Working on the Brick Composition


Above is how I left the set-up after my last session. It bothered me that the turquoise was so close to the center of the composition. Also, it was almost equidistant from the paperweight and the black vase. It looks more interesting if the space between objects varies. I moved the turquoise over to the right. I also changed its angle to lead the eye up to the vase to continue the arc that begins with the basket and leads to the paperweight, then to the turquoise and up to the vase. I saw that the turquoise’s cast shadow didn’t touch the paperweight any more. Since I’m trying to get most of the darks to join up, I added a dark stone to the turquoise’s left to continue the dark. I also put a small shell on the far right to fill in some of the emptiness there. Below you can see the result.


I think that I like the small shell, but I’m not sure. Another thing you might notice in the photo above, is that I continued the tabletop off to the left with another piece of board to eliminate the bit of the metal shelf below that had been visible, angling down. Surprisingly, I discovered that I didn’t like this new look. The shadow cast by the last brick on the left continued the line of the cast shadow that I had added on the far right to make one long diagonal. I found that this diagonal carried the eye out of the composition. Below, I put it back the way it had been. You can see that the little bit of the left side of the tabletop angling down helps keep the eye in the picture. It’s a small detail, but I think it makes a big difference!

I wondered how it would look if I removed the shell and the blue crystal on the top of the left brick. I thought that it looked a bit empty without them. See below.

Below, I put back just the shell.

It seemed better. I wondered how it’d look with the crystal in the shell’s position. Also, I experimented by lowering the brick on the far right by bringing it forward.

I didn’t like this as well. It seemed to draw the eye too much. However, I do like the far right brick lower in the picture. The line of the top of the bricks looks more interesting to me now.

Above is the latest version. There are many things I like about it. It is dramatic. The bricks have a strong, massive presence. The other objects make a pleasing arc from left to right and up. My biggest concern with the composition is that it still doesn’t have a strong enough focal point. At least in the photo, the turquoise draws the eye the most, but I’m not sure I want that as the focal point. If I want the eye to travel in the arc up the black vase, I don’t want to stop it’s journey at the turquoise. Maybe I could make the vase more of a focal point by emphasizing the reflection of the turquoise on its left side near the bottom and the highlight on its right side. That would help lead the eye away from the turquoise and to the vase. Another potential problem is that maybe the darks throughout the composition aren’t unified enough, which gives a spotty appearance to the composition. As usual, I’ll live with it for a while and see how I feel about it later.

A New Painting

I’ve set my Japanese basket painting aside for a week or so, so I can look at it more critically. It’s time to set up something new! For a previous painting set-up, I needed a higher table surface, so I had laid a board on top of some bricks. I was disassembling this to get ready for the new set-up, and I noticed that I really liked the bricks. They were all unique. Some were very rough, some patterned, some chipped, some greenish with moss. I wondered if they could play a major role in a painting. I have used them before, but only as a pedestal for another object.

I hung up some black paper for a backdrop, and arranged the bricks in a jagged line. I chose some smooth glass objects to contrast with the bricks, and some rough organic shapes to echo them. My first attempt is below.

I thought that maybe the glass vase wasn’t standing out enough. Maybe something more solid and taller than the line of bricks would work better. I replaced it with a black vase. I moved the rough chipped brick on the far left in one closer to the middle, and set the one on the far right at more of an angle. I also moved the geode and the dish with the turquoise. This version is below.

I thought I’d try one without the glass dish. Also, I wondered if it’d look good to have a small object sitting on top of one of the bricks. I placed a small blue crystal on top of the left brick, moved the geode over and rearranged the other things a bit. The result is below. I like the little crystal. However, I think now that there is too much focus on the left side.

As I arrange and rearrange objects, I try to keep some principles of composition in mind. I’ll list a few of them.

1. Try to connect most of the dark areas into unified mass. Also try to do this with the light areas. If the darks (and the lights) are disconnected, the composition can look spotty and incohesive.

2. Don’t split the composition down the center. This can result in the picture having two unrelated halves. Try to have the eye flow over the center to a focal point to the right or the left.

3. Have a focal point!

4. Harmony and Variety- Repeat shapes, colors, and textures, for harmony, but vary them for interest.

5. Lead the eye around the composition. The eye should have an entry point, then a path leading to the focal point, and then to other areas of interest, and out again. The eye shouldn’t leave until the whole trip has been taken. Lines made by the edges of objects can lead the eye, as well as spots of color or areas of value contrast.

