Issuing the Call

Issuing the Call
Issuing the Call

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Behind the Scenes look at Grandma's Blueberry Jam

I want to start by sharing the story about how this project came to be. I had been feeling a bit weak in my tonal range and depth of view in my paintings, when I came across an article excerpt in the June 2008 magazine American Artist, titled “Classical Painting Ateliers : A contemporary guide to traditional studio practice” by Juliette Aristides (‘ateliers’ is French for ‘workshop’). One of the exercises discussed about was about tone. I decided to try this exercise to see if tone was indeed my problem.

The first question always seems to be ‘what to paint?’ I knew I wanted to do a still-life painting after the classical style. I kept my eyes open for subject ideas. One day I was looking at posts of my various friends on Facebook. One of my friend’s had commented on a photograph of some blueberry jam that her sister had made. Looking at that photo, I knew what I wanted to paint: a bottle of blueberry jam, with a some blueberries scattered about and a few orange slices for color contrast and that pop of vitality.

I spent an afternoon gathering my parts. I borrowed a glass jar from my mother as well as some gingham for the cover, bought some fruit from the market, and some raffia from the local craft store. After arranging the rough idea in my head, I laid out a few simple, quick thumbnail sketches, and took a picture to have something to show here. At this point I’m just getting my layout arranged, Golden Mean set up, eye line and so on, nothing very drastic.

I decided to paint this on a canvas board of standard size, 11 x 14, mostly because that is what I had laying around. I started by doing a rough pencil lay-in. As you can see faded in the background, I moved the jar over more to the right. I found I didn’t like the edge right up against the main vertical Golden Mean, thus placing the body of the jam bottle too close to the middle of the painting. So, I redrew it with the body of the jar centered on the main Golden Mean line. All the various angles and measurements are based off of that Golden Mean in one way or another. Another picture taken.

Using a sienna brown colored pencil, I drew in the final drawing. It is interesting to mention here that I prefer to use a cheap, Crayola brown colored pencil for this stage of the painting. I have found it to be of better quality than the more expensive, “high-end” art pencils (which I will refer to as the ‘others’) in that the lead in the cheap Crayolas are more complete and not shattered every few inches as the others tend to be. Also, the others tend to crumble under the slightest pressure of drawing. I think it also fair to mention that one of the other colored pencils costs as much or more than an entire Crayola 12 pack of colored pencils. Alas, Crayola is also not without its cons. The biggest problem with the Crayola colored pencil pack in my opinion is that they only sell them in color sets – one of each color, and I only want one color, the brown one. So, either I deal with the more emotional other pencil or I have a studio filled with every color of Crayola except brown. I have contacted Crayola about buying just a case of browns, but so far they have told me that they no longer offer single color bulk purchases. So depending on my mood I’ll either add another ‘11’ to the pile, or crumble my way through another brand. For this painting I chose to crumble my way through it with a Prismacolor. Photo taken.

Finally I get to add some paint. First comes the under painting. As per the direction of the article when you do this step you paint straight out of the tube, with no use of medium to thin the paint down. I always do an under painting on all my paintings (well almost always, the exception is when I paint on paper). On most of my paintings I will use a rag and scrub in a greatly thinned down unifying paint color (Burnt Sienna). Then I’ll go in with Burnt Umber and put in my darkest area, and use the reductive technique for my lightest area. With this particular painting, I used Raw Umber straight from the tube onto the canvas using a large, soft, one inch #12 flat brush. Then, using various brushes and a rag, I employed the reductive method to create the tonal under paint image. The reductive method I prefer involves using Mineral Spirits to wipe out the thickly applied Raw Umber paint to create the various tones (lights and darks) I’m looking for. Another photo.

Once the under painting stage is fully dry to the touch, I then start applying the local colors in thin, transparent layers, letting the under-painting come through. I’ve been experimenting with thin layers of paint (called Glazing) since the start of my painting career, but it wasn’t until I read a book written by Leonardo Di Vinci, that I felt I really mastered it. This book was originally written by Di Vinci in Italian and later translated into what may have been some older form of English (lots of fun, once I learned with help from my wife, that what looked like a single letter, could indeed be either “F, P or S”, and they apparently hadn’t invented punctuation yet, giving the appearance of one giant run-on sentence). Besides trying to make sense of the “spelling”, the biggest problem with the book, was that Di Vinci would reference other books to better understand concepts he was talking about, only they hadn’t been written.

After the local color lay-in and before the paint is dry, I’ll use a more Western Wet-on-wet technique to finish off the rest of the painting. Last photo.

After completing this painting, I don’t think that tones are really my main problem on my larger paintings, but rather it might be more the color temperature. So, I’m putting together another Atelier exercise, and this time I think I will do something around peaches, probably with a French country theme. I don’t yet know exactly how I will bring them all together, it just seems to warm my heart as I think about it. I’m also a sucker for Florentine and rococo designs (these themes are almost always somewhere in my fantasy paintings). A note in closing, I was originally going to go with peaches in this first experiment, but the photograph of the Blueberry jam formed an idea so strongly in my mind that I chose to go with that instead.

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