Still Life in Tone Using Colour

Of course I knew colour was coming soon and at first I was excited to play around with it but then I was apprehensive. Partly this is due to getting used to handling new media and not really having a clue but also, after a few sketches, I was generally unimpressed with my efforts. I’m not sure if there is a mental block that I need to overcome but this week has been a challenging one.

I decided to start with oil pastels as I could sweep them across the page in broad strokes of colour as directed. For a change, I elevated my still life arrangement and placed them on a box for a slightly different view. The oil pastels were not enjoyable to use, they felt hard and sticky, not smooth as I had imagined. I struggled with them for a while, then googled how to use them and tried using my fingers to move the pigment around a bit, which had a very limited success. Sadly, although I worked fast and spontaneous as instructed, I thought the end result was rather childlike.

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Oil pastels

Feeling a bit discontented, I reverted to compressed charcoals, and drew on black sugar paper as I felt I needed to locate myself again, trying to get shapes and tone correct.


compressed charcoal

Working fast and loosely, I think these shapes are more convincing and I’m happy that I made a range of different marks, this is something I need to expand on but it’s not coming naturally. The proportions are not quite right but I decided speed was more important. I changed the arrangement and made sure the tea spout was not getting lost in the carafe.

Next, I tried conté sticks, trying to keep it fast and free. After doing this one, I re-read the exercise and felt like I wasn’t really happy with the results. Felt a little frustrated but figured I just needed to keep trying.

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conte sticks

The next day I decided I would quickly rework the two drawings before I tried something else, making sure not to spend too much time on them.

This is the reworked oil pastel


reworked oil pastels

I don’t think I’m ever going to love this but am happier with the tea pot and the carafe. Now that I’ve photographed and uploaded this, I don’t think the jug works, but I think the shapes are more solid than before.

I definitely had problems with the restrictions of the media, I really wanted to get a brush and some turps and work into it, but then it would be a painting no? As I have a tendency to spend too long working detail into drawing and sketching, I was determined not to spend hours over it thus overworking it. I’ve only achieved a very limited amount of depth, purely by placing the carafe at the back.

Being restricted to line makes it seem quite stiff and artificial, obviously the colours contribute to that too but that seems to be the point of the exercise, it doesn’t say to represent the colours realistically. I found the example by Michael Coombes to be misleading, as it doesn’t seem messy and spontaneous to me and has clearly used many different colours.

The use of colour at first distracted me but I don’t think it adds anything to this drawing.

I also reworked the conté stick drawing

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reworked conte sticks

Finally an improvement, this time I am happier with the jug and the carafe, they look more solidly in place and appear to exist as real objects, more so than the previous drawing. Once I added the edge of the table, and more contrast there seems to be a better sense of depth. Again, the proportions are slightly off but I was trying to be fast and not overdo it.  I think the line works better, the curved shapes in the carafe give it more definition and in the jug, the teapot seems to be standing upright so the effects have worked somewhat.

Having reviewed this again, I’m still not sure I have successfully completed this exercise, especially when viewing the example by Michael Coombs. It seems to me that his drawing is not a fast sketch but rather a detailed drawing that uses many different colours rather than the three we were asked to use. The example given is not messy and energetic but rather controlled and, I’m guessing probably took a long time to complete.

As I was feeling unsure about this exercise I did it again! This time with a lovely set of Unison soft pastels, they are thick and chunky and glide over the paper leaving a lot of colour behind.

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soft pastels

It’s far from perfect but it is messy, and has sweeps of colour. I couldn’t really put any more pigment over it, it is so thick already but I changed the direction of my marks to add solidity and definition in the background. I can see I need to work on tone, but this was quite a restrictive exercise, only using 3 colours, but the colour does add something expressive. I feel like there is some emotion now, it’s a happy drawing of a sunny jug of flowers, it was sunny when I drew it. It was hard to add more depth, although I did try, the pastels are so chunky and it was hard to add a lot of contrast. I kept the composition very simple as I knew it would be very difficult to draw a lot of detail with the chunky pastels and I would argue that this adds to the jovial mood.

Using colour was most definitely challenging, at one point I wavered and reverted back to black and white as I felt a bit lost. I do find the black and white drawings useful to place everything on the page, and when deciding on the composition too. I wouldn’t say I was completely comfortable using colour yet, there is a long road ahead.


