Part 2. Assignment 2: Still life in colour

My Aims

For this assignment I wanted to explore colour further as I have spent a huge amount of time trying to understand what it is about colour that I don’t understand! I chose to do a very simple still life arrangement, just an apple on a table to explore different concepts of what colour is and our visual representation of colour in art.

Scientific concept of representing colour in art.

Scientifically, colour is perceived by the viewer as the wave-lengths of white light that are not absorbed by an object. Those wavelengths are scattered by the object, and are reflected back into our eye where different cone receptors are stimulated to give us a psychological sense of colour. An artist creating a ‘colour-accurate’ painting of an object would then mix that perceived colour using physical pigments and create a daub of paint based on the reflected light they had perceived. I use the word ‘psychological’ here because whilst there is a physical effect of light scattering happening, and a physiological effect of cones being stimulated, it is the brain that ultimately registers the colour for the viewer i.e. yellow is perceived if red-cones and ‘green’ cones are stimulated together in the absence of blue. If an object is viewed in total darkness, there is no light to be scattered, our cones are not stimulated and so the object appears black. This has opened up a great debate in our house amongst my kids (aged 14, 12 and 9) as to whether an object in the dark is still coloured!

An alternative concept of representing colour in art?

The scientific explanation of colour is the one that I have grown up with and accept as a scientist. We have no way of really appreciating if everyones response to a colour stimulus is the same (i.e do we all see ‘red’ as the same? ), however this doesn’t alter the optical physics of how colour is produced.

As an artist, I stated to wonder if there was in fact an alternative way of thinking about the colour representation. If some light energy is absorbed by an object then perhaps the colour of an object could in fact be represented by those absorbed wavelengths of colour, rather than the wave lengths that are reflected. In this case the colour is a result of the energy given to the object by white light. This concept does not allow us to visualise the colour in the same way, after all our cones will not be stimulated by those absorbed wave-lengths of light. However an artist may represent this idea of ‘absorbed colour’ by painting with pigments representing wavelengths not perceived by the eye. Of course as soon as those pigments are put on paper you are back to representing colour through our traditional ‘psychological’ concept of colour, creating a weird circular argument about the colour of objects and how we perceive them. Nevertheless it is this concept of perception and representation of colour that I wanted to explore further.

I don’t for one minute think that I am the first person to question colour in this manner, however I have not managed to find artists that have used these ideas to represent objects through painting….quite possibly because it makes your head hurt trying to sort your way through it!

The Process

First attempt (wrong)

I stated playing with ideas in my sketchbook, using watercolour paints (close to hand at the time) putting down ideas of traditional and alternative concepts of colour and what this would do to the visual representation of an apple. I started with green and red pigments representing the apple as I ‘saw’ it. I then moved on to put down pigments of the colours not reflected back, so green and blue where I saw red, red and blue where I saw green. I even went on to represent the apple through the colour mixing (of light) of those colours. I just thought I had an interesting project to work on when I realised that I had got so engrossed with colour mixing theory that I had forgotten that I wasn’t just considering red, blue and green, rather I needed to consider the all the colours in the spectrum of white light! I thus needed to start again, but include my sketchbook work here for completeness. I had got as far as translating some of my ideas into acrylic paint before I realised my mistake.


Second attempt

Realising I needed to use the full spectrum of white light colours, I chose a palette of rainbow acrylics (cadmium red, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow, sap green, ultramarine blue and purple) along with titanium white.  I completed some colour studies of my apple, firstly using colours as I ‘saw’ them and secondly as colours absorbed by the apple. This second sketch was done by layering over the colours absorbed by the apple.

Investigating representation of colour

Provided I could get the tones and form right, I did not see any problems with representing the colour of an apple as we see it. Creating an apple as the colour absorbed was a different matter and threw up all sorts of problems, which I try to present with my solutions here:

  • Highlights: these will still be white as no light is absorbed, it is all reflected back (additive mixing creates white light)
  • Shadows: No light is absorbed in these areas as light doesn’t reach them and so shadows will still be black
  • Additive versus subtractive colour mixing: This is a big conundrum. If I am representing objects as the colours that are absorbed I am layering different colour pigments on top of each other. However the hue tending towards black is a result of subtractive mixing of pigments. With light this hue would be tending towards white! I decided that this conundrum was in fact part of the appeal of this investigation and given that I can not represent light mixing with physical mixing of pigments, I let the resulting image stand as an abstract colouration of an apple.
  • Composition: I need to put my apple into the context of a background. I decided on a very simple, close up arrangement of apple on table.
  • In the creation of the abstract apple, I realised that the resulting colour would depend on the order that the acrylic glazes were laid down as some were more transparent than other. I carried out a transparency test over a black line to sort out an order of more opaque colours being laid down first.
  • Form in the abstract apple. This may be an issue as areas became more uniform towards black in colour resulting in a flattening effect of the image. The transparency test above allowed me to identify to hues (red and blue) that could be laid down in more opaque layers to help me create darker darks to represent form.

