Still Life Project

For the past few weeks I’ve been working on a still life project for art college. I am interested in reflected and refracted light, so the lecturer suggested I find objects that are shiny or made of glass. He helped me arrange a motley collection of two vases, a lamp, a jug and a jam jar from the art school prop cupboard:

Photo for still life project.
Photo of the still life objects.

The objects are placed on a striped teacloth and my plan is that the painting should focus on the reflections and refractions, particularly from the dark stripes of the teacloth. I want the finished painting to be slightly abstract.

I set about sketching what I had in mind. Here is a sketch and a tracing that I used for my first paint study:

A preliminary sketch. A preliminary sketch.
Preliminary sketch and tracing.

My viewpoint for the sketch was slightly higher than the photo so the objects have slightly different proportions.

For my first rough painting, I used a limited palette of yellow ochre, permanent yellow deep, primary red and ivory black. This was painted quickly with gouache paints:

Preliminary paint sketch.
Rough paint study.

I rather like the earthy tones and decided to stay with these colour choices in a larger study. I set up the objects again and painted them on A3-sized paper:

Second paint study.
Second paint study.

The perspective effects in the reflected stripes are particularly interesting (to me, anyway!) They get fatter as they come forward. I will attempt to feature this in the final painting.

I set up the objects again and sketched them for a larger painting. I prepared a 40x60cm canvas by painting it with medium yellow acrylic paint. Then sketched an outline in conte:

Outline sketch.
Outline sketch.

Next I will brush away most of the conte, go over the outlines with a small brush in acrylic paint and begin to block in the large areas with the correct values.

More to come…


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Mellon Udrigle Beach

At last I’ve finished a landscape painting started last November. It was painted from a photo and colour studies.

Mellon Udrigle Beach
Mellon Udrigle Beach, Acrylic on stretched cotton canvas, 56x45cm.

I struggled with making the foreground work with the background. In the early stages of the painting, the feedback from college was that these looked like two different paintings. I toned down the foreground colours to mimic colours in the sea and sky. I darkened the values in the foreground because even though the photo had large areas of sparkling water there, the brightest values were from the waves crashing on the shore.

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Trying out watercolour pencils

Artists like James Gurney sometimes use watercolour pencils for preparatory under-drawing in paintings with water-based media (acrylics, gouache, casein and watercolour). This is because the pencil strokes melt on contact with water and mix with the paint – unlike graphite pencil or charcoal. Also, you can use them to add fine detail on top of the painting.

I’d never tried them before. I bought a set of 12 Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer pencils:

I think these will be great for travelling or painting en plein air.

Yesterday, I tried out the pencils in my sketchbook in a study of a Caravaggio painting called ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’, 1609, that I was lucky enough to see in Messina, Sicily, last December. I had already done a graphite sketch so went over it and shaded it in with the watercolour pencils. I used plain water to melt the paint and used several layers to build up depth of colour and add details:

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Stan Miller on watercolour tones.

Stan Miller has a beautiful teaching video showing how he constructs a watercolour portrait:

Stan stressed that getting the values (or tones) right is more important than the colour. He said just choose colours you like.

Obviously drawing is very important and he did say that too. The shapes must be correctly placed and in the right proportions.

This video impressed me because:

  • He usually got the tones right first time. That’s very hard with watercolour. It tends to dry much lighter than it looks when wet. His experience has taught him exactly how much water to add to achieve the tones he needs.
  • With a large, one-inch brush he managed to produce good outlines and details. He was free-painting without an underdrawing. His skill acquired over many years is incredible! There is very little opportunity to correct mistakes with watercolour. I was particularly impressed by how he perfectly judged the size of quite large blank areas. It looked hard to know how much space to leave for the nose, for instance.
  • Even though he appeared to choose colours haphazardly, they worked well together. Stan has been a professional artist since 1973. He’s had a lifetime of experience so I don’t think his colour choices were an accident. I noticed that he generally chose warm browns and yellows for planes of the face that were in the light and cool greens or blues for shadows.

The lesson in tones was good to watch because I’m trying to correct the tones in my current landscape painting. My distant hills are too dark so I’m making them lighter. I’m working in acrylics so corrections are not a problem!

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Caravaggio’s stunning viewpoint

Yesterday, we watched a programme about Rome that included this wonderful painting of Saul’s Conversion by Michelangelo Merisi, otherwise known as Caravaggio:

By Caravaggio, public domain from

What really struck me was the clever viewpoint from ground level with the horse looming dangerously above. To emphasise this, it is hung high in the Santa Maria del Popolo church so that the viewer’s eye is is also at ground level. The top of Saul’s head is towards the viewer and his foreshortened body lays diagonally across the lower third of the painting. His hands are stretched up dramatically.
This is such an unusual arrangement. The viewer’s perception is the same as Saul’s would be. It really gives the feeling of what you might see if you fell from a horse.

The way the light is handled is absolutely masterful.

For more information about this painting see the Wikipedia page: Conversion on the Way to Damascus

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What do you paint?

If I mention that I am learning to paint, the question that most people ask is “What do you paint?”.

My stock answer is that I’d like to be able to tackle anything within reason. I’d avoid horrific and offensive subjects but that’s a matter of personal taste.

Increasingly, I’m moving towards the view that it’s not so important what the subject is. Composition, shape, tone and hue can make an attractive painting out of the most unpromising material.

The three conventional subject categories are still life, figure and landscape:

Still Life Painting

Still life is the most accessible and well behaved! You can control the composition and lighting. At Gray’s School of Art Short Course in Foundation Painting our first painting was a one-colour-many-tones still life. From that, we progressed to full-colour paintings.

Figure Painting

Human figure painting is challenging. You can get access to life models through an art school. Learning about human anatomy from a great YouTube site, Proko, helps me to get more realistic shapes. You need to understand where the underlying bones are, the direction of the muscle fibres and where they are attached.

Landscape Painting

Painting from real scenes certainly beats painting from photos (that goes for still lives and figures too of course). Art school introduces abstract art before landscape painting. You definitely need to abstract details to paint a landscape!

So, what am I working on now? A landscape from a photo of Mellon Udrigle beach on the West coast of Scotland.

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Gurney’s book on Imaginative Realism

I’ve just bought a copy of James Gurney‘s book:

Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist

It looks to be a fine book, full of practical advice as well as beautiful illustrations.

I’m really looking forward to reading it. Its main argument (reading the introduction) is that imaginative paintings don’t arrive on the canvas directly from the painter’s mind but should be grounded in real life studies. Gurney makes preliminary sketches for figures, buildings and backgrounds. Often these are plein air landscape studies. He makes models to draw and paint in realistic settings. It promises to be a fascinating book!

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