Mixed Media Book

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A very kind person lent me this interesting book, (Bernard, Mike and Capon, Robin, 2010, Collage, Colour and Texture in Painting: London, Batsford) at quite an appropriate time, I see we have an exercise in mixed media coming up.

I have always had a bit of fear about mixed media because I don’t really know how to go about it but am really happy that I read this book, even though it’s about painting, it’s very relevant.

The author explains his painting technique in details which I think I will be a very good place to start from when attempting mixed media. I am excited to try it out now and have some fun with it. Who knows, this could become my favourite thing.

Still Life Using Line

I decided to start with a couple of quick sketches before committing to a final drawing and began with a pineapple, a coconut and a pear. I chose these for their different shapes and textures, plus they were still hanging around since the previous exercise.

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quick pencil sketch

I used pencil and tried drawing almost continuously in a gestural style and I liked the end result, perhaps because it was quite different to my normal attempts. I think I managed to get the solidity of the three fruits but in a freer, looser style than normal which was fun although the pineapple isn’t completely convincing.

As I really enjoyed drawing the pears, I wondered what a few pears would look like as an arrangement and did a quick sketch of them using compressed charcoal. I wanted to try something different but it was quite difficult to get the pears to stand up. I got one to stand up by itself but the other two needed each other for support, that seemed the perfect composition.

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quick compressed charcoal sketch

Perhaps because of their funny shapes, they were a pleasure to draw,  and I think I did  a capable job of capturing their form. I am beginning to realise that charcoal needs more room, I was using an A5 sketchbook, so I did a larger version on A3. I very much enjoyed drawing these, making a real effort to draw fast and loose and not in a constrained way. Perhaps I am beginning to understand the need for the right tools for the job, including paper size, and am starting to enjoy drawing bigger and bigger.

Here’s the larger version.

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longer study, compressed charcoal

This time I used a bracelet effect to give the pears their rounded shape, again in compressed charcoal.

As I really want to experiment with the dipping pen and ink, I will do another version but I am happy that I have experimented with a different technique and am somewhat content with the result. Although now that I have uploaded the photo I’m not sure if the middle pear’s stalk is projecting forward as much as I would like! Obviously the drawing is not perfect, the shapes are a little off but I enjoyed getting to know the new materials.

Drawing with the dipping pen was very tricky, I’m not sure if I have some defunct nibs or it’s down to user error, but I had real problems even getting the nibs to work. I had soaked them in boiling water previously, in case they were covered in wax, but I’m clueless as to what is going wrong here. After a few attempts, I used a much broader nib, which seemed to work better and tried out a version of the pears.

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ink version

It’s not perfect and, whilst I found it challenging, I am also quite happy that I persisted and am pleased with the end result. Clearly the technical aspect of the line is lacking, and I need some more practice but I am excited to try it again.

Reviewing this after exercise two, I thought the images were relatively successful, especially the pears, as I felt I took a risk with just using pears and having them fall onto each other as an arrangement. I think some of my compositions have been quite basic so I realise the need to be more adventurous going forward.

Some elements of depth came through, in the use of contrast and the way one pear falls on the other, and through use of tone.

Being restricted to tone was fine, it adds some personality to the drawing but the ink pen technique clearly needs practice.

Just using one colour worked well, although the brown ink was the only one I owned at the time, it seems appropriate for the pears, hinting at the seasonality of fruit, giving it an autumnal air. This course is pushing me to try new things but I’m never really sure if I am doing it right, even analysing your own work is difficult and trying to second guess your self. Hopefully this will become easier as I go on.

Detail and Tone

As this exercise was going to be more detailed than previous I wanted to draw something that had a mixture of textures so I decided to draw a pineapple. Whilst I was buying it, I spotted a coconut on sale so, on impulse I bought that too and did a quick sketch. Usually I choose items that I consider easier to draw but this one was going to be a challenge, I figure I have to learn how to draw everything so I went for something different. Normally I would shy away from anything that wasn’t the most basic of shapes but I felt somewhat confident in attempting these.