I completed a couple of quick painting investigations to get an idea of composition. I chose a square format partly because this format had been very successful in the previous exercise and partly because I intentionally was only depicting one apple. I have used a blue wash for the air around the apple deliberately as the atmosphere scatters blue light. I kept my brush strokes very loose here and tried to recreate some of the fuzzy edge effect that my sketchbook work had. I had to change apples in the middle of this (the original got eaten). The second apple was much rounder and I had to fight hard to prevent it becoming a ball with a stick out the top. I quite like the halo effect of the brush-strokes,  in the second study they are perhaps too ‘arty’ but in the first study they create an energy and allow the space occupied by the apple to extend into the space around it. In both examples the shadow is quite heavy, however in the first study the colours are quite sympathetic there is evidence of the red and blue in shadow, which allows the apple to belong. This is not so evident in the second apple here.

To progress onto the final pieces I decided to remove the cloth to reveal the darker table surface underneath so that there would not be such a contrast between the shadows and the table surface.


Finally for my assignment I completed a set of three paintings:

  1. an apple represented with the traditional concept of colour representation
  2. an apple represented by an abstract notion of colour absorption
  3. an apple painted in the dark.

The final pieces


An apple in the dark, acrylic on paper


On the paintings

Compositionally the paintings are deliberately quite boring. For me this was an investigation into different ideas of representing colour and a simple composition suited this. There is a feeling of airiness about the first two apples, but I have lost the energy that was present in the two studies. the first of these assignment pieces is too ‘tidy’- a response I think to me worrying about my brushstrokes in the studies being too arty!

As a finished painting it is the absorbed colour apple that works the best. By changing the colour of the table, I removed the problem of the stark contrast between it and the shadows but I created a certain amount of disharmony between the first realistic apple and the table. However with the second, absorbed colour apple, the tones of the darker table work much better with the colours of the apple itself. The shadows are much more in keeping with the idea of belonging to the apple itself. Of course what I haven’t done in this exercise is paint the table in its absorbed colours! I wonder if such harmony would exist had I done that – I suspect not. This is a lesson in letting the work guide me. It is ok to have the apple painted in absorbed colours and the table in representational colours because it works as a whole.

Both apples lack a bit of form, mainly because I found it very difficult to get darker areas using the rainbow palette. Perhaps I could have glazed another layer of blue over the right hand side of the realistic apple to increase the shadow. I was very aware that I was loosing brightness with every glaze and so held back. In the abstract apple, the darkest tones were always going to be more difficult and as such the right hand side does look rather flat. Without colour mixing or using black increasing the shadow strength was difficult. Putting a further glaze blue on the right hand side would have altered the tone of the dark to being blue, something I didn’t want.

With respect to my paintings, I could argue that the only truly successful one was the representation of the apple in the dark! I did paint an apple under there in black paint and then put the background in over the top. I could have painted this actually in the dark, but that seemed to be taking the conceptual idea too far (for what purpose, the outcome would have been the same). An apple in very low light may have been a better idea with a tendency to show a reduction in chroma at low light levels.

On the process

I recognise that I have gone totally over the top with this assignment. It should have been a relatively straightforward painting of a still life. I have over complicated it all with my investigations into colour, however I have learnt a lot in the process of doing this assignment. I have experimented with the concept of what colour is and what colour means to both artists and viewers. I have no great revelations as a result of this investigation but I feel happier in my self about using colour – it is transmutable, something that can be altered and transformed, almost sculptured. I now feel less inclined to think of colour as something to view and more of something to use, and to that effect this assignment has been a success.

I am certainly improving with techniques for using acrylics although I haven’t done as much in oils as I would have liked for this part. I still am not sue about what my preferred style is. I would like to be able to paint much more loosely but still am finding this alludes me (although there are some improvements from part 1). I do feel I would like to do more ‘drawing’ with paint to try to bring out this looseness, possibly on a larger scale than I have been currently working.

