Posted on Tue 20 Sep 2016
Five years ago I decided to commit to a regular practice of producing a daily still life in oils because I wanted to speed up my development in observational painting. I had stumbled across the growing daily painting movement on the internet – daily painters were blogging their work to growing followings and this seemed like a sensible way to pledge a commitment and reach a wider audience. The internet is a powerful tool for showing your work and, while I was happy to keep my relationships with galleries showing my larger paintings, I wanted a way to sell my work regularly at affordable prices. It was a now or never moment as I’d given up my part-time teaching job in order to commit further.
The next question was what to paint. The answer was rooted in my firm belief that painting is more about the process than the end product. I decided to paint whatever seasonal offerings were to hand, or any object that took my fancy in the kitchen.
Figs, oil on board, (20x20cm)
I like to be in the studio for nine o’clock, so that it feels like a working day. I choose something from the fruit bowl, fridge or crockery cupboard – I paint shapes, shadows and light so it really doesn’t matter what the subject is. Of course I have my favourites. Some blue and white china that works well with yellows and oranges, and somehow the shape of a ketchup bottle or Marmite jar just speaks to me! I have a passion for pattern so wallpaper or tiles often feature as backgrounds. I spend a couple of hours on my daily painting and then the rest of the day is given over to ongoing larger works. It works a bit like a warm-up exercise and also as a sketchbook reference for working out compositions for larger paintings. Ideas will come to me as I’m working.
My studio set-up is simple. An easel at standing height (lots of standing back to check tonal references) and a shadow box sitting on a plinth so that the subject matter is at my eye-level. I usually paint on MDF or hardboard coated with one or two coats of household emulsion and then two of acrylic gesso, which can be sanded to be as smooth as suits your style. It’s a good idea to top this with a wash of acrylic in a mid-tone such as pale umber. Painting on a white surface can skew your tonal judgement. I prefer Rosemary & Co brushes, long flats, filberts and occasionally rounds from size 8 down to size 2 (for doing that lovely stroke of light that surprises you!). I like to restrict my palette to burnt or raw umber, alizarin crimson, French ultramarine, cadmium yellow, yellow ochre and titanium white. A restricted palette makes for a harmonious painting, although I often find a use for Naples yellow, unbleached titanium and cadmium red.
I’ve also developed a passion for Michael Harding king’s blue, which often features in my work. I use a mixture of Michael Harding, Old Holland and Winsor & Newton artist-quality oils and cheap turps. Linseed oil is put to use in painting any details over wet paint. I like to make thick and buttery mixes on a glass pane.
Raspberry Jam, oil on board, (20x20cm)
I like to spend time on setting up – what is going to make a balanced composition, do I need two apples or three? I try to keep it simple and, most importantly, find the ‘hook’. What draws me to want to paint what is in front of me? More often than not it is a passage of light behind the object, a shadow falling and bending on a curved object or a dark tone where two objects meet.
I keep moving things around until I feel inspired. I spend plenty of time just looking at the subject. It’s all too easy to jump in and start painting but for me, the point of the exercise is learning to see.
The next step is to map it out on my board. I get down the basic shapes, using a filbert brush and a turpsy mix of umber, making sure to include the shadow fall and don’t worry about the exactness of the lines. Shadows are a major part of a still life. At this stage I’m paying attention to negative spaces and distances to help me to locate objects in relation to each other. With oil paint, it’s a case of pushing and pulling and things can be fine-tuned along the way.
When I have everything where I want it and all the information I need, it’s time to block in the major tones using a broad brush and the same turpsy wash. I also use a cotton cloth for wiping off lighter passages. I make a suggestion of lost edges, but with the minimum amount of information, to help me later on. I don’t want to slavishly produce a tonal painting for the sake of it.
If the underpainting is correct, it’s a case of following the ‘map’. As I paint the background I cut in to tidy up shapes, soften edges with a dry brush, fine-tune the hard edges and also create those lost edges identified beforehand, whilst constantly checking areas of tone against their surroundings. I sharpen outlines and darken shadows where needed and look for reflected light caused by light hitting objects or surfaces and bouncing onto other planes. I look for shadows on the edges of the object that will describe the direction of the surface.
Lastly, details can be added, such as scratches and highlights, and I like to put some interest into the foreground but not so much as will detract from the object.
Asparagus, oil on board, (20x20cm)
Penny’s daily painting tips
- Allot a couple of hours on a regular basis (daily if possible) to complete a quick painting, and stick to the time frame. If you focus on the process rather than the finished article it will help you to appreciate the time spent. Treat it as you would an exercise routine – standing at an easel and constantly walking back is as good as going to the gym and requires no lycra!
- The shadow box can be a simple box with a six-inch square cut out of one side. Place it with the hole on the window side (or use a daylight bulb) and you’ll be surprised at the cast shadows and passages of light. If you want a chiaroscuro effect, paint the inside of the box black.
- Quick thumbnail sketches are a good way to identify a promising composition.
- A directional line through the object will help with the mapping. If, at the end of this stage, you have a grisaille drawing that reads, you're half-way there. All the information you need is in front of you and as long as your colours are mixed to match the tones in the umber, the painting will keep its credibility.
- Use white sparingly when mixing with colour; too much will leave you with a dull, chalky painting.
- It’s a good idea to take a break so that you look with fresh eyes at both your object and painting. With careful observation you will soon see what, if anything, needs to be done.
Demonstration - Pears
My set up (above). I arranged my set up in the shadow box and mapped out the subject, including the shadows, then blocked in the main tones using a turpsy wash (below).
Pears, oil on board, (20x20cm)
I mixed a green with French ultramarine, yellow ochre and cadmium yellow; I added some cadmium lemon and white to paint where the light hits the right-hand pear. I was interested in the way the shadow box cast a shadow on the left-hand pear and left the other bathed in light. Ignoring all details, I blocked in the main tones in the corresponding colours, having already mixed three tones of each colour. Lastly I added details and some interest in the foreground.
Penny German is the winner of The Artist Purchase Prize in last year’s The Artist Open Competition 2016 in partnership with Patchings Art Centre, and has paintings in private collections around the world.
To see her daily blog and find details of her workshops, visit www.pennygerman.com
This feature is taken from the August 2016 issue of The Artist
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