Monthly Archives: July 2015

Notes and experiments in staining techniques

Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis and others used a stain technique, both with oils and acrylics, pouring thinned paint onto huge untreated canvases, allowing it to sink in, flow and merge, encouraging it by tipping the canvas, and manipulating the dilute pigment using rags, sticks and other makeshift tools.  I researched the technique (see references below) and had a go.

My results were surprisingly varied, depending on the support and the medium I used.  I like the even staining effect of acrylic paint on canvas when flow improver was used to break the surface tension of the water; quite different was the watercolour effect of simply using water as a medium, especially on watercolour paper, where the paint floats on the surface , often unevenly, and dries there rather than sinking into the paper.

The soak-stain method could be a joy to use for producing abstract compositions with some unpredictable effects.  Not being so easy to control, it might not be appropriate for detailed figurative painting; but I can see a possibility for combining soak-staining with brush-drawing; where areas of colour need only approximate to the objects depicted.


I did some testing on both canvas and scraps of paper.  The canvas was cheap shop-bought pre-stretched, and comes already gessoed, as I dont have any untreated canvas.  I treated half my canvas with extra gesso and left half as it was., but I didn’t notice much different in results between the two sides.

Marking out 3 separate areas I then dropped diluted (with water) and undiluted acrylic inks into the pre-wetted surfaces – my wetting liquids were; water; diluted washing up liquid;pre-diluted W&N Flow Improver.  I also tried brushing the coloured inks straight onto dry surfaces, adding my wetting agents to the paint instead of to the support.


The washing-up liquid didn’t work at all as a flow improver / staining agent in any way – instead, the paint remained on the surface looking a bit congealed and sticky, and didn’t dry for ages – which means I’ve possibly found a very good drying retarder, something I’ll look into further.

Paint on the  water-wetted support tended to sit on top sometimes in globules, rather than sink into the canvas, and to dry more quickly.  It could be manipulated, and encouraged to run and drip, but it still didn’t really sink in or flow evenly. 

Paint on the flow improver-wetted canvas flowed evenly and easily and sank into the canvas, staining quite readily. Raw canvas would soak the paint up much more readily I suspect – but may not allow as much time to manipulate the paint.

Dilute paint with flow improver added to it and brushed onto dry canvas sank in and stained very readily.  One major advantage of flow improver instead of just water as a thinning medium is that there’s no loss of pigment intensity.

I wet the painted surface again and drew into it with a brush dipped in flow improver and then water, again noting that the paint tended to clump and settle in unevenly just using water – whereas the flow improver yielded an even stain, which sank straight in, the more so when the brush was also dipped in the product first.

Like watercolour, the paint is transparent when used this way, and old layers show through later layers of colour – so  some watercolour techniques could be appropriate, such as saving the white of the support for highlights (alternatively, I could use opaque paint to create highlights afterwards.


After the canvas trials I didn’t bother trying washing up liquid with paper.  Doing the experiments on paper with flow improver and just water, my general conclusion was that  on (sized) watercolour paper the paint is more reluctant to soak into and stain paper than canvas – it tended to float on top of the support more.  Maybe this is because the paper is treated with sizing.  In this respect its even more similar to watercolour painting, where the paint tends to float on top of the surface and dry there, rather than sinking into the fibres.

On gessoed heavy mixed media paper however, the paint with flow improver flowed, spread out evenly and sank into the (pe-wet) paper nicely.  On the same paper un-gessoed, the paint sank straight in without flowing and spreading, producing a more vivid stain,must with no opportunity to manipulate it.

So depending what effect I want, 


Still life survey

There is a BBC Arts  documentary, Apples Pears and Paint, which looks at the history of still life painting from Xenia murals to Picasso;  it’s quite informative, but left me wanting to explore the subject a bit more deeply.  I downloaded a book on the same topic,  Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting by Norman Bryson, and read it cover to cover.  The documentary film appeared to be largely based on this collection of essays – much of the reference and analysis in it was identical.  The book was much more in depth though, and of course it’s so much easier to re-read passages and take notes as you read.

My jottings are below, together with a mind map I made as I went along, to help me better absorb the main points.

One of the headline points that came out of this was that the genre of still life has had different content, approaches, purposes and meanings in its history, and hasn’t been simply a continuum of development.  The purpose of still life has ranged from the depiction of the abundance of nature and hospitality – of religious symbolism – conveying purity, simplicity and asceticism – incorporating still life as one element in paintings –  demonstrating affluence –  decoration and a sign of prestige –  moral edification – the celebration of the beauty of ordinary things –  describing the way we perceive form and light –  commenting on contemporary life.