Just to make sure I was on the right path, I decided to change the color of the back wall to see if it’d be an improvement. Above you can see the result. I think the composition loses drama.

Above, I tried a dark cloth on the table. I’m also not happy with it. The darks are united, but I think there is too much focus on the top edge of the line of bricks. I do like the way the lines on the small shell repeat the lines in the glass paperweight.

When I broke for lunch, I saw a small woven basket that I had bought recently. The blue color caught my eye and I wondered if it’d look good in the new set-up. Above you can see it.

Above, I switched the basket to the other side and eliminated the clear glass dish. The white metal shelf that the table board is sitting on is visible in this shot at both edges of the frame. I hadn’t intended it to be seen. Normally, I would just paint the board as if it extended all of the way to both sides. It does look kind of interesting, though. I’ll consider whether I should keep it or not. I think that maybe the area on the far right looks too empty.

Above, I’ve added a crystal to fill it in. I’m not sure that I like it. Maybe it is too disconnected to the rest of the objects.

I had another idea to mute and integrate the right side of the composition. I set a wood crate off to the right to cast a shadow onto the right side. I often find these mysterious shadows useful. This shadow shows the space between the slats on the crate coming down at an angle. This fortuitously echoes the line of the right side of the glass dish. Maybe I should add back the small shell on the right side, half in the new shadow.

I think that I like this. The texture of the turquoise repeats the texture of the bricks. The smooth glass surfaces of the paperweight, crystal and beige dish are a nice contrast. The color scheme is a simple classic complementary scheme- blue and it’s opposite on the color wheel, orange. The darks are more connected than in many of the previous set-ups. There is a nice curving line suggested by the bottom edges of the basket, paperweight, dish and vase that echoes the top edge of the line of bricks. I don’t know that it has a clear focal point, though. It seems like it should be the black vase, but the clear bright blues in the paperweight and turquoise draw the eye. Also, I wonder if I need some blue on the right side to balance the blues on the left. I’ll live with this for a few days and return to it with fresh eyes on Wednesday.

Subtle changes

After focusing for so long on details, I thought it was time to step back and look at the whole painting. My first thought was that the light upper part of the back wall was drawing too much attention away from the objects in the painting. I checked the original photo I took of the set-up to check and see if the balance of lights and darks was different in my initial conception. Below is the photo of the set-up that I liked way back when.

Below is how the painting looked last week. The main difference between the two is that the photo of the set-up is a bit underexposed, making the darks very dark. Because of this, the light areas appear even brighter. The highlights on the nest, for example seem brighter, as do the highlights on the basket. These bright areas balance the bright area on the top. At the time, I liked this look. The actual set-up, however, has quite a bit of light bouncing around it. The darks aren’t nearly so dark. My version below is actually very like the set-up. Now comes the hard question that I always face. Do I faithfully recreate the quality of the light in the set-up, or do I manipulate the painted image to make it darker and more dramatic? I have nothing (philosophically) against making my painting different from the set-up in order to achieve a more beautiful result. The problem is that my paintings depend on a faithful reproduction of light in order to invoke a sense of reality in the viewer. If I stray too far from reality, I lose this sense. The other problem is that I’ve come to love the subtle play of light in the center of the painting, with all of the reflections and bits of light filtering through the basket onto the other objects and surfaces. If I were to darken that area with a glaze, I’d gain drama, but lose this delicacy.

I decided to make some subtle changes to see if I could improve the balance without glazing the center area darker. (I can always glaze it later, but it’s impossible to take it away once I do it.) I decided to lighten the brightest areas (except for the wall). I added more bright grass strands to the nest. Also, as I discussed in my last post, I enlarged and lightened the bits of straw sticking out on either side of the nest. I scumbled a lighter tone over the whole tabletop and repainted the front edge of the table a few shades lighter. I brightened many of the highlights on the green bowl, and darkened the adjacent areas so that the highlights would appear even brighter by contrast. Finally, I added more and brighter highlights to the basket.

Above is the painting now, after I completed the changes. Unfortunately, the photos don’t quite capture the new lighter areas as well as I’d like. Below I show a close-up of the bowl before and after the changes so you can get a better look. It’s subtle, I know! If you look carefully you can see more dark areas and a few brighter highlights.

