II. Still life group using line

Drawing I, Part II: Focus on patterns, textures, shapes just using line (disregard tone for now). How do you represent the objects so that their differences are clear?

Exercise: Still life group using line (fountain pen, A3)

  • My apples were completely unapple-y for long, so I tried to capture their pattern and indicate the shapes as the pattern wraps around the form
  • garlic has a nice dry surface pattern, the tomato it it’s shiny smoothness has none, so I just tried to indicate the reflection on its smooth surface for the latter
  • the table cloth/dish towel was the hardest to capture as line seems better for the edges of a general shape, but the “internal” waves of a piece of cloth seem all about tone (I put the slightest pencil hatching in, I couldn’t resist)
  • I most enjoyed drawing the basket, it has a great shape

All in all, I was a bit uninspired yesterday and it shows. But using a fountain pen is very handy and it has a more varied line than my too thin ink dip pens as the tip is slightly angled. But not a huge variation in line, I admit.

An Interior with a Flower: Final Painting (cropped and uncropped)

An interior with a flower (final, cropped width 60cm, acrylics on paper)

I seem to have this uncanny ability to make things appear very clinical and flat… I spent ages to try to “unflatten” my background (see below for a previous stage of the painting). By the way I think all these paintings for this assignment are the biggest I ever made (up to 60cm wide).

An interior with a flower (intermediary stage and flat like the earth before Columbus set sail)

I think the variation of colour and exaggeration of forms (e.g. painting a table cloth like it has some height) is quite crucial., then also some tiny marks that exaggerate the edges of things – both light and dark. The shape of the yellow table cloth was hanging/curved inwards before, increasing the effect that the table actually is a non-shape/a cardboard imposter of a table.

The low pouffe (green, left side, behind the table) was tricky and I am still not convinced about the green right corner and the whole thing. The contrast in reality was so mellow, or maybe I should have put my glasses on. Yeah, in hindsight perhaps that would have been a good idea.

And then the vase: Oh ye terrible thing! I must have painted it over some 15 times. And it was actually better in the intermediary stage. I really made all the effort and then painted it entirely dead. Like when you overwork plaster. I had to stop at this point as I really couldn’t see any more, but might come back to that in a couple of days.

I tried my current best to have the background painted in more various brush strokes with a lot of tiny colour nuance differences. (see window, wall of the final version etc.) That improved the background for sure.

The flowers: I think they are the best in the picture as they are less stiff and have some character as they are a bit messy. But are they very good shapes? Maybe I could have enhanced the contrast/tonal differences more? Looking at the photoshopped close-up of the flowers below, I guess I could.

More contrast for more solidity? This is a photoshopped version of my flowers: I increased the shadow on each of the flowers and indeed it does look more 3D

Last but not least I thought I put the entire picture in, because I painted it less narrow. I feel the more even rectangular shape looks better with my composition. Compare the original version below with the version that is cropped to more of a narrow rectangle above, which was requested in the task at hand. To me it didn’t really profit from cropping. I wonder if it might have turned out a more interesting picture, had I confined myself to the narrow rectangle and squeezed in the shapes I found interesting. I might have ended up with all the good bits on less space.

An interior with a flower (final, original uncropped, width 60cm, acrylics on paper)

Summary – What have I achieved:

Did you manage the apple painting better than the last painting?

I think my flower painting is far better than my cold and naked apple painting. I am thinking too much and feel too little. (I am so bad at multitasking.) I hope that wrong balance shifts at some point when I learnt how to paint better. I am struggling with colour and tone.

Do you like any of your paintings?

I like the idea of the apple painting with Monroe on the pin-board (think of the tempting woman – temptation/Adam & Eve, but she’s also quite distant and observant – opaque and a bit sad, as if sighing at all the stuff people projected onto her), but the execution has no feeling at all. The background is utterly flat. The apple looks almost hyper-realistic, and not in a good way. That is probably because I don’t like hyper-realism. Why trying to super-imitate nature? This seems like a completely stupid idea. But then I did, accidentally. I might go back to that one and do it again – this time with some feeling.

I think the flower painting is better. It at least has a wee bit of character and I managed to make it slightly less flat.

Do you feel they express something personal to you?

Yes to both. Apple: it’s my work desk wall that I am currently looking at in the morning. Flower: It’s one of my favourite flowers (ranunculus/buttercup) fetched down in the market for this project. And my great pottery teacher Chris Lo (Hong Kong, Cobo Ceramic Workshop) made the vase which is really superb in reality. Even more of a bummer that I just couldn’t get it right.

Have they tackled the problems set out in the projects?