Additional comment on receiving tutor feedback

My tutor agreed that I had lost the vibrancy of the original two studies in my assignment pieces. She liked the absorbed colour apple and likened it to an ‘apple eclipse’, which is an interesting addition to the idea of absorbed colour. As an eclipse it would be colourless in either reflected light or absorbed light. I like this idea.  She didn’t have time to read my logic behind my process in this assignment but for me this really wasn’t about painting an apple, rather it was an investigation into how we can represent colour of objects. Whilst I made huge progress in understanding colour from this investigation I acknowledge that this means I didn’t progress with the technical side as much as I should have done, and that my best work is in fact the first of the two studies!

Part 2. Assignment 2: Still life in colour

Part 2. Project: Drawing and painting interiors

Quick sketches around the house

I was a little dismayed to come across this exercise as it is  the same exercise in Drawing 1. Have got lots of drawings of the interior of my house for this previous module (for instance I decided to look elsewhere for my sketches of interiors. Having recently set up a little studio in my attic that seemed a logical place to start. There isn’t much scope for a 360 degree view due to space constraints so I did two facing my table, one standing up and then one sitting down

Of these two sketches the second is more successful. The lower view-point provides a more intimate interaction with the space: the area under the table is visible and the fact that the table is set back in the recess of the eaves is more evident. I like the roof support beam slicing through the composition diagonally. It adds a bit of drama and again a sense of the cramped space. To paint I have to stand the other side of this beam and basically can move my feet in an area of around 2 square feet. If I want to step back from my easel I need to make sure I don’t fall down the loft hatch! In this sketch I haven’t captured the tonal variation of the dark recess of the eaves at all. You get more of a sense of this in sketch 1.

As much as I like the second of these two sketches, and the fact that I think it would make an interesting painting, the problems of actually being able to physically paint it were too great. I was very keen to paint in situ rather than take photographs and there was no practical way of being able to do this. So I looked elsewhere to do some sketching.

I moved to an annexe, somewhere I was going to be able to leave out my paints for a few days undisturbed!  In my attic sketches I had liked the idea of seeing under the table, having a view of the messier parts of life. With this in mind I drew 4 views of room whilst sitting on the floor.

I found the first two sketches more appealing because the shadows added interesting depths to the underneath of the stair case and the benches. The views of the sink and table, and the bookcase corner and fridge were boring in comparison. As the next exercise is on linear perspective I chose to develop the sketch of the stairs into a painting.

Simple perspective in interior studies.

The staircase provided an area showing linear perspective – the bottom part of the stair receding away from the viewer. The bannister upright posts act as a natural frame for the view as does the edge of the doorway to the left of the view. Wellington boots are normally kept in the small recess to the right, I did toy with adding them back into the composition but decided against it in the end: I found the way the light fell through the (mostly) slatted steps more interesting.

The light was quite bright and came from the door situated immediately to the left of the stairs. The colours were quite bright in the strong sunlight but limited in hues. I therefore chose a limited palette of acrylics to work from: yellow ochre, raw umber, burnt umber, Payne’s grey, mars black and titanium white. Keeping the same view-point (I propped my book up against a box on the floor). I completed this quick study of the view in my sketchbook.

Staircase quick study

This study threw up a few issues that needed to be resolved:

  • step heights and widths
  • the format of the composition
  • the floor shadows in the recess
  • distinguishing shadows from the steps

I tackled the problem of composition first of all. The view was not falling naturally into a portrait format (too much bare space at the top) or a landscape format (loss of sense of journey up stairs around the corner). The solution seemed to be to crop to a square format, which provided I could be more accurate with measurements of step width, would still allow a sense of journey, but reduce the empty wall space to the top and reduce the messy woodwork supports on the right to being a natural frame for the painting.

For the shadow issues I realised that in such bright sunlight I was going to have to look very carefully for subtle dark tones in order to distinguish important areas of the painting, such as the wall-floor line of he back wall under the stairs and to the left. As it was, this was made easier for me when I returned to do a more detailed painting a couple of days later as the sun was not as bright. Whilst this muted the colours somewhat, it did allow the shadow colours to stand out more, making it easier to resolve the contrasts.

Staying with the same limited palette of acrylics I completed an underpainting to map out the main areas of the composition and enable to me check the accuracy of my perspective.

