Following on from yesterday’s post of the first sketches of the old silver sugar bowl and spoons, I’ve now done two more sketches of the white flower in the sugar bowl.
A Value Problem
The main problem I needed to address with these two sketches was how to make the white flower work in the painting as a white flower, whilst keeping the highlights of the silver as the lightest light by enough of a step up from the flower to make them read as bright, reflected light. The silver won’t work if the highlights aren’t convincing. Since these sketches are going to be worked up into a bigger painting, there’s not much point in me going further with the planning of this painting unless I’m pretty sure I can make the values work.
Here’s yesterday’s sketch. What I’ve tried to do is to deliberately keep the values of the flower well below the value of the highlights of the sugar bowl, which are titanium white and my lightest light.
What I’ve ended up with is a grey flower. That was most definitely not the plan, since the flower is white.
I should point out here that my camera is having real trouble with this painting. I’ve done extensive correction of the hues and values in Photoshop, but still the dark background shadow is too dark in relation to the rest of the painting.
Interestingly, the camera had a lot of trouble photographing the subject too. It bleached out all the lights into a general white, and over-stated the contrast between light and shadow by a wide margin. Just as well I like to work from life. Taken on their own, the pictures of the sugar bowl aren’t too bad, but they’res ubstantially different from what I see when I look at the actual set up.
Here’s a detail of one of the photos. I took a bunch of photos of the set up because I was hoping to use them as a sketch pad for trying out different compositions. That worked quite well with the silver vase painting, but in this case the photos are too much at variance from reality for me to want to use them.
In terms of values, I think that the camera is having trouble with the very same problem I am – a wider tonal range in the subject than can be replicated in two dimensions, by either paint or by pixels. The camera has solved the problem by averaging the lights, so the highlights on the sugar bowl are the same value as the highlights on the flower.
But that’s just not the case when I look at the actual set up. The highlights on the sugar bowl are lighter than those on the flower, and the camera has lost of lot of their detail. That’s one way you can often recognise a painting that’s been copied too closely from a photo, the light area sare uniform and bleached out.
Light just doesn’t work that way in reality. In this photo, the camera has also played merry hell with the tonal balance. Since you’re not sitting in my studio (ahem, back bedroom) looking at this sugar bowl with me, you’ll just have to take my word for that. Oh, and the red of the cloth is completely out, in value, chroma and hue. Bad Camera. Straight to bed with no dinner.
But lets be honest, my initial attempt above at solving this problem by dropping the lightest tones of the flower, compressing the range of its values, hasn’t fared any better. In fact, you could argue it’s worse, since what I’ve ended up with is a grey flower.
That first sketch was done yesterday, and I went to bed with this problem nagging at me. I woke up at some unreasonable hour this morning, dawn in fact, and it was still nagging at me. So most of today has been spent having another go at sorting it out.
This second attempt is very roughly painted, I know.
Foremost in my mind was the value problem, so I wasted no time worrying about whether it turned out to be a nice painting or not. It was almost entirely painted with one eye closed and the other squinting and out of focus, trying to concentrate on those values as much as possible.
Although the camera has again struggled with the values and the deep red, and I’ve done extensive colour correction in Photoshop which has probably made it worse, hopefully you can see the difference between this sketch and the first one. The highlights on the flower have been allowed to go lighter, up to a value 9 on the Munsell scale, whilst the highlights on the sugar bowl are neat titanium white, my lightest light. Effectively my 10.
Although I think I’ve sacrificed something of the sharpness of the highlights on the bowl, the flower is reading, to my eyes at least, as white. And the silver still works as silver. Big relief.
The tones on the bowl are pretty close to how they appeared in reality, apart from the highlights of course. I’m pretty sure I got the values of the cloth very close too. What I’m looking for here is a convincing feeling of the light, and I do think I’ve come closer with this sketch, a lot closer, than I did with yesterday’s effort. The painting is rough, yes, but at least tonight I won’t be worrying about the value problem when I go to bed, I’ll be thinking about the composition of the painting instead.