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I wasn’t sure whether to cut the pineapple or not but, being practical and there being no going back once it’s cut, I left it whole and put it on its side for a different view. I used pencil because my default choice is charcoal and I didn’t think I could get the finer details and variations in tone I wanted to see. This is my first attempt really at focusing on detail and was fairly content with the form of the pineapple overall, the proportion seems accurate although I had a bit of trouble with the top right part of the base, at first it seemed too square so have attempted to correct that.

It wasn’t very sunny when I drew it so it was hard to see the difference in light, especially as the uneven texture of the fruit didn’t reflect it at all. I think I am starting to appreciate the need for different size strokes and lightness of touch is hard to sustain, at some point you want to go in and find the dark points, maybe a little heavy handed in parts but I was definitely conscious of trying not to overwork it.

I think I got some contrast in, it’s tricky  not to go overboard with this, is the balance right, I hope so. I chose different marks for the leafy bract, and for the fruit part and even some cross-hatching in the shadow. For me, there is a lot of varying marks but I need to work on this, I have researched it online and I think I am starting to understand the different effects available. I didn’t do a broken line anywhere really so will need to try in my next exercise. I’m realising there is a lot to learn and it takes time to process it and the need for practice, I think I am sketching more so that helps.


The sketchbooks are evading me, I don’t know why, perhaps because I don’t draw idly but am quite focused; when I plan to draw,  I draw. My tutor has advised me to get into the habit so I’m trying to do just that. Perhaps if I think of them as prep sketches, maybe that will help? Anyway, I am drawing random fruits and veg at the moment as I’m working my way through part two.

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Hairy coconut

Even just sketching quickly throws up a few issues, keeping proportion right, perspecive on the chopping board, pressing too hard or using the wrong pencil.

Research Point: Positive and Negative Space

For some reason my brain is struggling with the concept of positive and negative space, even though I understand negative space to be that which surrounds the main subject of an image. Perhaps it is because it is not always a conscious thing that the eye notices but the brain understands. If I am understanding this correctly, it provides a clear defined boundary between the positive and negative thereby giving the image balance.

The first artist who came to mind was Matisse, one of the original Fauvists.


Matisse, La Danse (1), 1909

What strikes me most is the apparent simplicity of the composition, perhaps because of the bold negative space, representing the sky and green grass, it gives a sense of movement whilst the colour sets the mood of joy. The dancers seem fairly focused on dancing.

Whilst researching this topic, I came across a Malaysian artist, Tang Yau Hoong, who cleverly tells a story in a simple yet fun way.


Tang Yau Hoong, Danger Ahead

Banksy came to mind too and I found this well known image.


Banksy, Girl with Balloon Unsigned, 2004

The simplicity of the image makes the message more poignant, is she reaching for something lost or did she let it go on purpose?

Reading Experimental Drawing (again, I know, it’s my go-to resource), Kaupelis gives us a fine example in Georgia O’Keefe.


Georgia O’Keefe, Drawing IV, 1959, charcoal on paper

It’s simplicity with the barest of details, doesn’t give us much to go on, but on closer inspection it seems the light is coming from both sides. I don’t know why she did this but it makes it a  little mysterious and yet it has life. Kaupelis compares this with deKooning’s work, created in the same year. I couldn’t find the one Kaupelis publishes but here’s a similar one.


Willem deKooning, Black and White Rome F, 1959,oil on paper

DeKooning clearly painted this quickly, splashing paint around, yet it has a clear structure, his work is expressive and dynamic and I think the negative space here works as a stop.

Clearly the balance between positive and negative space is paramount and needs careful consideration when deciding on the composition of a drawing or painting. It can be used in a striking way to make the object stand out more, or convey emotions and is not just dead space.

Research Point: Still Life

The earliest examples of Still Life go as far back as the ancient Egyptians who believed drawing food images in burial chambers would allow the dead to provide real food in the afterlife. The Greeks and the Romans also left many examples too, ranging from lowly depictions of the working lower classes whilst the upper classes depicted the luxurious range of food they consumed.

Up to this point religious painting had been viewed as the most important and highest genre of all, by the middle of the seventeenth century the Dutch Republic had gained independence and were mostly Protestant. Artists looked towards their immediate surroundings and away from religious subject matter. Genre painting was born, depicting the very ordinary situations of regular, daily life. Still life became popular and although they may appear to be simple scenes, often they hid a more complex message; they painted luxurious objects, flowers and fine foods set against a plain background, painted in realistic detail, with a variety of textures. Vanitas paintings emerged, with poignant reminders of the inevitability of death in candles, skulls and hourglasses.

