Category Archives: 2.2 Still life

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.