This article is an expansion/modification of an email I wrote to a friend, in response to a request for a critique on a still life (a fruit arrangement not included here). I later added these W.I.P pics of a small pastel, which I've used for the demo. The pics help illustrate the ideas contained in the article. I hope its of some use to whomever is reading this post, even though at times it may read as being addressed to a particular person - (Copy-pasted from my Figure blog).

We are often recommended to paint still lives, even though we may not be particularly attracted to that genre. I love painting figures, so I'm not exactly a 'still-life'-ist or a landscape-ist. But I do realize the importance of painting still lives. Here, the idea is not to make picture-perfect, finished paintings (although you may do that if you wish to), but to teach us about -

  • shapes (the outline of objects),
  • how these shapes overlap (objects in front of one another),
  • their perspective
  • the effect of light on these objects (which gives them volume),
  • how to interpret and then make different mixes of colors. 

All these are tremendously important in improving our ability to look, which is the primary skill one needs to develop in order to improve drawing, painting, coloring and value skills - all of which undoubtedly affect the quality of our regular work (be it 'abstract' or 'realistic').

Now, a couple more points I would like to make about the still life (this particular one which I have critiqued  was a basket of fruits):

1) Simple light arrangement - You've chosen a rather complex, multi-directional lighting for this (I can see at least two shadows on the ground). Its best to have just one shadow casting light, angling in from top-right or top-left, slightly to the front (daylight from a single window will do, if not use a common light bulb - not the diffuse tube light!). A white or very pale colored wall on the side opposite to the light source, or a white sheet /curtain strategically hung, will reflect a soft glow on the shadow side of your target object(s), thus bringing out the darker shadow zones between the direct light and the reflected glow. This will enhance the sense of dimension even more.

A common incandescent light bulb, which is a 'point source' like direct sunlight, will cast sharp shadows of an object on its neighbor(s). At the same time, the shape of that neighboring object will also affect the shape of the cast shadow itself. Imagine/compare the shadow of a post on the flat ground, with that on a corrugated surface. In the first instance the shadow will be straight, while it'll be wavy in the latter. Noting this phenomenon will further co-relate one object in the present still-life assemblage to another, and also to the ground on which it is placed. Obviously the ground will also receive a cast shadow, and if its covered in a piece of cloth that has folds/ripples in it, those will also affect the shape of the shadow.

N.B. We may later on (while painting) note the color of the shadow - its usually a darker version of the local color of the object, on which it has formed. However, if there is a softer, secondary light filling the shadows (e.g. the light from the blue sky on a sunny day, when the sun is the primary light), the shadows will be bluish. This is especially seen on a white/pale object, which by itself minimally affects the color of the secondary illumination (think of the shadow side of a snowman under that blue sky). Here the sun can't illuminate places where shadows are formed, while the diffuse sky light, coming from all around, tints those shadows with blue.

Bottom line - have a simple still-life arrangement, with one point-source light, angling down slightly from the front. Plus a pale reflecting surface on the opposite side.

Have a look at this still life by J B Chardin (click to enlarge and study closely if you want to)... see how well integrated each object is to one another with those reflections, counter-reflections and shadows!

Another painter whose still lifes I like a lot - Fantin Latour :

2) Value study - I think your still lives would further benefit from preliminary value studies. I'll explain;

After you've drawn the shapes, do the following -
  • Notice where the light is coming from, and the direction in  which it's casting shadows. There are also shadows on the objects themselves (lets call these body shadows), apart from the cast ones. Indicate lightly, say with a pencil, the areas which are in shadow and which are in light. Some areas will have a diffuse transition zone between lit and un-lit areas, depending on the shape of the object (diffuse for round/cylindrical objects, sharp for boxes, which have corners). Indicate accordingly with hatching marks. 
Remember, this is only a kind of training, helping you to look for areas of different illumination in the scene. So don't go overboard with your  hatching, unless you're doing a finished pencil drawing. Also, disregard all reflected illumination at this point, even if you can see those.

 This is a small sketch, approx 6" x 6", of a simple still life arrangement. At this stage, I've indicated the basic shapes, and how these are overlapping each other.

Here I've separated lit from unlit zones, and filled up or 'blocked' those shadow areas. Notice the shadow of the cup, cast on the lower corner of the mug.  So, once you've separated the shadows from the light, fill up those shadow areas with a homogenous, middle-gray (use plain, diagonal hatching marks to do this quickly, kind of like what I've done, if you ultimately intend to 'paint', rather than 'draw' this scene).

Since I had also intended to do a little drawing demo, I went ahead and did a rough finish as you can see. Normally, I wouldn't have bothered to do all that shading, and directly gone on to the painting stage.

Here I've indicated, with colored arrows, the different shadow zones -

Red arrows  - reflected illumination or 'glow'; This is within the blocked-in shadow zone, being softly lit by light reflected from surrounding areas e.g. a nearby wall, curtain, floor. This area must never be brighter than the directly lit areas.

