Still Life with Gourd…and problems

What can you learn from a painting with problems? I knew the glass bottle I picked for my still life would be challenging with its transparency and reflections, but I decided to face the challenge with the help of my teacher. I did not anticipate that the folds of the black cloth and the elliptical shapes of the plate and bottle would also be tricky. I felt that the gourd would be forgiving – what’s a bump or curve here or there going to matter? You can draw a gourd that looks gourd-like even if it doesn’t look like that specific gourd in front of you and no one will be the wiser. But if you draw the perspective of a cylindrical bottle or round plate inaccurately, the drawing will look amateurish.

The photo collage shows (clockwise from bottom left) the still life in the studio, an early version of the drawing and a later version after two 2 1/2 hour classes and quite a lot of work at home. The drapery is toned down and blended, the black drape shows through the bottle and the sky is darkened. The whole drawing reminds me of some artists I like: Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Charles Burchfield, but I can’t claim that was intentional.

Still life with gourd

Still life in progress

I learned that I need a lot more practice with basic drawing. I learned that folds of drapery are really tricky and that’s why all those Renaissance painters went wild with their virtuoso renderings of draped figures. I learned that using black is worth a whole study of artists like Whistler and Manet. I realized I was right about the gourd. Gourds are forgiving. Just don’t put them on a reflective, white plate seen at a foreshortened angle. Oh, the ellipses!

Still life with gourd, pastel

Art is never finished

“Art is never finished, only abandoned,” Leonardo da Vinci

This quote came to my attention recently on a day I had finally decided a drawing was as finished as it was ever going to get. The journey to get to that point follows.

Here is the drawing in its first incarnation after an evening at a charcoal drawing class.

Still life conch charcoal

Still life conch, charcoal on canvas

I drew this using soft vine charcoals sticks on a stretched canvas. I sprayed it with a home-made fixative, a mixture of water and gel medium which gave it an interesting drippy, watery background and some vivid white craquelure effects. Then I dried it with a hair dryer and went back at it trying to get darker, rich, velvety black charcoal effects. I repeated the homemade fixative but lost the vivid whites in the process, never to be regained. So that was a disappointing materials failure just as the class ended.

The homemade fixative is less toxic than store bought workable fixative and the idea is that it also produces some happy accidents with its watery effects. The unhappy accident of losing the lightest effects might have happened because the canvas was not primed enough. Regardless of the cause, the drawing had gone from good to not so good in one studio class. Ugh!

Still life conch

Photo of conch on books

Here is the photograph I used as my source. The conch has featured in many of my drawings and paintings over the years and my mother’s paintings before that. In addition to the very old shell, it is perched on an ancient Larousse French dictionary my father gave me. I arranged the still life, shot it with my iPad, turned it black and white and cropped and edited it a bit and then printed it out and took the printout to class.

The problem, as Leonardo said, was, should I try to finish the drawing or abandon it? The beautiful whites and watery effects were gone for good and the drawing lacked oomph. I left it on my drafting table for weeks and would add more charcoal marks to it and scrub at it with erasers and a stiff oil brush dipped in water as I wandered by over several weeks, but it continued to look blah.

With nothing to lose, I added some color using conte crayons. The black, sanguine and buff colors did the trick and I was finally happy enough with the results to spray on store bought fixative, (outside and careful not to breathe it.) I affixed a sawtooth hanger to the stretcher and hung it above my drafting table. Here it is. Not abandoned, probably finished. For now…

Conch still life

Conch still life, charcoal and conte crayon on canvas

Studio Views

I spend too much time bemoaning the mess that is my studio space. A cluttered studio is a convenient excuse for procrastinating. Cleaning out the studio definitely means you find art supplies, projects, and old work you forgot about. Putting the stuff back in new places guarantees you will never find them again. Having a Pinterest board of aspirational studio spaces is a time sink that rarely leads to actual studio upgrades. But the worst thing is having no studio space at all. So my little corner of one room with my pre-historic drafting table, jars of brushes and pens on a lazy Susan my son made in shop in middle school, and natural light from a south-facing window is better than using one end of the dining room table, for example. Even the smallest space allows you to leave your work out without putting it away when its time to eat. It’s nice to dream about a beautiful, spacious studio that would magically call to me, maybe with a magic force field that would pick the right music, have the right pen fly into my hand, and empty my monkey mind of everything other than a happy focus on the next work of art. But the real magic is mostly just sitting in that pink chair, put a piece of paper on the table, pick up a pencil, and just start.

