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.

Why is starting to paint so difficult?

One of the hardest things I ever have to do is get myself into my studio to begin working. Once work commences, I’m fine, and the time flies by. I’m absorbed. I’m having fun! I don’t want to stop. I think, “How can I ever think that this is hard?” And yet, when it’s time to return, after lunch, or worse, several days later, I’d do any dreaded household chore just to avoid entering my studio. Knowing that I’ll be okay once I begin doesn’t help.

Over the years, I’ve developed some strategies for dealing with this feeling of dread. One of the most effective techniques is that before I leave my canvas, I plan the first thing that I’ll do when I return, and write it down. This has to be a very specific, easily do-able thing, such as, “make this shadow darker with a bluish glaze’ or ‘add some light paint to this onion stem.’ Planning this way enables me to contemplate returning to work without thinking I have to be brilliant. I don’t have to accomplish anything great or difficult- I just have to do this simple thing. Once I’m back in front of my easel, and I’ve done the thing, the work just flows.

Another thing I’ve discovered over the years is that I don’t have to feel like painting to paint. If I always waited to feel like it, I might never go in my studio again! I simply (or not so simply) have to just do it. This is so hard, but at least I’m not a slave to my emotions. Just making myself work puts me in charge.

I’ve also learned that the more often I work, the less hard it is to get to work. The weeks that I paint 4 days are much easier than when I’ve just painted once. I feel more in touch with my painting and what I need to do.

Looking for Inspiration

People often ask me where I get my ideas for paintings from. I usually reply that ideas come from many places- a new object I see, a combination of colors (ie: in nature, or on a theater set!), the composition of an old painting in an art book, or simply from choosing some objects, putting them on a table under a light and observing if there are any interesting relationships or light effects.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter where the idea comes from. It’s just a hook- a way to begin. Sometimes, the idea occurs to me easily. Other times (like now!), ideas are elusive. Yes, there are colors I like, but I don’t always have objects in those colors! I could pick some objects in my studio to work with, but I’ve painted most of them before! I could look at art books, but I’ve looked through them so many times. I want something new!

Of course, starting from “I want something new” isn’t very helpful.  That phrase creates a lot of pressure to make something brilliant out of nothing, with no specifics to go on. I need to figure out what qualities I want the new work to have. Why am I bored with my existing way of composing? What’s missing? Is there some method or technique, subject matter, format, color scheme or lighting situation that I’ve never tackled that I would find satisfying and challenging?

It would be easy to put together a composition like one I’ve done before. I don’t have the heart to do that right now. I need to take the time to evolve.

How to Turn an Idea into a Painting

I just finished my latest painting, and it’s time to begin another (or two). I had an idea for a composition while dropping off to sleep the other night, of a very complex, rich design with many objects, richly colored. It was very appealing. Of course, since I was half-asleep, it lacked detail and reality! In my studio today, I began working with this idea. I began with a backdrop. I pinned up some black satin fabric on the wall. I thought that the complex folds and play of light would add richness.I spent a lot of time draping the fabric and studying the shapes it made. I found a tray for the tabletop that I liked. Now I had a stage setting, but no actors! I found myself feeling stuck. I am much more used to starting with an object I like, and then composing around it. Hunting for things to put in my set-up at that point felt awkward. My real problem is that a general idea of ‘richness and complexity’ is too vague a starting place for a composition. Complexity has to make sense and begin with small components. Richness will be the result of the colors of the objects I choose and a sensitivity to subtleties of value.  Maybe a place to begin is to find many objects in warm, rich colors. Then, I can move them around and create that feeling of complexity I want.

New set-up with garlic & onions

The starting point for my new set-up was some bundled garlic I grew last summer. It wouldn’t stand up on it’s own, so I tacked it to my backdrop by its string. Since I have natural light available for a few months, I decided to use it! I opened up the blinds in my studio and used no spotlight.  I was bored with the drawing board I’ve been using for a tabletop, so I used the lid of an antique paint box. For more drama, I created a ‘wall’ with a wood box on the left side to cast a shadow. Now that I had the stage set with the main player, I contemplated it for a while to think what else I needed. The set-up so far suggested simplicity and austerity to me (similar to the old Spanish still lifes I love so much). I decided to keep all of the objects similar in form and color. I chose more garlic and some onions.  Keeping with the theme of simplicity, I arranged the onions and single garlic to continue the arc of the garlic bundle. So far, so good! I still can’t decide which arrangement I like better, the one in the top photo with the white onion leaning to the right, or the one underneath, with the onion slanting the other way. I’m ‘leaning’ towards the bottom one. I also think that the white onion could be a bit bigger. The final issue is whether I want the white garlic to be the focal point or the garlic bundle. As it stands, the strong value contrast between the white garlic and the tabletop draws the most attention to the white garlic. If I want to emphasize the garlic bundle, I’ll have to get more contrast there, or tone down the contrast between the white garlic and the table (or both). Another option is to use a darker, more purple garlic in place of the white one to tone down the contrast. I’ll finalize all of this tomorrow, and order my canvas so I can get started. The sooner the better, as my studio now smells strongly of 9-month old garlic!

Making Changes


In my last post about this painting, I said that I’d cast more of a shadow on the left side to unify the objects on that side of the painting. However, after thinking about it, I decided that I’d cast a shadow from the right. This has the effect of muting the upper right edge of the background stone and the gray pot, and drawing attention to the triangle formed by the black vase, colored blocks, and crystal. The addition of this shadow seems to have solved the problem of my ‘four-fold’ design problem. One of the four objects (the pot) is no longer so much in the spotlight. Three seems to look better than four. I’m happier with the painting now, but it’s still not finished!