Transferring the drawing to the canvas

Now that my canvas has arrived, it’s time to begin!green-cloth-new-canvas







First, I must transfer my pencil sketch onto the canvas. I trace my sketch onto a sheet of tracing paper.


Then I rub pencil onto the back of the traced drawing. This will act as carbon

I now tape this carbon paper right side up onto my canvas.



I trace the lines with a 2H pencil.


My drawing is now transferred to the canvas.


Inevitably, all of this tracing distorts the original image. I have to spend some time now correcting any errors that have crept into the image. Here’s a detail of the canvas with the drawing transferred onto it and corrected.


I lightly spray some fixative on the drawing so the pencil won’t smear into the oil paint. Now I can begin my underpainting.


Thoughts on my Underpainting

While I’m waiting for my canvas to arrive from the canvas-stretching company, I’ve been thinking about how I’ll proceed with the painting. Normally after I transfer my drawing to the canvas, I do an underpainting over it. This is a preliminary layer- a very simple, thinly painted, monochromatic and undetailed version of the finished work. I usually use burnt sienna, an orange earth tone, and lead white. I keep the values lighter than they will be in the finished work, because I prefer to over-paint onto a lighter base. I do this for two reasons. First, because if I want to glaze (add a transparent layer of color), it must be over a lighter ground to show properly. Second, even more opaque layers look more bright and true when painted over a light ground.

I also omit details at this stage. I would only have to repaint them in the over-painting! I paint very thinly, so the brushstrokes won’t show through later, in case I want to make changes.

This monochromatic underpainting serves several purposes. It provides a unifying color scheme for the whole finished painting. Bits of this color (in this case, burnt sienna) show through here and there, making it seem like the whole composition exists in the same light and place. It is also easier to begin putting down color in my overpainting if I don’t have to do it onto a bright white canvas. It is easier to judge value relationships if the underpainting already suggests what the different values should be. Most importantly, it is an easy way to begin! Details aren’t important, color isn’t an issue, brushwork isn’t seen, even the exact values aren’t important (as I said, I paint all the values in this underpainting lighter anyway). Painting is hard enough without feeling like you must do too much at once. My method of painting allows me to work in stages, tackling different problems in order. First I do a drawing, then I think about values in a value study, then I do a monochromatic underpainting. Finally, I will think about color, and then details.

I was considering tackling the underpainting in a slightly different way in this painting. Since the green cloth is so important to the final effect, I want to make sure the color is very bright. In the Sir Thomas Moore portrait, the green cloth is very bright and was probably painted using a transparent glaze over a yellow layer beneath. Maybe I should try underpainting the cloth area as usual, in burnt sienna and lead white, but make the values very light. Over this, I could glaze a layer in yellow and then when dry, glaze over it in viridian green. For the shadow areas, I could glaze additional layers of ultramarine blue and raw umber, and for the highlights, I could scumble some lead white over the dry glaze.



Black & White Value Study

I now will paint a full-sized back, white and grey value study. It is very helpful to see the composition without the distraction of color. The design stands out and I can see if any areas need to be darkened or lightened to emphasize my focal point, and lead the viewer’s eye the way I want it to travel. I can also more easily see if the basic shapes of the composition are pleasing. If the composition doesn’t look good in black and white, it won’t look good in color.

I mix 9 shades of grey on my palette, starting with pure white and ending with pure black . I number these right on the palette, so I can identify them as I work . I might paint an area with grey #3 and say to myself “#3 is too light, let’s try #4.


I now tape a piece of tracing paper over my line drawing, and using the drawing beneath as a guide, start to paint. I keep it very loose and free. I don’t have to be precise at this point.

green-cloth-and-bowl-value-painting-unfinishedI let this initial attempt dry for a few days. I then go over it with a fresh coat of paint to make corrections. Inevitably, I get a lot of the values wrong the first time around, because its very hard to judge the darkness or lightness of an area until the whole is finished. I am constantly comparing one area to another. Once all the areas are painted, then judging becomes easier. Also, it is very difficult to paint sharp edges and smaller details into the wet paint of the first layer. Everything tends to smear and blend. Once the first layer is dry, the final touches adhere much better.



I’ve been studying photos of my still life set-up for a week, and I still like it! I’m ready to start my drawing. First, I need to decide how large I want the finished work to be. I generally like to paint life-size. I find that still life especially, benefits from this approach. The image seems more real and compelling. I measure the front horizontal plane of the set-up to get a rough idea of the width of the finished painting. I composed the set-up looking through a viewfinder with a 8 to 9 ratio, so I can now calculate the height of the painting.

Drawing is a long process of looking and measuring. I divide up the rectangle of my drawing into a grid of horizontal and vertical lines. I mark these same lines on my viewfinder (scaled down to fit the viewfinder). If I hold up my viewfinder and look at the set-up through its window, I can see where lines on it correspond to key positions in the set-up. I hold a very skinny knitting needle up to the viewfinder at whatever horizontal or vertical position I like.  I can then refer to my grid lines on my drawing to accurately draw in these key areas. As I progress,  I compare the positions of key points in the set-up with others to gage their relationship.