Yes and no: Shape: I think that the light-dark-balance to convey a feeling of shape is getting there but the application to do so in an alive way is seriously lacking. The foreground colour saturation vs background low saturation is a bit too overemphasised and therefore looks artificial in the apple painting. It’s slightly more subtle in the flower painting. Perspective: Perhaps I haven’t thought about perspective very much during these exercises as I was too occupied with colours and tones. I feel perspective is a lesser issue for me than colour, but maybe I am wrong and will eat my words as soon as I am planning a cityscape or something like that.

An Interior with a Flower: Charcoal and Colour Studies

An Interior with a Flower: 6 composition studies (charcoal, A4 each)

I like both 1 and 6 of the charcoal sketches: The former has some sense of space and seems rather natural (it is pretty much unarranged). 6 feels more intimate due to the close-up, but also simpler. Bearing in mind the end format should be a narrow rectangle with one side roughly 2x the other side I will go for 6 and wait until tonight so I have no daylight from the window, as the tone was blue-ish white – very different from the yellow lamp that lights the vase + flowers.

An Interior with a Flower/Plant: Colour study (acrylics on paper, width 60 cm)

I made the colour study from a higher viewpoint than my charcoal studies, as there was no space to put up the easel, I had to squeeze it in. The lower viewpoint of the charcoal sketch seems more pleasing: the green pouffe in the background is otherwise too large. It was tricky to get the colour/tone of the shadow of the vase and the shaded side of the vase itself right. It’s surprisingly dark. Also I realised that the slight pattern detail of the table cloth is essential to make it less flat. That was also the problem with the apple/Monroe study – the entire background lacked depth as I painted it like a poster.

In the final picture I will go back to the lower viewpoint, also the carpet on right should not end with the edge of the table cloth, otherwise it looks like a surreal extension of it. The wall in the back may actually be darker, although it’s off-white in reality. That always catches me out. To make the green pouffe (back, left) appear solid it should get increasingly dark towards the left. It’s not quite there yet in terms of tone in the colour sketch. Also the right edge of the table cloth should be more angled, at the moment it’s parallel to the right edge – that’s impossible.


Research Point: Distinguishing background and foreground

We are still at Painting I chapter 4: Painting in Three Dimensions, so I’d like to look at perspective in terms of colour saturation.

Evelyn Dunbar: A 1944 Pastoral, Land Girls Pruning at East Malling

Above is a painting by Evelyn Dunbar that seems to be inspired by Dutch paintings (lots of detail, delicate colours), like that of Pieter Brueghel below, or medieval book illuminations. I quite like the idea of showing a piece of daily life, where people work together. I made some cuts/zoom of the picture and prefer the version (below) without the frame that adds details like gardening tools and fruits of the harvest. Even the large figure shown from the back is not necessary. I’d prefer a calm frame with a busy picture.

Evelyn Dunbar: A 1944 Pastoral, Land Girls Pruning at East Malling (Detail)

Pieter Brueghel the Younger: Spring

What is apparent in Dunbar in a mild version, Brueghel exaggerates much more: the colour saturation difference of foreground and background. I usually only notice it with landscapes that have some mountains in the back, of which I know they are green, yet they appear grey – especially in Hong Kong with all the hazy dirt in the air.

Brueghel in his Spring separates the foreground from the background by lighting up the background/using more washed out colours than the foreground, which has much more contrast and saturated colours. Interestingly the sheep shearing in middle right is treated like the foreground while the gardening woman in the same pane on the left treated as background (washed out colours/less contrast). It automatically leads the eye into that direction.

Also the hue of the background is rather blueish, while we see more red and ockers in the foreground. In terms of colour theory that should bring the foreground forward in itself.

Grimani Breviary: The Month of June (1490-1510), Illumination on parchment, 280x215mm, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice

The medieval Book of Hours illumination above does the same with the castle in the background.

…. straighter/saturated colours with more contrast in foreground and lighter colours/a washed out effect for background create a depth of field. The composition can help too – for example in all 3 pictures there is a path connecting the foreground to the background and the figures are arranged in the different panes, and as such have a different size.

Solidity: Drawing an Apple

Exercise 3 drawings of apples (charcoal, 3 x A3)

While I focused on the light and shade I noticed that my mind started wandering and as my apple was both red and yellow-greenish I started to confuse the colours and the tones. 2 things is clearly too much multitasking to ask for.

In terms of solidity, I thought the shadow underneath the apple is quite important. Starting to love charcoal… its such a fast drawing medium for large shapes.

Exercise: Painting an Apple (Acrylics on paper, w30 x h40cm)

Since the task for the colour study was to also put the environment in, I placed the apple on a white drawing block in front of my pin board on which currently hangs a picture of Marylin Monroe. I liked her smile in the morning when I go to my desk.

I used strong directional light from the table lamp as opposed to the daylight like in the charcoal studies to help me see better.

