The subject of Assignment 1 was a choice but had to be representational. Still life, landscape or an interior were advised in either oils or acrylics. I chose still life using acrylics. The format used was A3 landscape on 350 gsm Hahnemühle acrylic paper.
As preparation for this assignment, and to an extent ongoing through this first unit, I researched representational still life from the mid 19th century or so onwards. I wanted to get a better sense of how this might be approached other than through the more conventional themes, or, alternatively, to see how some artists had come up with novel interpretations of conventional themes. My research was not extensive – rather it was intended as an idea-gathering exercise – to inspire a beginning.
I am using Evernote notebooks as places to gather research on a theme – it is useful to have it in one place, can be gathered in one place quickly from digital or other sources, sorted through and used as needed but also retained for future use.
Some of the artists of the 19th and (mid) 20th century whose work I looked at included David Cox, Giorgio Morandi, Joan Miró, Paul Klee, Cezanne, and Edward Wadsworth., none of whom are contemporary. The still life that I came across from the late 20th century tended to be abstract, such as that of David Hockney, which was not what I needed at this moment. 21st Century still life seems very much to focus on hyper-realism, such as work by Laura Shechter and Mark Meunier and a lot of it takes food as its subject. I like paintings that I have seen by Therese MacAllister, some of which are obviously paintings while others appear closer to photographs (although digital versions may not allow fair judgment of this). I find it difficult to engage with paintings that emulate photographs. I can appreciate the skill but… It is interesting to see how Laura Shechter’s work has become increasingly realistic. This early Shechter painting made in 1978 is representational without being hyper-realistic.
The work that grabbed my attention was by two artists: the subtle colours and impressionistic style employed by Adrian Stokes (1902-1972), a British artist whose work is now in the Tate but who worked as an art critic and only painted as a hobby, and Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), who began working in an abstract style but developed an increasingly realistic style through his career. Both artists painted “conventional” still lifes using ceramics and bottles, in simple arrangements. Both used limited palettes and subtle colours but Morandi’s use of line and shape was more assured and he increasingly focused on the form of the objects that he painted. The simplicity of Morandi’s compositions appeals to me. They are realistic and yet obviously paintings and not photographs. It was while looking at Morandi’s work in particular, that it occurred to me that I could use lab apparatus as my subject, which links personally to my work as a chemistry/science teacher.
The initial ideas were explored some weeks before beginning the final assignment and a collection of lab apparatus collected together in advance of preliminary sketches.
I had observed the defined shadows in a shelf in my living room bookshelves which is occupied by glassware and toyed with the idea of setting the composition within a shelf. This would have entailed setting up a still life for perhaps a week or more and painting in the living room, which was impractical. Therefore, I set up a box on my desk, which I lined with white paper.
I made four initial drawings of different compositions, each half a page of A4, using different media and palettes. I used a combination of colourless glass, brown glass and ceramic and varied the lighting. I also tried setting the objects up outside the box against a plain background. I wanted to achieve a sense of transparency but wanted to achieve this through using an opaque medium in the final piece. At this stage, I used Inktense pencils with a wash, and Ecoline fluid watercolours.
I liked the orange / blue complementary colour scheme in the last drawing. I also liked the way in which shadows fell on the desk top when light passed through the glass. The shadows’ length could be varied through changing the angle of the light and thus could be a greater or lesser component of the composition. I set up a still life to explore the tranlucency and the shadows further, using acrylic paint on a gesso ground. (A4 sketchbook). The shape of the flask needs a little adjustment.
An idea that had occurred to me was to incorporate the periodic table as a backdrop. I printed off a section of the table and stuck it on the back of the box. Once again, I used a gesso ground and applied acrylics in a fairly transparent way in order to better capture this quality in the glass. I used a different palette this time (complementary red/green against a blue/lavender ground) with a food colouring in the two flasks to introduce a colour focus. The water in the bottle needs to take on more of the underlying and backdrop colour if it is to appear translucent.
I decided to develop the use of the periodic table and extend it into the foreground such that it was no longer merely a backdrop but a three-dimensional table integrated into the composition. I also wanted to make a more definite statement with colour using opaque rather than transparent paint, and so explored some possibilities for a palette:
The final palette was to use a red-orange mixed from brilliant red and lemon yellow, a greeny-yellow mixed from turquoise green and lemon yellow and a blue green mixed from ultramarine and a little turquoise green. I also used ultramarine straight from the tube, and made a shadow colour mixed from red and turquoise green, with a little ultramarine. I also used titanium white to create tints.