The course research point has singled out one of the major and rather interesting manifestations of still life, that of the 17th century Dutch still life and flower painters, for special research.  While some were exceptional, in general the genre catered to a mass market on an industrial scale, using mass production techniques, much as is done today in China.  The market was the newly affluent merchant class of the richest nation on earth – everyone wanted to decorate their home and display their wealth.  The style of painting is generally a hyper-realistic and detailed depiction of objects.  The imaginary element of some of these paintings is sometimes astonishing.  Objects are brought together in a way that would be impossible in real life then – rare and exotic fresh flowers and live insects from the four corners of the globe.  Great heaps of produce are arranged in uninhibited displays of outrageous affluence .  Objects are pushed over in disarray, reckless consumption, dissolution, disorder and ruin.  Objects are used to convey a message of mortality and the transience of life and wealth.


In amongst this commercial outpouring of still life painting there were some extraordinary painters.  Rembrandt was the top of the heap, of course! I looked especially at Still Life with Peacocks, 1639.

Zooming in, you can see thick layers of white highlights perfectly describing the texture of the peacock feathers, the lace collar of the girl and other highlights, while the background appears to be composed of smooth glazes. I read about oil painting in layers and alla prima, or direct painting in a course book as well as several web sites  (see References below).

As well as using the Flemish and Venetian techniques (building a painting up in several layers of glazing, semi-glazing and scumbling), R also employed the direct technique.  He built his paint up into a thick impasto, seemed to revel in its physical qualities, using hands, fingers and painting knives to achieve his effects.  In R’s The Slaughtered Ox, 1655 the whole painting appears to have been done alla prima, with possibly just a rough underpainting.  The effect is very impressionistic.


Rachel Ruysch’s flower pictures have great decorative appeal; they are highly realistically painted and sharply detailed.  Like others of the time, she would have worked up her end result to a photographic finish through a number of layers of transparent paint, or glazes.  Using glazes for shadows and darks, and opaque highlights, known as the Flemish Method.  A typical painting is A Carnation Morning Glory with Other Flowers, 1695.  The bouquet is dramatically lit against the background, with a setting (shelf or tabletop) suggested.  Her colours and textures are bold and somewhat exotic looking, and there is a meticulous attention to detail, in the leaves as much as in the flowers.  In the foreground is a gorgeously coloured butterfly.  The composition is open and diagonal, asymmetrical, lively and freer than the more symmetrical arrangements of the time.  The curving stems reach into the air and drop over the edge of the table.  There is a kind of energy and spontaneity about her work that I admire.


The symbols used in paintings and their significance was a preoccupation of 17th century Dutch still life artists. The meanings often related to the transience of life, wealth and all earthly things; the futility of pleasure and the certainty of death.  Perhaps there was a certain degree of guilt prevalent in the Dutch culture of the day which was so materialistic – as there is in our modern Western culture.  Some of the usual objects and their meanings include –  skulls – death;  rotten fruit – decay;  watches – the brevity of life;  musical instruments, butterflies – the ephemeral nature of life.  My favourite is Vanitas Self Portrait with Still Life, 1628 by Pieter Claesz – I’m drawn to his work for its oasis of calm and somberness achieved with a nearly monochrome palette, and natural-looking compositions) among the display of spectacle of others.

The bubble symbolises the brevity of life and the suddenness of life.  There is also a key, a feather, a broken walnut, books (all of human knowledge a mere indulgence), an overturned glass – all these objects would have had their specific meanings designed to convey a moralistic message.  The reflection of the artist in his studio inside the bubble seems to me to convey a sense of the wonder of the world, an antidote to the pervading gloominess.