Stairs – underpainting

I think the square format works well, and I was happy that my depiction of the stair height and width was more representational of reality that my previous study. Once dry I went on to complete the painting, trying to keep the looseness of the brushwork evident in the sketches and the underpainting.

Stairs, acrylic on paper


Overall I was happy with the progress that I made with this painting from the initial sketches, using my sketchbook to resolve potential issues to producing the final painting. I have managed a loose style than previous work, not to the level I would like, but definitely an improvement. I am pleased with the way I have captured the light in the recess, given that this was what drew me to the composition in the first place. The tonal variation is perhaps not as great as it should have been, partly as the day I painted the final version the sun was not as bright. However the brush marks evident of the wall give an indication of the play of the light.

I am a disappointed with my highlights on the wood. They seemed to have dulled a lot with drying. I think I need to invest in artist quality titanium white for such effects. The brightest highlight is on the bottom step after the return. This was indeed a very bright highlight, however without the brightness of the others on the handrails, this seems a little out-of-place.

Unfortunately one area that hasn’t’ worked too well is the floor/wall interface to the left under the stairs.

Stairs detail

I haven’t managed to resolve the corner of the room in the shadows effectively and have lost the correct sense of perspective of the left side wall. A small slither of the back wall is visible under the second step. This runs to the corner in the correct place, however the shadow on the adjoining left hand wall makes it appear as if the line of the floor is wrong. In addition, the shadow behind the wooden side support is the wrong tone, bringing that part of the wall forward level with it. Of course this wooden support is fixed onto the wall, so the wall should appear further back. All this points in combination make this part of the painting unsatisfactory!




Part 2. Project: Drawing and painting interiors

Part 2: Research point: Interiors

Dutch realist genre painters

(All images used in this post are licensed by creative commons).

In the 17th Century genre painting occupied the middle ground between lowly still life painting and highly esteemed history painting but were abundantly produced and collected by the merchant classes as well as the gentry of the time. Dutch genre painting was particularly popular and was diverse in subjects. Dutch interior painting of the time often provided a look at an ordered scene, full of quite contemplation.

Curiosity. Gerade ter Borch the Younger 1660-2

In Curiosity by Gerard ter Borch the Younger (1660-1662) the artist offers a view of a sumptuous private dwelling. Everything about the picture is rich and soft from the spectacularly executed dresses of the ladies to the velvet table and chair coverings, to the rich tones of the blue wall colours.  The subject of the painting (a love letter received and being duly responded to) is also a soft emotional subject. the women are quietly pensive about their task. There is little anguish evident, it is a scene of quiet stillness. It is the drapery that first draws you into this painting. These are obviously wealthy women and perhaps this painting could be enjoyed by a group of ladies not able to wear such lavish gowns themselves. I find the addition of the little dog intriguing. Its position with its spine on the diagonal leads your eye to the table and the action of the letter being written. This diagonal is somehow matched by the strong vertical of the corner of the room. this two point perspective has added great depth to the scene. I don’t think the impact would be so great had this been against a flat wall.

Pieter de Hooch
The Courtyard of a House in Delft

In The courtyard of a house in Delft by Hooch (1658) we have  a complex scene encompassing both interior and exterior elements. Although the main scene is of a courtyard, there is a certain interior feel to the space. Perhaps it is the quiet order of the floor tiles against a seemingly unruly wooden structure framed by two arches next to each other that gives the sense of being in a room. The actual interior is quite small and is really only used to draw the viewer’s eye through the arch to what appears to be another courtyard. There is a great sense of space in front of the arches. The figures are all framed by the structures, although depth is given by the linear perspective. The wall of the brick arch provides a very strong vertical thought the painting, (in a very similar position to that in the Borch painting above). maybe this strong vertical divides the domestic servitude (with the lower status wooden structures, broom and bucket) from the more affluent employers residence. There is tension produced by the different postures of the ladies (one facing away, one forwards) as well as by the glance given between the lady and the child. There is a lot of grace about the figures. Like the Borch painting above the courtyard painting is serene even though an activity is clearly happening.

