Sadie Valeri demonstrates how to build a still life composition, including steps in making the first sketch, creating the underpaintings, using opaque colors and giving the final touches in slight hue and value adjustments.
Precise Line, Value and Color
By Sadie J. Valeri
A good drawing is crucial to a good painting. Once I’ve established my setup, I trace the size and shape of my painting panel on a sheet of white paper and overlay a sheet of Mylar drafting film over the rectangular shape. With translucent Mylar I can move the drawing around over the panel guidelines in order to refine my composition before transferring it to the actual panel.
1. Start the drawing with a straight-line block-in or envelope
I start my drawing with a straight-line block-in or envelope that encompasses all the objects in my composition as one shape. Then I add a few lines to segment the shape into the individual elements of the composition.
2. Segment the lines
I segment the lines more and add detail to see whether the shapes continue to feel accurate. If I feel that I’m squeezing or stretching anything to fit it into the space I’ve built for it, I go back to earlier stages. Problems in one small area usually mean there’s a larger error in proportions. I rely on my eyes and rarely take measurements.
3. Look through pathways in the paper
Crumpled papers can seem like a jumble of shapes. I look for major pathways of structure passing through and across the form, like stress paths an engineer might diagram on a bridge design. The paper holds its form due to the structural integrity of the shape. It’s up to the artist to reverse-engineer it. Once I find the pathways, I continue to look for smaller forms. All through this process, I use only straight lines.
4. Try to understand the three-dimensional structures
Once the shapes are blocked in accurately with straight lines, I begin thinking constructively, trying to understand the three-dimensional structure of the solid objects. The shell felt flattened, so I constructed it with interlocking ovals, noting where shapes disappeared into the form and re-emerged.
5. Transfer the drawing to a gessoed wood panel
When all drawing and composition issues are resolved, I transfer my drawing to a gessoed wood panel. I then shave the widths of each line of the transferred drawing with a retractable eraser until I have hair-thin contours. I lighten the lines by rolling over them with a kneaded eraser. After brushing away dust and eraser debris, I seal the surface with one coat of varnish and odorless mineral spirits (1:5 ratio).
6. Make the first underpainting
My first underpainting is an open grisaille, which uses the white of the panel for light areas, so some of the canvas is left exposed or open. The only paint color I use is burnt umber. For light areas, I thin the paint with odorless mineral spirits. The open grisaille takes me a day or two to complete.
7. Make the second underpainting
Next comes a closed grisaille, an underpainting rendered in a full value range and covering the entire surface of the panel. Using burnt umber, ultramarine blue and flake white, I mix six or seven puddles of neutral, warm gray, ranging from black to white, in a string on my palette. I spend about a week bringing this monochromatic painting to a full finish with two or more layers, using small brushes.
8. Go over the entire painting with a general pass of opaque color
Next, I go over the entire painting with a general pass of opaque color, matching the values of the underpainting while completely covering it. I evaluate each area for hue, value and chroma. I stick with my main contours, but I don’t worry much about details at this stage.
9. Work on one small area of the painting per day
I work on one small area of the painting per day, letting it dry while I work on other areas on other days. Doing one pass over the entire surface can take a week. Dry paint creates a surface that doesn’t accept wet paint easily, so at the beginning of each painting session I paint what’s called a couch, a thin layer of medium over the surface. If the couch beads up or pulls away from the surface, I lightly abrade the surface with very fine (600- to 1500-grit) wet/dry sandpaper, leaving a thin film of oil paint.
10. Deepen the shadows and make slight hue and value adjustments in the lights
Near the final stages I deepen the shadows and make slight hue and value adjustments in the lights with glazing—paint with more medium mixed in to make the layers transparent or semitransparent. Here you see the completed Auriform (Polished Abalone Shell) (oil, 11×14).
Free artistsnetwork.tv preview
Click here to watch a free video preview of “A Brush with Wildlife in Oils with Pip McGarry.”
MORE RESOURCES FOR ARTISTS