Two Quinces, oil on panel, 5 x 7 inches
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I’d never painted shadows like this before.
I was at the end of the painting. I thought it was finished. But something was bothering me.
When I looked at it again the next day, I realised it was the shadows in the background. they just weren’t reading right, they didn’t have the depth and luminosity of the shadows I could see in the subject.
And actually, I’d struggled with them throughout the painting.
Old master shadows
What you see a lot in old master paintings are semi-transparent, warm, brown shadows contrasted with thickly painted lights.
Rembrandt and Chardin spring immediately to mind. Hammershoi is a great example too, if you’re lucky enough to get to see one of his interiors in person (you have to to appreciate them).
It works really well, and goes some way to overcoming the limitations of paint. It creates a more convincing illusion of depth.
And I’ve been painting shadows like that for some time, especially background shadows. I often start with a raw umber underpainting, then paint the lights more thickly, then the shadows.
For background shadows, I often just glaze more raw or burnt umber over the underpainting, allowing the rough brush strokes to show through a little.
It gives the painting a depth I haven’t been able to get any other way. I’ve got into a kind of habit of painting that way in my little still life paintings.
But this time, I wasn’t happy with the result.
When a habit doesn’t work
I think it was due to the restricted colour range of this little painting – predominantly yellow.
Since the glazed background shadows were basically a low value yellow-orange, they just didn’t seem to be working as a foil for the foreground objects – which were also yellow orange.
So I did what I think it’s always best to do when you feel something isn’t working, I went back to the subject and looked again.
Nature is the best teacher
It struck me that the actual shadows were a very different colour than the ones I’d painted. They were, I thought, much closer to neutral grey.
So I did what I very rarely do: I painted opaquely in the shadows. I used Munsell neutrals mixed with a little raw umber (mixed up to the right value with white) and repainted those areas.
At first, I though I’d improved it and I was happy. But as so often happens, when I looked at it again the next day, it still didn’t seem right to me.
Certainly, I’d lost the optical effect of depth from glazing. But also the background shadows looked too low chroma to me now.
So I went back to the subject again, this time much more carefully.
Some of the most useful chips you get with the big glossy version of the Munsell book of colour are the near-neutrals. these chips are chroma 1, almost grey, but still they have a definite hue – yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, green – when you see them against each other the difference is obvious.
And in fact, much of what we see in the real world is down at this low level of chroma. But the hues are incredibly difficult to determine in very low chroma colours.
Unless you have some Munsell chips 🙂
With some very carefully checking with the chips, I found that the hue of the shadows in the subject was actually much more towards red-orange than I’d supposed.
Bringing it back to the painting
So I had to decide what to do next.
Working slowly, I mixed up three different colours – each of the same value and hue, but at a variety of low chromas: 2, 4 and 6.
That turned out to be very useful. Because by then glazing these colours over the neutral shadows, I could re-introduce the chroma and the visual depth of the shadows, without changing the value.
What I ended up with is something that – when seen in real life at least – got me much closer to the actual visual impression I was getting from those shadows.
Here’s a picture of those final colours I used for the glazing on the palette.
There’s not much between them. And they don’t look very interesting on their own. But they turned out to be exactly what the painting needed.
Taking it forwards
So now I have a new way to think about creating shadows. It’s a very subtle effect, but much of what we perceive is way more subtle than most people paint it.
It’s been one of the biggest lessons that using Munsell has taught me over the years that I’ve been using it: that subtlety is very often the key to making something work – a surprising level of subtlety that you wouldn’t think would make that much difference.
But it really does. It can make the difference between a painting working and not.
This is really how we develop, I believe, in small increments. Little discoveries, like finding a way to do something that we haven’t tried before and finding it works better. I think this is much of how a personal style is evolved over time.
This painting, brush stroke by brush stroke
Except for that last part of glazing over the neutrals in the shadows, the entire process of this painting was streamed live on Facebook over multiple, short sessions. You can see all the videos here.
I’m doing a lot more live streaming these days, because I find it’s a really useful way to invite you virtually into my studio as I paint. You can see what I’ doing, step by step, and ask questions as we go along.
So expect a lot more of these. And please feel free to send me a friend request or follow me on facebook if you want to see them as I do them.
PLEASE NOTE: You need to click the speaker icon in the bottom right for sound 🙂
Part 1: Judging the colours
How I use Munsell chips to make sure I’m in the right colour area when I begin a painting.
Part 2: The underpainting
A raw umber underpainting, dry brush.
Part Three: Mixing colours and blocking in the first quince
Accurate colour mixing, to me, is a very important part of controlling colour. With this method, you can mix any colour with complete accuracy. It isn’t even hard!
And then immediately when they hit the panel, they look right.
Part 4: Blocking in the second quince and establishing the background. The kids are in the studio with me today!
Part 5: More progress
Part 6: Adding detail. Plus the plasterer calls round and I get told off for giving him the wrong phone number. Such is the nature of working at home 🙂
Part 7: finishing!
Here also is a pic of the setup (including the cameras) so you can see how I have my subject and panel angled towards the window.
I generally paint by natural light if I can, always from life and usually sight size. (You can also see my streaming set up, two cameras and the laptop).
Don’t forget, if you found these videos useful and would like to see more, follow me on facebook here.
Thanks for reading (and watching)
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