Exercise: Still Life with Man-Made Objects

I began this exercise using the chemical glassware that I had used for Assignment 1, in order to develop skills of interpreting transparency and reflective surfaces.  The initial sketch was approximately A5 in size and made using gouache (seen below on A4 sketchbook page).  I used a dark green base beneath the glassware to create a contrast and to complement the red-brown glass bottle.  I have not used gouache much before and enjoyed its thick, chalky texture, as well as its ability to create flat areas of colour.




The image is somewhat busy, although the brown glass creates a focus. The task specified a maximum of four objects so I reduced the number; using four objects might work if they could be visually arranged as three and one. Retaining the larger brown glass bottle and the porcelain dish meant finding a way to depict three glass / china surfaces so that they could be distinguished visually.

I used two pieces of L-shaped card taped together to create a frame for the glassware, measured it and created a format in my A4 sketchbook of the same proportions.  I added lines to help develop the correct proportions of the objects more quickly.  The main intention here was to look at the tonal range and to discover where the deepest tones lie.  The objects wet arranged largely overlapping and are viewed from just above at a shallow angle. The aim was to create a sense of depth and to keep the eye moving back through the image and then forward again.



The pencil image above was then further developed digitally using the Art Studio iPad app.  This was done in order to begin thinking about colour.  The colours used here are realistic but I have kept the table and background deliberately light in order to bring out the transparency of the clear glass and emphasisze shadows.  Adding colour has also brought various issues to the fore:

– The dish at the front is made of porcelain, not glass, and so needs to be more solid to distinguish it from the glass.

– The dish’s reflection in the brown glass could be clearer.  The dish could be placed a little over to the left so that it creates less of a vertical with the bottle.

–  The shadows are inconsistent.

Screen Shot 2014 09 28 at 20 23 01

The painting used Hahnemühle acrylic paper with a linen surface (330 gsm).  I replicated the format and angle of the table top but moved the porcelain dish slightly further to the left.  The dish also needed to be larger to reflect its closeness to the viewer.

Once again, I chose glazes but restricted the painting to two.  I wanted to try to create a visual object from the ground using layers of glaze alone.  I used olive green for the ground and dish and, originally for the glassware, too.  The red-brown jar and the upper third of the ground used a glaze mixture that was left over from a previous painting and was based on pthalo blue / brilliant red and quinacridone violet. I wanted a redder jar than the actual jar – more of a maroon to stand out from the olive green.  The ground was two layers of glaze.  I applied them in different directions across the paper but could not prevent the streakiness. This is accentuated by the linen structure of the paper’s surface.

Because all the objects had smooth surfaces, I chose to make the background more textured – an abstract wallppaper print, perhaps.  The print was created with a small round household paintbrush, applied lightly all over and then with rather more paint in a few areas.

Here is the ground:


I built up the image in layers, originally using a dark surface for the set-up. Part of the way through,  I realised that I had darkened the glass while the surrounding surface was too light. The porcelain dish did not yet look substantially different from the glassware and needed many more layers and more substance. The surface of the dark jar shows the reflection of the porecelain dish but the glaze is messy and there is not yet enough contrast.

The painting at an early stage:



I continued to glaze layers on to the dish but the glassware was too dark.  I applied gesso to the surface and then two layers of zinc white before reapplying a layer of glaze, leaving some white showing through.  I had wanted to avoid white but found it unavoidable in this instance to distinguish china from glass. I initially tried a white glaze but this was not strong enough to achieve the desired result – or not without multiple layers.  The white paint does create a sense of transparency when selectively overlaid with the olive green glaze and touches of undiluted olive green paint to help convey three-dimensionality.   I also darkened the glaze used on the porcelain dish for the shadows and added a few white highlights, as well as to the coloured jar for some balance.  There is some tonal contrast – the lowest tones cannot be too low in a composition that focuses on transparency and reflection.




What I have learned from this:

Applying a ground using a glaze:  Perhaps use retarder to slow down the speed of drying and use a softer brush that leaves less of a bristle trace.

Handling glazes requires knowing exactly where you want the glaze to go and not applying too much at once so that it does not become “tacky”.

Composition – I find still life composition harder than landscape, at least partially because I feel little emotional connection with objects.  However, there are ways into the process. Since beginning this painting, I have begun to read Ian Roberts’ book “Mastering Composition“.  He makes the point that there are five stages of composition:

1. The dynamics of the picture plane – how the format that an artist chooses is affected by every mark they make within it.

2. Armature – how the elements within a composition are connected and the “flow” that they create for the viewer.

3. Abstract shapes – the main shapes and how they interact – Roberts says that this is the stage on which success or failure hang.  Roberts describes composition as being made “through the arrangement of abstract value masses on a picture place” (Roberts, p.9)

4. Subjects – i.e. what you choose to paint.

5. Details – Roberts decribes this stage as “”almost anything (else) painted with a little pointed brush” (Roberts, p.9)

He also says that inexperienced painters typically enter this process at stage 4, ignoring the first three stages…

What steps could I take to improve my own compositions?  In this painting, I began with step 4, returned to step 1 and then jumped back to step 4.  I paid some attention to step 2 but without step 3 a composition has not been fully thought through. I need to consider armature with more care.   Reading Roberts’ steps again, it becomes clearer why a good abstract painting is successful and why many figurative paintings fail.  It suggests that if the armature, shapes and contrast are correct then the subject could be anything and it would work visually!


Revisiting Assignment One: 

The painting done for Assignment One (below) is cruder than the one just completed, although I still like the glass bottle on the right with its hints of colour absorbed from its surroundings, as well as the lettering on the jar.  The glass flask in the centre looks out of proportion – too squashed.  The shadows overall are much too dark.  The composition could be better balanced – the eye tends to slide of at the left. The lettering of the chemical symbols is crude – deliberately so – but it looks untidy.  There is a better sense of transparency in the painting just completed. However, the assignment painting used opaque acrylics and the recent one used glazes – I will need to think more carefully about matching the medium to the subject.

Screen Shot 2014 10 16 at 12 29 28


Roberts, Ian (2008)  Mastering Composition.  North Light Books


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