The 18c painter of still life who stands out above all others for me is Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin.  He adopts the conventions of 17c.still life, but adapts them to his own vision and his own cultural background.  His vision seems to be worlds apart from that of the 17c. Dutch – while Chardin paints the ordinary, the Dutch painted the extraordinary – the Dutch paintings set out to impress the viewer with spectacular displays of luxury, power and wealth, Chardin  celebrates the beauty of  simple, disregarded things.  His compositions seem natural, just as the objects were found, compared to the calculated staging of the Dutch paintings.  The latter are brilliantly focused, hyper-real; Chardin has some points in his compositions almost out of focus compared to others, just as the eye might see it as it travels across the scene from place to place.  For this reason, I think, Chardin’s paintings are more relaxing and pleasurable to look at – they are not intensely demanding – the eye is at home among the familiar.  The early Chardin still lifes I saw recently in Madrid have all these qualities.  In Still Life with Cat and Fish, 1728 and Still Life with Cat and  Rayfish, 1725  the tranquility is interrupted by live animals.  They are richly coloured (you can see a great range of colours in the fur and scales) and thickly, but delicately painted.  Still Life with Pestle and Mortar, Pitcher and Copper Cauldron, 1728 is rather austere; the objects are made of rustic materials, the produce is simple.  The colours he used produced subtle but important distinctions between the whites of the cloth, the onion skins and the eggs.  ‘If we compare this work with others of the same period in which the cooking implements and the foodstuffs are more abundant, it is possible to appreciate Chardin’s outstanding ability to create compositions filled with charm and life through the use of a limited range of modest elements.’ (

At the beginning of the 19c. still life fell from favour to the lowest order of painting.  But as classicism declined, many great artists – Goya, Courbet, Delacroix – started to include still life in their work.  Like Chardin they were creating an atmosphere and a mood than painting sharp focus and realistic detail.  Manet’s still lifes are more impressionistic.  Monet and Renoir broke with the tradition of the dark ground.  Subject matter became secondary to technique and colour harmony. Detailed work was out in favour of a broad brush dabbing approach..  Allegorical content disappeared.  Everything, including the use of colour, viewpoint and perspective, was fair game for experimentation.  The century culminated with masterpieces like Van Gogh’s sunflowers and irises and Cezanne’s Still Life with Cherub.

The 20c. was all about artistic ferment and revolution as opposed to mere experimentation.  Matisse reduced still life objects to bright colours with bold, flat outlines, simplifying perspective and giving as much prominence in his compositions to background multi-coloured pattern.  I think playing with colour, focus and perspective, done with intent, adds an enormous interest to viewing a painting.  As the viewer you can interpret, fill in, translate what you see – or you can simply revel in the childlike quality of the image compared to the deadly serious Dutch paintings where all is presented to you, with no ambiguity.  For a painter it opens up worlds of possibilities and removes the drudgery of painting with brilliant and drilling clarity.

In Cezanne’s still life paintings, subject matter and its arrangement , the function of the scene, seem irrelevant, there to simply providing a compositional structure.  Still Life with Apples is about is the interplay between colours, shapes and lines, not the fruit or the table or the setting.  Every dab of paint is visible, forms and surfaces boldly outlined.  You can see all the preliminary lines too, they aren’t concealed.  You can almost imagine Cezanne actually painting the canvas, you can see what he’s done, it’s not blended and smoothed.  He dramatizes his subject to present us with great art.  The image is remarkable, while the reality was simple and unassuming.  Unlike Chardin, Cezanne is primarily concerned with painting and its techniques, not with the physical reality of the objects he is painting.

Cubism followed Cezanne and developed from his approach to representation, in which he reduced three dimensional forms to geometric shapes. The favourite motifs of Picasso and Braque were still lifes with musical instruments, bottles, pitchers, glasses, newspapers, playing cards.  They analysed these and rearranged their forms into overlapping monochromatic planes and facets, sometimes combining them with letters (Picasso’s Still Life with a Bottle of Rum, 1911).

Picasso experimented with pasting pieces of paper into his compositions so that objects can be identified by association rather than any representational evocation.  A simple case in point is Bottle and Wineglass on a Table, 1912, an elegant Picasso in charcoal, ink, graphite and  pasted newspaper, where the objects are outlined and depicted from various angles, showing different views simultaneously.  A piece of cut newspaper is pasted into the composition, representing part of an object, and at the same time  commenting, by his choice of text,  on contemporary concerns.

The new visual language was adopted and developed by many painters.  Juan Gris painted colourful cubist still lifes like Violin and Playing Cards, 1913.   


Contemporary still life – here are some examples of still life art I’ve come across during my reading and research for this post.  The possibilities for still life work in two and three dimensions today are exciting as new approaches are discovered.