Yellow arrows point to the darker shadow zone between the lit and the reflected glow areas. This is also known as the Core Shadow area and are very important in giving that 'sense of turn' to the object. Beyond the core shadow area, the object gradually emerges into the lit zone, revealing its true local color.

Blue arrows - cast shadow areas. Note that this is darkest closest to the object (e.g. the rim of the mug near the table-top, or immediately under the paint tube). Cast shadow areas are often lit up in the color of the secondary light, as explained in sections above. When using a single point-source light, cast shadows have sharp edges.

Green arrow - indicates the highlight zone, which has the maximum concentration of light rays directly reaching the viewer's eyes (hence often appears burnt out, or 'white'). Depending on the shape of the object, the shape of the highlight may change (e.g. its linear on the side of a cylindrical/conical object, round on a spherical one). It will also vary according to the texture of the object's surface. Shiny objects will have small, bright highlights. Rough objects will have dimmer, wider highlights.

The middle tone - This is the lit area between the highlight area, and the core shadow area (i.e., area between maximum light and maximum dark on the object concerned).  It is to be painted with the actual color of the object.

The painting stage and the value study -

(I was using dry pastel for this demo, and taking pictures at successive stages. I continued to do that until I finished painting, but later on did a quick-ish digital painting on the pencil/charcoal stage of the picture, to better illustrate the value study. So the following two pics are digitally painted over the pencil base)

 If you're painting with potentially opaque colors like acrylic or oil, you may take some Burnt Umber, dilute a little with water/solvent, and fill up or block-in all those shadow areas. Remember, this is just a middle-dark tone, not your darkest dark! So try not to paint opaquely. The value study is aimed at understanding the different values (i.e. degree of brightness or darkness) at different areas of the scene

After this, extend that burnt umber tone (previously painted in the shadow zone) towards the lit area, progressively lightening it with water (or white paint, whatever is convenient), from the shadow zone up to the highlight zone. As mentioned previously, this is the middle tone of your picture - these areas are not in shadow, but between the highlight  and the shadow areas, and they are most representative of the object's colors.

After you've painted the middle tones, and thereby established the highlights as well, stand back, and look - ascertain which areas need the darkest darks (i.e., those areas where no light is reaching, e.g. near the rim of the mug close to the table-top). Without diluting your umber, paint those areas directly. You may add a little prussian blue to the mix to darken further. Now you have a complete value study of your scene.

I'd suggest, paint a few of these value studies using simple still life objects - say a cup on a saucer, placed on a white cloth. The value study may also serve as an Underpainting, over which you may continue to add progressively opaque layers of color, with the  underpainting  guiding you on the local value.

So I continued to paint with dry pastel from pic 3 onwards...

I've used a burnt umber shade to do the initial block-in. Then I've painted the middle tone areas with a few broad strokes, just to indicate to myself the actual color of the objects. Note the sample color patches at the bottom left, representing the colors of the mug, cup, tube and table-top. I'll later choose some other color for the background. This whole thing served as my pastel underpainting.

I continued to add color on top of this 'underpainting' - remember, a color in shadow is not black, its just a darker version of that same color. The opposite is true for that color in the highlight zone, i.e. it is a lighter version of that same color. If you're painting objects with surface patterns, textures etc, (e.g. apples, which has linear streaks)... paint the dominant color first. Say, a shade of red. Paint it out entirely in that color, modifying its values according to the shadow scheme. You may paint the texture streaks later on, while finishing up.

Here I'll repeat what I've already said during the value study (digital) demo -  After you've painted the middle tones, and thereby established the highlights as well, stand back, and look - ascertain which areas need the darkest darks (i.e., those areas where very little light is reaching, e.g. near the bottom of the paint tube). Without diluting your umber, paint those areas directly. You may add a little prussian blue to the mix to darken further.

Now is the time to paint reflected glows on the shadow side. Always remember - these indirectly lit areas MUST NEVER be brighter than areas which are directly lit. Most often, they take on the color of the neighboring object light is being reflected from - so, if  there's a green fruit near a red apple, the reflected glow will have a green tinge on that apple's shadow area. Also, a matt surface will reflect less light (and thereby color) than a shiny surface, so all objects may not be similarly lit/colored by reflected glow.

The finished study, 6" x 6", pastel on paper. Took me about 1-1.15 hrs (excluding the digitals, of course).

 Arrows pointing to reflected light/color on objects on their shadow side. The paint tube is reflecting color from the blue table-top, the yellow cup is reflecting color from the reddish tube itself.

