Seattle, Washington • sandrapower.artspan.com
Enamel Bowl with Ladle (oil, 18×22)
“When making pictures of such apparent simplicity,” Sandra Power says of Enamel Bowl With Ladle, “I have to make sure each component is in exactly the right place within the composition.” The strong but simple shape of the bowl contrasting with the more complex ladle formed the basis of her inspiration. The ladle provides a dramatic vertical element, casting an intriguing shadow on the wall. “From the very start,” says Power, “I always give thoughtful consideration to how the picture plane is to be divided. My goal is to wed the separate parts of a composition in such a way that they contribute to the whole in perfect harmony.”
“My tonal, minimalist approach aims to capture a mood of peace and stillness,” says Power. She explains that, when painting with a restricted palette, it’s important to pay attention to the nuances of color temperature. “I mix a neutral gray, then warm or cool it as dictated by the subject. The play of cools and warms is what lifts the grays and makes them beautiful. I seek out and am grateful for those instances when nature offers a spot of color. The small area of orange rust on the rim of the bowl may seem insignificant but is so needed amidst all the cool, blue-green grays.”
Many of her mixtures are grayed using raw umber. For example, the background color was made using ultramarine blue, raw umber and white with a touch of burnt sienna or cadmium orange to warm it up.
“I work only from life,” says Power. “My ideal lighting is natural north light, which creates the soft shadows and mood that I strive for. Regrettably, my current studio has a western exposure, so I’m experimenting with artificial daylight bulbs.”
Draper, Utah • www.wendychidester.com
Unplugged (oil 25×60)
“I’ve collected so much stuff, since I started painting still life, I could open an antique shop,” jokes Salt Lake City artist Wendy Chidester. “It’s the history these items represent—the wear and scars they show and the memories they evoke—that make them appealing to me.” Her paintings often spark talk between generations as a parent or grandparent shares memories of an object with children or grandchildren.
While Chidester usually paints single items, she welcomes the challenge of composing and interpreting multiple objects, as in Unplugged. “There are several hurdles I jump when composing these paintings,” she says. “I have to come up with the theme, find the subject matter, make sure I have enough objects of various sizes and colors, and then play with the lighting after arranging the elements. After all that, the painting part seems pretty easy!”
Chidester says that Unplugged fell into place compositionally when she snaked the black cords of the projectors over and through the objects, a maneuver that seemed to tie everything together.
“I paint directly from life,” says Chidester, “with halogen light raking across the still life, giving me strong shadows and highlights. I start by toning the primed canvas and then lay out the shapes of the composition on the picture plane with a large flat brush.” Her extensive glazing results in 10 to 15 coats of paint on a canvas. Unlike many still life artists who paint to scale, Chidester finds herself increasing the size of objects to expose more fully the age and detail of her beloved antiques.
Sonoma, California • www.artistdonwilliams.com
Sixty-Six (pastel, 54×30)
“I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and even though I’ve lived in California for many years, the Midwest’s small farm towns and spacious vistas still inform my way of seeing,” says Don Williams. “I want to bring attention to those things and places we often overlook and transform them into something new, as if seen for the first time. Anything closely observed can be beautiful.”
He works from his own photos and explains, “In Sixty-Six, I cropped the photo, centering the gas pump in the composition to emphasize its imposing appearance. The bright sunlight on the pump contrasts with the dark storefront, adding to the drama. Diagonal shadows take the eye back into the shallow space and counter the strong verticals of the pump. The curved lines of the hose also add relief to the vertical composition.”
This pastel artist’s preferred surface is four-ply museum rag board mounted on a wall. “The board remains flat and can withstand a lot of rubbing and blending,” he says. “Pastel is a versatile and forgiving medium. It can be reworked easily by brushing away or erasing unwanted layers before adding corrections.” He blends with his palm or fingers or, in areas too small for fingers, the tip of a kneaded eraser. Working under a combination of fluorescent, incandescent and natural light, Williams wears a dust mask when applying pastel to a large area. He avoids fixatives, which he finds tend to darken colors and leave a slightly speckled texture.
Victoria, British Columbia • www.noahlayne.com
Spilling Citrus (oil, 14×30)
“The rhythm of light as it falls over and around form is seductive,” says Noah Layne, “be it on a face, a lemon, a tree or a rock.” He enjoys painting lemons for their shape and coloring, and also notes that they’re slow to spoil—an important consideration because he paints from life.
Layne set up Spilling Citrus in a dark box with the front and one side open, which enabled him to control the lighting from a spotlight coming in from the left. He painted this piece at night under spectrum fluorescents—a common practice for Layne—but he typically also works on a painting during the day in natural light so that at all times of the day he has something to work on.
He began Spilling Citrus with a palette of earth colors, going over the entire canvas and getting the big light and dark shapes down. Working next with a full palette, in the second and third layers he perfected colors and details.
Matthew Almy, director of Ravenswood Atelier, usually begins work on a painting by creating an environment, as he did with Brass Pots and Eucalyptus. “The creation of the space the objects are placed in is probably the most important part of the design,” he says, “as it provides the stage on which to place my ‘actors.’”
After establishing the lighting and atmosphere, he selects and places objects—paying attention to variations in size, texture, color and value. “I then look for large negative shapes and masses of color or value to play with,” he says. “Generally, a struggling composition isn’t helped by adding something but is improved by taking something away.”
To assess his setup, he’ll squint or look in a black mirror, checking the balance and arrangement of values, and making sure the eye has a path to follow. “Before I start painting, I ask my wife, who’s also a painter, what she thinks,” says Almy. “It’s important to get outside perspectives from artists you respect.”
Chicago, Illinois • www.russellharrisart.com
Fortune Cookies (oil, 7×7)
“Seeing how light affects texture, contrast and color is truly a thing to behold,” says Russell Harris. “In looking at fortune cookies as subject matter, I was fascinated with their subtle inner glow and color variations.” He made display platforms for the cookies out of cardboard and colored paper. “By creating a small theatrical stage, I could control the shapes of shadows and the mood,” he says. To capture the luminosity of the cookie shell, he used a studio lamp with a bulb for a plant light, which made the atmospheric light cooler and increased the value contrast.
In a manner reminiscent of the old masters, Harris grinds powdered pigment and mixes it with black oil to create paints at the beginning of each painting session. He draws the objects in raw umber and then with bristle brushes applies values of colors loosely. He refines the drawing with sable brushes, making color adjustments with glazes.
Rosemary Barrett Seidner is a director of Miller Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a freelance writer.
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