Having had quite enough of cubes and spheres after the last ten studies I dragged out my old coffee pot and a lemon for a few more. This coffee pot has already featured a few times in the series of tonal still life drawings. It’s a good subject for these studies because it presents me with the full range from white across most of it’s surface to black on the handle and lid. I have to do some drastic compression to paint it.
This was the first study of a series of six. Originally, there was only going to be this one, but it took me six goes to get what I wanted. It’s often that way in painting land I find.
This one is a bit on the large side for me at 12 X 16 inches. It’s on a fine linen canvas panel made from 12m MDF. After sealing the panel with PVA, the linen is attached with rabbit skin glue. As with most of the panels I’m using at the moment, this one has been given an oil ground, I think Michael Harding’s foundation white oil primer for this one. It takes forever to dry, but the surface is beautiful to work on. I think part of the reason I’ve stopped using mediums is that the surfaces of these panels give such nice handling, they’ve become unnecessary. But never say never.
I was less than happy with this one. It started ok, but lost something in the finishing stages, which went on forever. Which is probably why I’m less than happy with it. I have a feeling that there’s something wrong with the tonal relationships somewhere.
Here’s the set up in the (ahem) studio.
It couldn’t be simpler. There’s a window which goes down to within two feet of the floor and desperately needs a clean directly to the left. It looks like I stood up to paint this one, but I’m often sitting too. It doesn’t seem to make a blind bit of difference which, although people will argue over it. It’s more important to stay as far back from the easel as you can and still be able to touch it with a brush as far as I’m concerned.
The light looks quite blue in this shot, which probably means it was taken early in the morning on a fine day. Come two in the afternoon I have to stop on sunny days, since I get direct sunlight through the window. Although lately I’ve been wondering about trying paint the effect of direct sunlight.
This I think was the fifth. The cubes represent the white and black areas of the pot, and are a key to thevalues.
I think it was around this point that it started to occur to me that I could push the tonal balance up into the light end of the scale or down into the darks, expand (as far as paint will allow) or compress it. All that really mattered was that the ratios between the tones were preserved.
I know that might sound a bit, well, dull. And I know I’ve said it before, but through this series of coffee pot studies I’ve begun to understand it on more than just an intellectual level. There’s something physical about putting down the right tone. If the relationship to what’s already there is right, it can feel almost like dragging light across form. I’ve had a couple of mildly odd experiences whilst doing these studies. Mostly it’s just been sweat though, but of the most enjoyable kind.
For the sixth and last study I added a lemon. It could almost be a proper painting if it had some colour in it.
I’ve taken some liberties with the values in this one, but always I’ve tried to keep the relationships true. The cast shadows must be darker than the shadow planes of the pot and the lemon. I seemed to have complete freedom with the value of the background. It could have gone much darker than this and still worked I think. But the feeling would have been different.
I’ve also tried to keep up most in my mind, at any given time, the angle of the plane I’m painting to the light. I’ve tried, as far as I can, to stick to four main values for each object: The light plane, the half tone, the shadow plane and the cast shadow.
This is the last one because I got what I was after on this one, a stronger feeling of light. At least, I think I did. The main difference between this one and the first one is that the shadow plane of the coffeepot is darker in this one, so keeping the relationships constant means the other shadow planes getting darker too. More contrast creates a stronger, more focused and more directional effect to the light. Less contrast gives a feeling of more diffuse, all over light.
I’m starting to get a glimpse of the possibilities of tone, of how varying the balance can change the feel of the light. I’m moving further away from what I see all the time, but at the same time closer. Although I’m more free with the tones in the picture, to the extent that I don’t try to match what I see, I’m trying to observe more accurately how the light behaves, and to replicate it as far as I’m able. I want to hit the relationships of any given tone to all the others in the picture as close as I can.
The return of colour (but just a bit…)
Some days you just don’t know what’s going to happen. Today was the day I broke my colour fast with a tube of cadmium yellow. And some alizarin, and a bit of burnt sienna.
This study was really a test. I’ve struggled with painting a lemon on a white cloth before, near the beginning when I’d just started painting again, about a year and a half ago now. The first one didn’t even get finished. The second one was little better. I haven’t forgotten the trials that lemon put me through, so this study was a sanity check. I wanted to know, in fact I needed to know, whether or not I could do a better job of it now.
Here’s the lemon a couple of hours into the morning, blocked in as I would a neutral study. The colour was painted into the grey, which made it tough to bring it up as much as I wanted to in places.
This is just a simple little study, and there are mistakes in it that I can see now, but for me it bears out what I’ve learned about tone through the last few weeks of neutral studies. There are many little things, but in broad general sweeps I’d say that I’ve learned three main lessons: Firstly, it’s the relationships that matter, not the degree of contrast, and all values in a painting relate to all the others. Secondly, the value of a plane shows it’s angle to the light. Getting the right value makes the plane read correctly and creates form. Thirdly, objects can be simplified down to four main tones, just like a cube. If the light plane, half tone, shadow plane and cast shadow are in the right relationship to each other, then form will appear.
I’m wrapping up this post today with a couple of quotes from ‘Creative Illustration’ by Andrew Loomis:
A certain amount of manipulation of values is possible when we know what we are doing. Our purpose is not always to catch the effect as it is, but rather the most dramatic effect possible.
It is permissible to do anything you wish in paint. Nobody stops you. One can only like or dislike what you do. If you base your pictures on big basic truths and understanding you will do good ones. If you sit and putter with effects, allowing yourself to guess rather than going out to find the truths you want, you will do bad ones.
By painting grey pictures for three weeks, I’ve tried to go out and find some truths about tone. I do think I’ve found one or two. Now, although the tone studies will continue, it’s time to get the colours out again and paint some stuff. As my painter friend Marsha said to me in an email recently, “It’s all in the doing”.
Never a truer word said.
The Munsell Value Studies are posted in six parts:
Part 1: Munsell Value Studies
Part 2: Three Cubes with Munsell Values
Part 3: More Munsell Value Studies
Part 4: Real World Objects with Munsell Values
Part 5: Cubes and Spheres in Ten Munsell Local Values
Part 6: Still Life Paintings with Munsell Values
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