Tonal Study on a White Ground

Initial drawings: Three different views were explored using three different media (pencil, charcoal and Inktense pencil and wash).  The subject was an ebony vase, a small pumpkin and a (large) open, white-painted seedpod.  I added a pair of transparent IKEA bookends to “contain” the objects and to provide a textural / surface / edge contrast, as well as an element of transparency.  The objects had different tonal qualities.



I chose to paint them from above.

First attempt – this was painted on untreated sketchbook paper (200 gsm).  I didn’t like this initially but it has more life than the second attempt, perhaps because it is fresher being the first “go” and is, therefore, more spontaneous. The white rim of the vases overstates its reflective quality.  Looking at it at the end of the exercise, the tonal contrasts seem clearest in this version.  I like the marks of the dry brush strokes in the shadow and on the edges of reflections and am pleased with the transparency of the bookends.  The seed pod needs to be better differentiated from the background.


Second attempt – this was painted onto paper with a prepared undercoat of titanium white tinted with yellow ochre acrylic paint.  The evident charcoal line was added at the end – a correction to the line of the vase which I have not painted over.  I like the colours here the least – yellow ochre with phthalo blue creates a very dull green although the cpntrast with the ochre is growing on me. I like the zig-zag shadows on the vase. However, it feels over-fussy. The interior of the vase needs to be a little darker.


Third attempt:

– initial charcoal outline on gessoed ground. The perspective of the vase was adjusted later. I had not consciously set the lighting conditions and so did so now – I lit the objects from the right and slightly behind – this was partly judgment and partly electrical limitation – short flex.  I documented the progress of this painting in order to be able to reflect on where things were not working (as I anticipated they might not). I wanted to cut off the image but can see now that all I have done is squashed the vase, although it is marginally improved by the final image.


Part way through  – overfussy layers of tone developing…..


I decided to paint over the objects, including white paper, in order to re-establish tonal contrast and create a more cohesive image.  This time, I included the background. I placed a piece of gessoed hardboard behind the objects to get a better sense of light and shade and this served to bounce light back into the still life.  The final composition is lighter and less fussy than the earlier stage. I am most pleased with the shell, which has more animation than in earlier compositions – like it has something to say for itself. There is also – finally – a sense of the reflective surface of the vase and not just of changes in tone on paper.  The angle of the pot on the far right still needs a little adjustment – should be wider. The pumpkin’s shape is odd – the “bulb” at the top has been exaggerated.  Of all of the paintings done for this exercise, this has been the most frustrating and I am still not completely pleased with the outcome – there is scope for more tonal and colour contrast.


The most difficult part of this exercise was modulating tone in acrylic.  This was achieved more easily with a thicker application of paint to which some matt medium had been added. This provided a little more time in which to apply the paint. Dry-brushing white highlights on to the dry paint created more subtle highlights.  I need to be able to create this effect at times from the white paper rather than by adding white paint.  I will purchase some retarder, which I tried in a recent evening class and which makes blending acrylic on a support much easier.

Some of the textural marks on the surface of the vase, in close-up:


I am annoyed now that I cut the composition on the right and did not turn this into an A3 composition with all objects included.   That said, I had one more attempt, also in the A4 sketchbook but with an altered composition.  The strip of images below show five stages of development of this final painting.  I was unhappy with the seedpod – perhaps because I did not manage to maintain a constant drawing angle between “sittings” and was, therefore, adjusting and compensating so it never looked right.  I was pleased with the pumpkin’s reflection on the ebony pot, which captures the distortion somewhat, but it needed to be more neutral.

Screen Shot 2013 11 19 at 20 51 23

Having decided to get rid of the seed pod, the composition looked too vertical and needed something else.  I felt that this “something” should be dark (as it is in the foreground and a colour / tonal connection with the pot in the background might help bring coherence); also it should have an irregular shape and be small, to contrast with the larger, smoother pot and pumpkin, so perhaps should also be some sort of dried natural material.   I selected a small branch of acorns, after trying pods, twigs and other natural materials. The acorns overlap the shadows slightly to make a coherent image rather than one where they appear to have been stuck on as an afterthought – even though this is what I have done…  I further neutralised the pumpkin’s reflection to tone it down without disguising the clear reflection.


Overall, I am pleased with some of the reflections and transparent textures that I have achieved in different paintings in this exercise.  I have tried to address some compositional issues and shall endeavour to avoid some of the things mentioned in the analysis above. I also need to work larger – the next painting must be A3, at least.


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