Mat Collishaw – Last Meal on Death Row series; show luxurious, sometimes uncontrolled consumption in the face of death

Marc Quinn – Self Portrait skull in blood; I saw this piece at a Marc Quinn exhibition at Cer Gallery, Istanbul ; its a sculpture of a head – I m noting it here because it seems in the tradition of the Vanitas with its references to mortality, and depictions of the skull

Ori Gersht made a series of photographs and videos called Blowups. One a recreation of a Cotán still life in three dimensions, which suddenly and in slow motion explodes.  Similarly, No.3, is based on a 19c. still life by Fantin-Latour.  He arrests and records the moment of the explosion.

 A Time and a Place, Darren Jones, 2011, reminds me of a still life photo I took while travelling, of the inside of my minibar.  This is looking at the overlooked and familiar, discovering depth in it.

The three dimensional work of Cathy Wilkes, assemblages of carefully arranged objects, with mannequins or paper mâché figures looking at them.  The figures encourage the viewer to stop and take a proper look, to discover the secret of the objects assembled there- as people queueing somehow encourage us to join the queue.




Research and reading – a mind map and some notes 



The Roman Empire – Xenia


Medieval – no still life

Symbolic. Christianity

The Apple – Adam and Eve

The Lily – The Annunciation


Oil paint was developed in 15c  and artists could incorporate  the element of still life in paintings.


Velasquez – raising Lazarus from the dead? Fish, eggs



1596 Caravaggio basket of fruit – no religious reference. But still life viewed as base. Later he included still life in his religious paintings.


Then in 17c Dutch still life started to emerge. Jan Breughel bouquet 1606

Influenced by Italian still life.


Holland was setting for golden age of still life.


Holland had freed itself from Catholicism and monarchy. The new merchant class wanted non religious painting. Richest nation on earth.

Chinese porcelain exotic flowers and fruit. Object was to decorate the home. Everyone was buying paintings.


Mass market – art was an industry – mass production techniques.


The floral paintings were not realistic. As much rare and exotic species as poss in one painting, regardless of season, origin etc


The base of flowers is a bouquet from the globe.


Tulip mania. Rare and exotic. Too precious to cut them. Outrageous affluence displayed.


Banquet pieces uninhibited displays of max wealth Celebration of luxury


Things are pushed over. Reckless consumption and destruction. Guilt. (Calvinism)


The answer was to include a symbol with a message of mortality, transience of life. Vanitas  painting. Eg skull. Military pieces eg helmet – futility of war. All will fade and pass. Fortunes can be made and lost.


44m Ashmolean


Spain – Cotán (look up thistle and carrot). Bodegans. Realist – austere simple cf Dutch. He was a monk. Suspensions of string otherworldly


18c. For the Academy the human figure was the most important element. Still life was bottom. Then landscape – portrait – myth, history, biblical.


Chardin  was the first to be taken seriously. He showed still life could be important. His period was dominated by the rococo style.


The Buffet and The Skate submitted to Academy. Truth and calm. 1728. Accepted.


He showed it was great to paint something simple. He painted silence (Rosenberg). Makes you aware of the beauty of ordinary things around you. He became rich.

He makes all blurry except one or two areas- he replied how the human eye sees.


Vallayer Coster. Women were allowed to paint still life, not human life. She was patronised by Marie Antoinette, and her career ended with the revolution.


19c. Cezanne changed everything. His style revolutionary. Radical, rushed, imprecise. Antithesis of realism. What we see is not fixed.


Simple objects. Form light and reflection the main thing. Simply recorded what he saw, stroke by stroke. Picasso Matisse called him the father of 20c art.


Now still life needn’t be realistic.

Photography was invented and still life was a good subject as it didn’t move!

Now photos exist painters can see the power and limitations of an image. Now still life painting was expressive and far from realistic. Van G irises sunflowers.

What can painting do that photograp can’t?  Cubism is all still life. Object can be painted from every angle. Picasso Braque. The objects can no longer be identified. Painting becomes philosophy.


20c. Stuff is machine made. Still life became the province of advertising.

Big Bang Ori Gersht. Painting photography and film combined. He blew up the Cotán pomegranate on film with a bullet. Depicts an event on film.


21c. Mat Collishaw. The Venal Muse. Still life recreating prisoners last meal on death row in style of 17c Dutch still life vanitas painting. Reflecting on vanity.


Arrest a particular moment and record it. Look at the overlooked the familiar and discover depth in it. Look closely at something you recently bought. Stop and take a proper look.





