Part 2. Project: Colour relationships; still life colour studies

1. Still life with colour accuracy

For this exercise I started with an arrangement of household objects, a bright yellow jug, a glass jar with some home-made ink in it, and a small green dish with a handle. I set these items up on a very plain beige tablecloth against a white background and lit them with a spot lamp from the left. I used a viewfinder to move them around each other until I had a composition I was happy with.

Initially I sketched the arrangement in my sketchbook, not too worried about accuracy of the drawing (!) I was happy with my chosen composition for this particular set of exercises. I then used a set of watercolour pencils to investigate the range of colours in the composition.

Composition and colour investigation

The range of yellows visible in the jug was quite startling, ranging from bright yellow, though various yellow-green shades to green and brown. There was also some reflected orange from the ink pot. There was a less of a range of colours in the green dish and the ink pot, but the beige tablecloth had various hues of orange and pink in it and the white backdrop was very covered in various shades of subtle blue and pink hues. Tonally my initial set up was not great, the darkest areas were in the wells of the jug, the metal clip on the ink pot and then parts of the contact shadows. In order to increase the tonal range I changed the light source to a stronger lamp. This had the effect of further bringing out the shadow but it did remove a lot of the colour variation in the table-cloth. By moving the backdrop away from the arrangement a little I managed to preserve (darken even) the blue and pink tones in it.

My next step was to put down simple colour areas using acrylic paints as an underpainting without concerning myself too much with accuracy (for instance the ink pot was slightly smaller in relation to the jug and the whole still life is rather small for the paper that it is painted on).

Underpainting in acrylic

Once I had done my underpainting I decided to carry on using acrylics to complete the finished painting. My palette consisted of  lemon yellow, cadmium yellow, cadmium red, phthalo green, ultramarine blue,  burnt umber and white. I have tried to work in a much looser style, or at least as loose as the quick drying paint would allow. I have tried to block in the different areas of yellow quite solidly to give a sense of the shiny pottery. I enjoyed mixing all the different yellows and was surprised at how deep ‘brown’ some of then were. The green dish had much less variation in colour by comparison. The glass ink jar was interesting as it required painting a surface that had no inherent colour itself, rather was reflecting the colours of the ink (a browny-orange) and the tablecloth. Where the glass was thickened however, such as at the corner, there were distinct grey tones. The cast shadows were hard to do, they seemed to be made up of different tones of blue but I found it hard to keep my eye focused on the areas. They were definitely deeper around the base of the objects and then became more diffuse the further out they extended.

As I was trying to work in a more loose fashion I completed the background i broad random brush strokes, putting in the blue and pink colours roughly allowing the lighter background to show through. The table-cloth I may more solid and tried to match the orange tones.

Yellow Jug. Acrylic on canvas paper

As a composition this painting is a little boring. However it was a great exercise in visualising colour changes. I am very pleased with the outcome of my rendering of the colours for the three items, although the jug is perhaps a little too acid yellow. The tonal variations appear correct as well as the hue variations. I am particularly pleased with the gradations of hue in the handle. They are a little more blended that in other areas, a continual problem I am having with acrylics.  I managed to capture the glass ink pot with good accuracy to. I certainly has an air of clear-glass rather than solid ceramic about it.

The parts that have worked less well are the background and the tablecloth. I think that the loose style of the background works quite well and the colours are good, just far too saturated. The whole thing should be more ‘washed out’. The table cloth was also not a success. What seemed like a fairly good colour match as I was mixing it has dried quite a bit darker and again I have made it too saturated. Some areas of the shadows are not too bad, for instance the cast shadow of the green dish. The blue nature of the dark tones comes across. the cast shadow for the ink pot however is too dark in comparison (although it was the darkest of the three).

Overall once the painting had dried, the whole composition became a little darker, including the acid yellow. I have read that artist quality acrylics suffer from this colour change to a much lesser degree. If I was to continue with acrylics in any seriousness I should invest in a good quality set. For the time being however I will continue with my student quality ones and try to compensate more for this darkening effect.