Willem Claesz Heda (c.1594-1680) was one of the most renowned painters of this time.


Willem Claesz Heda, Still Life with a Gilt Cup, 1635

The colours are somewhat muted but beautifully arranged in a seemingly careless manner, against a lighter background and highlights of reflected light throughout, masterfully depicting a variety of different textures.

Painting flowers also became popular, complete with vanitas references, such as butterflies and candles.


Ambrosius Bosschaert, Still Life

In the nineteenth century, with the rise of the European Academies, Still Life fell out of favour as it was considered the lowest form in the Hierarchy of Genres, the highest being historical, biblical and mythological subjects.

A new group of artists began to challenge the academies, these were the Impressionists, who were concerned with bold colours, depicting light and technique over subject matter. Goya, Courbet and Delacroix worked with more emotion than realism.


Goya, Still Life with Golden Bream, 1808-12



Courbet, Still Life and Pears, 1871



DelaCroix, Still Life with Lobsters, 1826-27

After a period where the background went to its very darkest, Monet then broke away from this, and used colour in an almost shocking way, the brushstrokes seem looser and less precise.


Monet, Still Life with Bouquet, 1871

His brushwork has changed from small, detailed movements to broader strokes, the use of colour seems brighter, the colour orange dominates. The Impressionists were inspired by light, the colour schemes of nature and portrayed this in a new way, there was even a change of painting perspective.


Gustave Caillebotte, Fruit Displayed on a Stand, 1881-2

Looking at the fruit, it’s not always clear if we are looking from above or in front. Whilst the fruit is not overly realistic we are given a sense of it in shape and colour, the use of broad brushstrokes gives an impression of solid flesh and juiciness.

Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers  may appear flattened but the vibrancy of the differing tones of yellow give them a vivid quality. More interesting is his Still Life with Drawing Board, although essentially a still life, in character it is a self-portrait, his possessions allow a representation of him to be depicted.


Still Life with Drawing Board, Pipe, Onions and Sealing Wax by Van Gogh, 1889

Post-Impressionist Cézanne’s work bridged the transition from nineteenth century Impressionism to twentieth century Cubism. His work contains a more sculptured quality, for Cézanne colour, line and form were inseparable, as if every item is examined from more than one perspective. His work was a major influence to the Cubists.

Cezanne Still Life

Cezanne, Still Life with Apples, 1898, MOMA

He reinvented Still Life, showing that the ‘lowest’ form of art could represent form, light and space, whilst breaking the old rules of perspective and defined edges.

Picasso and Braque together invented Cubism, the first phase of which was Analytic Cubism, due to their focus on the analysis of form. They depicted multiple perspectives, breaking objects down into line and textures. Braque invented collage when he used a patterned oilcloth as a background, incorporating it into his artwork, Picasso was quick to follow suit.

Bottle and Fishes c.1910-2 by Georges Braque 1882-1963

Braque, Bottles and Fishes, 1910-12, Tate


Picasso, Nature Morte au Compotier, 1914-15

Both Cubist works take a while to decipher, the objects being so fragmented and geometric, combined with a skewed perspective.

Later on, artists like Lichenstein created their own versions of Still Life where the only similarities lay in the type of objects painted, his style is often described as cartoonish, give that the objects have bold outlines and the colour copies the way ink is printed in newspapers. He became a leading figure in the American Pop Art movement, his work seems overly simple but would have been very exacting to produce.


Lichtenstein, Still Life with Palette, 1972

After so much variety it is hard to imagine how Still Life can continue to be reworked but contemporary artists are still doing it. It’s interesting to see the influence of the masters and their very different approaches.


Ori Gersht, Time After Time: Blow Up No 3, 2007

Israeli artist Ori Gersht captures the moment an arrangement of flowers is blown up, contrasting a normally serene picture with violence.


Darren Jones, A Time and a Place, 2011

Compare Darren Jones’ still life/self portrait with the Van Gogh Drawing Board image above. This image depicts the personal belongings that come together only for the duration of a trip.

Whilst approaches have differed over time, composition has not changed as much, Still Life as a genre still has a lot to offer clearly, perhaps the connection is with the personal and symbolic statement the artist depicts.