Part 1 Assignment 1

I decided to do a still life for my first assignment, something that I could leave set up and return to as necessary. For this reason too I chose to work my final piece in oils. I did however do much of the preliminary colour studies using acrylics for easy of drying.

Having decided that I may have misinterpreted the previous exercise and not painted a subject against a dark background I decided to rectify that and do a still life against a dark background similar to the way to that of the old Dutch Masters. For instance:

A vase with flowers by Jacob Vosmaer 1613
Jacob Vosmaer, A vase with flowers. 1613

In this painting the beauty and the colour of the flowers (and insects) are allowed to shine out of the painting by dark background and vase. This vivid colour is even more dramatic in the painting below, where the yellow of the fruit positively glows out from the background. As well as showing the subject of in arresting fashion, this juxtaposition of the lights against darks also serves to add depth to the painting. As such the subject floats forward towards the viewer creating a very 3D visual effect

Franscisco de Zurbaran.  Still-life with lemons, oranges and a rose. 1633

The process

I have a lovely low-cut boat-shaped ceramic vessel glazed in a matte black which holds pieces of fruit. I decided to arrange some bright coloured satsumas and a persimmon in it and played with the arrangement to find an interesting composition. I put the whole set up on a black cloth and then started making some line sketches. The vessel is very low, as is the fruit and it very quickly became obvious that if I wanted a black background I would have to have paint the vessel from quite a close, high view-point. Too low and the fruit would not be so visible over the edges of the vessel and the vessel itself dwarfed somewhat by the room in which it was in.

Having worked out a composition that I thought would work well I then made some colour studies of the tones and hues involved. I had enjoyed working with the dark tones over a dark, warm coloured ground in the previous exercise so I decided to prepare a surface with a mix of burnt umber, cadmium red and a little cadmium yellow (acrylics). Using this mix as a base, I then worked colour swatches onto it investigating suitable colours for the vessel (payne’s grey, burnt umber and white) and for the fruit (cadmium orange, cadmium yellow and white). Initially I was working in my sketchbook but I realised quite soon in that the cartridge paper (unprimed) took on the colour in quite a dark tone. Thus, I also prepared some titanium primed oil paper with the ground and repeated many of the colour swatches. As I thought, the primed paper took on a different tone as the paint sat on the surface and didn’t sink in.

However as I have found in previous exercises I tend to struggle with paint on this smooth surface, I have little control over it. Aware that I needed a little control over my paint for this assignment I prepped my third piece of primed acrylic paper which has a linen type slub to it. The paper is also much whiter than the titanium oil primed surface. I used this third sheet to do some quick acrylic studies of the persimmon and the orange in acrylic paint to see how the colours were hanging together.

The Final Piece

I washed a layer of orange acrylic over a final A3 sheet of prepared oil paper to provide a dark warm ground to work on. Using payne’s grey oil paint diluted with liquin original I then sketched out the outline of the vessel and the fruit in a composition that I was happy with: close in and high up, looking into the vessel. Working with mixes of burnt umber and payne’s grey for the vessel and cadmium red and cadmium yellow for the fruit I blocked in the main areas of colour. For the persimmon foliage I added a little green to the mix to create a brown-green colour. I also used this for the shadow areas on the fruit. I used titanium white to layer on high-lights on both the fruit and the vessel. I used a mix of cadmium yellow and cadmium red to create the reflected light on the vessel.

Vessel with fruit
Vessel with fruit


Bringing forward ideas of using coloured grounds to create a warm rich black from the last exercise I used a warm dark ground here with the additional hope that the warm red-orange colour just showing through the black background would tie in with the brilliance of the orange fruit. Certainly there is a warm orange glow in the background, however the dark ground had the effect of darkening the tones of the fruit too. These dark tones then competed with the need for brilliance and light in the depiction of the fruit. I may have been better to lay down a different ground under the areas of the fruit, one of a lighter tone so that it didn’t compete with their final colours. I wonder if I should have left the fruit shapes as white, or applied a yellow ground instead.

I tried to vary my brush strokes to create interest and to depict different textures. In some areas this has been successful, such as the stippling type marks creating the highlights on the dimpled skin of the fruit, and the feint orange reflected light on the inside of the vessel. The marks here give an impression of a much smoother surface. In using brushstrokes to create form, I was more successful in the study than in the final piece. Whilst I tried to create the leaves in a single brush stroke in the final piece and then add the highlights, the form isn’t so successful as the leaves in the study.

Given the composition I ended up with I didn’t put the edge of a table in at all. On reflection this possibly was a mistake as the vessel isn’t really grounded to anything although the bottom of the vessel disappears and merges into the shadows and the dark cloth so there isn’t really a feeling of the vessel floating in space. Part of me doesn’t mind this as when I look a the final piece I see the arrangement of the still life as it was, on a dark cloth. However I understand not all viewers with think this. That said, with this particular view-point it would have been hard to get some kind of table edge in and maintain the same sense of scale so perhaps it is ok not to have one in.

Part 1 Assignment 1

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