Setting the Scene Surfaces and Backgrounds

You probably have an infinite number of choices when it comes to the surface on which you set your still life. You can set up on a piece of furniture or a countertop. You can elevate it by setting it up on a box and draping fabric over the box.

Likewise, you can choose all sorts of backgrounds to frame your items. You can use draped fabric, a wall, a wall with another piece of art on it, or nothing at all — just some colors swirled behind.

Think about the contrast of values and colors with the items you are placing on your surface and in front of your background. Do you want to have items fade into the background? Then choose a background with a similar value to the item. Do you want the item to jump out dramatically? Then choose high contrast values: a light object against a dark background, for example. Colors can be placed next to each other to be a bit dramatic as well. When you place a complement or a near-complement (opposites on the color wheel) next to a color, it almost vibrates with energy. Or maybe you want to explore subtle colors and use analogous colors (neighbors on the color wheel). The possibilities are limitless. (Chapter 5 has more information on color.)

In this section, I address some of the more common surfaces and challenge you to find uncommon ways to use them.

Grounding your still life on a simple surface

Often I don't want anything to distract from the still life itself. Because the items can be busy and have lots of texture, a simple surface gives the eye a resting place.

Sometimes the objects in a still life look like they're floating in space. The solution is to ground them with shadows, surface edges, and crevice darks where the items touch the tabletop. You can also use the division between tabletop and background wall, which is sometimes called a horizon line (turn to Chapter 8 for more on horizon lines and perspective). Making a horizon line stops the foreground surface and solves the problem of the items floating. Defining the horizon by a line with a graded wash that fades as it comes forward gives your painting depth without making it fussy or distracting. You may think of other ways to make a gradation separate the surface or background. The background could be dark at the horizon line and fade as it ascends. You can use all sorts of combinations to define the background from the foreground.

Cast shadows can be an interesting line to lead the eye into the painting without making an area too busy. See what I mean in Figure 9-1. The cast shadows are so interesting that a patterned cloth or fabric would be inappropriate and distracting.

Figure 9-1:

Simple foreground with a horizon and cast shadows.

Figure 9-1:

Simple foreground with a horizon and cast shadows.

Burnt Sienna Fabric Background

Whittling the choice down to Wood

Wood is easy to paint in watercolor. Careful observation can help you reproduce any type of wood color and grain.

Getting the right color

The beauty of wood is the range of colors it comes in. When you're mixing colors for wood, follow these suggestions:

1 For light woods, such as oak, pine, ash, and poplar, start with a light yellow such as yellow ochre.

1 For darker woods, such as maple, fruitwood, cherry, mahogany, dark oak, and walnut, start with a burnt sienna. You can mix it with a little alizarin crimson for the darker woods.

To make your brown even darker, add ultramarine blue. Sounds weird, but it works great.

Look for contrasts in value. If your subjects are dark, perhaps they look best against a light wood. Light and pale subjects would pop against a dark wood. Some woods are very reflective and can offer all kinds of challenges.

Getting a good grain

Adding grain details to your surface makes the wood look more realistic. Follow these steps to paint a wood surface. The example I use is oak.

1. Start with a wash (lots of water with a little pigment) across the whole wood surface.

In Figure 9-2, I applied yellow ochre with a K-inch flat brush to replicate the color of oak.

Figure 9-2:

The first layer for oak.

You can make more wood grain texture by dry brushing (using paint with not much water) with a fan brush over the top of this initial background wash.

3. Use a liner brush to paint the lines representing the grain.

I used burnt sienna that was a little less diluted for the oak grain, as you can see in Figure 9-3. If you need a darker brown, add ultramarine blue to your burnt sienna.

If you want any lighter spots, lift them out with a damp brush and blot with your tissue. (Chapter 3 tells you how to lift paint.)

Figure 9-3:

Detail lines define a wood grain.

Figure 9-3:

Detail lines define a wood grain.

