Exercise: Tonal study on a white ground

A herd of china cows (A3), acrylic

A herd of china cows (A3), acrylic

Find a few simple objects that are ready to hand which are plain and un-patterned. A jug, vase and / or some fruit would be ideal. Place them so that they are lit from the side, either by natural light from a window or by lamplight.

I chose two white china cow creamers and a cow butter dish; a herd of rather spooky looking bovines.  I placed them on a piece of slate lit from the left by a lamp. I used watercolour paper primed with white gesso. The paints I chose were Paynes grey and light olive acrylics. Initially I experimented with a composition of one cow creamer and the butter dish but unsurprising three objects worked better than two as you can see from my rough pencil sketches below.

cows-sketch3 cows-sketch2 cows-sketch1

This wasn’t an easy exercise and took me longer than I had  anticipated. Wouldn’t it be great if you could mix up all the different tonal variations in advance and use what you want when you need? But the quick drying time of acrylics make this impossible so I found that I had to go back again and again to get  some of the more subtle variations in tone on the china and if the truth be known they are not that subtle.

What works? Despite the comments above, I was reasonably happy with the rendering of the cows and their arrangement. Having been used to painting with inks it felt a bit of a luxury to be able to go back paint over a tone that was too dark. There was an extremely wide tonal range the china from reflected light to dark shadow and feel I have made a reasonably good attempt at capturing this.

What doesn’t work so well? I should have thought more about the background. It doesn’t quite know what it is intending to be. Initially I had a bit of a cut out shape in the bottom left but didn’t like this and to adjust I had to paint over the quite nice translucent background I started out with. So it is all a bit more opaque than I had originally aimed for.

Looking at my picture again, against the arrangement, I  there are a few spots of very very bright reflected light that I haven’t captured – or did the light change? Perhaps the white body should have been a tiny bit grey in order to be able to create a a dazzle of bright light here and there?

What did I learn?

  • You can mix up opaque and translucent painting techniques but beware the loss of translucency.
  • I should plan my backgrounds more carefully so that they enhance my paintings – they are integral part of the finished piece.
  • I kept finding myself thinking about brushstrokes and how they are an integral part of the painting – the direction, the style – and how they need to be thought about, not just applied randomly.
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