Reference material

Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting by Norman Bryson, Pub. Reaktion Books Limited 1990

BBC Arts Documentary, 2014:  Apples, Pears and Paint: How to Make a Still Life Painting  Accessed 04/07/2015  Accessed 04/07/2015

The Artists Handbook by Ray Smith, pub Dorling Kindersley, 1987
World Art, Dr Mike O’Mahony, pub Flame Tree Publishing, 2006 accessed05/07/2015
Tate Magazine
Thames & Hudson video “Contemporary Artists reinvigorate the Still Life Tradition”, Michael Petry. 

2.2.1 – drawing in paint

Here are the two paintings I made.  The second was certainly more ambitious technically but I think the first is a more successful both on process and outcome  




Overall Summary

“Methods and ways of working can make the painting if approached with intent” (Tutor, Assignment 1feedback) – this exercise was a very good example of that, and brought the point home.  These two paintings would have had quite different outcomes of I hadn’t set out to draw with paint, concentrating in the linear qualities of the subject.


Fruit painting – I let the activity of painting lead me and I avoided concentrating on detail.  The result is a painting that’s freer and more expressive.  I painted vertically, mainly with my fingers and at arms length, and I relaxed and allowed ‘accidents’ to happen.  The finger painting, influenced by watching a video of Gillian Ayres applying paint with her hands, and by looking at some of Clyde Hopkins work from the 80s was an enjoyable experience.

Tabletop painting- the sketch for this was great, the painting became too detailed, cautious, constricted.  I forgot to work vertically and at arms length, peering down closely at the work in my efforts to get the perspective elements plausible.  The background didn’t work in the end,  because I didn’t give enough thought to the context of the table in the composition.  A frustrating experience, but I still think the tabletop composition has great potential. 



Sketchbook work

To identify a subject I scouted around the house for suitable existing arrangements of objects, and made a short list before sketching them, adding the bathroom still life to the list during a moment of contemplation in that room.  I sketched a few thumbnails, making notes in my sketchbook, and initially chose the first (bathroom) still life to go ahead with.



All this is a bit boring though, my sketches uninspiring.  I watched a video in OCA Weekender showing the sketchbook of another student, and was impressed by how uninhibited and – sketchy – the sketches were on each page.  Decided to change tack keeping in mind the presenter’s advice to

 ‘just crack on and let your relationship with materials have it’s head’


My new aim now was to to free up my approach to my sketchbook drawing, and enjoy my materials and colours, by doing a series of sketches simplifying, selecting, zooming in.  I also changed the subject to one I enjoyed more, trying to have fun!!

 A quick pen and ink line drawing – lots of interesting lines – fabric folds, pattern & fringes, carved table edge, curved legs, shapes of China cat and fruit.  Bit of a complicated arrangement.  



Pastel and charcoal – Like the negative space between the curtain and the table. 


Acrylic ink, pen – I like the curves carved into the table edge, echoed by the frilly edge of the blue bowl.


I adjourned to my studio as I began to feel inhibited by the need to be tidy and clean in the house.



Charcoal & pastel pencils, willow charcoal, white conte, acrylic ink & paint – I’m looking down on the square table top, had several goes at drawing its lines and angles before I was satisfied.  Think I’m having fun now.

 Similar approach, zooming in a bit more. Like the overall background tone.

One nectarine in a nest of fabric – with Derwent Artbar, charcoal, white conte and calligraphy pen – and acrylic ink background. Starting to realise the form of the fruit more speedily – must remember to reserve larger clean areas for highlights. 


Reviewing the brief – ‘don’t choose objects that are too complex in appearance’; ‘create a simple still life arrangement’. 

Hard lines and angles – table, windows and wall

Flowing lines – draped fabric

Outlines and negative spaces

Lines that define tonal areas

Wood grain, patterned cloth


1) my first painting is based on the fruit sketches – I like the idea of a scatter of fruit casually rolled onto a cloth, which then forms a sort of cocoon around it.  I didn’t really have a planned approach or a planned outcome in mind, except I liked my sketch of a scatter of fruit on a cloth, seen from above, so chose that as my subject  

Recalling the exercise using different coloured grounds, I thought a dark ground would give impact to the bright coloured fruit. I laid down a dark acrylic undercoat paynes grey & indigo plus tad of white on A3 rough aquarelle arches then drew main lines in light colour pastel pencils.

Started to paint in coloured gouache just using fingers because my brushes on the rough paper were too soft to spread and blend the paint . Don’t know why I didn’t think of using stiff brushes, but anyway I enjoyed the physical process of finger-painting! I relished the bright colours of the fruit, accentuating them.


