Part 2, project 3, exercise 5 – still life in colours reflecting mood

This task allowed use of the same still life set up as in the previous exercise and so I was able to benefit from having made sketches and a painting to help teach my eye and brain how to direct my painting arm. I had begun with the intention of going down the op art route; stark black and white, picking out shapes with the shapes rather than the items themselves but realised this wasn’t really about mood. Nevertheless, subverting the previous palette and perhaps putting light where there had been shadow felt attractive as a disconcerting treatment.

This did not pan out too well because it required too much reversal of the qualities of the image and so I moved then towards a black/blue palette with a view to swirling these to make the highlighted shapes. I saw a technique on video recently where the artist dipped one edge of a flat brush in one colour and the other edge in another which allowed for stripes with individual strokes. I used paynes grey and titanium white to make the stripes in a preliminary layer, then built up the image using *** blue, sap green, and *** green. At this stage, there is also now a wash of blue/orange mix along the line behind the items, and a lighter wash in the window area. I use finger blending in places and I’ve scrubbed the window area, the mugs and candle holder with a piece of damp towel to pull out the early layers. The next step will be to refine these and help the items to find their place in the whole.

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I woke up with an image of this in my head in which the background had a feel of those Dutch vanitas paintings; dark and with a blue/red cast. The elements of those paintings tended to be vibrant and hyper-real which mine aren’t but I think I can see how I might bring that mood to this arrangement.

In this first change, I’ve re-coloured the background using mixes of alizarin red and phthalo blue with the emphasis on the blue at the top and the red at the bottom. I’ve been able to capitalise on the layers beneath which have texture and allowed some reduction back down towards the lighter colours. Once pulled back, I reapplied the new colours in dilute form in what I’ve been calling washes but I hear sometimes referred to as glazes. These leave a sheen if allowed to dry but also dampen under-layers so that reduction is possible. I also added the foliage outside the window, imagining the room in darkness so that the window frame would be barely visible. In this room, the moonlight comes straight in through the french doors and I had that in mind as a substitution for the original light source, the sun. In effect, I’ve put the arrangement into a night scene instead of the original daylight.

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The colours felt too twee, a bit Disney, and so I tried darkening them to change the tone. I think this has muted them somewhat and so, focusing on the moonlight idea, I added some sap green glaze and then undiluted colour. I was aiming for a sense of unreality and distortion of colour perception that happens in different light and although I think I got the unreality nailed, I also think it’s a long way from ideal. No Dutch masters need worry about a threat from me any time soon!

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I’m going to stop here rather than try to work it some more, it’s a learning exercise and I’ve taken away quite a lot from both the initial painting (Ex 3) and this one. The first is that I quite like bowls and reflective surfaces and I surprised myself with the mugs in the first iteration. Secondly, backgrounds are just as important as the arrangements themselves and some artistic licence may be necessary to a good composition – although whether that was permissible in this brief I don’t know. Third, I’m not as good at making things up as I’d imagined – this iteration lacks a good deal and that’s because I don’t have it in front of me.

I watched a documentary yesterday of Peter Howson working on his Prophecy piece. He had none of his subject matter in front of him (fortunately, given the brutal nature of it) but demonstrated a keen eye for the essence of bodies and shapes. That he somewhat stylised these seems neither here nor there although it was clear to me that his work was neither da Vinci nor Bosch but came closer, in my view anyway, to some of the exceptionally well executed cartoonised political caricatures I see from time to time, or in a Viz comic. I’m not sure how Howson would take that but as he says he no longer owns his paintings once they’re gone and that they almost all go to private collectors, he may not have a view. For me, stylising seems to come from an enormous amount of practice making gestural marks that increase in simplicity – one mark doing the work of several – over time, and I imagine that’s the foundation for every other kind of painting or drawing too. It’s not the simplification, it’s what you do with it that makes the difference.

Time taken: 6 hours.

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