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The Birth of a Still Life

The Inspiration

One morning about two years ago, I happened to go upstairs and saw a beam of morning sun streaming in a small window onto the floor. I quickly got a chair, a linen tablecloth out of the closet, and an old Chinese bowl that has a mended crack in the side. I took several photos, from every angle. I liked this one because of the very strong light and shadow pattern.

Photo reference

My First Attempt

I decided to begin with the bowl. It was the strangest thing. I looked at all of that tablecloth and thought "forget it"! I knew that I could describe just how to paint the folds, light and shadows, and yet - I just couldn't bring myself to even think about starting with that! So I thought I would begin with the bowl. I wanted the dark side of the bowl to blend seamlessly into the dark shadow.

You can see that I added paper white bulbs to the bowl. I had considered black plums. That seemed to add to the "Chinese" subject. But then while passing through our sunroom in the house, I noticed that the paper whites were just starting to sprout - and eureka! The perfect thing. So I took the bowl out to the studio and drew them in.

Shadows Under Pattern

Next I decided to do the fabric that is in the sunlight. This is an under garment for a formal kimono, so has a silky sheen. I liked the warm tones in contrast to the various blues. You can see that the pattern in the sunlight has a light valued shadow on the right, and some lights in the orange/sienna pattern. Where the fabric was in the shadow, I painted the shadow first with blues and violets so that the colored pattern would be on top of the shadow.


Here is the value of the fabric in the shadow, with some folds indicated. Later, I drew in the pattern of the stripes and leaves. I have begun to add the shadows that are cast onto the linen. I must say to you that the creative process is an on-going mystery to me. By the time I did the the shadow next to the bowl, I knew exactly how to approach the linen cloth. In fact, as I lay in bed early in the morning before getting up, I had an idea that rather than paint the shadows in a downward motion, which seems logical, that I would paint them as the fabric fell sideways. Makes perfect sense, except that I don't think I have ever seen that or read about doing it that way.

Cast Shadows and Reflected Light

I slowly worked from one shape to another, painting the cast shadows and saving the white of the paper. The success of this painting is totally dependent on edges and contrast of value. In two areas, the orange light from the fabric is reflected into a shadow fold. That provided a small amount of warm light into another-wise cool blue composition.

Adding final darks

The shadows on the linen needed to be darker in value. Otherwise, the whites would not glow. I used a three inch brush and lots of pigment and water to paint the dark shapes in one wash. Then I used a round, damp brush to soften the edge where the dark met the light. I also added an edge of magnesium blue to the dark ultramarine blue edge. That secondary color made a more subtle gradation than merely dark blue again white. Magnesium Blue was the right choice as I used it in the bowl and also as a warm blue against cobalt and ultramarine. In order to make the dark blue shadow a bit less bright, I modified the ultramarine with a tiny bit of cadmium red. Finally! I mixed black with alizarin crimson, phthalo blue red-shade, and phthalo green. This black has a slight tilt towards violet, although it is definitely not noticeable. It seemed like a good choice next to the orange and sienna fabric.

I hope you've enjoyed reading about this painting. If there is one thing I learned from this one, it is to breathe, go slowly, and pay attention to each edge as you go, so that you do not need to go back when the pigment has dried. Happy painting! Please keep in touch and let me know how you are, until we meet again. Evelyn

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