9th November 2005
There’s a lot I did different in this painting, and it started with the setting up. I must have spent about an hour or so putting the arrangement together and enclosing it on both sides, so that I got a diagonal shadow across the front (the same diagonal shadow in all the other paintings) and not too much reflected light on the right of the objects. That’s the great thing about still lives, the extent of the control you have over your subject.
Once I’d got it looking nice, I made a little composition framer out of card. I’ve been unhappy with the compositions of the paintings up to now, so I cut out two right angles of card to look through when framing the composition.
framing the composition
It’s good to focus on the framer when you do this, it helps to reduce the objects in the painting down to the main elements,and to see the main tone blocks more clearly.
I ended up holding it up there the whole time I did the roughing out of the composition to help me get it right. I was concentrating on seeing shapes within the frame, not objects, as much as I could.
Result was a pretty nice composition.
Secondly, I did the roughing out differently. I wanted to be much more immediate with this painting, and I knew the paint was going to go on thick and I wanted to get straight in. I just roughed out the main shapes quickly with charcoal, without filling int he blocks of shadow.
Once that was in I mixed up some paint and placed in patches of the lightest light point and the darkest dark. These were going to be the keynotes against which everything else was to be measured, so I made an effort to get them right.
In the bottle painting I found that when I came to add the highlight on the side of the bottle it just didn’t stand out. The rest of the painting was in too light a key, and it reduced the effect. For this painting I wanted to make sure I didn’t make the same mistake.
The darkest dark was easy – deep black in the background behind the squash and the plate. The light point was less easy. Its the fold in the white cloth immediately to the right of the plate, over to the right of the picture. I looked hard at it for a long time, I knew it wasn’t white, but I wasn’t sure exactly what off-white it was. It seemed kind of warm and cool at the same time. In the end I went for a spot of alizarin crimson in the white, it looked like it hit about the right note. I lost this keynote later in the painting though, some other areas became too light and instead of toning them down I layered more and more white on the fold. That didn’t work out so well.
After the bottle experience I needed to get away from details, so I limited myself to larger round brushes, and mixed much more paint. I also used a medium for the first time. It was a mix of turps and linseed oil, which I had in a little jar with a clean brush in it sitting on my palette, and every colour I put down was mixed with a couple of blobs from the jar. It made the paint very fluid, easy to push around. It was quite a revelation how different it was to paint with. It helped me to work in large shapes instead of little finicky details, much better for concentrating on the colours.
I used a very limited palette for this painting: ultramarine, alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow, white and black, and some cadmium red when I couldn’t get the orange bright enough on the carrots. Using just primaries and black and white forced me to mix every colour, including the browns and greens. Having to mix the colours made me think about them much more. My main goal in this painting was to get the colours down exactly as I saw them.
To help with this I made my second little tool, my colour checker. Throughout my earlier paintings, I’d been trying to isolate the colours on the subjects by pinching my fingers together to form a little square between them that I could look through. But I remember enough colour theory to know that flat grey is the best background for a colour if you want to see it at its true value. So I got another piece of card, painted it mid grey, and punched a couple of holes in it. This little tool was really helpful in matching the colours on the carrots and the plate.
I filled in patches of colour on the plate first after I’d put in the light and dark keynotes. I had to use the colour checker repeatedly to keep my brain from forcing me to paint the back edge of the plate lighter than it really was. Even when I’d matched the colour and was putting it down, I was thinking “there’s no way this is the right colour”. I had no other colours in the painting to relate it to apart from the light and dark notes at that point, but as the painting progressed (it was done in one sitting) I began to read the plate as white, even though I knew I’d painted the back of it a murky greenish grey. This colour in fact:
Looks dark against that light background eh? But that’s the colour of a white plate in shadow, that white plate anyway.
Using the colour checker to get the colour of the back of the plate.
You can see how dark it is by comparing against the white cloth showing through the square hole.
Using the colour checker to get the colour of the carrots
The best way I’ve found to use the colour checker is to hold it up in front of the painting, close one eye and slightly cross your eyes. YouR vision blurs, which helps you to see flat colour shapes and so to judge the colour. Focus more towards the card, not the subject. Look through the hole and try to judge the colour of the patch you can see. Putting little dabs of the colour on the colour checker around the hole helps you see how close you are. The results can be very different from what you would expect. Our brains lie to us about the colours we see all the time, but they lie coherently, and I want that coherence in my painting.
This painting was going pretty well. I was working slowly and methodically, putting down patches of colour and rechecking them as I went along. I could see the painting taking shape before my eyes, I have to say it was quite amazing. As I got towards the end I went to finish the white cloth, and it all went haywire. I should have stopped working anyway because the light was all but gone (I love autumn but damn the light goes fast), but I kept on fiddling with it, trying to get the right temperature of the greys. I think perhaps I was too tired by that point, I’d pretty much stopped using the colour checker and was getting increasingly frustrated. That’s when the painting ran away from me, and the handling of the white cloth spoils it now.
This painting was a good proof of concept for my method, which I’m going to apply to all my small still lives:
- Frame the composition first.
- Put in the light and dark accents and bloody stick to them in future.
- Use the colour checker. Think only about matching the colours.
- Use a limited palette of primaries and black and white only.
- Use thick medium and big brushes to keep from getting tied up in details.
This painting has a much stronger feeling of light than the previous ones, and the objects come out much more. The colours in a lot of this painting are pretty close, that makes me happy. For the next painting I’m going back to a single object, maybe a lemon. But its going to be sitting on a white cloth, which will be my main focus. I screwed it up this time, next time I’ll get it right.