After working on a drawing for several hours, I find that it helps to leave it, and then return to it with fresh eyes  the next day. It’s amazing how mistakes that were undiscernible yesterday now stand out with glaring force! I correct mistakes. If there are any ellipses, I now construct them with paper and string, and transfer them to the drawing to correct my free-hand versions (which are already usually pretty good!). If items have an irregular shape and need to be symmetrical (like a vase), I trace one side that I think is correct, flip the tracing paper over and transfer this mirror-image to the other side of the vase. Thus, I attain symmetry!img_3951




A New Painting

After taking most of the year off to spend time with my college-bound daughter, and to get ready for the art show and lecture I delivered in Bellevue in the summer, I’m finally ready to start painting again. This time, my inspiration was a color scheme from one of my favorite paintings. I rarely begin a composition thinking about color, so this is unusual for me. The painting is the portrait of Sir Thomas Moore by Holbein that hangs in the Frick. I always visit it when I’m in NY. I love the strength of character portrayed in the painting, as well as the striking composition and rich colors.


The first prop I wanted was some green cloth. I found something suitable at the fabric store- not exactly what I wanted, but close enough. I find that I need my props to be very close to the correct colors for me to be able both to design a composition and to paint it. I can’t imagine color relationships and reflections. I must see them. Occasionally, when a work is well under way, I will alter a color from the set-up in order to improve the picture. I can do it because at that late stage in the painting, enough of the canvas is completed for me to be able to judge the work as a whole from looking at the canvas and not just from the set-up in front of me. I can usually guess at any altered reflections at that stage.

The first thing I did was to drape the green cloth on the wall. I added a black cloth on the table top to add some darkness, and placed a vase, a bowl, a crystal, and some stones on it in harmonious colors.


The set-up looked dull to me. I added a tan stone to echo the color of the pottery bowl, moved the small blue-green stone so it was more visible, and placed the yellow crystal nearer to the pottery bowl to better lead the eye up to it. Finally, using the portrait as my guide, I decided to add a touch of intense red. I found a red cord with a tassel on the end, and placed it in the glass bowl.  Red and green are opposites on the color wheel. Bringing together opposite colors always creates a vibrant effect. Too much contrast, however, is jarring. Just this touch of red brought a vibrancy to the set-up. It also brought out the reddish cast in both the pottery bowl and the tan stone.


I’m now pretty happy with the composition. I like the dynamism of the folds in the green cloth, the color harmonies, and the simplicity of the major forms. I’ll live with it for a while before I do the final drawing.


Portfolio and Jewelry: Drawing

After living with the photos of my set-up for a week, I decide I’m happy with it. The next step is for me to do a full-sized detailed drawing of my composition. First, I decide what size I want my finished painting to be. As a rule, I like to paint life-size. Especially with still-life, this gives the viewer a sense of immediacy, as though the painting were real. In this case, however, I find that life-size yields a very big painting, so I decide to down-size a bit. I draw a rectangle of the decided-upon size in the proportions of the view-finder I used when setting up the composition. Now, I draw!

I establish the vanishing-point so that my perspective is realistic. The vanishing point is at my eye level and directly in front of me. I mark this on the paper (or on my easel, if it’s off the paper!). All parallel lines will converge to this point. Circles in perspective are drawn as ellipses. The closer the circle is to my eye level, the more shallow the ellipse, the further down, the closer to a full circle. To draw these accurately, I have to find the circular object’s angle below my line of sight. To do this, I run a string from a post at my eye level to the circular object in my set up. I measure the angle the string makes with the post with a protractor.

Protractor at Eye-Level with String to Setup

Protractor at Eye-Level with String to Setup

Armed with this number, and the length of the major axis (the diameter of the circle in the drawing),  I can calculate the correct ellipse. This I do using string, two pins, and a pencil. (I’ll explain in more detail how to do this in a future post.) It’s low-tech, but it works!

Drawing an Ellipse

Using tracing paper, I transfer the correct ellipses to my drawing.

Drawing of Cups

Here’s the finished drawing. My next step will be painting a full-size black, grey and white study.

Final Drawing

Portfolio and Jewelry: Composition

I just began a new painting, and I thought I’d document the process, from conception to finished work.


I bought an old waxed cardboard portfolio at an antique market recently. I thought it might serve well as a background for a still life set-up, or as a base, or both. Here, I’ve placed it on a table, opened up, shone a spotlight on it, and gathered a few objects that might work with it.

Initial Composition

My first guess

The things I chose seem to be fighting each other for attention, so I selected some quieter, smaller ones. I wanted some more contrast in textures, so I decided to use a blue glass bowl and a rough rock. Also, I felt that the setup needed some detail, so I added the gold jewelry. I liked the way the jewelry was reflected in the blue bowl. I rearranged one of the straps of the portfolio to echo the curve of the shadow cast by the blue vase.

Setup with Two Small Cups on Crate

Jewelry Detail

Here, I experimented with a tall vase to replace the small cup sitting on top of the crate, and then with a black cup. I thought that the black cup was more harmonious and didn’t detract from the jewelry and blue bowl, which I decided would be the focal point.

Tall Vase on Crate

Black Cup on top of Crate

Black Cup on top of Crate

The Setup

I’m pleased enough with the composition to proceed to do a detailed drawing.