Part 2. Project: Still Life; Exercise: Still life with natural objects

Having just done a rather unsuccessful still life with flowers for the drawing in paint exercise I decided that I would go back to bright coloured fruit for this exercise, this time some lovely yellow lemons.

My initial sketches were all about trying to come up with a good composition between the group. For this I had 3 whole lemons and one half on a table lit from the right. This is unusual in still life painting and I was interested to see the effect from a visual point of view. In these sketches the lemons were lit by natural daylight.

I discarded both portrait formats, for this group of lemons (all of a similar, small size). The portrait format crowds the lemons together and you either have to have a very low viewing angle to get any depth or have no background at all (this was a similar problem that I encountered when looking for compositions for my assignment piece in part 1). The background is important with these arrangements as is the position of the cut lemon in relation to the others, The lemons also needed to be arranged on their axis very carefully. As they are a group of the same thing there is a repetitive motif throughout the image. It was important that the motif be represented from different angles so I had to play around with the rotation of the lemons to achieve this. The background proved interesting. The lemons were just on a table against a wall. The more interesting compositions had the corner of the table visible as a feature. I decided on using the last composition and the cut lemon in the foreground to the left of the others seemed to better, The detail of the cut surface could then be picked out. The corner of the table adds a certain amount of tension to the image. I did wonder if I could add texture or change the tone of the background to add interest. I decided to change the tone 2/3rd along the back with the larger section darker to balance the darker shadows on the table.

I did a fairly quick study of the lemons in acrylics to see if this was going to work in colour

Study of lemons on table. Acrylic on paper

I like the relationship between the lemons and the relationship of the lemons to the table. I am also pleased with the geometric pattern created by the change in colour of the wall, the table corner and the wall-floor line. However I find the lighting from the right disconcerting to look at. Your eye lands on the fruit then travels to the shadows which feels the wrong direction and then is immediately taken to the dark background. It is all too much.

So rather than develop this painting further I went back to my sketchbook and added a bowl to the arrangement and changed the light source to a lamp coming from the more traditional left. On this page you can also see my attempts at rendering a lemon in oil pastel and solvent. The cartridge paper was too absorbent for this to be very successful, however in choosing a bright blue for the shadow I realised that the colours were a good contrast to each other. It was for this reason that I chose a blue bowl to put the lemons in!

My view-point had to change to accommodate the light source coming from the right and I lost the nice geometric pattern that the hard lines gave in my initial paint study. So I decided to draw in nearer to the still life and leave the background out. I spent some time experimenting with colours next to each other in both acrylics and oils. There were a lot of green tones in both the lemons and the bowl so I tried colours over a green ground. I decided to do two paintings, one in acrylics over a green ground and one in oils over a white ground. In each case I used cadmium yellow and white for the lemons, cerulean blue for the bowl. For the shadows I used burnt umber and phathlo green (acrylics) and raw umber and viridian (oils). The table-cloth in both cases was based on buff titanium.

 The results were  two very different paintings!

Lemons and blue bowl. Acrylic on paper (coloured ground)
Lemons and blue bowl. Oil on primed paper (white ground)

I do not have a problem with the fact that neither painting has a background and I have ended up cropping close in to the still life its-self. However I can see that this may not be very experimental nor adventurous so I need to watch this for future still life paintings!

Compositionally I prefer the oil version. There is a certain amount of detachment between the cut lemon and the bowl of fruit in the top, acrylic version. The view-point of the oil version is slightly better and prevents the bowl from floating in space.

The effect of the coloured ground is interesting. The acrylic painting is a much ‘colder’ painting all round in spite of me using a warmer tone (burnt umber as opposed to raw umber) in the shadows. [N.B. The image on-line has a warm cast over it that I can not remove for some reason. In reality this reddish cast is not there and it is a much cooler painting!]. The green ground really shows through the lighter areas causing this coolness. However it also darkens the whole painting. I think I have gone it too dark with the shadows in the acrylic version, they are a bit stark. This does however have an interesting effect on the intensity of the lemons. The yellow is much stronger visually than it is in the oil version, even though the colour is much cleaner in the latter. As much as I don’t particularly like my rendering of the lemons in acrylic they do have more of a 3D quality about them. I think this is because the tonal variations within the acrylic lemons is greater than in the oil versions, regardless of how clumsily the glazes have been applied.

In the acrylic version I have struggled to fine tune the highlights (once again so much is about brush control before the paint dries! – or just brush control). I especially struggled with the white highlights which, looking at them again here as I type, make me cringe and I should go back and do them again if I have the time. They are very clunky and in the case of the bowl rim, not fine enough and as a result look messy. I need to get a finer brush. The highlights are more controlled in the oil version (bottom one). In fact I produced the finer lines by drawing back into the oil to remove the paint. This wasn’t possible in the acrylic version which just dried too quickly. I particularly like the effect of drawing into the oil paint on the cut surface of the half-lemon.

Whilst both pictures have their strengths and weaknesses, on balance I prefer the oil paint version. Mostly this is because of the ability of blending that oils lends themselves to. I particularly like the shadow of the bowl on the table with its subtle blue reflected light. I did wonder if it would look better cropped a little on the right hand side:

Lemons with blue bowl Cropped version

I am still very much a beginner with the idea of glazes though and whilst without a doubt I am gaining confidence with every painting, I feel I still have a long way to go before I can say I am handling a brush more instinctively.



Part 2. Project: Still Life; Exercise: Still life with natural objects

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