Tonal study on a dark ground

This exercise involved using dark grounds for tonal studies, with the aim of capturing a chiaroscuro effect.  I chose three whitewashed natural materials: a nutmeg, piece of lichen and long seed pod for this exercise.  I chose them for their varies textures and shapes.  However, I overlooked the similarity in their size.  Initially, I drew them on a dark surface from above.  The A4 sketchbook page below shows two studies: one made with Inktense pencil (shade Indian Ink) and wash.  The second was made with pencil and a magenta Art Bar and wash.  I realised that in both cases, I was working on a white ground and creating a darker one, rather than drawing directly onto a dark ground.

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In the next studies, I used a phthalo blue acrylic ground and a black gesso ground.  The black gesso is matt and produced a less reflective surface, which I prefer.  I drew on the blue ground in white chalk and created surface detail and areas of darker tone with a putty eraser and a cotton bud.

In the second drawing, I used a light colour paint mix (ultramarine with titanium white to produce the palest of blues) with a cadmium red / ultramarine mix as a mid-tone. I left areas of lowest tone as the gesso ground.

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I produced one further drawing on A4 using black gesso ground and chalk. This time I embedded the objects in a box in which I had draped a red woollen shawl.  This created soft highlights without harsh reflections.  I imprinted the gesso surface with a paper towel in order to create a more textural effect with the chalk.  This worked quite well as a basic surface for the lichen but was less effective for the nutmeg,although it creates an overall coherence and adds to the overall ethereal quality. I quite like the image, particularly the nutmeg and lichen.

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I further experimented with ways to represent the texture of the lichen.  Below, I have drawn random lines using a white conte pencil, which squiggle, cross and recross in an attempt to create the contours of the lichen as well as dark pits on the surface.

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I produced one larger painting from one of these initial studies in A3 on a black gesso ground. I used black paper and the gesso ground was used primarily to create a better surface for the paint, which moves less well when applied directly to paper.  I used titanium white / ultramarine and cadmium red acrylic. The four images below represent four stages of the painting.  The lighting conditions where different in each photo but the larger changes that occurred betwen sequential  images can be seen.

Initially, I overlightened the ground resulting in a messy image that lacked form through insufficient tonal contrast. I attempted to compensate for this using black gesso, essentially recovering the ground. However, the paint dried too quickly to achieve good blending and there were too many hard edges. There was no sense yet of the form of the surrounding fabric.

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At this point, I decided to use a chunky charcoal stick to help create more subtle changes in tone, with some very dark regions. There was a sense of the fabric folds but not yet quite enough tonal contrast.  I added further charcoal to the left of the nutmeg. I am not altogether happy with the form of the fabric folds to the right of the seed pod but the tonal contrast has improved and the image has more depth.

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Here is the final painting in more detail:

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Textural detail from each of the objects:

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The dark ground made it easier to achieve extreme tonal contrasts, something with which I have had difficulty. It seems to be much easier to go lighter than to go darker in tone, perhaps because it is seems to be easier to correct a mistake on a light ground than on a dark.  However, with opaque media, this is less of an issue.  Overall, I find it easier to bring the light out of the dark but need to watch that I don’t overdo it.

I have purchased some retarder which I hope will aid with blending issues in the future by keeping the (acrylic) paint workable for longer.

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