Step 1. While I liked the objects in the first set up of the still life, I thought the area of the tablecloth was too plain and lacked interest.
Step 2. I added another tablecloth and moved the elements closer together to create a move unified whole.
Step 3. If you’re going to create a painting full of detail, you need a very detailed drawing to start. I had a 35mm slide created of the digital image and projected it onto the paper and traced it with 2H lead in a mechanical pencil. After that, I spent a great deal of time adding more detail to the drawing.
Step 4. This painting was a fun way to illustrate the broad use of grays. I started with the white roses which are all shades of gray.
Step 5. We think of crystal as being light and airy. However, this crystal vase, because it’s against a black background is a very dark object. Crystal not only reflects the colors that are around it, but by refracting the light, it also generates colors like a prism.
Step 6. Silver objects reflect the objects around them. These reflections follow the shape of the silver object itself. I painted a range of grays in the silver creamer and then added the reflections of the fruit. I used a liquid masking fluid to retain the whitest parts of all the objects in the painting.
Step 7. I painted the base tablecloth first. I used liquid masking fluid to save the white where the tablecloth turns down at the edge of the table. That’s typically the lightest point of any fabric on a table.
Step 8. The folds in the tablecloth were painted using the traditional British “two-brush” technique, wherein one brush is charged with paint and the second brush is charged with water. Following the application of paint with the brush of water allows you to soften the edge of the painted area and create realistic folds in the cloth.
Step 9. Then it was time to step back and adjust the lights and darks of all the grays in the painting to be sure that the full range from light to dark was there.
Step 10. As I painted each area of the paper, I draped the rest of the painting in lightweight tracing paper. This protected those areas from spatters and spills. (I use every method of masking available, from tracing paper to masking tape and liquid masking fluid.)
Step 11. The teapot and the compote are full of reflections of the other objects in the still life, from the other silver to the pieces of fruit. This means that although they are basically gray objects, you can find all the colors in the painting reflected somewhere on them.
Step 12. It was time to go back across the painting and add all the details. I worked to be sure that the colors in the painting, from the stems and blotches of the fruit to the leaves, had a range of colors—light to dark—that was compatible with the range of grays already established.
Step 13. An underpainting of a dark background does two things for you:
1) It seals the paper and prevents “holidays” in the final color.
2) It gives a tonal effect that will read through the final dark wash.
(Note that I have again draped the objects in the painting in this step.)
Step 14. I used a No, 5 round sable brush to paint the thick, dark background color right up next to the objects. When draping the objects I take care to stay away from the absolute edges so that the background color does not get caught in the paper and bleed up onto the objects. Then I used a No. 6 round for the remaining area of this single wash.
Step 15. At this stage of the process I put the painting up on a wall in the studio and live with it for a couple of weeks. When I come back to it with fresh eyes, I usually see things that I have missed. When painting at this level of realism it’s easy to get caught up in the trees and not see the forest. I often find that I need to add detail and darken or lighten areas.
My goal with this piece, Plymouth Silver Set (watercolor on paper, 27×18) was to create a painting that captured the elegance of some fine pieces of old silver and crystal by setting them off with natural objects and fabrics that had soft edges against the hard manmade objects. This painting was selected for inclusion in the Shanghai Zhujiajiao International Watercolour Biennial Exhibition and sold in that show.
For more great tips on mixing and using grays as well as another step-by-step painting demo (painting realistic clouds in watercolor) from Laurin McCracken, pick up a copy of the February 2011 issue of Watercolor Artist today!
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