Tag Archives: #stilllife

Busy with the Basics

After some deliberation, I signed up for Watts Atelier‘s online program in July. The program has a drawing and a painting part, and both start with the basics. There are video demos, handouts, and homework to turn in. It is probably good enough for the money even if you just watch Jeff Watts doing the demos, but you don’t want to skip anything to do it right. That is to say, it is not a small commitment.

Here are a couple of paintings from the Phase I Portrait and Phase I Still Life homework:

Still Life, burnt umber pick-out, August, 2021
Cast Quarter View, two color, August, 2021
Still Life, 3 colors, August, 2021
Skull Front View, 3 colors, August 2021

A few notes:

  • In Phase I, the painting routine starts with a single color, burnt umber, progress to two colors, burnt umber and white, and then 3 colors, phthalo-blue, black and white.
  • I will go back to Zorn in Phase II.
  • I sometimes wonder if I will become one of those forever learners: keep taking classes and never become a standalone artist. I feel so comfortable following a routine and not to think what to do next. On the other hand, it’s not like I have nailed the skill part already. So this is an experiment. Let’s see if the intensive training at Watts would eventually set me free by building confidence through skills.
  • Watts has some gouache courses but no watercolor. Jeff once said many amateurs started with watercolor, but it is actually a most challenging medium to excel in. I do feel I see value better and have more control over shape and edges with oil. I still hope to apply whatever I am learning to watercolor. It is such an expressive medium.

Autumn Colors – A Throwback Series

The rich colors of the season remind me of a series I did years ago. It consists of four still life paintings, done in watercolor and ink pen. It was the first series I ever did and was done before I had any appreciation of doing things in some sort of consistency. My natural inclination is always jumping around among different things.

As I have better understanding of the creative process, I start to see the benefit of staying for a while with a particular technique, a color theme, a subject matter, a design concept, etc. It reenforces your strength, challenges your thought, and often leads to new discoveries.

Anyways, here they are:

Autumn Colors 1, watercolor and ink pen on paper, 16 x 12 in, 2015
Autumn Colors 2, watercolor and ink pen on paper, 12 x 16, 2015
Autumn Colors 3, watercolor and ink pen on paper, 16 x 12 in, 2015
Autumn Colors 4, watercolor and ink pen on paper, 12 x 16 in, 2015

The things that connect this series are techniques and subject matters. I set up some “fall” related objects and chose four settings. They are parallel to each other in terms of relationship. Another way to develop a series is to derive new pieces from the old one. I am in the process of an experiment of that and hope I will be able to show it soon.

Show News and Some More

I recently became a member of the Pacific Art League and joined their 99th Anniversary Exhibit, “Beyond 2020.” My painting “Sail” was selected into the gallery show, and will be on view at their Palo Alto gallery till January 2021. Here’s the piece:

Sail, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24 in, 2019

The painting was inspired by a still life study I did before:

Still life, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 in, 2019

My still life study was focused on how to paint white with color, but I found the way the lines curved, meandered and crossed very intriguing. After the painting was done, I kept looking at it and tried to follow those lines in my mind and in my sketchbook. The objects gradually disappeared and the lines and shapes led me to new ideas, and eventually, a new painting.

More on Monochromatic and Morandi

As I mentioned before, the paintings of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) often have a monochromatic look, even though he used a lot of colors. The result is a very restful and understated effect – something I always find difficult to achieve. Usually the more time I spent on a piece, the more colorful it becomes, as if keeping quiet on canvas or paper is against my nature. The same goes with details and edges. The more time spent, the more definition, and the looseness and gestures are lost.

So I tried a couple with limited time and clear goals. 1)No more than 2 hours per piece; 2) limited palette to create near monochromatic effect; 3) less definition; 4) lost edges; 5) be quiet.

Still life, acrylic on canvas, 9 x 12 in, 2019
Still life, acrylic on canvas board, 16 x 20 in, 2019

I think goal setting with time restriction is an effective way of practicing. Right? :))

Color Studies (2) – Monochromatic

Of the three components of color, hue, value and saturation, I personally find value the most difficult. Colors are attractive and distracting, and it could be difficult to discern values accurately from all the colors in front of us. Monochromatic painting is a great way to train your eyes this way.

In traditional Chinese brush paintings, many of which are monochromatic, it’s the value changes through the control of water that create the art. I took a few lessons of Chinese brush painting one summer, and lessons were mainly copying old masters. This is one of the paintings I copied:

After Qi Baishi, ink on Xuan paper, summer 2018

Monochromatic is a good strategy when time is limited. In life painting, it saves the trouble of finding the right skin color and allows me to focus on value and shape.

Woman, ink on watercolor paper, 9 x 12 in, 2018

In landscape scene with overwhelming branches and leaves, monochromatic approach simplifies the view. This plein air was done in burnt sienna. I included some of the visitors I had during the painting – out of proportion, I know, but a lot of fun.

Fox and Caterpillar at West Valley, acrylic on canvas board, 16 x 20 in, 2018

More than often, monochromatic painting is used as underpainting. It serves as a value map, but also allow some color strategies. (I found this post by Mitchel Albala very helpful.)

Another approach is to do a monochromatic underpainting, and glaze over it with transparent colors, often times many layers. For acrylic, that means adding quite some medium to the color. My selfie is done this way – dozens of layers. I have to admit, I doubt I will ever use this method again. Too tedious.

Selfie, acrylic on canvas board, 16×20 in , 2018

I think in theory it could be done with watercolor too, for watercolor is transparent in nature. Even the opaque ones, with enough water, become transparent to some extent. From what I heard, to glaze in watercolor, the key is to wait for the underpainting or the previous layer really really dry, bone dry. Maybe someday I will try it.

