When I was asked to contribute to this demonstration series I wondered which medium would be the most interesting and informative. I work in watercolour, gouache and oil, and enjoy all three. I have often been asked by people looking at my oils if they are in fact done in tempera or gouache since my paint is very matt and has the kind of ‘drawn’ quality which they associate with tempera rather than oil paint. Some areas are built up with many layers of brushwork while the painting develops and others hardly change from the first mark. So I thought it would be interesting to show some of the stages of this process.
I chose still life as my subject matter because I enjoy the discoveries that can be made over a period of time in objects that might superficially look very simple; to convey that simplicity in the finished painting means meeting the challenge of seeing great subtleties and describing them with honesty and love. Still lifes of course won’t need rests like a model or wilt like flowers so it was easier to keep a photographic record as I worked.
My kitchen has always been a favourite room to paint in. It contains many of my favourite objects and it faces south so that on sunny days it is bathed in a wonderful warm light which always lifts my spirits.
North facing studios have their advantages in that the light is even and allows a long session of painting, but it is cold, and to me seems rather unexciting. For this painting I had two and a half or three weeks to work each day until the sun travelled so far round that it fell across my easel and eventually hit the wall, transforming my subject completely and making further painting impossible. The situation was not improved when the clocks went forward as I had to get up an hour earlier to get the same amount of work done!
The objects here have not been specially arranged but are just hanging in their usual places. A friend pointed out that these objects are so familiar to me that I don’t realise how odd they may look to other people, so I’d better describe some of them. In the top right hand corner is an orangey object sitting on a pale wooden salt box. This is a very old and hard loaf of bread bought in a show in Ross-on-Wye which makes one loaf a day in the shape of an overweight hedgehog. On top of it is a small wooden elephant. These objects have been there so long that I can’t really remember how they got there in the first place.
I have never successfully ‘arranged’ a still life. Whenever I have tried they have always looked somehow contrived and unconvincing. I feel it is more interesting to present the subject matter in a purely documentary way, imposing myself only in as much as to decide the dimensions and the boundaries. Once I have decided to paint an ‘accidental’ arrangement of everyday things I have to leave notes for my flatmate explaining that these objects have now become part of a still life and can’t be moved. Even I sometimes pick something up when half asleep before realising with horror that it is part of my picture!
I began to consider this area of the kitchen as my subject matter because I enjoyed the patterns made by both the objects on the wall and the divisions of the shelves and the tiles. Because the picture takes in only a portion of one wall there was a danger that the viewer would feel excluded, so I stood at an angle to the wall to get a slight perspective on the tiles and a sense of space, if only a shallow one, to draw the viewer into the picture. The recessed wall on the left contributes to this effect.
The structure of a painting in terms of abstract shapes is of primary importance whatever the subject matter. Anyone looking at a painting for the first time will make immediate judgments, if only subconscious ones, about its strength of composition based on its abstract structure. I try to be aware of this in my painting right from the beginning, letting my instinct tell me when things feel right or wrong. To help me to decide on the proportions of the picture I used two L-shaped pieces of card as an adjustable frame. By moving the frame backwards and forwards I was able to choose how much to include and how much to leave out. Changing the dimensions only slightly in any direction made a huge difference to the composition. This technique showed me that I needed the bare strip of wall on the right to give a breathing space in what otherwise would be a rather busy picture. The narrow vertical strip on the left containing the shelves and the strip of tiles along the bottom form an L-shape which effectively frames and throws into relief the fragmented central area.
When I work in oils I like to paint on a toned ground which allows me to work up and down in tone from a mid-value without having the distraction of white canvas. This is a traditional technique which has been used since the 16th century by artists like Rembrandt, Titian, and Tintoretto. These particular artists used thin glazes to build up their dark tones, and opaque paint for the lights. Velasquez also painted on a coloured ground, often dull red, but he would paint the shadows thinly with scumbled paint rather than in glazes. This is more of the approach I have used in my picture.
I keep a stock of boards of different shapes and sizes which I prepare in advance with different types of ground. The board I used here was a piece of conservation mount board primed with two coats of rabbit skin glue (on each side to stop it from curling). This type of board is fine for small paintings and can always be backed with a stronger board later if necessary. I like it because it is lightweight so I can always carry a selection of sizes and colours with me for different circumstances.
I colour the primed boards by rubbing undiluted oil paint on to the surface, then wiping it off evenly with a soft rag, leaving a layer of paint thin enough for the white of the card (or other white priming on boards or canvas) to shine through. It can be done with any colour or combination of colours but it is important to be aware that the colour of this ground will affect the whole mood of the painting. It is a good idea to prepare a batch of boards over a couple of days so that you can devote plenty of space to an operation that can get quite messy.
These coloured grounds will need several weeks to dry completely so I always make sure that I have some spares. This one was coloured with burnt sienna and burnt umber.