 Continuing, using fingers, fine brush and a silicone paint mover

Finishing for the day, adding tone and lines to model the cloth and hinting at embroidery.  The tonal contrasts on the right hand fruit seem a tad exaggerated by the photo.  Enjoyed the day’s work and like the drama of the high contrasts, dynamic lines and a bold approach.  There seems to me to be lots of interest in this painting to engage the viewer – I really feel I could squeeze those lemons, especially that big green one!



2) my second painting started with mid tone acrylic undercoat Cobalt Violet, process yellow, white (makes a good beige).  I drew the main lines of my tabletop sketch, which appealed to me because of the variety of objects hinting at a meal being prepared.  The perspective, looking down and close-to, was tricky and looks like becoming a major part of the painting – then started to add colour, reinforcing the lines as I progressed so as not to lose them  

More colour added

And finally the background – picked out the blue is used in the jug and knife – first attempts produced very patchy result as tried to pint each tile separately. So used glazing medium, various strengths, ultramarine, white and black to help unify the background. 

On reflection I like the table but the backgrounds adds nothing – the painting isn’t complete yet.  I took time out to look at Matisse still life’s and was struck by how full of interest his backgrounds are, and yet they don’t detract from the focus on the still life (although he took it to an extreme with Still Life with Blue Tablecloth, where the cloth is the entire focal point and the still life objects accessories). In Still Life With a Checked Tablecloth, both the cloth and the wider context (mantelpiece, picture frame, wallpaper) are colourful and bold.  There are many, many more I looked at, and the background is always depicted, giving context and depth to the still life, but also being of almost equal importance to it in terms of colour, shape and pattern.  

I looked again at the backdrop to my still life, which I’d dismissed as just containing ugly old bits of uninteresting furniture, but now considering how I could incorporate them, or an interpretation of them, into my still life.  I drew the main lines with a brush, carefully in perspective, and my painting immediately took on a different character, the table suddenly occupying a space of its ow.

Added colour to the background and called it a day, needing to move on to the next exercise  

2.2.2 still life with flowers

Bright, long-stemmed flowers in a solid earthenware jar formed my subject matter. I set them on a patterned cloth on a table, with a pair of secateurs and a large fallen leaf.  The tall arrangement lends itself to portrait format.

Im sitting down indoors for comfort, The first sketch in coloured fine liner with a bit of wash tone explores the main lines and helps me to start working out a basic composition, the main areas of light and dark.  I’m allowing the red canna lilies to be cropped by the borders of my support. This is going to give me some interesting negative shapes in what is otherwise a series of straight lines radiating from the vase.

Composition and colour study

The vase is placed slightly off centre in my composition, balanced by the drooping left hand lily, and secateurs pointing to the leaf in the left. The colours of the lily flowers are dark Crimson and fiery orange-yellow.  The canna leaves are blue-green.  The stems of the red flowers are pink-purple-brown, and those of the orange flower green-yellow. My vase is a sort of green-grey earth colour, with yellow ochre lights.  The cloth is ultramarine, with black and white pattern.  I want my background to be overall neutral, made with a mix of pale colours combining on the canvas optically to convey light and shade.

My arrangement is lit by a NE window and a lamp from the right.  I’m thinking of making the background mid-to light tone (with vague background structures just suggested, keeping the viewers focus securely on the flowers) with the darker tracery of leaves and flowers silhouetted against it (the far right flowers though are lighter than the background, highlighted by the lamp).

The lower third of the composition is occupied by dark tones of fabric and vase. With the light coming from the right though, the right side of the fabric is lighter – also, the way it’s fallen, much more of the white pattern falls on that side.

I made some more sketchbook studies of flowers and leaves.  

Study of red lilly


The red lilies have purple stems – process magenta, cad yellow and cobalt Violet 

Study of daisy


The darker background throws the white daisy forward by contrast of tone.  The spattering idea could be used to add the background feverfew flowers and foliage, which forms a delicate tracery and  just needs to be suggested – or I could print/dab with a piece of natural sponge, or textured kitchen paper.  Would have to be done before painting the foreground flowers.  I could use an opaque liquid mixture (use acrylic ink?) and create runs to suggest stems.  

Experiment with background

By smudging the green I lost the feel of tracery.  Whatever tools / methods I use to apply the pigment, I must avoid overworking it, make sure the background foliage isn’t dense.