I want to add a last word or three about how I approached this painting before I wrap up this post.
I knew that if this sketch was going to be an improvement on yesterday’s, I was going to have to nail the values as far as I could. Because of that, I spent a fair bit of time setting up the palette before I put a brush on the canvas. In fact, I had all the colours and values I was going to need mixed up and laid out ready. I also had my new home-made Munsell value scale to hand, and it saw heavy use today.
This is the palette as it stood when I was about to start painting. Reading from right to left, first comes the little dog tags which match the values of the Munsell scale. This is values 1 (black) to 9 (almost white). I’ve made these out of MDF and drilled a hole in them to squint through, and painted them with the same oils I use for painting (Michael Harding’s very excellent oil paints.)
Again, I have to say that the camera isn’t showing the steps between the values very well, they’re more even than they look here. I suppose I should admit that these unbalanced photos are as much my fault as my poor berated camera’s. I’m not good with cameras. Maybe I should take a photography course.
Next to the value scale is a string of matching values in wet paint. These will be mixed with the colours on the rest of the palette to drop the chroma when necessary. Mixing is only done horizontally, so that only the strength of colour is varied without affecting the value or the hue, as far as possible.
Next up comes the three red values I used for the cloth.
I kept it to three to keep things simple. Simplifying form down to a few values helps to make a stronger picture I think, and also aids thinking in terms of the main tone blocks at the start. I didn’t need any more than these three for the cloth, they represent the shadow area, the flat tone, or local, and the colour where the plane of the folds is facing the light. This is also the strongest chroma of the three.
After the reds comes a string of raw sienna knocked back a little with ultramarine. These colours will be mixed with the greys to get the colours of the sugar bowl.
Finally, there is a string of greys mixed with yellow ochre for the white flower. It took me a long time to decide on this colour for the greys of the flowers – high value, low chroma colours are difficult to judge because they’re so subtle – but I think it comes pretty close.
This set up is loosely based on the idea of the Reilly palette. I say loosely because I don’t currently know enough about Reilly’s palette to say how much this corresponds with his. But the basic idea of separating out value, chroma and hue comes from Reilly, and from Munsell before him.
The grey scale was made with ivory black and titanium white, with a hefty addition of burnt sienna to counteract the blue cast of the greys. These are true neutrals, according to Munsell, and shouldn’t affect the hue of my other colours too much when I mix them in to reduce the chroma where I need to.
It’s just as well I got an early start today, because this palette took me three hours to set up, before I’d even got the brushes out. But when I did come to paint, I knew I had everything I needed right there beside me, and just had to top up the odd colour now and again. It makes the painting go much smoother I think, and frees up your mind to concentrate on hitting the values and colours you want without a lot of aimless messing about with the wrong colours. It certainly helped me today.
I can appreciate that this might seem a bit too technical to some people. But I should point out that all this planning, judging of values and pre-mixing of the palette is done with one aim in mind: To make the painting flow more easily and to free up precious mental resources so that they can concentrate on making (what I hope will be) a more beautiful painting. All this is done in the service of evoking an atmosphere, some kind of feeling in the painting which will hopefully communicate itself when the work is done.
Next Step – the Composition
So here we are, the initial sketches are finished. Next up I’ll be planning the composition. The focus of this painting is to be this silver sugar bowl with the white flowers. The composition is going to be aboutpulling the eye to the focus point as strongly as possible. Before I start on this next stage, I’ll be re-readingthe excellent chapter on composition in Andrew Loomis’ book, ‘Creative Illustration’.
What is it about thesetwentieth century American Illustrators? When the ‘fine’ art world was busy worshipping novelty and ugliness,cracking in-jokes to itself and trying to out-do itself in ever more extreme attempts to shock, illustratorslike Frank Reilly and Andrew Loomis were getting on with their thing, making paintings, making a living, keepingthe knowledge alive and adding their two penneth to the tradition.
I think I know what it is about them that draws so many of today’s would be representational painters to theirteaching methods when they’ve been failed by art colleges. They knew their stuff. It all came from practicalexperience and it works.
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