The painted sketch above shows, broadly, the chosen composition. However, while painting, further modifications were made. The basic ground was the red-orange to which titanium white had been added; I wanted a warm ground that would show through in places in the final painting and break up any too-solid areas of colour. The composition was then drawn in charcoal. Having the periodic table as part of the subject made drawing out the composition relatively easy because there was a ready-made grid which remained throughout the painting! The lamp was positioned such that it produced pronounced shadows that would allow good tonal contrast as well as add to the composition.
The viewpoint is parallel to the top of the composition, so I was looking down slightly at the objects. This meant that the angle of view on the surface of the liquids in the three vessels was slightly different. Using three different levels of liquid also created a diagonal in an otherwise static composition, not quite parallel with the one created by the different heights of the objects.
The periodic table was initially painted in ultramarine and then the panels “picked out” in the blue-turquoise mix with white added. The image below illustrates mid-way through this step. I decided to extend the periodic table not just towards the viewer underneath the objects but along the sides, too, creating a three-sided boxed view.
When this step was finished, the basic composition was clear and could be developed fairly straightforwardly. I tried to work across the composition as a whole, building it up as an integrated whole over time. Some adjustments had to be made to the size of the squares closest to the viewer, which were too large at this stage. I had also omitted an element, helium, (top right corner), which I added at the end.
The main issue now was to create an illusion of transparency with opaque paints. This was easier for the red and green solutions than for the one in the nitric acid bottle on the right, which, being colourless took on the colour of the backdrop and, to a lesser extent, reflected the colour of the neighbouring red solution. I tried to ensure that the ground was not obliterated by the upper layers of paint so that it could help introduce light into the painting. Flecks of ground occur in all three of the objects. I wanted to avoid the bottle on the right “disappearing” into the background and lacking visual interest so used small amounts of the red and green as well as a yellow tint as highlight.
The photo below shows the final painting and is a reasonable representation.
Reflection on the Process: I managed to set this assignment more clearly in a context than previous Drawing 1 assignments. I was conscious of the need to escape “picturemaking” and have managed this to some extent – the process was definitely more exploratory this time, as a natural outcome of the planning stages rather than something foreseen at the start. The final painting has also been developed in a personal context.
I would use the box setting for a still life again but maybe use one that had no roof and one side cut away to allow more possibilities with lighting. This setting was actually a box turned on its side. In the final painting, I ignored the “roof”, in order to introduce more light into the composition and remove the shadow which hovered over the objects in some of the preparatory work. I am quite pleased with the transparency of the glass and solutions. I am also pleased with the use of the bright ground to introduce specks of colour throughout the composition, “lifting” it in places and preventing the bluish background from overpowering the image. The tonal contrasts are also better than I generally achieve in drawing – is it just easier to be bolder in paint? Another time, I might focus on a more complementary scheme using yellow and gold for the solutions rather than red and green. Originally, I had intended to include more white in the background but, in the course of painting, decided to use more blue because the white backdrop was not really white at all. Small amounts of green paint have been used elsewhere in the painting to ensure that it is not all concentrated in a single area which would create an imbalance.
The foreground was deliberately left unfinished to help focus the viewer on the objects rather than “reading” the periodic table and also because the squares right at the front are not the full size. They are there to lead the eye in.
The brushes used were size 10 and 12 filberts, a size 4 straight edge brush and a fine brush for small details, such as the graduations on the flasks. Generally, I aimed for smaller, impressionistic marks that reproduced the way in which I saw the light falling on these objects and tried to work across the painting rather than focusing on specific details too soon. Various adjustments had to be made towards the end, e.g. to the size of the bottle, which was drawn asymmetrically, and also to the shape of the base of the red flask. It is relatively easy to do this with acrylic at any stage, which makes it less stressful. I premixed paints in a palette with a “stay-wet” base and to which a few drops of retarder had been added; both of these things allowed the paints to remain workable over several days. The glassware was spaced out unequally but the red flask is approximately central in the composition, which I had wanted to avoid. However, the asymmetry of the composition offsets this somewhat. Overall, this has turned out better than expected. It is not the most exciting of paintings but it does demonstrate skills that I did not have five months ago and it does reflect a more integrated exploratory working process.