I’m taking a course at the moment at Heatherley’s School of Fine Art in London, led by Daniel Shadbolt. Daniel is a great teacher, I attended a workshop with him in the summer and thought it would be good to go back for more sustained tuition.
The first four weeks of the course have been still life, unfortunately I missed the fourth week due to problems with the trains, but I’ve learnt a lot in three weeks.
Still life has scared me since I was first at art school. Before you begin your painting, you have to go up to the still life table or cupboard and choose a selection of objects to paint. The pressure is on as the other students choose with you; I suppose it’s a bit like choosing your ingredients for an invention challenge on MasterChef.
I remember being so scared when the tutors told us to think about our composition, without really instructing us how to compose. I developed a bit of a phobia.
I wasn’t always immediately grabbed by the subjects either, I remember painting an orange Grecian jug alongside a huge pink Mediterranean seashell and just wondering “Why?”
Anyway. My first week was only semi successful. I chose a lovely striped cloth, some plums and a jug of chrysanthemums. What I didn’t realise was that with the light fading fairly early in the afternoon I didn’t really have time to do this justice (and by the end I could barely see). I left the flowers until the last because I haven’t painted flowers in oils before and white chrysanthemums are a symphony of subtle tonal changes and textures that is very complex. I just about worked out my method for tackling the blooms before it was time to stop. Unfortunately, with a week between lessons there wasn’t much chance of picking up where I left off. But I think I learnt a lot from the exercise and would actually love to try again at a vase of flowers, though maybe a smaller one!
The following week I decided to go for inanimate objects and chose an old copper kettle and some (already dead) poppy seed heads. I used my coat as a backdrop, a mistake when we decamped to the pub at lunchtime on a cold January day – the coat stayed put! I thought the greeny teal of my coat would pick up the verdigris of the copper kettle. I chose my objects really just on colour combination.
I enjoyed developing the painting, working largely on the background first. I think this is something I’ve struggled with in still lifes and portrait and figure painting, how the focus of the painting sits within the background. I usually just paint a colour in at the end, but I think a whole-painting approach is much better.
The painting really came alive on the second week when Daniel gave me a bit of linseed oil to glaze with and it was as if the kettle had been polished. I used four colours and white for the painting: Titanium white, ultramarine blue, Alizarin crimson, Indian yellow and Viridian for my coat. I am frustrated that I missed the week where I finish off, but my plan is to knock a corner off the fabric in the background on the top left-hand side and continue to add the leaf pattern all over the fabric. Oh, and finish the poppy seed heads. I will definitely do this at home.
Daniel showed us videos and websites with still lifes by a variety of artists, showing us the importance of how the objects are composed, sometimes the story they tell, and the importance of incorporating the background into the picture as a whole.
I have also learnt that it is extremely important to have patience to not rush the painting and cram into the short hours where the light remains the same. It is possible to set up the objects with a more consistent light source, or to return to the painting another day and build up the painting more careful. Basically, don’t rush.
I’ll show you the finished painting when I finsh it!