Lastly (but hardly the least!), take care of the edges... which are nothing but areas on an object that is turning out of the viewer's eyesight. The object is not ending, cut-out like, in that area. So, there must be that sense of turn to the edge. Usually, edges take on color from neighboring areas. Say, a bald man's head, who is standing under a blue sky, will have a bluish tinge near the edge. The best advice is probably to observe carefully, and then paint what we see. The more we paint draw, the more nature will reveal its wonders to us! Thanks for reading :)
Prosenjit Roy, Tuesday, Sept 17, '13

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Comment by Prosenjit Roy on April 11, 2015 at 6:24pm

Thank you Sikha, I'm pleased that you find this useful. Returning to this after a really long time, I guess I'm too late to respond to Mridula, but thanks again :)

Comment by Mridula Menon on November 13, 2013 at 3:01am

Wow that was quite an elaborate "Tip" or guidance! If you ever come to Bangalore I will definitely make time to attend your session :) As far as human figures are concerned I guess I have always told my brain that its too tough ... now I need to go for a brain wash and let it know that nothing is impossible if the effort invested is a genuine one :)

Comment by Prosenjit Roy on November 13, 2013 at 2:16am

Thank you so much Mridula, that's really kind of you :) I've thought of webinars, but a combination of limited internet use and connection glitches have discouraged me. I could perhaps do sessions between 2 a.m. - 8 a.m, when my usage is complimentary, but that may not suit the needs of most users in India. Plus I might fall asleep midway :P So, until PJ again brings me over to Bengaluru (and there's a persuasive reason for them to do so in the form of sincere interest in potential participants, for these things are not easy to arrange) I'll have to babble occasionally on these pages only (and continue to annoy people :P)

As regards learning to draw figures... I can tell you, learning to do that is a wonderful training in drawing itself. And when you begin to explore animals, you can see that same fantastic design in all of them, modified only by the needs of evolution. Nature is so very conservative! Maybe, the whole natural world becomes a little easier to interpret as you learn to see repeating patterns across objects, live or inanimate. I have been studying the human figure with some sincerity since 2006-07, and I can sense a slow understanding of natural forms, shadows, colors etc creeping in me. If you love drawing the human form, you'll eventually learn to get better (and better) at it :)

You may start with a few basic drawing books ( I think our figure section has links to various references) to learn proportions, anatomy etc. I have found Andrew Loomis books (figure drawing and portraiture) quite helpful while starting out.

Secondly, try to study drawings, paintings and sculptures by old masters.. They have had fantastic schooling in their growing years, and were thorough masters of the human form. If you can study a sculpture directly, nothing can be better (although there's very little opportunity of doing that in India.. Hyderabad's  Salar Jung museum  has a wonderful collection, although you'd need special permission to study it. I intend to visit Vinayak Karmarkar's studio/museum near Alibag someday... there's another great master of the 'realistic' human form).

Thirdly, study from life... yourself in the mirror, friends/families who'd kindly pose for you, and professional art models if you can access them, would be best (again, outside of art colleges its not easy to find life drawing opportunity, unlike in many other countries).

Like I've said before... love for it will foster your growth, that love is the main engine, just as in any other sphere of life. Do not be discouraged to share your drawings in various fora, even if there's little or no comments. Consider it being shared with the universe, and the universe knows :) Use a bunch of relative inexpensive copier paper, preferably A3 size to make your drawings... that way you won't be worrying about wasting paper. Improvements might come in imperceptible quantities, but come it surely will.. and then you'll notice a difference in all your work, and not just in figure drawing :)

Comment by Mridula Menon on November 12, 2013 at 10:40am

Prosenjit why dont you do some online art sessions? As how the US based artists conduct online classes. I struggle too much wrt drawing humans (I do fine with cartoons though). Please advise how to train and practice drawing human beings?

This article of yours is an eye opener!

Comment by Prosenjit Roy on September 22, 2013 at 5:55am

Thanks so much Murali :) and also thanks for the fave... Alok and GS!

Comment by Muralidharan Alagar on September 18, 2013 at 8:47pm

Great blog about the drawing approach Pro!  

Comment by Prosenjit Roy on September 18, 2013 at 6:06pm

Thank you so much Prabha, GS and Balaji! S(Karveti) thanks a lot for the fave.

Prabha - I'm so glad you consider this useful. I'm a beginner too, perhaps I began a bit earlier :) but I'm just as much on this wondrous journey of learning as you are!

GS - you speak about clear definition of forms (as perceptive as always :) )... the thing is, once we are able to internalize certain basic principles, through learning and informed practice, things (observation as well as output) tend to become much simpler.

Balaji - I'm so grateful :) There is so much to share, and I tend to be rather garrulous on these matters and often forget that readers/listeners do have a tolerance threshold :P

Comment by Balaji Venugopal on September 18, 2013 at 1:17pm

Thank you Prosenjit...this is wonderful. The demo, arrow indicators and your clearly articulated thoughts make this a very useful and instructive document.

Comment by Ganapathy Subramaniam (GS) on September 18, 2013 at 11:21am

Excellent! Thanks for this beautiful summary. I like the very clear definitions of the forms you have part of explaining the ideas.

Comment by Prabha Subramanian on September 18, 2013 at 10:43am

Thank you Prosenjit for sharing. Am sure it will be very helpful for beginers like me :)



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