a lighter ground will let light bounce back through the glaze.

One of the reasons for doing a monochrome underpainting is that it helps to unify the finished painting. Because burnt sienna is a useful color that I use a lot in my work, I often leave bits of the underpainting uncovered, to show through in the finished work. These areas of color showing throughout the painting help give the impression that the whole work is existing in the same space, lit by the same light. If you were looking at a snow scene, for example, everything would have the same bluish cool cast. The objects on a sunlit window sill all are bathed in the same warm, yellow glow. If any of the objects from the snow scene were painted with a yellowish tinge, or if one of the things on the sill were painted with a cool, blue light, they would stand out  and not be seen as belonging in the picture.

Japanese basket #57

I don’t paint in many details in the underpainting. I would just end up painting over them in the final layers, and I would have wasted my time. I am careful, though, not to loose the drawing. To this end, I leave edges much sharper than they’ll ultimately be. The underpainting serves as a guide for the painting to show me the outlines of objects, their placement and their relative values. Subtleties, such as the reflections in the vase, the shadings of color in the box, or the variations of values in the cloth are dealt with in the later painting stage. There’s no need for subtlety yet!


Japanese basket #61

I do have to paint some details in the basket, though. If I were to loose the drawing at this stage, all of my work in locating the strips of bamboo would be lost. As I was painting the basket, I found that some parts of my drawing weren’t quite right, so I made corrections as I painted. Every time I redraw or paint an area, I take it as an opportunity to re-see and correct. As I’ve mentioned before, not all of these details will make it into the final painting, but I’d rather have them there in case I need them!

Japanese basket #65

An advantage of doing an underpainting is that it makes it so much less intimidating when you begin to paint in full color. It’s easier to judge the correct value to paint if the area is already close to the correct value, as opposed to the stark white of the canvas. Also, it’s so nice to have all of the problems of drawing already solved!

Japanese basket #66

I’m careful to keep the paint layer very thin in the underpainting. The thinner it is, the quicker it dries, and the earlier I can begin painting over it! I’m also careful not to leave many brush strokes in the paint. Brushstrokes can’t be very well-considered at this point in the painting, so I wouldn’t necessarily want them to show through to my finished layers! Also, if I were to need to re-paint anything, or move an object’s position, I wouldn’t want the texture of brushstrokes to reveal the original location. I use a feather brush to smooth away visible strokes.

Japanese basket #67

With the drawing conquered, and the values set, I can begin the final painting with a lot of the difficulties behind me. Now, in the next stage of painting, I’ll be free to observe the subtleties of color and light without having to worry about placement, perspective, and values.


Transferring the Drawing to the Canvas

Japanese basket #49

My canvas has finally arrived! Before I can begin painting, I need to get my drawing onto it. First, I tape tracing paper onto the drawing and trace all of the lines in pencil.

Japanese basket #51

Below is the finished tracing untaped from my drawing.

Japanese basket #46

I flip the tracing over to the wrong side, and using a soft pencil, I scribble over all of the areas containing lines that I want to transfer.

Japanese basket #54

After trimming the excess paper away, so the tracing is the exact size of the canvas, I tape the tracing paper, right side up, to the canvas, and carefully trace all of the lines, using a hard pencil.

Japanese basket #55

As I lift up the tracing below, you can see all of the marks transferred to the canvas.

Japanese basket #56

The tracing process always results in some loss of detail. Any time you are drawing without reference to the set-up, precision is lost, and to some extent, you are guessing.  I have to go back to the set-up and correct any errors that found their way in.

Japanese basket #53

Next I’ll spray a light coating of fixative on the canvas to set the pencil, so that it won’t dissolve when I apply the first paint layer. Then, I’ll finally be ready to paint!


How Precise Must a Drawing Be?

Japanese basket #42

As you can see, my drawing is very precise and detailed! It can be frustrating to see and draw all of these details now, but it’s even harder to do it in paint later, without any guide underneath. Even thought they are drawn, I certainly won’t show all of these details in the painting. Details are obscured both in shadows and bright light, so in those areas I will only subtlety suggest a few of the important spots. I’ll show much more detail in the mid-tones, though I won’t show every weave! I draw most of them now, so that when I’m deciding what to show, I’ll have a guide to help me be convincing.

Realistic still life demands a high level of detail in order to be satisfying. The objects are presented up-close, for the viewer to study, so they must appear realistic. However, the painter is not a photographer. He must stylize his subject, choosing only the most important parts and eliminating or muting the unimportant. It is tricky to decide how much to show!

Japanese basket #43

I constructed an ellipse for the base of the basket and transferred it to my drawing. You can see this is in picture above. I noticed that it wasn’t quite lining up with my measurements of the other parts of the basket. It finally occurred to me that the basket is very irregular in shape. For once, a perfect ellipse was not called for! It’s hard for me to just draw what I see in all of it’s asymmetry. Trust your eyes!

Japanese basket #44

Perfect ellipses are called for in the decanter, though! I calculated these and transferred them to the drawing. I indicated some of the other reflections, but not many of them. The two small ellipses seen inside the decanter are not perfect ellipses, but are distorted. The top one is a reflection of the base, and the lower is the base seen through a layer of glass. I didn’t try to be too exact here.  Unlike the weave of the basket, reflections don’t need to line up exactly, so I can paint them without a drawing to guide me. Also, since reflections are so subtle, I end up painting and repainting them. A detailed drawing would just end up being lost under layers of paint.

Japanese basket #45

Here’s the drawing just about finished. I have just a bit more to do on the basket.

Usually when I’m drawing objects such as these, I think that it really doesn’t matter if they’re exact or not. Unlike in a portrait, where an eye being off by 1/4″ would ruin the likeness, in a still life, who really would know or care that a vase was a bit thinner or wider than in reality?   The important thing is that it looks good in the context of the painting. I’m not trying to create an exact rendering of an object, like in a botanical illustration. I’m trying to create a beautiful composition.

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.