It’s a little while since I’ve done one of these step by step posts.
This one covers the last painting I did before returning to full time work, and was originally intended to be the first of a series of flower paintings. The series is on hold indefinitely now, but writing this one up has reminded me of some aspects that I was intending to incorporate into the rest of the series, ideas about colour and design.
It might be a little more difficult for me to paint flowers now, but revisiting this painting has started to get my creative juices flowing again, just a little. For the first time in a little while I’m starting to feel the call of the easel again.
This painting was done last January over about two weeks. Ordinarily, flowers would never last that long but I was very lucky with these chrysanthemums. By the time I got to the last few days the flowers themselves had died, but I made a point of getting them done first so it wasn’t a big problem. The leaves lasted a bit better but also went the way of all things eventually.
Regular readers will probably know by now that I prefer to work directly from life and avoid using photos. For this painting however, I did take a reference photo before I started painting, just as a backup in case the flowers didn’t make it.
Whilst perhaps 99% of the painting was done from life, I did use the reference photo for finishing some details on the flowers and the leaves at the end. I’m pretty comfortable about using a photo that way, since all the values, colour notes and the quality of the edges had already been well established from life by that point. The photo was mainly used to help me to refine the forms of some of the petals, and also meant that I didn’t panic so much to get the flowers done quickly at the beginning. I’m sure that helped me to take my time a little more at the start.
Here we are at the beginning, the drawing out stage. This photo is not quite from my viewpoint, but gives a good idea of how I set this one up.
I’m working pretty much sight size, but since I’m looking down on the flowers I can’t really step back from the easel. It’s going to mean missing out on one of the main advantages of sight size, seeing the overall effect more than the details. But at this point I’m hoping that as long as I bear that in mind I won’t get too bogged down in detail too early. I love these top-down viewpoints so I reckon it’s worth the sacrifice.
I could have drawn the flowers straight onto the panel of course, but here I’m drawing them out first on paper. It’s more forgiving and quicker I find. I’ll be transferring the drawing to the panel once I’m done. First, I’ve blocked in the main shapes of the flowers, and at this point I’ve just started to refine them and draw the petals that make up the main shape of each flower.
I’m not going for absolute accuracy since that would take far too long. But I do want to get as much in as I can. We have a natural tendency to reduce what we see to schematics if we don’t look carefully. Certainly I found that if I wasn’t careful, I’d tend to draw more uniform petals that conformed more to my internalised mental image of a petal shape than what I actually saw.
I guess that might not matter so much for a more stylised approach, but I’m looking for as much naturalism as I can get. I want these flowers to live on the panel. I want the distinct character of each flower to make itself felt.
Here I’ve completed the drawing out. I haven’t worked into the flowers too much, but their individual outlines are fairly well established, and some of the more distinct leaves have been drawn in too. I think this was about two day’s work.
Transferring the drawing to the Panel
The next stage is to transfer this drawing to the panel. I’m sure there are a hundred different ways to do this, but I like the method I use since it means I have nothing but paint on the panel itself. The first job is to trace the drawing. I trace it onto a sheet of grease-proof baking paper which works well and is cheap as chips. Once the drawing is traced, I flip the paper and spread paint over the back of it. For this one I used burnt umber thinned with a little turps. It doesn’t take much, just a thin covering.
Now the paper can be fixed to the panel (of course the drawing needs to be the same size as the panel for this) and going over the drawing again with a hard pencil will transfer it to the panel.
This picture shows the tracing from the back, with the burnt umber having just been applied. You can’t hang around too long at this point, or the paint will start to dry and won’t transfer so well. After this I flipped it over and inserted the panel underneath. Then it’s just a simple case of going over the drawing again.
Once the drawing has been transferred it’s a good idea to fix it with something. I let this one dry overnight, and then went over the lines with retouch varnish. The reason for this is that the first thing I’ll be doing is scrubbing in a background tone.
Establishing the Background Value
I want the background tone to bleed over the edges of the drawing and into the flowers. Having the background go physically underneath the flowers will help with the feeling of depth and three-dimensionality of the flowers. But if I don’t fix the drawing, I’ll scrub it out. Once it’s been varnished over I can scrub over it as much as I like without erasing it. Apparently ink is good for this too, but I haven’t tried it so can’t comment.
At this stage I’ve transferred the drawing and roughly scrubbed in a background tone.
The panel itself is linen primed with a couple of coats of lead white. Over this I’ve painted a value 8 Munsell neutral and let it dry for a few weeks. You can see the neutral poking through on the flowers. Having a light-ish ground should help the colours to show, since oil paint is basically translucent I don’t like to paint on a darkground. But a flat white ground makes it hard to judge the colours and values as they go on. This seems like a nice compromise.
