Another go at understanding how this stuff works. There’s a whole world in a scrap of fabric!
Painting drapery is an advanced skill but not impossible with care and attention to breaking the problem down into simple steps. The same as any other painting – drawing the shapes and simplifying the values.
Drawing is just making shapes. Big shapes first. Small shapes later. Limit the values of those shapes to just three to begin with – light, mid and dark. Squint to see them! Mine have been broken down a little more as the painting progressed but if you squint you will see that there are really only three at the finish.
Yes, this is the backdrop that Diana has been sitting on for the past month. I was about to pick it up after putting her back on the shelf, but paused to look, whch is always an invitation and a risk. It doesn’t look like nearly three days work. And I don’t think I’m done with it yet because it made me question that crazy moment when a painting stops being about the subject and instead becomes a self portrait. In making this study I found drapery to be dangerously enveloping…
There’s a fascination in the puzzle-like quality of painting fabric which has intrigued artists throughout history. Ingres was merely famous for it, while spanish painter Francisco Zurbarán (1598–1664) almost drowns us in the softness of Saint Serapion’s robes. Contemporary Scottish artist Alison Watt continues the tradition in fine style while reducing her subject matter to just that, but on a very grand scale. She said of Zubaran:
“Each fold has been pared down to the basic elements of light and shade. As a viewer you are seduced by this simplicity, only to realise you have been duped. Zurbarán has elevated the humble fabric of the robes of Saint Serapion to a divine level with pure, magnificent white.”
While struggling with the complexities of this study I came to understand the intrigue. Drawn in, almost obsessively, I couldn’t leave it alone. I will admit to a certain anxiety that was not related to the painting, but became transferred to it and soothed at the same time. I began to wonder at this exchange, curious as to how much of this painting was about the folds of the fabric and how much of it became about my own tangled state of mind. In absorbing my angst I think it became a self-portrait… stopped being a study and became promoted to a work worth signing.
Further reading: Beyond the Pale an article by Alison Watt on the painting of fabric.
That’s it for this project. My month of Diana is done. I can’t explain the fascination, or compulsion, to keep painting the same object, but even I get to the point where it (she!) has to be banished to the shelf for a spell.
The month of Diana is almost up, I promise. The light is different even if the object is the same. Plus, she’s turned around to look out the window. Yes, I anthropomorphicise my still-life objects as much as I do the cars. Too much time alone in the studio, I guess.
Inspired by the pinboard on the wall, I upgraded my drawing board by gluing a piece of pinboard on it. There will be no more bulldog clips to get in the way of the painting at this easel!
The softboard/firebreboard/whatever glues down with PVA and can be cut with a Stanley knife. I glued first, weighed it down with books overnight and trimmed it once fully dry. A quick sanding of the edges to tidy up. No more tape, blutack or bulldog clips and it’s a very nice surface under both paper and unstretched canvas. (And I can still turn it around and use the MDF side anyway.)
I’m attaching canvas or paper with the simplest dressmaking pins, like so, because I paint right in around them.
Another go at the plaster cast. Bigger. And with different lighting. It is all in the light – artists don’t paint objects, we paint effect of the light on objects. Just saying. (Without light there would be no objects anyway!)
A couple of things to see here – one is that Diana is still hanging around the easel – this time getting more expressive with a bit of charcoal.
The other is the pinboard. It’s a huge piece, salvaged from an office, that is now attached to the studio wall. Lately, I’ve been painting studies and exercises on unstretched canvas because it’s easier to store in a folio than a panel. (No big deal to mount on panel later if I wanted to frame them anway.) Another advantage with this pinboard is that I can stick them on the pinboard and see all the work from the current project together.
Sorry about the glare. Black paint is often difficult to photograph. Wet black oil paint is impossible… a small painting of a favourite object, a plaster bust of Diana, set up against a dark fabric to show off her profile. A painting is never quite that simple, of course.
This plaster cast of Diana arrived in the studio with Apollo. I saw them both in a Perth curio shop, just north of the old William Street horseshow bridge back in the days when it was a one way street going into the city. I was on a bus and, happily for me, sitting on the right side to be able to see them in the shop window when we stopped at the lights. It seemed a very long way to the next stop… I ran back to the shop to peer through the glass, fingers crossed, to see if could afford what it said on the price tag. I couldn’t, but I bought them anyway. Whatever it was that I had come to the city for that day could wait. (And there are so many ways to prepare pasta… ) I would be painting portaits of this pair long after the family stopped glaring at me for my inconsiderate squandering of the grocery allotment. And I have, here she is again.
I took a little time off painting to make something. This is shaped to fit me and be both bigger and lighter than anything I could buy (that I could afford, anyway). I had forgotten how much I enjoy making. See, all that time studying sculpture wasn’t totally wasted.
It’s made from two pieces of 3ply laminated together to prevent it warping, so it should last a long time (or until I can find even thinner plywood to make an even lighter one.) The most difficult part was making a cardboard template that felt just right. Then cutting and sanding to make sure there are no sharp edges. I gave mine a coating of linseed oil to get it started but that isn’t strictly necessary because it will develop a patina from the oil paints as it is used. It is almost dry… I am feeling like a kid on Xmas eve. Kudos to Ron Francis for the instructions.
My first go with it felt strange but good. Untethered from my the glass tabletop palette, plus no underdrawing and no pre-mixed colours – such unaccustomed freedom. All I need now is a beret.
Still not quite convinced by the calculated values for the bevelled cube I did the only sensible thing I could think of and made some to test. (Very simple, just bits of wood cut to shape with a bandsaw and painted with acrylics.)
Then painted a picture of them under ordinary studio light taking care to match the values I was seeing:
It doesn’t work with Apollo’s values because I am seeing the effect of two light sources (the overhead light which lights my easel plus the one set up for the subject.) My mistake. Tried again with a shadow box to exclude the top light.
I actually tried many lights and setups but could not recreate Dorian’s values for light and shade. The darkest I could get the white in shadow was V7 – a long way short of his V4.
Also the value for the light side of the black cube measured at V4. I found it impossible to replicate the rule-of-thumb taught everywhere that “a black cube in the light is the same value as a white cube in shadow”.
This exercise for me has highlighted the value (couldn’t resist the pun) of actually recreating examples rather than merely accepting something read in a book. Any book.