While I enjoy painting other subjects, 2020 was a particularly good one for still lifes. They have provided months of entertainment. Crude as it may be, I find reflections on silver and ceramics particularly enjoyable to paint. Silver is less a colour than a reflection of all the colours in the room and thus changes every time, and it has a wonderful way of bringing together the different objects in the still life, as they’re reflected in its surfaces. Ceramics often have surprising iridescent colours, which photographs can fail altogether to capture but come out deliciously when painted – see Mustard Pot with Tangerines and Knife, (below).
Mustard Pot with Tangerines and Knife, oil on canvas board, (30.5x30.5cm)
I like to include something alive in each painting to keep it fresh – a vegetable or eggs for example – but then the rest can be my usual props in various permutations. I tend to avoid complicated shiny objects such as silver with lots of facets, or cut glass, both of which can look beautiful in life but can be really hard to paint and are often disappointing: one simple highlight can often achieve more than a multitude. I will often spend two or three hours setting up a still life, arranging and rearranging, and often completely giving up on the props and starting from scratch. If the composition isn’t right at the outset the painting will never work, however good the technique – I have wasted many a day only to find the composition was wrong. I photograph compositions as I go along to work out roughly where I want each element to appear in the painting, cropping them to reflect the size of the board I want to use.
I tend to use gesso-covered panels. As a vegetarian I try to avoid oil primer, which tends to be made with animal bones. It’s a shame as I love the texture but it’s a sacrifice I think it’s only right to make (if anyone has any suggestions on good alternatives do let me know!).
I start by mixing and applying a relatively neutral base colour with lots of odourless solvent and wait a couple of minutes before brushing it off with a cloth or paper. I like to paint loosely, and doing this first means I won’t risk having hard white sections showing through at the end. I then map out the key elements of the drawing using ultramarine and raw umber.