Before starting on my painting I looked at some flower still life’s by Manet, Bonnard, Vuillard, Redon.

Of the half dozen late Manet flower paintings I looked at, none are bigger than A3.  They are serene in their subtle, harmonious colour palettes of tertiaries, and the brush handling is broad.  The compositions are very simple, a centrally placed short glass vase, containing a compact variety of short stemmed flowers and leaves.  All have a mid to dark toned grey background, with just the slightest distinction between surface and wall, otherwise empty.

My flowers are tall, strident and exotic, more akin to the fiery palette of Bonnard, or the bright fantasies of Redon.  Bonnard brings pattern into his surfaces, and warm, textured backgrounds with some hard lines indicating the structure of his interiors.  I always struggle with backgrounds, oscillating between a lack of context (from fear of it distracting from the main subject), and too busy (competing with the subject for my viewer’s attention), so I’m going to see if I can apply any of his background devices in my painting.

Redon’s flower paintings are, for my taste, on the whole too bright (eye candy?) and, seen together, almost painted to a formula.


In the last exercise I felt constricted by the small (A3) support, so this time I’m using a 50x70cm canvas, primed with white gesso.


I started by making a tonal study of my composition straight on to the canvas with a large brush, using just burnt umber, yellow ochre and white acrylic. I chose to start this way because I happened on a video showing a portrait painted using this method of under painting in monochrome then applying colour on top.  It seemed a good way of establishing values at the onset. 

So far I like the composition.  It feels freer painting on this scale.  


   I checked the perspective of the background furniture fairly carefully with a straight edge because I’d learnt from my previous exercise how unintentionally wrong perspective can make your work look amateurish.  


Darks and lights are beginning to emerge.  When I was satisfied with my tonal work I started adding colour, still using large brushes.  My practise sketches of the flower heads helped – when it came to painting the daisy, I very quickly put in each petal using one dab of a long round brush, then a quick dab of dark in the centre, job done!  The blue cloth was done with a large filbert, avoiding too much detail.


I also worked back over the background with the same colours again, but in doing so I think I’ve lost some interesting light and shade areas.  I darkened the table as I felt it’s colour was too similar to the background, but it’s now a bit over dark and formless
Final version
At this stage (done in one day)  I feel the painting is beginning to look successful, but I don’t feel it’s complete yet.  I want to add pattern to the cloth; lighten the table top and give it an edge; work on the light and shadows in the background, at the same time adding more colour interest there.
Without making a conscious decision I’ve left out the secateurs – they could be a distraction – but I think the composition would benefit from something in the foreground. 
Manet The Still Life Paintings by George Mauner, pub. Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2000 

2.2.3 /2.2.4 still life with natural and man made objects

My final painting for this exercise is below.  I talk about some problems the objects gave me and how I resolved them, and my choices and working methods further on in this post.  An important learning outcome from this exercise for me was how beneficial it was to research other artists who inspire me, experiment with working methods, explore and investigate the subject, and resolve problems in my sketch book, all before starting on the painting – it made the painting process easier and more relaxed, and I believe led to a better outcome.

My first attempt at still life was a grapefruit, a simple painting dashed-off before I could think too much about it – because of that, quite honest I think.  Subsequently my style tightened up and I produced more careful and self-conscious still lifes on different tonal backgrounds, then an assignment piece done carefully over many hours which was imaginative, but doesn’t leave much to the viewer’s imagination.  Then my drawing in paint, the one done with my fingers looser and more successful than the laboured-over table still life.  I think my still life painting is showing a steady progression as I experiment, relax, and remember to enjoy the process.  At this stage I think the painting for this exercise is my most successful so far because it’s not overworked, it’s visually interesting and let’s the viewer interpret and imagine some of the detail.




Final painting, acrylic on A3 gessoed paper


I was inspired by the tall, sculptural dagger-like thistles that appear in our baked hedgerows in July, some of them dusted with tiny purple-grey flowers among the thorns.  Their dry leaves and thorns are calligraphic, their brittle stems rigidly kinked.   In situ these tall thistles are usually seen sillouhetted against the clear blue summer sky, day after day.  My painting would suggest that; the background light and hazy, the thistles sharply lit and detailed where they came into focus.

