Natural Arrangements – How to Paint a Still Life in Pastels
Christine Russell - Posted on 04 Feb 2015
In last month’s article, I talked about still life in general terms and illustrated it with a variety of subjects, some modern, even quirky, others more traditional. Although quite different in character and mood, they shared one thing in common: all were painted in soft pastel.
Pastel does almost everything I ask of a medium; it creates areas of infinite subtlety, or of enormous vibrancy and strength. I am able to build up layers, allowing the integrity of the under layers to influence those on top. It is easy to make corrections, either by brushing off an area, however small, or by over painting. In this way, I am able to experiment with a particular colour or tone directly within the picture to see if it works – if it doesn’t, off it comes! Another advantage is that it is a dry medium so I don’t have to wait for an area to dry before working on it further.
I have an enormous collection of pastels, gathered over many years of working in this delightful medium. They range from harder, often square-profiled sticks, to those with a soft, velvety texture, composed of almost pure compressed pigment. All have their uses, although I limit my use of pastel pencils to the initial drawing out of the subject.
For this month’s demonstration, I will show you how I tackled an intimate arrangement, based around an old copper gill measure. The set-up was illuminated from low down and to the right, using an angle poise lamp. This gave strong light to the right of the composition, bright, concentrated reflections and deep shadows thrown upwards to the left.
I added the muslin cloth, grapes and plum to give contrasting textures to the polished metal, and to provide some interesting reflections in the pot. The importance of the fruit to the composition was further heightened by the red and green complementary colour scheme it provided. The muslin fabric was not just a bit player either; the contrasting light tone of the open-weave fabric helped to enhance the deep tones throughout the rest of the arrangement.
I enjoy painting copper. The deep, russet colours and the lovely glow that comes from it cannot fail to produce a rich, warm picture. Don’t be put off by reflective surfaces, just learn to paint what is in front of you. If you squint your eyes at the subject it will really help you to focus on the tones and subtleties of colour. If your rendering of the reflections is accurate enough, you may even find an intriguing image of yourself in your completed picture!
Demonstration "Gill Measure with Grapes"You will need:
Canson Mi-Teintes Touch 335gsm abrasive paper in burgundy (21x26cm)
Soft pastels* -
- Dark, medium and light brown
- Dark chocolate brown
- Deep burnt orange
- Raw and burnt umber
- Dark burgundy
- Mid-tone orange brown
- Bright reds
- Burnt orange
- Bright yellow orange
- Intense red orange
- Warm bright orange
- Deep blue grey
- Mid-tone purple grey
- Mid-tone green
- Dark blue green
- Olive green
- Pale green
- Pale mauve
- Mid-tone purple
- Pale cream
* Colours are many and varied so use the colours you have and match tone as much as you can.
Step 1 - Initial drawing
I drew the arrangement using a black Faber-Castell pastel pencil. My aim at this stage was not to create a highly detailed drawing, only to place the arrangement on the paper as accurately as possible.
It is important not to use graphite pencil here, as it produces a mark, which is difficult to cover with pastel and will always show through.
Step 2 - Background
1. Working as I always do, back to front, I blocked in the background. For this I used a mixture of raw and burnt umber, with the addition of black for the shadow areas, worked in broad strokes.
2. Over laying the black shadows, which established my all-important dark tone to the left of the composition, I then added a little indigo and a very dark chocolate brown. These two closely toned colours gave me both warm and cool areas within the shadow and helped to intensify the dark tone.
3. I then gently blended all these colours with my fingers to give me a fairly neutral background colour and soft, but strong shadows. Establishing these dark areas at the outset enabled me to judge the tonal values throughout the rest of the painting.
Try not to draw around the shadow of the pot, as this will result in a hard-edged and unconvincing shadow
Step 3 - Blocking in the gill measure
1. Working from dark to light, I used very dark brown and deep burnt orange to block in the pot broadly, adding a dark burgundy shade to indicate the reflections of the plum and dark red grapes. At this blocking-in stage, I try to avoid hard edges so I overlay my strokes using the side of the pastel, rather than the tip. The burgundy shade of the paper was allowed to show through in places. This helped me to maintain the underlying warmth of the subject.
2. Since blended pigment is never as brilliant as undisturbed or overlaid pigment, I rarely rub pastel in with my fingers, or any other device. Instead, I prefer to work one pastel on top of another to achieve subtlety, at the same time, maintaining strength.
Reserve any blending with fingers or other devices for background areas only.
Step 4 - Building up and refining
To build up the body of the jug, I applied a mid-tone orange/brown into the dark area on the left side and to the centre. I then started to develop the inside of the rim, the mouth and the handle, using the same range of colours, together with a couple of harder pastels with good edges, in a paler shade of burnt orange, and a deep blue/grey to work on the rim. Finally, I added the highlights to the rim and handle with a light-toned, but vibrant yellow/orange.
It is very easy to become seduced by the highlights. Keep working up the darker tones and only when you are satisfied with the solidity of the object, add the highlights.