Simple Watercolor Paintings Background

To make the wood look like it's receding into space, incorporate some perspective ideas: Make your wash darker in the back and lighten it toward the front. You can also have the grain lines in Step 3 get closer together as they go farther away.

164 Part lll: Painting Projects Aplenty

Draping fabric

Most still-life surfaces are covered by a piece of fabric. Fabrics are a great way to create interest with color, patterns, and folds.

Often folds and creases in the fabric are exaggerated to allow opportunity for shadows, lines, balance, directional pull, and tension. Or maybe it's just that artists don't like to iron.

Creating innies, outies, creases, and folds

Fabric is a kind of landscape all by itself. Material makes hills, valleys, and lines.

I made up the terms innie and outie as they apply to painting. If you use these terms while talking to an art snob, they'll think you're discussing bellybut-tons and wonder why you're talking anatomy instead of art!

Figure 9-4 shows various folds in fabric:

i (A) is an example of a valley or an innie. Make this fold look concave (curved inward) by giving it a dark center that becomes a soft edge as the light hits the area that comes forward toward the viewer.

i (B) is an outie or a hill that comes toward the viewer. It's the opposite of the valley fold. The light area is in the center or highest point, while the side of the fold fades into soft, darker edges.

i (C) is a wrinkle or a crease. The trick to making a wrinkle or crease is to make hard edges on the fold side. The fold may even have a deep, dark line to define it. The dark gradually gets lighter as it catches more light.

Figure 9-4:

Fabric makes a landscape unto itself with valleys, hills, creases, and wrinkles.

Painting Folds Fabric Watercolor

Figure 9-4:

Fabric makes a landscape unto itself with valleys, hills, creases, and wrinkles.

The secret to getting fabric to look real in watercolor is to use soft and hard edges in the shadows. (For more on soft and hard edges see Chapter 3.) The shadows describe the contours, so paint them first. Hard edges look like folds and creases. Soft edges fade away.

Even if your fabric has an ornate pattern, start painting the shadows as if no pattern exists.

Do use the colors you see to paint the shadows, but often a good color to paint with is ultramarine blue. Sometimes I neutralize the blue with a bit of burnt sienna. And dropping in some analogous colors (colors that live beside each other on the color wheel) like purple is fun.

Blue used as a glaze (a little pigment in a lot of water; see Chapter 3 for details) darkens whatever it's painted over, thus looking like a realistic shadow. Keep the paint transparent enough so that the detail underneath shows through the shadow — it's just what happens with real shadows.

Adding stars and stripes, plaids and patterns

After you get all the shadows painted and not before, you may add any pattern in the fabric that you choose. If you're painting something with stripes, the lines describe the contours and shapes of the fabric. The lines disappear into folds (see Figure 9-5).

You paint the pattern all in the same color (because it's all the same color in the fabric), but the shadows you've already painted give the illusion of depth and color change. It just appears to the viewer that you carefully used a number of values and colors to paint the pattern on the fabric.

emerge only are shown.

Figure 9-5:

Patterns after the shadows emerge only are shown.

Figure 9-5:

Patterns after the shadows

Painting Values And Shadows

Look at some other fabric patterns and notice how the pattern defines the hills and valleys of the fabric. Plaids are complex stripe patterns with the stripes going vertically and horizontally. Other patterns that have shapes, like polka dots and paisleys, have only half the shapes show on folds and edges.

Look through your closets and pull out some interesting fabrics to observe. Puddle the fabric on a table and place a light above it to cast some interesting shadows. What does the pattern do to define the landscape of the fabric?

Painting lace, cutwork, or eyelet

Lace is a very popular surface in watercolor still lifes lately. Viewers praise the delicate, intricate patterns. And, duplicating patterns is a fun exercise in negative painting — start with white paper and you're finished with the lace immediately. It's all that tedious background that takes time!

