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Flowers and Still Life with Stanford Gibbons

Posted on Thu 18 Apr 2019

Flowers and Still Life

Stanford Gibbons uses pastel to describe colour and composition

From a botanical point of view, flowers and plants do not greatly interest me. However, I do get great enjoyment from observing their wonderful colours and shapes. Their almost abstract pattern of forms and colours, beyond the reach of any palette I know of, attracts me to the challenge of trying to create pictures that express the pleasure I derive from them. Invariably, when I paint flowers it is in conjunction with vases, pots and fruit. All of these things provide intriguing shapes and colours; contrasts between asymmetrical and symmetrical, delicate and strong; flowing predictable lines and unpredictable meandering ones; irregular and regular forms.

I admire the careful, analytical work of those who paint botanical studies, creating beautifully balanced paintings and designs, but this is not for me. I want to express the sensation of bold form and colour that I experience.  For me this subject works splendidly in all media, but in this article I shall be dealing with tackling it in pastel.

I said that I see colours in flowers that seem impossible to match with the pigments available in paint or pastel. I think the best way of approaching this it to juxtaposition colours and let the observer’s eyes do the mixing. For example, let us assume I am looking at a bunch of red flowers where the overall impression is of a brilliance my colours cannot match. 

I look at the flowers very closely and carefully note the many different colours and shades I see. What seemed to be just one colour proves to be quite a few. There can be blue and violet in the shadows and near the base of the petals; yellows, oranges and scarlets where the petals are caught by the light and deeper shades of crimson where they are turned away from the light.

I apply these varying colours separately and the contrasts of warm and cool, complementaries and harmonies give a brilliance that no colour alone would achieve. This approach to analysing colour applies equally to your observation, and will always help you to add sparkle and interest.

Overall view

1. Flowers with Fruit 

For this picture I chose a close view, with my eye-level just below the rim of the brown pot in order to keep the shapes of the two pots uncomplicated without distorting the perspective. This gave me a composition of bold simple shapes where I could focus on large concentrations of colour. When arranging a group of this type I usually position the pots with care, then tip the fruit into the composition, letting the pieces roll where they will. This usually results in a better and more natural composition than trying to arrange each item of fruit individually.

I worked on a sheet of raw sienna Royal Sovereign Pastelcard. I started by making a simple but carefully positioned drawing of the main structure, using a burnt umber pastel pencil. I normally prefer to start with a pastel pencil as its longer length and firmer point allows me to sit, or stand, well back from my board and get the best possible overall view. I do not restrict this initial work to line only, but add tone and shading where I think it will help me to evaluate the balance of the composition.

Flowers with Fruit.  Pastel 10¾” x 14½”

When I am satisfied this stage is more or less as I want it I start to add colour, to begin with as lightly-applied cross-hatching, using only a few colours. I then add more colours in more detail, sometimes adjusting and changing shapes when I think it necessary. I think it is vital to develop the picture as a whole. It is so easy to get absorbed with the challenge of one part to the detriment of everything else.  In order to evaluate the balance of the picture, all parts must be developed at the same speed. When I think I have the painting going in the right direction I increase the intensity and strength of my pastel application.

I continued to cross-hatch, allowing previous applications of colour to remain visible so as to maximise the vibrancy created by placing both harmonious and complementary colours in close proximity. I thought emphasising the contrast of hard and soft edges and the reflections of colours from one object to another were important elements in this picture. I used mainly strong and bright shades of reds, pinks, siennas, greens, yellows and oranges, with some blue and touches of violet. Most of the pastels were Sennelier with some from the Unison range.

Soft shades

2. The Windowsill

This subject was a natural arrangement and the contrast of the strong colours of the plants against the soft shades of the trees and building on the facing hillside interested me. I also thought the right angles and straight lines of the window frame made a pleasing contrast with the shapes of the pots and plants.

I made a point of emphasising this by having a square-on view that kept the frame parallel with the sides of the picture. For my support I used the smooth side of Canson Mi-Teintes paper, Gris Clair, No. 426. My working method was similar to Illustration 1, progressing the picture through steady stages of development so that I could evaluate the overall balance at all times. I used a lot of different soft shades of greens, blues and ochres with darker blues greys and purple greys, which I contrasted with powerful reds and violets. Pastels used were a mix of Sennelier, Rembrandt and Unison.

The Windowsill.  Pastel 11¾” x 18¼”

Building Layers

3. Sunflowers 

For this demonstration  I worked in a different style. The sunflowers are artificial and their colourful vase is made of papier-mache so I decided to lean towards a feel of graphic design, stressing the simple shapes and strong colours. I chose the Mexican artefact from my collection of props to add to the composition. As a change from standard pastel surfaces, I created my own with a background pattern based on Mexican woven cloth. I painted the pattern on to a piece of stretched, 200lb Not surface watercolour paper, using acrylic inks to ensure that the background colour would be stable for the pastel. I sketched in the main outlines, using a bright blue pastel pencil in order to see the lines reasonably easily over the pattern. I then lightly hatched the main areas of colour so that I could retain the flexibility to make changes before painting heavier applications of pastel. I continued to build up layers of pastel, concentrating on simplified colours and shapes. I worked with Sennelier pastels in various cadmium yellows, vermilion, blues from the sapphire, cobalt and Prussian hues, chrome green, madder violet and some warm and cool greys.

Sunflowers.  Pastel 15” x 11”

Coarse Texture

4. Chrysanthemum and Cretan Vessels 

My attraction to this subject was, once more, the result of my interest in the relationship of shapes, in this case the negative and positive forms created by the contours of the onyx lampstand and the two Cretan vessels, and the contrast of these regular shapes with the less predictable forms of the plant. For the support I used grey shade Royal Sovereign Pastelcard.

I drew the structure of the composition with a sanguine pastel pencil. I then used lightly-applied linear strokes of pastel as I developed my idea for colour and tone balance. Once I had established my strategy I began to paint with strong layers of pastel, keeping a coarse and sketchy texture, which I thought was the best way to emphasise the strong colours of the vessels and lampstand.

Crysanthemum and Cretan Vessels.  Pastel 17¾” x 13½”

I used a mixture of Sennelier and Unison pastels. For the flowers I used various shades of violet/purples, white and cerulean blue, with the foliage worked in leaf greens and black greens. I utilised carmine brown, red brown and yellow ochre for the lampstand and painted the shade using moss greens and yellow/greens.The background is mainly yellow ochre and blue/violet. Blue/greys and mauve/greys helped to create the tones. A wide range of colours was used for the Cretan vessels.

In working on a composition of this type I always work beyond the perceived borders of the picture to allow myself plenty of size and shape options when I fit the mount. I see no point in committing to an inflexible parameter at the outset when all the spontaneous additions and changes that occur as the composition progresses result in a painting that can differ, hopefully for the better, from your original conception. In this case, although I decided to crop the right of the lampstand, I had painted all of it. Likewise, I have painted outside all the borders you are seeing in my finished picture. Not only does this give the necessary manoeuvrability to crop, but it allows freedom to expand the painting if you choose.

On courses and workshops I frequently meet people who work to the absolute edges of their paper. This deprives them of the flexibility I have described, creates a cramped working area and imposes very difficult framing problems because there is no spare space around their painting to grip under the mount.

This article was originally published in the July 1999 of Leisure Painter

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Flowers and Still Life with Stanford Gibbons


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