The panel is constructed from fine weave linen fixed onto a moisture resistant MDF support (sealed first with PVA). The linen is attached with rabbit skin glue, sticking and sizing all in one go. Hopefully I’ll do a post on how I make these panels soon (sorry Shaun, I know I promised you that post – I will get to it eventually!)
For the background tone, I’ve chosen a warm, slightly purplish brown. Most of this is going to be covered eventually, but some of it will still show through whatever background colour I decide to use (I haven’t decided on the background colour at this point).
I should mention that I’d already done a small, quick study in oils on board of these flowers. I’d also pre-mixed all most of the colours I was going to use for the painting, based on the study. I’ll talk a bit about that in a little while.
So my background colour at this stage is a kind of dark average of the colours I’ll be using on the flowers. I took the shadow colour of the petals and added in some of the pink. Hopefully this should give the painting some unity, with this background colour still showing a little at the finish.
Beginning the Flowers
Now at last I can start on the flowers.
I’m painting them fairly directly, but loosely to start with. I’ve got my drawing underneath, so all I need to think about at this stage is hitting the colour notes and balancing the values as well as I can.
I’ve started each one by putting a little of the background green of the leaves around the flower first. As before, this is to (hopefully) allow me to paint the edges of the petals over it and help the flowers stand out more and have more depth. I’ve also started covering some of the background tone at this stage, so I can see how the flowers are going to work against it.
Since I haven’t decided on the background colour yet, I’m using a pre-mixed Munsell neutral of about the value I think I’ll want the background to be. This is just scrubbed over too, and some of the brown is showing through. Already at this stage, scrubbing the neutral over the brown is starting to set up a kind of optical shimmer in the background. although it wasn’t really part of the plan, it’s a nice effect so I’m going to try and keep it.
Here’s a close up of the start on the flowers.
They’re pretty loose at this point, I’m mostly just trying to hit the colours right. The edges are mostly soft apart from some of the petals which I want to stand out. Already some of the form of the flowers is starting to show though. It doesn’t take much. Personally I think that careful control of edges is almost as important as good drawing and values in describing form.
This is pretty much direct painting. I’m looking to hit the colours right first time, and hopefully won’t be changing them that much as I go on. I think I’m most comfortable with this way of painting because I’ve done so much ‘alla prima’ painting. But I will be coming back to these flowers repeatedly to refine them, working into the more general statement of colour notes I’ve got at the moment.
I think a more direct way of working suits flowers well. No doubt there’s plenty of other way of handling them though.
Here is the first pass on the flowers completed. I wanted to get to this stage as quickly as I could, now I can start to relax a bit more and take my time. I’ve pretty much decided at this point that how much I work on this painting, how much detail will be added, will be decided by how long the flowers last.
From this point onwards I continued working into the flowers, defining the petals and bringing up the detail. Working from left to right, by the time I’d got to the flowers at the far right the ones on the left were dry enough to work on some more.
Since this stage of the painting was fairly drawn out, and probably took most of the time, now is probably a good time to talk a little about how I arrived at the colours for the flowers and the leaves.
Getting the Colours Right
I’ve mentioned before how I’ve been using Munsell to help me get a handle on values. The series of posts on Munsell value studies have gone into that in some depth, but the Munsell chips can also be a handy little helper for judging colour too.
By and large, I’m looking for accurate colour in my paintings and have been for some time. Of course I’m aware that accurate colour may not always be what a painter wants, and that very beautiful work can and has been made by painters using anything but realistic colour. A picture is a world unto itself and the colour should really be defined by the needs of the picture as much as anything else.
But I also believe that being able to accurately reproduce colours is an important fundamental skill in painting, at least this kind of painting, in the same way that being able to draw accurately is a fundamental skill.
With regard to drawing, learning to draw accurately is, I believe, liberating rather than limiting. Accuracy is not a goal in itself, but a means to an end, a way to stretch your drawing vocabulary so that when you do want to express something through mark making you have the skill to do it.
I look at colour and value in the same way. Certainly I’m not able to judge colour accurately yet, it’s a very difficult skill to attain since our visual systems have evolved for other purposes. I’ve found the Munsell chips to be a great help here, and invested in the Munsell book of colour some time ago for this reason. It’s basically a huge book of colour chips organised by hue, value and chroma.
I use the chips in two ways. Firstly by laying them against the object I’m painting to find out what the local colour is, and secondly by holding them up in front of the subject, from my viewpoint, to judge the colour of shadow and light areas. This gives me a good idea of how light is affecting the local colour. For example, in the case of the petals on these flowers, I found that the local was a very light ‘YR’, or yellow orange.
