Fixing Shadows

The evening I worked on the table top and the shadows. Here’s how the painting looked when I started:

Here it is at the end of the evening:

Specific changes:

  • Darkened back left of tabletop to help emphasize the pool of light in the front.
  • Darkened back right corner of tabletop.
  • Softened rear table edge center and right.
  • Moved the shadows of the wine glasses to be consistent with a single light source.
  • Adjusted the shapes of the wine glass shadows.
  • Painted decanter shadow.
  • Extended shadows from tabletop onto red cloth.
  • Adjusted bowl shadow.
  • Painted over some sanding marks.

Reimagining the Background

This evening I reworked the background (again). Pictures below show before and after.

This time I used bigger brushes to get a smoother gradient and I played around with putting more color into the background. The new background has neutral grays along with slightly violet and slightly green grays. I am hoping these will work well with the red in the cloth and the color of the wine.


Imagine a sunset at the end of a crystal clear day. The sky directly overhead is a deep blue that gradually fades to yellow along the horizon. If the air is clear enough, there will be no reds or oranges – just blues and yellows.

How would you go about painting such a lovely view? This is a question I have pondered since I began painting. Some of my recent color gradient printing experiments led to an interesting insight.

The challenge in painting a blue-to-yellow gradient is, as every school child knows, that yellow and blue paints combine to make green. If you start with blue at the top of the canvas and work your way down while increasing the yellow and decreasing the blue, you will get a lot of green in the sky. During a yellow-blue sunset, you may see some green in the sky, but not nearly as much as you will get by mixing yellow and blue paint on the canvas.

The reason the green appears is that paint mixing works on the principle of the subtractive color model. In the subtractive color model, each pigment or dye in the mixture absorbs and subtracts out part of the spectrum. Combine more colors, and more of the spectrum is removed, leading to darker colors. Combine enough colors and you will get a dark gray.

For a long time, I thought the only way to get a yellow-blue gradient with no greens was to gradually add orange to the blue until it desaturated to gray and then remove violet (or add yellow) until the gray transitioned to yellow. This will make a smooth gradient with no green, but it’s not guaranteed to capture the luminous essence of a sunset.

My insight came when I tried printing a blue-to-white gradient on top of a white-to-yellow gradient. I was using an opaque blue ink on top of dry yellow ink, so there was no opportunity for subtractive mixing. Here’s what I got:

As you can see, there is no green! The colors blend directly from blue to yellow. What’s going on? The colors in the print are optically blending. White light that falls on the pigment is reflected back as either blue or yellow. When these two colors fall onto adjacent cone cells in the retina, they create a sensation that simultaneously conveys blue and yellow. The perceived color is a bright neutral, that is warmer or cooler depending on the relative strengths of the yellow and blue pigments.

The colors in a sunset work the same way. Blue light from the sky blends on the retina with yellow light from the sun to form a bright neutral. Both the print and the sunset are examples of the additive color model.

In the additive color model, blue and yellow are complementaries that combine to form a neutral that is brighter than either color on its own. Optical blending, which is based on the principle of additive color, allows us to go directly from blue to yellow without creating green.

Here’s an example of optical blending in a blue-to-yellow gradient.

We see optical blending every day on computer screens and printed items where the images are made up of millions of small pixels or dots. It turns out that we can get this effect in paint as well, using a technique called scumbling.

The basic idea behind scumbling is the same as my printing experiment. A broken pattern of opaque paint is applied on top of a layer of dry paint. The dot pattern in the top layer is created with a dry, lightly loaded brush, that just barely scrapes across the surface, leaving an irregular pattern with lots of gaps where the underlying paint shows through. If you were to scumble opaque yellow paint over dry blue paint, it would look something like the image below.

We’ve seen that subtractive color model governs the blending of wet paint, while the additive color model governs optical mixing techniques like scumbling. When painting a scene that uses optical mixing in the real world, it helps to consider optical mixing as a painting technique.

Further reading:

Dry Red Wine

One of the many hazards of still life painting is spoiled, rotting subject matter. I started my “Wine and Apples” still life exactly two months ago. About two weeks after setting up the tableau, the fruit flies arrived. After three weeks, even the fruit flies were dead. Today I thought it might be a good idea to clean and replenish the wine glasses. Imagine my surprise when I found this gooey red wine reduction in the glass. I could probably mix it with some linseed oil and use it for painting.

A very dry red.

What Have I Done?

It’s always darkest before the dawn. At today’s group crit, Gary pronounced my “Apples and Wine” painting all-but-done, needing only some detail work. He predicted that I would be finished by Thanksgiving.

After class I took a sanding block to the canvas to remove some of the more offensive, ham-handed strokes. It now looks like I took a huge step backwards, but the sanding was a necessary step in creating a finished piece that I will be proud of. With the bad strokes out of the way I am now free rework the background, tabletop, and cloth, before heading into the home stretch.

