Thursday, 5 May 2011

A new still life painting

I decided to do the proper preparation legwork to produce my new still life, that is, making thumbnail sketches, followed by a detailed sketch and then painting value as well as colour studies before doing the 'real' painting work on linen. This is very much a classical method and allows me to break down the painting into various stages, plan the painting and therefore produce a better result.

Step 1. Idea and Composition

First I began with deciding on, looking at, and arranging my subject matter. I picked a melon, some walnuts and two plums because of their colours. The plums were dark blue with bright purple on the outside and yellow when sliced, which would nicely offset the bright salmon colour of the melon. I had already decided on a theme of chiaroscuro so I could play with light vs dark, and bring out bright colours in fruit. I let this idea brew in my head for a week or so as I noticed that I paint my best pictures when giving the whole process some thought!

Since one of the things that makes a painting 'look good' is the play between bright and muted colour (in addition to warm and cool colours, hard and soft edges etc), I added some walnuts to provide muted colours. The only thing I didn't quite like was that all objects were round which would not provide much variation. Slicing the plums (revealing the yellow flesh) and cracking one of the walnuts provided this variation.

I tried different arrangements of the fruit, keeping in mind a few rules of a good composition (division of the image into thirds, diagonals to suggest movement, balance of elements etc). I also set up my lamp to provide a classical lighting direction at a 45 degree angle from top-front. The main sliced plum would be the focal point, placed to point to the melon. The walnuts completed the elliptical composition; one crushed walnut pointed inwards to keep the eye in the picture. It was also important to check how few objects were needed to convey the message and the mood of the painting. Each element in a painting should contribute to the overall idea, if an item is unnecessary, it should be removed.

Step 2. Thumbnail sketches and detailed drawings
By doing quick thumbnail sketches I could check potential pictorial problems. I also explored the subject matter by doing more detailed drawings. Once I was happy and had thought long enough, I copied the set up onto the linen canvas, producing a detailed drawing.

Step 3. Value study
To explore the play of light and dark and to determine whether this setup would work, I spent 2 hours preparing a 1:1 scale value study in mars black and titanium white. I made sure I used about 4 values from black to white, since I wanted my painting to have a limited number of values in addition to a few simple, large abstract shapes. This study would be a guide when painting the grisaille on canvas. I enjoyed this step in particular as I was not afraid to make mistakes on an expensive canvas, I could paint freely and focus on ending up with the best possible idea.

Step 4. Grisaille

Although the 'real painting' should really start once the colour study has been completed, I couldn't help myself and painted the grisaille on linen. The colour study would involve more time to pick and mix the best colours and I wanted to get started on my canvas before the plums and melon dried up! It's quite incredible how quickly fruit goes bad.To follow Gainsborough, I painted a cool grisaille using cobalt blue (a cool blue as opposed to a warm blue - for example ultramarine blue), titanium white (to built a foundation for bright layers of colours later) and mars black (a quick-drying black to avoid a layer that was too oily at this stage). The blueish effect would be a good complementary layer for the yellows of the sliced plums, and, if needed, I could let this blue background shine through and feature as the blue of the plums later. Furthermore, since my lamp happened to give a warm light which created cool shadows, a cool background could feature in the thinner shadow parts of the painting.

The overall value of the grisaille should also be lighter than that of the finished painting: compare this grisaille with the darker value study above, which I painted with the painting's end value in mind.

The canvas itself was a portrait linen (Belle Arte), French linen processed in Italy. I have been looking for an extra fine weave for a while and I'm happy I found it! This particular brand canvas is also oil-primed as opposed to the universal gesso priming most brands offer, which suits oil painting better. After I received it in the post, I applied a wash of raw umber to cut the white of the canvas and left to dry.

With the grisaille completed, the painting was left to dry until after the colour study was completed. For a successful multi-layered painting, each layer should be dry before painting the next.

Further steps to the completed painting:
Step 5. Colour study
Step 6. The first layer of colour on linen
Step 7. Applying glazes.

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