The brief was to look around the house for an arrangement of objects that just happens to be there and make minor adjustments to create a still life. The focus was on the linear aspects of the outlines of objects and the spaces between them and how this creates particular relationships of line.
It took me a while to decide what to paint. After several attempts two objects, which sit on the desk, seemed to come together – one was a wooden duck and the other a gargoyle. The pairing seemed so incongruous that I wondered if it might work and began to play around with positioning and lighting.
For the lighting I used a small angle poise lamp to try different options. One arrangement in particular seemed to work creating a theatrical look with the curved shadows.
I liked the way that the shadows and shapes of the objects created strong lines and also that there was a sense of a story about the arrangement. I also liked the different texture that each object had – the duck with smooth wood but a weathered effect and the gargoyle with rough, mottled skin.
In doing some preliminary sketches, the position of the duck proved to be more problematic than I had anticipated. I was trying to get the effect of the duck looking into the distance, as if turned towards me and looking over the head of the gargoyle. The foreshortening of the beak was tricky and it took several attempts to get the head looking less as if it was in profile.
At this point I debated doing portrait format as it seemed to lend itself more to the sense of a story, focusing on the duck and gargoyle as characters. In the end I decided to keep the composition as landscape and try to convey the drama of the shadows and ‘centre stage’ effect of the still life. This would also fit in with the brief of focusing on linear aspects.
I worked up a small colour study in acrylic paint having first tried out colour combinations to get close to the actual colours.
Colours: lemon yellow, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, cadmium red, ultramarine, phthalocyanine blue and titanium white.
Brushes: Daler-Rowney, long flat, 3/4″, Daler-Rowney, short flat, 1/2″
For the initial sessions I blocked in the background and foreground, the duck and the gargoyle. The wall behind them was a pale cream but I wanted to used a colour that would complement the colours of both so started with a mix of titanium white and burnt sienna.
I gave the duck an initial undercoat of yellow ochre and red as the colour of the wood is warm underneath the blue. I added a second layer using phthalocyanine blue and burnt sienna and scraped through this to try and emulate the weathered effect but the result looked flat.
Development – duck, gargoyle and background
In the next couple of sessions I worked on the duck again, trying to pull together the overall look and balance out the colour as it was starting to look fragmented. To get that ‘feather’ effect I used small, detailed strokes of pure colour – cadmium red deep and burnt sienna – and when that dried painted a wash of dark blue over it with a ½” flat brush. Once dry I rubbed over the blue using kitchen towel to get through to the warmer layers.
Mindful that I tend to lose sight of backgrounds I worked up the colour of the background using looser brushwork. I then took a wash over the background using a mix of burnt sienna, cadmium red and yellow ochre. Once it was on I rubbed over it to create more of a sense of texture and shadow.
Gargoyle and foreground
To balance work on the background and duck, I switched to the gargoyle and created a mottled effect for the skin using a mix of ultramarine and cadmium red. I used quite dry paint dabbed over the green under layer to create the effect.
I blocked in more solid colour in the foreground using titanium white and a small amount of yellow ochre. I worked this loosely to show streaks of the yellow ochre
I then worked on the shadows using phthalocyanine blue, cadmium red and a hint of burnt sienna. I started with a light wash, blocking in shadows for the duck and gargoyle. The paint was streaky and too dark so I removed some of the colour with a damp kitchen towel.
Shadows and detail
At this stage I worked on the head of the duck, making it lighter and using short strokes to give the impression of feathers. I blocked in the name tag and also added more shadow to the body.
Having added in the shadows to the left of the picture I felt that they were too overpowering and wasn’t sure what to do. I rubbed off some of the top layer. At this stage I decided to leave the painting as it is and come back and review it before making any other changes.
- If doing the painting again I might use either portrait format, to get more sense of the objects as characters, or use a more cropped-in landscape format. While I, initially, liked the wider, theatrical effect I think that closer framing may have worked better. Then again, perhaps that takes it in the direction of something more illustrative and less a still life.
- Foreshortening – need to practice. Would have liked a more dramatic turn of the duck’s head but found this hard to achieve.
- Shadows – need to keep looking/collecting examples
- I’m learning when to stop – if only to leave the painting for a couple of days – and to go back and review it.
- Gargoyle – character/texture
- I liked the idea of the characters having a story to tell and the viewer contemplating this.