Drafting table with still life

Cleaning out my studio space

Daylilies and chaos cleanup

Pastel Still Life

Coffee pot and gourd

Coffee pot and gourd still life, pastel on paper, view from my easel, after two weeks

I just started taking a pastel class at the local art center. I have played with pastels on my own, but this is the first class I have taken devoted entirely to this medium. After an introduction to materials, we started with a still life. I have been using an ancient set of my mother’s Grumbacher pastels for years, but recently bought new pastels that are safer to use and of better quality. Here are some points I learned in the materials instruction to my class. It turns out that pastels can be rather toxic from the dust and/or from the actual pigments. The chrome yellow colors and cadmiums (heavy metals anyone?) in my old set should be avoided, if not thrown out. The dust created by the pastels should not be inhaled. Students tip the easel forward to catch the dust and carefully clean the easel with damp towels when finished. We have been instructed never to blow on the drawing to clear it. To do so creates a fuzzy mess and an easily inhaled cloud of pigment particles. We wear disposable gloves to avoid the mess to our hands although my fingernails get covered in color through the gloves by the end of each studio session despite this precaution. I’m not sure if wearing gloves is a safety measure or an aesthetic one or both. It’s like wearing gardening gloves though, the dirt seeps through and weeding (or drawing) is harder than using bare hands. How do health care workers stand wearing gloves all the time? Maybe I need to upgrade my disposable gloves?

The health and safety aspect towards all art materials has evolved over recent years, I knew that, but tended to ignore or not know the specifics. I am taking it more seriously now. The safety aspect is only one tricky thing about this medium, I am learning. The beauty of  pastels is the brilliant color of almost pure pigment when applied directly to paper. But the big problem is that the pigment just floats away on air so easily. It is not fixed in place like watercolors or oils or acrylics or other drawing media from pencils to pen and ink. If you use fixative to keep the pastels in place, the fixative darkens the beautiful colors and only works moderately well to make the pastels stay put on the paper. Our teacher says it’s okay to use workable fixative, which I have not yet tried, but final fixative is not recommended. If you do use fixative, take  it outside, wear a mask or have a good ventilation system. All this free-floating particle problem means that once a pastel painting is finished, what can you do with it? Take a picture and then store if very carefully with a sheet of glassine over it or pay a fortune to have it expertly framed with a thick mat to keep the painting away from the glass (not plexiglass because of static) and bumpers to keep the pastel away from the mat so that the pastels will shed down and not on the outer mat. In a former lifetime, it seems, I matted and framed at an art museum and never matted a pastel. But I do know that the extra steps involved would have driven me nuts. I probably will  just photograph my works and then store my pastel drawings out of reach somewhere. Back in that same former lifetime, I used to use brown grocery store bags, ironed flat, as pastel paper and I used hairspray as fixative. I’m not recommending that, but it did save money on art supplies. The sanded paper I use for the landscape I painted after this still life cost over ten dollars for ONE sheet of paper. Cost of art supplies is a whole other blog post though.

For more information on artists materials and safety, consult a reference book like ‘The Artist’s Handbook’ by Ray Smith or a reputable website. Princeton University has a nice website devoted to art material safety. Here is the link to the page about pastels. Be sure to note that if you blow your nose and it comes out in wild colors, you need to improve ventilation in  your studio – Painting and Drawing Safety Concerns 

Below you can see my first attempt at a still life in pastels. Next week, we move on to landscapes. I am using a Rembrandt starter set of pastels and Canson tinted pastel paper.

Still life first sketch

This is my still life after one 2 1/2 hour studio class. The basic drawing is done, values and colors established. Layers of pastel marks will eventually build up to the finished work

3 Time’s the Charm, or maybe not

What do you do with a burnt cake? Do you save the good bits, ice it prodigiously, and serve it anyway? Or do you toss it in the bin with a vengeful thump and cross that recipe off your list decisively? And what do I do with a painting gone very wrong? Here is the visual evidence of my recent attempts to paint a vase of flowers.

First try: ack!

Watercolor vase of flowers

First try vase of flowers

Second try: sigh
Vase of flowers

Can this painting be salvaged?

Third try: turn over the paper over from #1:
Watercolor flowers

Contestant #3

Okay, getting better, or at least it has potential. While I wait for it to dry, I go after Painting #3 with crayons and channel the Fauvists. Opposite colors adjacent to each other. And start stamping in patterns, because, why not?
The Fauve painting:

Watercolor flowers

Can I call this Fauvism or Fail?

Then I return to painting # 3 which I think of as the conventional, normal, pretty good/not bad ‘Vase of Flowers’ still life in watercolor only, and dab in some blocky brushstrokes with a square tipped brush to bring the painting out of its anemic state. 
Still life flowers

Still life flowers

So that’s it for now. The very bad, awkward #1 is hidden on the back of normal, conventional #3 and the wild beast #2 is masking attempt #2. I can live with either of these but the uncontrollable aspects of the medium tempted me to throw them all away. As for the ruined cake? I threw mine in the bin every year on my kids’ birthdays and drove frantically to a bakery to replace my awful cakes. After some years, I skipped the baking part and went straight to the bakery. But the funny thing is that my kids like talking about the awful cakes. We learn from our mistakes, plus they make some funny memories.