With the over saturated colours of the background and the tablecloth (not a fault of the acrylics!!) I was tempted to switch this to be the exercise in ‘still life with colour used to evoke mood’ because as a whole it is a very colourful and happy painting! However it wasn’t painted with that in mind so it remains as intended.

2. Still life with complementary colours

I was really looking forward to this exercise, to try to paint a picture using just two colours and white! I decided to use oil paint for this exercise and chose orange and blue as my complementaries simply because I like the colours. I decided to use a ready mixed orange (cadmium orange) to save having the problem of remixing the correct orange hue. I  checked Bruce MacEvoy’s colour wheel  to see which blue (of the hues that I have) would be a true complimentary to cadmium orange and it turns our cerulean blue is a good candidate.

I first did a quick swatch of colours (in acrylic) that could be mixed by the two, including the effects of adding white to the orange-blue mix. The tertiaries were an interesting mix of green hues rather than grey. The orange and blue had similar tonal values to one another.

Looking at colour mixes using cerulean blue and cadmium orange

I decided to use the same still life set up as the previous exercise. In working out how to apportion colour to the objects I decided that I would like to use the complementaries in such a way that enhanced their tones rather than muting the hues down. As such, the green bowl could logically remain green, and the orange ink remain orange. This left translating the yellow hues of the jug into blues. To maintain the contrast between the complementaries, I would need to translate the background pinks and blues into blues and oranges behind the corresponding object of the opposite colour. Here is a quick close up painting sketch of how I say this working.

Apportioning complementary colours.

Working in oils on primed paper I completed the painting in one sitting wet on wet (ie not using glazes). I did not do a preliminary drawing, rather trying to block in the colour masses as I was seeing them. I have tried to keep my brush strokes loose throughout, expressing form where I could. The result is quite a ‘washed out’ looking still life. Mixing dark tones was hard without losing the intended colour – for instance I could mix a lovely dark green (cast shadow colour) but in doing so I lost the blueness I required for the jug interior. The paper colour shows through in many areas. I have resisted going over the painting again now it is dry to darken areas. I am very aware that if I do I am liable to tighten the detail up and lose the flowing nature of the painting. Within the constrains of this low saturation, the juxtaposition blue and orange works well and I am pleased with how I have apportioned colour. The green running through the shadows units all the objects together (which being the tertiary colour of orange and blue) I would expect it to do.

I have lost the highlights using this wet on wet technique. These highlights are important for the form of the clear glass, which, especially on the right hand side, is lacking. The lack of highlight definition adds to the general washed out appearance of the painting. It reminds me of a brighter version of a Morandi still life (for instance Still life, 1960) The jug is larger than it should be, a consequence I think of going over the edges to correct it a few times!

Blue jug. Oil on primed paper

Wondering how I could get a bit more saturated colour into this composition, I sorted through my oil pastels selecting different hues of blue and orange (4 blues, 2 orange, if you count a very yellowy orange). I repeated painting the composition using these colours on a piece of canvas paper, cropping in on the original image to try to make the composition a bit more dynamic. I blended the two complementary colours together to create a selection of very murky tertiary greens using low-odour solvent. I used a hogs hair brush to move the colours around in the solvent and add some texture into the painting. Originally I had planned to paint the dish in green hues, but because of the murkiness of the resulting greens I decided to leave the green to the shadows and the tablecloth and complete the dish in blue. I added highlights with a white oil pastel at the end.

Blue Jug. Oil pastel on canvas paper

I am really pleased with this painting. The close up crop makes the composition more dynamic as I had hoped. The textural brush strokes added atmosphere to the composition. the more saturated tones of orange and blue make each other zing – and there is enough of the original colours so that the murkiness is confined to the shadow areas. The blue dish off-sets the blue jug nicely (murky greens really would not have worked for this).

Part 2. Project: Colour relationships; still life colour studies

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