Negative painting, painting around the area you want to leave white, needs what I call crossword puzzle mentality. It exercises the brain and makes you think. Negative painting can also be quite meditative and Zen-like. But if you're not a patient person, you may not like painting lace at all.

Lace, cutwork, and eyelet are similar in that they all have holes that allow the background to show through. Like any fabric, paint the shadows first, ignoring the holes and other detail. After the shadows are dry, paint the holes by negative painting around the lace strings.

Cutwork is a little less intricate than lace with just the holes needing to be painted, though the stitches are the details that make it lovely (Figure 9-27 at the end of the chapter shows cutwork). Eyelet has even fewer holes to paint through. Pay attention to the details for realism. Simplify the details for a more impressionistic look.

Figure 9-6 shows a lace doily under a vase holding a single rose. The following * steps help you paint a lace doily, both negatively and positively, like the one in this figure. (I get into roses in the upcoming "Going for classic and more complicated with roses" section.)

1. Use any size watercolor paper you want and a round brush with a sharp point. Activate your paints.

You'll need ultramarine blue, a puddle of blue-gray mixed from ultramarine blue and burnt sienna, a color for the surface (I used ultramarine blue and burnt sienna again), green, and some alizarin crimson and violet, if you like.

2. Lay a piece of lace or a doily on a dark surface for your model.

If you don't have a lace subject to use, try painting the lace in Figure 9-6. Find something simple to take less time, or stimulate your brain cells by creating something complex. Elaborate lace takes a lot of time, but might be fun. The lace in Figure 9-6 is painted very loose and simplified.

3. Draw the lace shape on your watercolor paper with a pencil, or just start painting.

You want to paint in the details, but if you need to first plan the details, you can draw them to remember where they fit. Sometimes I like to paint without drawing everything first. Try both ways to figure out what you like.

4. Paint any shadows in the folds using ultramarine blue in plenty of water (see Figure 9-7 to get an idea of how this is done).

Observe your lace to see if you have any wrinkles, hills, and valleys in it. There are few in Figure 9-6.

Shadows are a graded wash of dark near a fold moving away to a lighter area. For a blue-gray shadow color, add a bit of burnt sienna to the ultramarine blue diluted with plenty of water.

Drop in a little variety of color to the shadow. I dropped a watered down alizarin crimson and violet into the ultramarine while it was still wet.

5. Paint the shadows the lace casts in the same manner as you did in Step 4 (see Figure 9-8 for guidance).

Cast Shadows Watercolor

The cast shadow is the shadow under the cloth. These shadows fall onto the table usually.

Figure 9-7:

Shadows define the surface terrain of hills and valleys.

Figure 9-7:

Shadows define the surface terrain of hills and valleys.

Figure 9-8:

A cast shadow defines the edges of lace and vase.

6. Let everything dry.

7. Paint the holes in the lace (negative painting), leaving the white of the paper as the lace (see Figure 9-9).

Use a paint that is the color of the surface the lace rests on. Use burnt sienna and ultramarine blue for a dark surface. Let it be more blue and darker by adding less water and using more pigment.

Figure 9-9:

By painting the holes, the lace appears.

Figure 9-9:

By painting the holes, the lace appears.

Watercolor Painting Glass Vase

8. Paint the positive lace (see Figure 9-10).

At a certain imaginary horizon — about where the vase sits — the lace becomes positive instead of negative (this is all arbitrary). Instead of painting around the lace, you paint the actual lace itself.

Use the same shadow color of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna to gray it out. This is all just an effect to entertain the viewer.

Notice what fun I had playing with the viewer's head as the lace uses negative painting in the foreground and reverses to positive painting behind the glass vase. You can even see the lace through the glass in Figure 9-6. I used more-diluted paint to make the lace look like it's being seen through the vase.

Figure 9-10:

The top lace is painted as positive blue lines.

Figure 9-10:

The top lace is painted as positive blue lines.

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    How to make a painting look like wood?
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