I like the effect of the changes. In person, the canvas looks markedly different now. I haven’t abandoned the idea of glazing the dark areas darker, but I’ll live with this version for a while before I decide.

The Nest

The nest seemed to need some more bright accents to draw the eye some more to balance the large light area at the top of the picture. Below is how I left it last time, and below that, how it now looks.

The changes are subtle and hard to see in the photos. The main differences are that the straw sticking out on the far left is longer and brighter, and the one sticking out on the far right is thicker and brighter. I also added some more light areas to the inside of the nest to make it appear brighter. I think that I might also add a straw sticking up on the upper left side of the nest, so that it’ll be silhouetted against the box. This would add another bright detail. I just need to decide in which direction it should point to keep the eye moving around the composition.

The Basket and the Big Picture

When we last left the basket, the bottom was still pretty rough. Today, I went over it again, adding details, correcting shapes and colors, and softening edges. The first photo is the before shot, the second, the after shot.

I clarified some forms that were a bit obscure before. I also started adding more highlights.

I’ve been refining the colors since I put down that first layer of paint. At first, with little to use as comparison, the colors weren’t quite right. A lot of them were too bright and too orange or yellow. This is common, in the beginning. I look at a piece of bamboo and it looks bright orange. How orange, I can’t yet tell. That was fine as a beginning, but the more I painted, the more I began to see that the colors I had used weren’t matching the set-up. (See the photo from a few weeks ago, below, and below that, the most recent photo.) The actual basket appeared much cooler and more muted. This is most obvious on the right side. Also, when I began to paint, I didn’t indicate the subtle changes in color in each strip of bamboo or the reflections from the light source. I just wanted to get down the basic color. Now, however, I can begin to see and indicate all of these details.

Above is how the basket looks now. (I’m sorry about the glare in the upper right corner! Getting a good photo is hard.) I will continue to mute some of the bright colors and add highlights. I’ve been focusing on the basket, but the same considerations hold true for the other objects in the painting. All start out as approximations, then get gradually refined.

I’ve been focusing on details for a while, but I never want to loose sight of the complete composition. I’m constantly standing back and taking in the whole. All of the objects must work together to create a beautiful and well-balanced composition. A well-painted object or texture will never make up for a bad composition.

Looking at the painting now, I think that it works fairly well. I might want to darken the shadow on the lower left-side wall and add even more highlights to the light side of the basket and the nest. Perhaps the dark side of the basket needs to be a bit darker. I haven’t decided yet. I’ll live with it for a while.

Repainting the Handle

I was comparing my painting to my initial photo of the set-up and I noticed that the handle was drawn incorrectly. The top portion was too narrow and some of the angles were wrong. It amazes me that something could be so off at this late stage without my noticing it! I suppose that I get so focused on the details that I lost sight of the ‘big picture!’ I might have left it the way it was, but I really preferred its true form. One of the great things about oil painting is that it is rarely too late to fix something. Below you can see my corrections.

You can see that the top of the handle is now thicker on both of the sides and the top. I shaved down some of the curve on the left side of the left handle. I took this opportunity to re-see some details and correct values, shapes and colors. I also added some brighter highlights all along the handle.

The Back Wall

The line where the back wall meets the left side wall was sloppy. The underpainting was showing through. Sometime this can be a good thing, but I didn’t think it looked good here. Also the drawing had gotten a bit lost, so the line wasn’t straight.

Below, I’ve corrected the line. I repainted the areas on both sides of it, then mixed a color midway between these. I applied this new color right on the line, and blended well into both sides.

Above, you can see the correction.

I decided that the back wall above the basket handle shadow was too bright. Above, you can see this (though this is a photo from several weeks ago). It was drawing attention away from the subject. I went back and checked my original photo of the set-up and it was darker. I liked it more. Glazing to darken it wouldn’t work in this case because the wall is still very light. The dark glaze would get stuck in the many brush strokes and look uneven and dirty. Re-painting was the way to go. I mixed a slightly darker version of the color that was there, and a few in-between colors blending down to the bright color right above the basket handle shadow.

Above is the repainted wall. (I already showed this picture in a previous post when I talked about repainting the shadow on the back wall. The new shadow is better!)

To indicate the texture of the rice paper, with its little orange bits and raised surfaces, I painted some very delicate short lines with thick paint over the back wall. Some of these catch the light shining onto the canvas and cast little shadows. This nicely mimics the way the light plays on the actual paper.