Johannes Vermeer
Girl reading a letter by an open window

My final choice of painting from the Dutch Golden Age of genre painting is the Girl reading a letter by an open window by Vermeer. Unlike the other two paintings, this is a much more intimate view into a domestic interior. The curtain to the right lends a sense of privacy. The girl is engrossed in reading the letter. Surrounding her are objects that no doubt have been placed deliberately by the artist rather than just happen to be there: a cut peach and a fruit bowl jumbled on a rug-draped surface. The fact that the fruit bowl has been upset may be symbolic. The use of a horizontal element such as this table in the foreground, or a repoussoir, is a technique used to frame the object of the painting or to lead your eye into the painting ( In this case the girl is in fact framed on 3 sides.  Although the exterior is only hinted at by the side of the window frame, the open space beyond the window is very evident to anyone looking at the painting. The light streaming in contrasts with the slightly gloomy interior. the open window in which the girls reflection is painted points your gaze towards that outside space. There is a sense of longing in this painting, perhaps the letter is from a loved one, out of reach beyond the confines of the room – and hence the open window.


(all websites accessed 21.4.17)

Interiors through the ages. 

The second part of this research point is dealt with in my physical research book, images of which are shown below.

I also have previous research that I have done for Drawing Skills 1 on the same topic:


All websites accessed (24/4/17)


Part 2: Research point: Interiors

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

Research point: Colour Theory 2 – a bit extra

This is an extra post on colour theory as I have spent quite a lot of time trying to understand modern takes on the traditional colour wheel.

There is a brilliantly informative website by Bruce MacEvoy (accessed 11/4/17) from which I gained the following information (in summary).

  1. Spectral hues (‘ the rainbow’) are united around a visual colour wheel through the extra-spectral hues of the red-violets. This is an artificial continuum as the wavelengths of individual colour light at the ‘join’ do not correspond. However it is helpful to think of this wheel as it is a link between light, visual colour and material, pigment colours.
  2. Whilst artists need to understand mixing colour pigments from mixing colours from traditional primaries of red blue and yellow, to understand how we perceive that colour we also need to understand the sensitivity of our eye’s cone receptor cells to various wavelengths of  visual light. Our cones are sensitive to red blue and green light, the visual primary colours. If both red and green cones are stimulated we ‘perceive’ yellow.
  3. The sensitivity range of our cones allows us to visualise many more colours than are actually able to be produced by mixing the three light primaries (RGB)
  4. A primary colour pigment in theory is produced by pure reflected light of either red, yellow or blue wavelength. In reality you can not have a complex compound that is paint that does not contain particles that scatter other wavelength.
  5. Because of this artists have traditionally used what is known as the split primary palette, or a warm and cool tone of each ‘primary’ colour, so that compensation may be made for the lack of purity in the paint hue.
  6. In the same way we are capable of seeing colours not able to be mixed by primary light, the colours able to be mixed by a split primary palette fall short of the colours available in the spectral wheel.
  7. By using a palette of ‘secondary’ colours you increase this range considerable, especially in the blue, green to yellow range.

My notes are accompanied by some coloured  annotation that I have made in my sketchbook:

MacEvoy has also produced this amazing colour wheel based on the secondary palette (ie equally spacing the secondaries around the wheel) for many of the colours of proprietary watercolours paints. As he is concerned with looking at pure pigments (although he does include some pigment mixes in his colour wheel) I surmise that most of the colour relationships observed here will also stand for oil and acrylic colours. Certainly the binders/ mediums will have a bit of a difference but as a working modern colour wheel it will do for me!

MacEvoy, B. (2005). (Accessed 11.4.17)

Research point: Colour Theory 2 – a bit extra

Part 2. Project: Colour relationships.

Exploring Contrasts.

In this exercise I worked with acrylics for ease of drying time. I chose Cadmium red as my middle square, mixed with a tiny amount of ‘mixing white’ to reduce the transparency of the hue. I mixed a variety of colours using cad red, cad yellow and vermillion (1 – 3). I then explored using purple and white with the orange mix (4, 5). My final red was crimson with a small part of white (6). For my complimentary colours I used permanent green light (7) and Phthalo green and white (8).

Unsurprisingly there was lack of contrast between the colours A and B in each case where the colours were similar to one another (1 – 6). The cadmium red tends to look more dull in each of these examples compared with when surrounded by its complementary colour (7 and 8). This is an example of successive contrast: the intensity of the red and the green are seemingly increased by each other saturating the cones in your eye causing an after image of each colour.