The painting, after sanding.

I wrote a note to myself with the list of remaining work items. I am expecting that I will now work through this list, crossing things off one by one while refraining from adding new items. The end really is in sight and I am already planning for my next painting.

My to-do list.


This week’s word is “Bundle”. Manet’s painting, “A Bunch of Asparagus”, immediately came to mind so I headed to my local produce department for some baby asparagus. To reinforce the theme of “bundle”, I included a second bundle, this one consisting of eleven new yellow pencils. I chose the pencils because they were roughly the same size and shape as the asparagus but lent a complementary color. My hope was that viewers would see the juxtaposition of the pencils and asparagus and immediately see that the commonality was the bundling.

Bundle of pencils with a bundle of asparagus.

I couldn’t resist a little art history joke. The picture below is an homage to Manet’s “L’asperge”. Here’s the story as told by the Musée d’Orsay:

Manet sold Charles Ephrussi “A Bunch of Asparagus” for eight hundred francs. But Ephrussi sent him a thousand francs, and Manet, who was a master of elegance and wit, painted this asparagus and sent it to him with a note saying: “There was one missing from your bunch”.

At today’s crit, I hung a few bundle ideas on the easel, returned to my seat, waited a moment, then said, “there’s one missing from the bunch” and produced this final image.

An homage to Manet’s “L’asperge”.

Drawing Reestablished

Today I finished adjusting the ellipses so that the painting has a consistent eye level. I think the shapes are good enough to proceed, but it is amazing how many things I can find to fix. It seems the longer you look at a painting, the more problems you find. Not really sure how you know when you are done.

This painting still has a way to go. First, I want to sand off some ugly brush strokes in the background and on the cloth. Once I’ve done this, I plan to repaint the gradients in the background and on the table top to be more dramatic. On the table, especially, I want to emphasize the pool of light on the left, while adjusting the shadows to be consistent with a single light source. Once I’ve done that, I will finish up the folds and shadows on the cloth and paint the narrow line of shadow under the left side of the cloth. Then I’ll do the reflections on the bowl, finish the fruit, and finally add specular highlights.

The end is in sight, but I still probably have a couple of weeks to go.

Beginning to move to a lower eye level. Construction lines are drawn in vine charcoal.

Adjusting the ellipse at the surface of the wine.

At this point, all of the shapes look pretty good. I’ve lowered the eye level for the decanter and adjusted the wine glasses.


This week’s Word-of-the-Week is “Severe”. I considered severe weather, with a falling barometer on a window sill with coast guard weather flags flying in the distance against a blood red sky and I thought about a severe snow storm with snow drifting against the window sill. I also considered a severe cliff face and a severe hair style, but in the end settled on severe looking shards of broken glass that could make severe cuts.

I headed to the grocery store with the idea of a broken bottle base with sharp fingers pointing skyward, like a bombed out cathedral from World War II or the outer shell of the World Trade Center after 9/11. I had a bit of trouble finding glass bottles – nearly everything is plastic now. Thank god for Mexi-Coke.

Here’s one of the images I presented in class.

My original word-of-the-week image for the word, “servere”.

Gary picked up a brush and with a few carefully placed strokes, put my bottle shards into orbit around the Earth with the moon shining above. I really like the idea and am hoping to paint it soon.

Gary’s suggestion – basically the shards of the Coke bottle are floating in orbit above the Earth.

Reestablishing the Drawing

Over time, the shapes in a painting may diverge from those in the original drawing. Sometimes this is intentional, but often times, the proportions and viewpoints just get slightly off and the painting no longer reads correctly. At this point, it helps to reestablish the drawing.

This week, I put the paintbrushes down and picked up a stick of vine charcoal to correct my ellipses and adjust the various objects to be consistent with a single viewpoint. The nice thing about using vine charcoal is that you can easily erase it with a dry bristle brush.

Original view of wine glasses. Center lines are drawn with vine charcoal.

By this point, I’ve lowered the viewpoint and reduced the size of the base of the front glass. I also extended the back glass bit further to the left so that it appears to be the same size as the front glass.

My attempt at rendering the scallops along the rim of the bowl doesn’t read correctly. The bowl looks like it is pinched and lopsided. Also, the reflections and shadows don’t really convey roundness.

Here I’ve raised the front rim of the bowl and really worked to correct all of the ellipses. Once I was satisfied with the overall shape, I rendered the bowl, as if it were flat-shaded. Now when I go back and add in the reflections, they will be subordinate to the shading and this should help to preserve the roundness of the bowl.

The glasses and the bowl work well together, but I still need to lower the viewpoint for the wine in the decanter.