Still life with complementary colours

The aim of this exercise was to make a colour study of a still life using a narrow range of colours comprised of one colour, its complementary and white to lighten tones.

Composition

Photo of still life

Photo of still life

I worked on this while on holiday in Orkney and set up a still life in the kitchen of our holiday cottage using a bowl of fruit and some oatcakes.

Tonal study

Tonal study

After working on some quick line drawings in landscape and portrait format I decided on the composition above with the intention of cropping in on the chair.

Colour study

Based on a colour wheel from a previous exercise I decided to use lemon yellow and red-violet as complementary colours, creating the red-violet from a mix of cadmium red and ultramarine blue.

Colour palette showing tonal range

Colour palette showing tonal range

I worked on creating a range of tones by mixing:

  • Red-violet and white
  • Lemon yellow and white
  • Lemon yellow and a mix of red-violet and white

From this I produced a range of tones from a dark ochre to a deep plum. Using the colours for reference I worked up a loose colour study noting dark, mid and light tones.

Colour study for still life

Colour study for still life

I wanted to concentrate on the colours and tones and decided to use larger brushes than usual to ensure I didn’t get too focused on detail.

Brushes: Daler Rowney System 3 – ½” short flat, Daler Rowney System 3 – ¾” long flat, Daler Rowney System 3 – 1” short flat

Initial session

For the initial session I blocked in the main shapes:

Colours blocked in for still life

Colours blocked in for still life

  • Chair – red-violet and titanium white for the range of tones
  • Fruit – apple and oranges – I used a darker tone of the background colour
  • Tablecloth – white with a hint of the background colour
  • Grapes – a deep red-violet

Development work

Development of chair and items on the table

Development of chair and items on the table

Over the next few sessions I worked on the chair, developing the tones. I added a darker tone of the background colour to the wall to suggest the corner of the room and create a sense of depth.

I created more detail on the apple, oranges and grapes and started to develop the shapes and reflections in the glass bowl. For both the bowl and the plastic beaker I had to remind myself that these are transparent and to remember to show the tablecloth through them.

Using the edge of the ½” brush I dabbed on diluted red-violet and a mix of red-violet/lemon yellow along the lines of colour on the tablecloth. This helped to create the crinkled appearance of the cloth.

Finally I worked on the plate with the oatcakes adding more shadow and the reflections of the grapes in the knife.

Final session

Detail of fruit bowl

Detail of fruit bowl

In the final session I developed the fruit bowl and the plate. While the bowl is glass I liked the decorative effect of the light and shade on the bowl and decided not to attempt to make it look any more real. On the edge of the beaker I added in a reflection from the glass bowl.

I did more work on the plate keeping the brushwork quite loose and adding more light and shade.

Detail of plate and oatcakes

Detail of plate and oatcakes

In the background I took a wash of red-violet and lemon yellow over the wall to deepen the tone and to create a sense of texture.

Final version of complementary colours exercise

Final version of complementary colours exercise

Learning points

I enjoyed this exercise and, because I was working with a limited palette, thought more about the tonal values and the range of colours that I could achieve.

I was pleased with the overall effect and felt that I had achieved, without being overly detailed, a sense of the range of textures including wood, glass, plastic, china and cloth. Working with larger brushes helped with this.

  • I liked the challenge of the limited palette – a useful exercise to focus on tonal values and in the end, although this wasn’t an exercise to evoke mood, I felt that the colours did give the picture that sunny, holiday feel.
  • I enjoyed working with larger brushes – it made me concentrate on tones and shapes and avoid being too detailed.
  • On final reflection the curve of the table looks a little out – again that lesson of, literally, not losing track of the big picture.
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