In the second part of this I painted squares of permanent green light, cadmium red and white over the neutral grey background. The grey square left in the middle alters in appearance in this sequence. It appears darker when surrounded by the white and lighter (to a similar degree) when surrounded by green and red. The value of the white is extreme and hence other colours look darker as a result. The value of the green and red are fairly similar to one another, and similar to that of the neutral grey so the colour of the grey is less effected. This optical effect is known as simultaneous contrast.

Exploring contrasts
Part 2. Project: Colour relationships.

Part 2. Project: Still Life; Exercise: Still life with man-made objects

During my painting of the lemons I got thinking about the use of a repetitive motif in painting, but viewing that motif from different directions. I decided to explore this a little further with this still life exercise. I chose to draw a set of espresso cups grouped together. The only difference between the cups was their colours although they were part of a matching set so the colours all complemented one another. I started with some preliminary sketches exploring how the cups could be arranged in relation to one another.

The coffee cups reminded me of work by Wayne Thiebaud especially his cakes, where there are lots of similar shapes lined up with small decorative differences between them. I started with the concept of the cups have a ‘conversation’ with one another, from a low angle providing a bit of intimacy with the composition. However this resulted in a lot of empty table space in the foreground. I raised my view-point to alter that (to a similar angel to Thiebaud’s Cakes). This gave a greater sense of depth to the scene. I tried jumbling the cups up a little, to remove the linear array. However there this seemed to lose the relationship between the cups completely.

Finally I tried stacking the cups. This added a bit of drama to the composition whilst still maintaining relationships between the individual cups. After playing around with the framing of the composition I decided to go with this. The added height only added to the strength of the composition.

I was determined to have a background in this painting, but decided to keep it simple. I hung a white sheet up behind the table in such a way that it wasn’t directly lit. This allowed for tonal variations in the background without detail. I sketched a quick tonal study and there was in fact not a huge amount of tonal variation evident: the dark interiors of the cups being the darkest areas. I then had a play around with colours, first in water-soluble colour pencils and then in oils working on a warm ground of wash of Indian Red with a little white acrylic.

Tonal and colour studies

I mixed a palette of oil colours for the main colour areas, using with alizarin crimson and cadmium red for my red hues, cobalt for my blue hues, cadmium yellow for my yellow hues and cadmium yellow and cerulean blue for my green hues. There were quite a few tints and shades of each colour.  For the shadow areas I used mixes of alizarin crimson and cobalt blue. My palette looked like this before I started!

I liked the effect of the warm ground in my colour swatch, and decided to use this colour as an underpainting of the darker areas. and drew directly only a piece of primed paper. Once this had dried sufficiently I started to block in the main colour areas concentrating in getting the different tonal variations that would be vital to give form to these objects. What I ended up with was this:

Espresso Cups. Oil on primed paper

I was quite pleased with this, the composition worked, there is a slight drama to the piece with the stacked cup. There are some good relationships between the cups (especially the overlapping handles) and the repetitive motif is explored from several angles. However things that hadn’t worked so well are the overall tonal quality of the painting: there just aren’t enough darks in it. I have also lost the form of the red cup in the foreground. In altering my paint, I have managed to elongate the body too much and consequently the handle is too low. The oval of the rim is also not right for the viewing angle.

After a few days I went back to this and altered the position of the red cup’s rim and darkened the background to increase the tonal variation. The result was a much stronger image. I made the decision to leave the cup handle as it was.

Espresso cups version 2. Oil on primed paper

Working in oils on this smooth, primed paper is tricky. The paint slides around a lot and I find it very hard to control.Sometimes I found it hard to persuade the paint to leave the brush and actually adhere to the support! I now know that this paper is less absorbent which results in this slip sliding (and longer dry times). For this painting I found that I was applying oil paint in a similar way to that of the fast drying acrylic paints. I didn’t do much blending in this image (when I tried, rather than blending I found the paint just slide around). Consequently I don’t think this painting is as strong in technique as my Lemons with blue bowl, but it was good practice of getting paint off of my brush. I felt I learnt a lot about that in the few hours it took to do this piece. I didn’t do much glazing, most this was just wet on wet. This again was due to the tricky nature of the support and the fact that I knew it was going to take an age to dry.

I am slowly learning that I have a preference for oil on canvas paper rather than these primed papers. I just have rather a lot of the smooth stuff to use up! I would like to have a go at painting on a proper stretched canvas again now I am beginning to be more confident in paint handling. Perhaps for my assignment.


Part 2. Project: Still Life; Exercise: Still life with man-made objects

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