Painting dark drapery

Painting drapery - dark blue with silver highlights
Dark matter, oil on panel, 40x30cm

A new problem – another scrap of fabric  – this time drapery of the darkest blue (almost black) but looking closely I find it’s shot through with a silvery grey.

The solution for painting dark drapery is the same as any other complex image. It is about breaking it down both the drawing and the tones into their simplest elements and then building on them.

For example:

  • lightly sketch the largest forms
  • paint in the darkest areas first to avoid muddying them with any other colour which may have white in it’s mix
  • paint in the midtones
  • save the lights for last and use them sparingly (particularly avoiding the background because this will help make it stay back where it belongs)

I chose to paint the whole picture as a dark blue fabric and then add the  silvery grey as a second layer, scumbled over the dark blue once that was dry. I mixed two versions of the silver, reserving the lightest for the highlights and a slightly darker for everything else. I was keen to avoid attracting to much attention to less important areas but still get the effect of a multi-toned fabric.

Painting white on white

Painting white drapery, a white ceramic rabbit on white satin
White rabbit on white satin, acrylic on canvas, 30x21cm

The Easter bunny is running late here. This little experiment with in acrylics was begun at Easter and intended to be finished over the four day break. It wasn’t that simple.

Painting white on white and having it not look grey is all about carefully managing the tones. There needs to be just enough dark (in this case the sliver of shadow under the ceramic rabbit) to make the rest of the painting look light. Otherwise it may look like an over-exposed photograph. If everything is light, nothing looks light. The shadow, however, cannot be took dark either. There is a lot of reflected light in this scene which will bounces the light into even the deepest crevice.

I began by painting in the shadow with a value 5 which meant that everything else would be lighter. The next darkest dark was everything which faces away from the light – technically still a shadow. I went two steps lighter to value 7, making it as clear as possible that it is a shadow but still reading as white rather than grey.

The trick then was to get that separation of light from shadow with the recommended couple of steps when I am just about of them. By that rule I only had values 9 and 10 left. (White and almost white isn’t much to work with…) In this case where all the objects are white, but I wanted the satin to appear shiny, the white was reserved for just that and a couple of tiny highlights on the rabbit. That meant the rest of the painting had to fall around value nine. Clearly not enough, I cheated a little, and went down to value 8 on a second layer of paint when it all read as far too light.

Quite simply a balancing act of white on white painted and re-painted until it looked right.


Painting grey drapery III

Painting of grey drapery
Big grey, oil on panel, 45x60cm

It might look the same as the last two on the small screen, but this one is different: it’s twice size and twice as complex which meant it was twice as easy to get lost! (Also twice as easy to get frustrated or bored, give up and go do something else.)

Painting drapery is about carefully managing the values and not getting lost with the drawing. If necessary use a grid! You can make one with cardboard and string then suspend it in front of the subject with whatever artistic ingenuity is required to get the job done. You will quickly find that it’s necessary to keep your head in the same position as you draw. (Don’t worry, it does get easier with practice.)

Don’t draw too much, drapery might look complex but it does follow thae same pattern as any other painting. Indicate the largest shapes – like the main roads on a map – which should then be enough to figure out where the streets are when you get to them. If you draw too much detail it is tempting to try to paint inside the lines rather than paint the big shapes and add the smaller ones over the top. (That’s pretty much the difference between painting  and ‘painting by numbers’.)

Rough in the darkest dark first because this will set a marker for the value range. Decide how light the lighest lights can go and the rest has to fit in between. With the range set it’s a matter of deciding on the dividing line between light and shade. The rest is puzzle pieces – fit them together and then add a few details to finish.

Painting grey drapery II

Painting grey drapery
Grey drapery II, oil on unstretched canvas, 40x30cm.

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.

Subject: grey drapery

Painting of grey drapery as a subject that becomes a self portrait
Grey drapery (self portrait) , oil on panel, 40x30cm

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.