I thought of drawing them in situ but it’s too hot.  I decided to lay them on a table in my studio until I had a look at Kurt Jackson’s still lifes.  His humble wild flowers, seed heads and sprigs of fruit are placed in a simple vase, or else in a cast off receptacle like an old beer can or marmite jar.  His still life is generally small scale on a square support, placed in a background field of white which is textured and subtly modified in layers, sometimes incorporating collage and writing.

I like the idea of repurposing a bit of plastic packaging, so I placed my best thistle in a cut-down plastic bottle and put it on a white sheet on the table – I wanted to try a modulated  field of white for my background.  It occurred to me I could do more than one thistle so I lay my other branch down, and found a pleasing L-shaped composition.  I lit them from above and to the right to reveal a good strong form.

First I explored the thistles by drawing them in my A3 sketchbook in a range of graphite pencils and a tad of watercolour pencil added at the end.  I kept half closing my eyes to clarify where the dark and light tones were – as it says in the exercise brief this switches off detail and colour, and allows concentration on tone, so important for describing the spheres of the thistles.  While building the tones, I struggled to understand how at the same time I couldshow the vicious texture of the flower.  Eventually I realised the tone was more important than the detail of the spikes, which I could satisfactorily show just with a few sharp dagger lines, light against dark.

I also wondered how to create a  focus on the thistle in the bottle, and did it  by giving it sharper contrasts of tone, and colour where the others are monochrome and less well defined.  There are some good dark accents thanks to the 8b pencil.  

The table edge is just hinted at.


Looking back at the graphite drawing though, it looks a bit sedate and static; I wanted to create some tension and movement in my painting, a bit of waywardness, to show that in my imagination these are objects with attitude, untidy, unloved and disregarded, but with their own spiky existence separate from tame domestication.  I found a solution to this in Cezanne’s House with Red Roof – the tilting effect adds dynamism to his painting.


My painting will be mainly acrylic, with broad brush background and some fine detail in the drawing of the thistle, so a smooth ground – gessoed canvas, or hardboard, cardboard or mixed media paper – would be appropriate.

Before starting my painting I experimented with the following techniques using different surfaces.  .

Scraped (p217 The Artists Handbook) with thinned gesso, white paint and pale earth acrylic colours, collage layers (tissue paper, torn fabric, music, text) roughly overlaid with light coloured glazes  (p46-47 Collage Techniques).  Added linear marks, spatters, sandpaper, add darker accents.  The idea of this was to practise ways of achieving the nuanced, textured background I envisaged, before I started on my painting.

These were fun and easy to do, and for all their simplicity produced remarkably interesting results.  The ones with good contrasts of colour and tone could almost be satisfying abstract paintings.  The sepia sheet was made by dropping acrylic ink into very wet paper and letting it dry – a lot of sedimentation happened, giving interesting textures; I did some mark-making on top of the dry paint, using the same acrylic ink, with a dip pen and a fine brush – thistle like shapes started to emerge.

As a background for my Thistle painting though, I’ll keep the underpainting fairly simple so as not to distract from the subject, but I could still incorporate collage if i felt it could be integrated with the rest of the background.

During my research I looked at the still lifes of Chardin.  I was interested in how he painted a new way of looking at still life – where not everything is shown in unrelenting sharp focus, but instead different parts of his paintings drift in and out of focus – much in the same way as our own eyes do as they lazily travel over a scene.  I decided to try to adopt this practise in this painting.

In the same A3  sketchbook, on an earlier gessoed page, I created a background painting (I started out meaning it to be another study) with Prussian blue and white acrylic paint scraped on with credit card and big palette knife.  When dry I covered it with a thin transparent glaze of Prussian blue to bring it all together.   I let my ground dry between boards to flatten the paper then penciled in the main lines of my thistles and bottle.  This time I drew the bottle very slightly leaning outwards, as if seen in vertical perspective; the thistle stalk leaning in and kinking more, the flower head slightly off true, the tabletop slightly tilted out of perspective.  This gave the drawing the more anarchic quality I was looking for.

I overdrew with a fine brush and transparent sepia acrylic paint (see p 210 The Artists Handbook, Blue on White technique), and added blocks of green-blue colour, modified with burnt umber and sepia to model the bottle, reflections and cast shadows. I analysed the colours in the flowers – as I studied them  tawny reds and oranges, grey-greens, blue-purples and cream-yellows emerged from the overall neutral colour.  In the main flower I placed my darkest darks against white to sculpt the sharp thorns.  The strong cast shadows are blue mixed with cobalt Violet.

These are some work-in-progress stages.

The completed painting is at the top of this post.