Finishing Touches

Painter and sculptor Bobbie Austin collects antiques of all sorts, but teapots and tea sets in particular. In fact, she has about 30-40 teapots and five or six tea sets. “The collection of teapots is a carry-over from my childhood tea parties,” she says. “And I like other things that are old and have sentimental value to someone—not just me.”

This holds true for the items in My Cup of Tea (oil, 16×20). “My mother gave me the creamer and sugar bowl 35 years ago,” she says. “They were inexpensive, but I like their design. I’ve had the copper kettle for just as long. And the teacup isn’t very old, but I included it because I liked the color it added to the piece.” Regardless of what Austin paints, we can see the care with which she’s placed each object—always mindful of the painting’s overall design. And in doing so, she’s captured the elegance of the classic still life.

Areas to Work On
Good paintings have two important elements: a well-defined focal area and a strong design. In My Cup of Tea, we can see that Austin has truly mastered composition. Her subtle use of color, varied edges, sophisticated overlapping and controlled design show off her skill. Austin has also used a dominant light source, which is clear and richly rendered. However, she could bring a more professional finish to her focal area by darkening the reflected lights and adding a few well-chosen bold highlights.

Art Principles At Work
Developing a strong structural design. In My Cup of Tea, Austin kept the overall picture in mind from the beginning. She carefully chose varied and complex surfaces and then took her time arranging them on the tablecloth. Next she selected a limited palette. These choices all add up to a well-unified design. The predominantly cool hues of the cloth set off the warmer color of the copper kettle and the intricate design of the teacup, which identifies these two objects as the focal points.

Austin’s sophisticated use of lost and found edges and skillful overlapping add depth, volume and a strong sense of atmosphere to the grouping. Notice how she softened the copper kettle’s spout, letting it take a backseat to the sumptuously lit copper belly and the teacup in front of it. The back rim of the teacup and its handle have also been softened. Finally, Austin effectively used the tablecloth as a foil for the main objects. Its folds lead the eye into and through the scene to the focal areas. Also notice the careful attention to variation here. Groupings of folds are set off by large simple areas without folds. Large, gentle curves of cloth are emphasized in the upper right-hand area and are contrasted by crisper folds in the foreground.

Darkening the reflected lights. Every object must have a light side and a shadow side, which is best established with one strong light source. In My Cup of Tea, Austin chose to light her subject with one light—perhaps from a window—to our left. As you can see, she’s clearly indicated the light and shadow side of each object. In the most defined areas of a composition, at least two values on the light side and two values on the shadow side are needed to achieve volume and mass. Austin has paid close attention to the variation of value in the shadow of her main objects, rendering both the core of the shadow and the reflected light. This is clearest on the large folds on the upper right and the copper kettle and teacup.

The core of the shadow is the darkest part of the shadow, which is where the object turns away from the light. Usually you see a subtle light in the back of the shadow. What you see is light reflected from another surface since light can’t shine directly into a shadow when using one light source. Because it’s on the shadow side, this reflected light must be darker than any value on the light side of the object. But because it’s reflected light, it should still be lighter than the surrounding dark shadow values. If you look at the teacup, you can see that the reflected light on the right side is lighter than the shadow, but still darker than the lights on the left. Careful observation will help in choosing the proper value for this reflected light.

Letting the highlights enhance the focal point. Unlike most painters who quickly rush to put in the details and highlights of their subjects, Austin has shown great patience, which has really paid off. Thus, her design needs just a few minor adjustments—namely, a few well-chosen, strong highlights—to add a sense of finish. Austin has added a number of subtle highlights to her two main objects, but she could use a few very bold highlights on the copper kettle. When adding the brightest highlights it’s important to add a touch of color to them, as well, because highlights will seldom be pure white. I’ve found that using titanium white or a titanium/zinc mix is best because titanium is an opaque paint.

Highlights can be applied in one stroke, but when applying a large highlight to a metal object such as this copper kettle, it’s often best to follow these general steps: First mix and apply the lightest hue slightly larger than you want it. If the source of light is warm, for instance, add a yellow or orange color to the white for your highlight color. Next cut into it with a cooler and darker color. But be careful not to overblend it. Cut into each side of the highlight with one decisive stroke—highlights on a slick metal surface will be very crisp. Last, adding just a touch of a very dark or bright color along one edge can really make the highlight stand out.

Lessons Learned
Many artists paint the main objects and then fill in the background once they’re complete. Here, Austin has taken the time to compose a lovely design considering the overall picture from the start. The placement of each and every fold and the careful consideration of each surface is quite sophisticated. In addition, her technical choices and the gentle curve of the cloth help reiterate the quiet mood of the scene. The soft cast shadows add to this mood, as well. But to get viewers to hone in on her two main focal areas, Austin needs to add stronger highlights and darken the reflected light on the teakettle. In this way, she can better showcase the objects she chooses for her still lifes.

About the Artist
Bobbie Austin lives in Social Circle, Georgia, and has been making art for 25 years. As she strives to continue improving in art, she’s learned that “nothing is so good you can’t take it off and start over. It’ll be better the more times you repeat it.”

Artist Tina Tammaro has been teaching for more than 15 years. She lives in Covington, Kentucky.


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