Still life in the garden

Concluding his three-part series on painting with pastels, John Patchett uses still life subjects in garden settings to provide key elements in his compositions.

In explanation of his choice of subject matter, the Australian painter Tom Roberts wrote in 1894: “One of the best words spoken to an artist is, ‘paint what you love and love what you paint’, and on that I have worked.” One of my great loves as subject matter is garden environments and I was relatively unaware to what degree I included still life (furniture) in my paintings of gardens until I was asked to write an article.

Furniture in a garden setting provides a number of key elements to the composition. Besides shape and form, the man-made features are a perfect foil to the natural forms of the different varieties of flora and become a contrasting focal point. In Chinese philosophy, Yin – the soft, passive female forms – live in natural harmony with Yang – the hard, active male forms. I like juggling these two extreme elements by introducing man-made (Yang) furniture, then compensating by adding soft shadows, water reflections and delicate textures to unify and balance the picture surface.

When I refer to garden furniture, I largely mean chairs, tables, ornaments, tubs and pots. The growth in popularity of gardening books, television programmes, garden centres and horticultural shows has made us all much more aware of the huge array of items that can enhance even the smallest patio or container garden.

When setting up, I like to take in as much as possible all the wonderful elements that make up the garden scene. I will consider just where I am going to stand and how much of the view I am going to include, without rushing to any conclusion. Of course, any pots, chairs, tables, benches or ornaments can be added, moved, turned or removed to help to create the desired composition. The man-made objects tell a story about who owns or uses the garden.

I have a plein-air approach to painting and usually complete a piece of work in one day. My paintings are a direct response to light, composition, contrast and colour. Being a pastelist, this direct approach suits both my temperament and the versatility and immediacy of the medium.

Difficult challenge

Gardens present a difficult challenge to the inexperienced as it is easy to become overwhelmed by all the individual flowers, shrubs, trees, paths, fences, furniture and features. It is important that all these elements support each other. It is easy to get seduced into focussing on particular parts of the painting but being able to see it as a whole is vital.

Certainly in the initial stages, it is important to work on all areas of your painting at the same time. That way you can easily give some things greater importance where needed. Paintings generally get tighter as they progress and you must allow for this by applying the pastel in loose, sketchy strokes in the early stages.

You should also try to keep the work as abstract as possible, for as long as possible. Gardens lend themselves to abstract work. You can consider the elements of shape, texture, composition and design above all else.

Almost immediately, I block in the darkest areas to establish the tonal pattern of the composition. Consequently, a feeling of form and structure starts to emerge, creating an underpainting on which the rest of the painting can hang. Any garden furniture should look as if it co-exists with the rest of the painting. It is dangerously tempting to spend longer getting the perspective of a bench or the angles of a chair exactly right and, as a result, find that they look as if they had been painted by a different person.

Still working on all areas of the painting together, I build up delicate layers of pastel, making sure that the pastel strokes follow the direction of the form that is being painted. When blending colours, mixing should be done with the pastel sticks rather than your finger. This allows the blend to remain fresh and alive. To control the density of your hues, the pressure in applying the second layer needs to be carefully controlled. Gentle pressure will cause the original layer to be slightly influenced by subsequent layers. A firmer application will result in the mixture being more evenly proportioned, but heavy-handed pressure will obliterate the layer underneath. To the uninitiated, applying pastels will look deceptively easy.

Reflective colour

Shadows tell us where the light is coming from, as well as indicating changes in the ground surface and describing the form of bushes, shrubs, pots and furniture. Small accents, details and highlights tend to be put in towards the final stages of the painting.

For me, gardens are at their most inspirational when the sun is shining and local colour is replaced by reflective colour and natural light. This was the case in Sunlit Garden, Cathedral Close, Norwich, where the slightly lemon sunlight was particularly strong, causing the shadows to take on a mauve tint.

Sunlit Garden, Cathedral Close, Norwich. Pastel 17” x 23”

The two antique pedestals in the foreground were put in quite boldly with strong highlights, which emphasised their form, allowing them to contrast against the garden behind. The diagonal pathway takes the eye back towards the far building, which is treated with a soft-edged raw umber and grey mauve scumble to create an atmospheric feeling of distance (aerial perspective). Counterchange was one of the problems that I had to resolve in Chardonnay Time. Careful positioning of the white table and two directors’ chairs allowed me to place the light and dark tones against each other. This small Australian courtyard was alive with textures and patterns but the painting overall would have been for the focal point of the sparkling glass and bottle on the white table top.

Chardonnay Time. Pastel 21” x 16”

Similarly, in Shady Retreat, the white cast-iron garden furniture was arranged in such a way that the back of the left-hand chair stood out against the dark background, and the back of the other chair appeared like a dark silhouette against the pool. The patterns and textures made by the furniture, the shadows, the backdrop of foliage and the surface of the swimming pool all helped to unify the painting.

Shady Retreat. Pastel 19” x 15”

Because the oval shape of the chair seats was echoed in the table, straw hat and the shape of the pool, an exceptional composition resulted. The intensity of the Australian light was almost blinding, but it did allow me to emphasise the chiaroscuro in the finished painting.

Spring Garden. Pastel 19½” x 15”

I like to find a composition that takes the eye into and through the painting. In Spring Garden, the steps, the paved middle-distance and the distant gap by the side of the dark shed give the painting a strong focal point. Here the Yin and Yang sit side-by-side throughout the picture surface and the strong play of light creates extra dimensions to the steps, the old chimney pot and the plants in the foreground.

Garden Retreat. Pastel 18” x 15”

In Garden Retreat, I spent a great deal of time moving pots of flowers and positioning and repositioning the wooden bench and the ceramic squirrel to create my composition. I had to soften and lighten the distant garden and make it appear out of focus to stop the painting becoming too fussy. The dark areas, which I established quite early in the painting, eventually became darker, creating a cocooned pocket where one could sit at peace by the small pond.

Patio Garden. Pastel 19½” x 13½”

Patio Garden is a painting of my small garden. The intensity and richness of colour of the blooms were achieved by using broken colour, which allows one colour to show through another and by using dark brown pastel card for my support.

Like watching a slow-moving sundial, I waited for the exact moment before putting in the elaborate shadows on the flagstones in the bottom right-hand corner. As I wanted the garden furniture to look part of the overall composition I had to make sure that the painterly technique used for most of the painting was also applied when working on the table and chair.

Originally published in the October 1999 issue of Leisure Painter

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