In the shadow areas the colour pulled more towards yellow and was higher in chroma than the lights, although usually the opposite is the case. By checking various areas of the flowers and leaves, I came up with a range of colours that should enable me to get very close to the colours I’m seeing.
Here’s the palette I used for this painting:
The left hand side of the palette has the colours for the flowers. The colours are arranged from light to dark to help with modelling of the forms as they’re affected by light and shadow. There are two pinks for the centre parts of the flowers, one slightly more towards purple, and a string of colours which look like low chroma browns but are actually ‘YR’s for the petals.
Having them arranged by value like this means that I can mix between them and keep the values consistent. Very handy.
At the top right I’ve got a string of Munsell neutrals, useful for dropping the chroma of my other colours when I want to, and also a blue-green colour for the background which was added later in the painting process than I’ve covered so far. The greens at the bottom left are for the leaves.
Now I know a lot of people don’t like ‘set palettes’ like this, since they think it will stultify their creativity. Personally I don’t agree, but that aside, a palette like this is extremely useful if you’re trying to accurately match the colours you see. I’ll post more about exactly how at some point, but if I don’t want this post to turn into a book I’d better leave that aspect there for now. Suffice to say I had all – or at least most of -my colours mixed and ready before I started painting.
Back to the painting. At this stage I’ve started to lay in the general colour of the leaves, and have filled in more of the background. The flowers are pretty much finished at this point, but I’ll be going back to fiddle with them a bit more at the end.
I’ve started to introduce a little low chroma blue into the background now, for no other reason that it seemed to work nicely with the pinks in the chrysanthemums. the background in the set up is a neutral grey cloth, but the painting felt like it needed something more. Still, at this point it’s just a hint and the background is still mostly neutral.
Changes to the Composition
It was about this stage, or just before it, that I realised I had a balance problem with the composition. It was weighted to far to the right. Although it hadn’t really struck me from just looking at the painting, when I checked it in the mirror I keep behind me it was very noticeable. So I’ve started trying to tweak it by removing the leaves at the far right and adding a little flower on the left.
Coming towards the finish now. You can just see on the left of this pic that the flowers are giving up the ghost so I can’t work much longer. The leaves are starting to die too and I haven’t got them finished yet.
The main changes here are that I’ve removed one of the flowers on the right to try and balance things up, and the blue-green in the background has been strengthened. In places, especially around the bottom, the original purplish-brown background tone is still showing through.
I’ve also re-introduced some dabs of neutral grey into the blue, matching the value, so the background has a bit more life than it would have if it was just flat colour. I like it, it doesn’t show up so well in this pic though. You can see it a bit better in the picture at the top of this post.
Past this point there wasn’t much to do. The last details on the flowers and the leaves were finished using the photo reference (gasp!) and the little flower on the left was changed about a bit, mostly again to balance the picture better.
Here’s a last pic of a close up of the flowers, about two thirds of the way through I think. They look quite detailed in the painting, but although I did do a little more work on them than this, they’re still made up mostly of amorphous blobs.
Personally, I love the kind of painting that dissolves into abstract patches of paint up close but gels into a realised picture when you step back. I’m a big fan of Velazquez for that reason, among many others. I think it makes for a more interesting, and in some ways more life like – and lively – picture than when everything is perfectly finished. I’m no Velazquez of course, and never will be, but I’d like to be able to incorporate some of that if I can. These flowers aren’t the best painted flowers in the world either, but they’re probably the best I’ve done so far.
This has been quite a long post, but still I’m not sure I’ve adequately covered all the stages that went into this painting. I suppose the most glaring omission is an in depth description of the use of the Munsell colour chips to find the colours. But hopefully I’ll get to that soon. I’m still taking time off from the easel at the moment whilst I get used to my new routine, and it’s been giving me some time to think about where I want my painting to go.
A couple of weeks ago my painter friend Ilaria told me to stop messing about with casts and exercises and to start doing some real painting.Well, Ilaria, I might be coming round to your point of view. Writing this post has reminded me of some ideas I had that grew out of this painting that I’d largely forgotten about.
I think this was the first painting when I started to get excited about colour and colour harmony for it’s own sake. It’s opened up avenues for experimentation that will probably be finding their way into the next few paintings.
If that happens it’ll also give me a chance to post about colour a bit more. Colour vexed me enormously when I started painting again three years ago, just as it does for many learning painters. I would have been better off back then forgetting about it entirely and concentrating on drawing and value. It took me a long time to learn that lesson.
Perhaps now it’s time to start opening up to some new possibilities.
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