Color Studies (1) – Complementary and Temperature

A most common way to practice complementary colors is simple choose a pair and limited your palette to those two (plus tints, shades, mixtures maybe). Like this:

Pastel drawing of a horse(?) skull
Skull (horse?), soft pastel on paper, 18×24 in, 2018

Whichever pair of colors we choose, it is most likely one warm and one cool. In a painting lesson I took years back, we used the complementaries a bit differently. We create a painting in cool colors, and paint the warm complementaries on top. Here’s the result:

Still life, acrylic on canvas board, 16×20 in, 2018

Unfortunately I failed to take a picture of the cool painting underneath, though I did let the cool colors showed through here and there. The colors were not strictly restricted to one pair of complementary colors, but it is within certain range.

I’d say the result is quite different than if I started with these topical colors. There’s a solidity and unity unique to this method.

Morandi (2) and Pairs (III)

This was a class assignment – choose an artist to study, and then paint in his/her style. I was very into Giorgio Morandi at the time (still am now), and he became the subject of my study. To my delight, during my research, I found out that Morandi was very much influenced by another favorite artist of mine, Paul Cézanne; and he in turn, heavily influenced a contemporary artist I admire, Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920). Have I found my “art parents?” (A term I learned from Draftsmen Podcast, S1E5.)

So I set up a still life scene and gave it a try:

Acrylic painting of clothes hanging
Still life 1, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 in, Spring 2018

I know, there’s nothing Morandi about it (see my previous post about his style). The objects are asserting and the colors are singing. I don’t dislike it as a painting, but it’s definitely not the reservedness and tranquility I was after. So I gave it another try:

Still life 2, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 in, Spring 2018

Well, this is still not Morandi. It’s still me, and it’s very hard not to be me. I understand I will never be Morandi, and that’s not the point of studying a master. If every painting is a self expression, every study of other’s style is a self reflection. I have a lot of passions that I don’t know how to control, and observations I don’t know how to choose and let go.

For sure, I am not done with Morandi yet.

Copying Masters (9) and Morandi (1)

Some artists created wonders with limited subject matters. Like Cezanne, who famously claimed “with an apple I will astonish Paris.” He did, and the world. I don’t know if Italian artist Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) ever made any statement about the bottles and jars, but he did say, “To achieve understanding it is necessary not to see many things, but to look hard at what you do see.” He did look at those bottles and jars of his very hard, for almost a life time.

Most of Morandi’s still life featuring nondescript household objects on tabletop against an unremarkable background. They look like a humble crowd pushed onto a stage, but nothing in the composition is random. Morandi spent days, even weeks arranging these objects. The assuming is carefully achieved. Just like his use of color. The paintings often have a monochromatic look, even though he employed a rich range of earthy colors.

There’s a sense of calm and tranquil in Morandi’s paintings that I find very attractive. Maybe because my own paintings are the opposite. Even when I limited my palette, the result is often loud or even noisy. My first copying attempts were done in watercolor. In retrospect, gouache could be a better choice. Here they are:

The originals:

Morandi, Natura morta, 1954
Morandi, Vase and Still Life, 36 x 40 cm, oil on canvas, 1951
Morandi, Natura morta, 40 x 46 cm, oil on canvas, 1954

My copies:

After Morandi, watercolor on paper, 9×12 in, 2018
After Morandi, watercolor on paper, 10 x 12, 2018

Copying Masters (5) – John William Hill

J. W. Hill (1812-1879) was a British born American watercolorist and lithographer. I came across his work in a still life anthology and was taken with soft, serene and tangible feeling he created with watercolor, quite different from the wet-in-wet method I was taught in. Upon close-up examination, it is full of tiny strokes, like an engraving. Some of the strokes in the background created interesting patterns and was applied in a very painterly way. Maybe that’s how you do impasto with watercolor! 😁

In my copy, I didn’t go for the strokes. I was at a moment that my colors often ran wild. I think Hill’s Study of Fruit is a good example of unity and harmony with colors, and that’s what I went for.

I almost missed this: obviously yesterday was J. W. Hill’s birthday. So happy birthday Mr. Hill! 🎂

J. W. Hill, Study of Fruit
J.W. Hill, Study of Fruit, 1877. Watercolor on paper, 6.13 x 10.63 in.

My copy:

JWHill study
After J.W.HIll “Study of Fruit,” Watercolor, 2018

Around the Kitchen (IV) – Ginger

This was an assignment from a painting class (acrylic) a while ago. The purpose was to learn impasto. I chose ginger because I thought the bumpy, textured surface might go well with the technique, and also I usually bought them in bulk from Costco.

It’s a small painting with a single object, and I figured I could get it done in no time. I was so wrong.

There were two things that I couldn’t get used to. First, as someone who started painting first with watercolor, I wasn’t used to putting a lot of paint on canvas. For the purpose of this assignment, we were supposed to achieve a measurable thickness. And acrylic, a water-based medium, dries flat! I ended up working in layers, waited for a long time (longer then usual acrylic time at least) for the paint to dry, and went back to add more and more.

Another thing was the purpose of impasto technique itself. It supposed to be more about expressiveness than rendering, and I had trouble leaving my strokes in and my details out. So I kept going back and forth adding things in and taking them out. I have done so many paintings on this tiny canvas, and what a heavily loaded ginger! 🙂

Ginger, acrylic
Ginger, acrylic on canvas, 10 x 8, 2018