The apple in the colour study turned out better than what I’ve done before. It certainly pops out of the picture… maybe the saturation contrast to the background is a bit too much? It feels kind of solid though.

I struggled with the colours of the shaded apple side. How would the yellow green change and the red, but still appear saturated – I painted it over quite a number of times. The yellow-ish changes into some kind of green in the shadow. I again used ultramarine and venetian red to darken the colours. Maybe I should try something else – dark green or so?

Perspective: Rectangles in various positions

Rectangles Seen 'Flat-On' A4

This seems like I am back in school doing technical drawings. (I grew up in East Germany and we had that subject called “Introduction into the Socialistic Production” when I was about 10.) I always quite enjoyed the wonders of making things.

Rectangles Seen 'Corner-On' A4

But hang on … I just realized, technical drawings eliminate perspective, don’t they. No such thing as eye level. An elevated equal pane in a technical drawing would be drawn exactly parallel to the first pane. I forgot that.

Elevating an identical object, but still the same eye level >> so change the angles of the side

And that was what I got wrong in my drawings initially. I drew all those elevated lines parallel to the lower corresponding object. I only really understood it when I rationally constructed it with a drawn eye level (see above).

The whole thing is not as easy as it seems if you just draw without constructing it, as it requires you to see the tiniest difference in an angle and be able to translate that onto paper. I recon it might make sense to at least partially construct drawings to simplify that process of seeing, provided you want a realistic effect.

Looking so intensively at my books I became quite intrigued by their quite irregular shapes, they bulge here and there.

… the final revision of the still life and looking back

Still life (last stage) ca 40x50cm

Call me obsessive, but I went back to the more finished still life again and redid a couple of things:

  • redefined the 2nd shadow of the bowl in the foreground to unify the composition
  • smoothed shadow of the cardboard box in background
  • added more vibrant cadmium red to the apple, it’s hard to see in the photograph as it has less contrast, but I think it lifted the picture
  • eliminated the accidental corner on the bowl’s rim (left), which was driving me insane
  • added the flap detail in the carton box in the background

I think I should stop here.

CHECK AND LOG: A good time to look at what I have achieved for this Painting I chapter (3: Using Colour to Describe Objects)


  • For the first time I just put the colour study next to the 2nd, larger and more finished still life. I was very slightly shocked because they almost looked the same! Apart from the slightly different viewpoint and finishing, the colours are pretty much identical. But then I suppose that’s a good use of a colour study if you find the colours you want for the finished piece. The shock may be connected with the fact that the colour study was done in so much less time and yet the outcome is not THAT different.
  • While I find the colour study more vivid with the sweeping brush strokes and the fruit look fresher to me; the inanimate objects such as the bowl, the spoon and the box are better in the finished version: more variety of colours to give shape.
  • The (darn) round shadow of the bowl in the foreground has a better “shape” in the finished version. I tried to squeeze it in too much in the composition of the colour study. Given how obsessed I was with hat one, it profits from having more space to itself.

Could you have made more effective use of your colour theory knowledge learnt before?

The colour theory… did I use it? Not consciously really. But I noticed in the application that blues (my ultramarine) worked well for mixing the shadows, while increasing the vibrancy of the red apple and pear made such a difference to the overall appearance of the still life (it looked rather dreary and sick before). That is coherent with the colour theory, that summarised that warm/vibrant colours advance and cold/muted colours recede in a picture.

I noticed I tend to grey the colours a bit too much. There should be some contrast, some vibrant colours among the muted ones for example.

Did you find it difficult to decide what to include in your painting and what to leave out?

Since I used the still life as I assembled it before in this project, the composition was fixed in the previous stage…. I experimented a lot with a gazillion of objects in the stage before, before limiting it to these 4 and their shadows.

Ideas for the next projects

  • make the background more interesting (even I was slightly bored with my brown table top after a while), more experimentation
  • try to make a light, muted, but not dirty/grey looking picture a la Morandi
  • start by learning about how to mix with the subtlest of variation by trying to copy a Morandi.
    I have a book about Cezanne, who at some point lightened his palette, learning from his friend Pissarro, in the words of Lucien Pissarro, the artist’s son: “He [Pissarro] explained his ideas about this subject [dedication to the optical experience, the “sensation”] and the latter, to understand this, asked him to lend him a canvas so that he could, in copying it, judge the possibilities of this new theory.” (Quoted in Simms, Matthew. Cezanne’s Watercolours. Between Drawing and Painting. New Haven, London: Yale University Press. 2008. p47.)
    That describes so well what occurred to me before – that there is no learning unless you do it, no deep experience can be made or true knowledge acquired about art in theory. The theory is either empty or always a step behind the deed.


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