Step 5 - Reflections
1. Observing carefully, I continued to add the reflections to the body of the jug in downward strokes, which echoed the shape; in other words, narrow near the neck then gradually widening towards the base. From the neck up to the underside of the rim it was a similar story, but in reverse.
2. I now set to work placing the reflections of the cloth in a pale burnt orange (not white), indicating the folds with a mid-toned purple, and refining other reflections, especially those of the grapes and plum. I added touches of intense red/orange to the underside of the rim, before placing the main highlight in the same light yellow/orange colour used on the rim, which suddenly brought the pot to life.
3. The grapes were blocked in to left and right of the jug: the red grapes in indigo and deep burgundy; the green grapes in shades of dark blue/green and olive.
4. I applied two shades of brown in horizontal strokes to depict the wood grain on the table-top. This helped me to assess the tonal relationships, before I blocked in the fabric in a creamy, off-white shade. I used fairly light strokes with the side of the pastel so as to leave plenty of background colour showing through. This helped me to convey the texture of the muslin weave.
Reflections from light-toned objects tend to be darker; the opposite is true of dark-toned objects. In the case of our jug, the warm colour of the copper surface will also influence the reflections, making them warmer.
Step 6 - Red grapes
1. On top of the deep red/indigo block-in, I gradually began to lighten some of the red grapes with a brighter red, beginning to shape just a few in the bunch. I further defined some by applying indigo to the undersides and to the left. I needed to keep in mind that this area was in deep shadow and therefore I shouldn’t over define or lighten too much.
Highlights are rarely white, especially when they come from an artificial light source. White has a tendency to appear grey in comparison with a pale peach or cream shade.
2. When I was satisfied with the colour and tones of the grapes, I applied a few highlights with a pale cream shade.
Step 7 - Green grapes
Using a brighter mid-toned green, I worked on the green grapes, in exactly the same way as the red. I then switched to a paler green that, not only lightened each grape, but also gave the surface a very convincing bloom. I indicated one or two little stalks in a light brown then applied the highlights, as for the red grapes.
The dark blue/green of the initial block-in serves to indicate the dark tone, beneath and behind the grapes. Instead of drawing circles for individual grapes and filling them in, try ‘pulling’ them out of the background, leaving the dark areas as shadows and for definition – your grapes should then look less like Brussels sprouts!
Step 8 - Plum
I blocked in the plum using the same colours as I used for the red grapes and by the same method, in other words from indigo and deep burgundy to lighter, brighter reds.
Step 9 - Plum, grape and table top
1. Before working further on the plum, it was time to tidy up the table top area. I applied further horizontal strokes, in the two shades of brown I had previously used at the block-in stage, working these colours around the plum to improve the shape. I went back into it, adding two little touches of reflected light, in green on the top, which was coming from the reflection of the green grapes in the jug and a warm bright orange from the jug.
2. With a very light touch, I lightly stroked onto the skin of the plum a pale mauve, which served as a convincing representation of the bloom, and finally, of course, the highlight.
3. I put in the single green grape out to the right of the composition then applied the shadows and little reflections in the polished table-top. The shadow colour was a deep, cool brown and the table-top reflections were applied using very light strokes of the colour of the object being reflected.
SHADOWS AND REFLECTIONS
There is often a good deal of confusion when considering the difference between shadows and reflections. Shadows require a light source and something to block it, our plum and grape, for instance. The shadows cast will vary according to the position of that light source. The light source for our still life is positioned in front and to the right of the set-up. It follows, therefore, that the direction of the shadows cast by our plum and grape is diagonally off to the left. Reflections, on the other hand, are mirror images of the objects, so the reflections of the grapes and plum on the flat table-top are directly beneath. The reflections in the polished surface of the jug are distorted due to its shape – we have all stood in front of a fairground mirror!
Step 10 - Muslin cloth
Time to tackle the cloth! I had blocked it in very roughly at an early stage and had left quite a lot of background colour showing through. Before working further on the fabric, I added the two grapes so they would appear to nestle within the folds. I lightened the tops of the folds by adding some pale, creamy white and emphasised the folds with the addition of raw umber and a mid-tone purple/grey.
The finished painting
Gill Measure with Grapes, pastel, (21x26cm)
Gill Measure with Grapes, pastel, (21x26cm)
Christine works in a variety of media. After a long association with The Royal Opera House, both on and off the stage, Christine left to follow her other passion for painting. In addition to her solo shows, she exhibits her work in a number of prestigious galleries including The Mall Galleries, with the Pastel Society and the Society of Women Artists. Her work has featured in books and publications. She is devoted to teaching and with her infectious enthusiasm, Christine gently encourages and inspires her students, from the complete novice to the experienced painter.
She leads painting holidays in many parts of the world with Authentic Adventures (www.authenticadventures.co.uk) and in the UK at Marlborough College Summer School.
Future holidays include:
9th March 2015 - Painting holiday in Madeira, Portugal
9th May 2015 - Pastels Day Workshop at Pegasus, Stroud, Gloucestershire
27th June 2015 - Painting holiday in Abruzzo
3rd October 2015 - Painting holiday in Transylvania & Bucovina, Romania
26th October 2015 - Painting holiday in Madeira, Portugal