Still Life Step by Step

Although I have mostly been working on collages just lately, teaching an intro to painting class has kind of gotten me in the mood to pick up my brushes and paint. Last week, the class worked on a floral still life, and since the flowers were pretty and seemed to be holding up all right, I thought I would have a go at them as well.
I started by toning my 14×18 canvas with an acrylic wash of raw sienna, just to cut the cold, shockingly brilliant white of the acrylic gesso. I already had some acrylics out on my palette, so I opted to do the basic underpainting/blocking in with the acrylics.

Stage 1: acrylic underpainting (all images copyright of the artist).
The next morning, I made the decision to switch to oil paint, which is the medium I am most happy working in. It has been more than six months since I have actually worked on a painting, so I figured I needed to give myself every advantage!

Since the colour scheme of the still life was built on complements and near complements, I thought it would be a good idea to restrict my palette in order to achieve a less jarring, more harmonious appearance to the finished painting. My palette consisted of: titanium white, ultramarine blue, rose madder, permanent rose, cadmium yellow medium and cadmium yellow light. I also added a raw sienna, burnt umber, and sap green, although I wasn’t sure if I would need them. I really only needed the green, as it turned out.

Stage 2: refining the blocked in image, this time with oils.

By restricting the palette and limiting my colour choices, I ensured that the same basic colours- the blue/purple, orange/yellow – would appear throughout the painting. Those colours, plus titanium white, are, for example, the shadows on the white marguerites, the “grey” of the jug, the “white” of the table cloth, the “silver” of the teaspoon, and the “yellow” of the background.
Stage 3: a little more pulled together.

Painting is a process of decision making and refining of the image. In the photo above, you can see that I continue to define the areas of the flowers, leaves, the jug, and fruit. I also have some decisions to make about the drop off of the front of the table (Do I add it even though it wasn’t part of my view?) and the corner of the table edge at the back (Do I remove it even though it was part of my view?). In the end, I left out both the back corner and the front drop off: the back corner destabilized the composition too much, and the front drop off didn’t really add anything.
Stage 4: hurry up before those flowers die!

Painting a floral still life is a race against time- everyday it was a little different. By the third day, leaves and petals were falling, flower buds were opening, and some of the ferns were dead! I decided to add a few of the fallen petals and bits of fern where they fell. They conveniently helped to close up the too open spaces in the composition. I also decided to suggest the faint stripe of the table cloth for the same reason.
Autumn Still Life with Plums– 18×14, acrylic and oil on canvas, © 2011 Alyson Champ
By the afternoon of the fourth day, I knew I was going to have to call it quits: an evening drawing class meant I needed to re-arrange the studio. It’s hard to tell when a painting is really finished. I usually need to live with it for a while first. Right now, I’m not sure I love the very obvious counter weight of those plums. Certainly the perspective of those stripes needs a bit of adjusting, and possibly the table cloth itself needs to be toned down a bit, although, in my defense, the photo above is a bit bluer and colder that the actual painting- at least on my monitor. I can also see a couple of areas where the blending of edges is a bit too sloppy. Hmm…. It’s always something!