Exercise Composition of natural objects

I completed this exercise on 16/06/12, working on the thumbnails the day before and then doing the drawing on the 16th.

We were to make a selection of natural objects, such as fruit or vegetables on a plate so I checked out the local green grocer and decided to go with a selection of things that could be used in salad.

I set up a selection of items on a round chopping board and lit it from above and to the right. I decided to use a ball point pen again for drawing the thumbnails as it had worked well for the previous exercise and being unable to rub it out helps me to just get on with it and not fiddle. I found that once again I was nervous of starting the thumbnails but reminded myself that I had managed okay in the previous exercise so rather than worrying it was better to just make a start. After drawing a sketch of the arrangement, A4 sketch book p.26 (please see figure 1, top sketch), I realised that I wasn’t keen on the shape of the chopping board, as many of the objects were round and perhaps there was a little too much roundness.

Figure 1
Thumbnail sketches for Exercise Composition of natural objects

I also felt that it was rather a muddled composition and the tones were too similar. There was no height in the composition and it was lacking in interesting negative shapes. So, not a version I would use but a useful starting point.

I altered the composition, replacing the round chopping board with a rectangular one and took out the lettuce and stood a green pepper at the back for height and to give some variation in tone. I moved the lamp to the left and re-drew the composition. A4 sketch book p.26 (please see figure 1, bottom sketch). In the sketch this setup appeared to be less jumbled than the previous one and appeared to be a slightly more interesting composition. The chopping board appeared a little long and I wondered whether the spring onions laying across the composition blocked the passage of the eye into the composition.

Figure 2
Thumbnail sketches for Exercise Composition of natural objects

For the next setup I had a change around again. I took out the chopping board and spring onions and cut a couple of peppers in different directions and added some celery for height and some raddishes at the front of the composition to lead the eye in. I moved the lamp back to the right and then drew a sketch of this arrangement. A4 sketch book p.27 (please see figure 2, top sketch). This composition gave an interesting mix of negative and positive shapes and also some interesting shadow shapes. I rested the celery on one of the peppers and the sketch highlighted that this area would need to be made clearer as it was hard to read. I quite liked this version.

Next I tried leaving the setup mainly as it was apart from changing the celery to lay the other way and then moved myself so that I was sitting to one side of the composition. From this angle it was a little harder to read some of the items and there appeared to be less interesting negative space. I wondered if the composition would work better in a square format and had an experiment with drawing a square box around the sketch that I did. This made a more interesting composition. A4 sketch book p.27 (please see figure 2, bottom sketch).

I reviewed the sketches that I had done and decided that I would go with the third setup as I preferred this one, with the square format coming a close second. By this time it was getting quite late so I decided to start the drawing fresh the next day.

In the meantime I tried to work out what media to use to do the drawing. I thought back to what I had used so far and decided to use a dip pen and ink with hatching as I find this difficult to control and to combine this with sepia ink washes. I felt that this would give me a good opportunity to try and control my tones, another area that I find quite difficult.

The next day I checked that I was still happy with my choice of arrangement and decided to draw the setup on watercolour paper. I wasn’t confident enough to jump straight in with the pen so I roughly sketched in the position of the items in pencil first. I needed to adjust this drawing as initially I drew the setup too small and I wanted to try and see if I could draw it a little bigger. After I was happy with the rough positions I then drew the composition in pen. I drew the main shapes in and tried to remember to vary my line. It took me a couple of hours to get to the point where all the basic shapes were in and appeared to be in their correct places. I really do need to be able to work quicker.

I had already mixed up four tones of ink (mixed with water), ranging from barely tinted to dark. I wasn’t sure of the best way of approaching the next step. I started with the cut red pepper on the right and I tried hatching using the dip pen with some of the watered down ink. I felt that the effect wasn’t too successful as even the darkest mix didn’t give very good definition and I was tending to end up with too many lines. I decided therefore to use full strength ink to hatch and do as I had first planned and combine this with the washes of ink. I think that tonally it would be quite hard to tell that this was a red pepper. I felt very discouraged with this first attempt as I felt my hatching looked very laboured and poor and I rather felt that it did not bode well for the rest of the drawing. However, as I have discovered in previous attempts at hatching, my first marks can look pretty poor but as the drawing progresses they can gradually make more sense, so it was on to the next item, the standing green pepper.

In retrospect I approached this drawing all wrong. Instead of working across the whole drawing at the same time I worked my way along the items one by one. I found that I was so unsure of the best way to tackle each item that each of them became a separate experiment to discover what might work for that item. A3 sketchbook p.14 (please see figure 3 for the completed drawing).

Figure 3
Drawing for Exercise Composition of natural objects. Dip pen and sepia ink with ink washes, watercolour paper

The green pepper had lots of hatching and dark washes and I tried to make the hatching on  it quite lively. I used less hatching and paler washes on the red pepper and the tomatoes. At each stage I tried to compare the tones I was seeing between each other and then tried to show the differences in the drawing. I repeatedly tried checking the drawing against the still life through half closed eyes to check how the main areas of tone compared. I steadily worked my way across the drawing working right to left. I found that once I hit the tomatoes I did very little hatching because I didn’t want to make their tone too dark and wasn’t sure how to put more hatching in without doing this. When it came to the turn of the celery I tried to not put too much detail into it so that it would sit back in the drawing but I have not been very successful with that. I was dreading adding the shadows and I did a very bad job of putting them in. I struggled to show the reflected light in them, I was unsure on the tone to use for them and I would have done much better to have run a damp brush along the edges of the shadows as I put them in to soften them. The celery by this time had drooped so badly that it was hard to work out what the shadow shape should be for that. I did try sitting it in water while I was doing the other shadows but it never really perked up. I used a paler tone for the shadow of the celery as it was further away but again I have done a bad job of it and I think that the shadow and celery leaves become muddled because they are the same tone. I then tried to separate the celery from the pepper as that area looked quite muddled. I tried putting a darker tone behind the pepper to push it forward but I went in far too dark and it doesn’t work at all and looks awful.

By the time I got to this stage I was just so pleased to finally finish but boy I didn’t like how I had done the shadows. I also only noticed at this point that I had drawn the back of the table at almost exactly halfway on the paper. I put the drawing aside and took a break and then had a look to assess. I feel that I have not handled the celery well and where it meets the pepper I have made that area look very muddled and as already mentioned made the shadow between them far too dark. My control of tone still leaves a lot to be desired but it has been a very useful exercise to try and show it. It works reasonably well through half closed eyes between the setup and the drawing so there are a range of tones, so that is a step in the right direction. I tend to be very afraid to use dark tones and feel that I have been a bit more adventurous with this in this drawing, so have a wider range of tones than perhaps I would normally have (including one far too dark area). I tried to keep my hatching lively but I did still really struggle with hatching to show rounded surfaces. I think that the hatching does show rounded forms but it does it in a very clumsy way. I also drew the rear half of the laying down pepper, next to the tomatoes, badly. Doing the drawing has once again brought home that even if I think what I am doing is going desperately wrong that by just keep working at it I can gain a lot of useful learning experience from my mistakes and my attempts to rectify them.

Overall a very useful exercise, even if it was very difficult at times, and a very good learning experience. I did not do well for the time taken on this drawing. The ink stage took a total of about six hours in between taking short breaks, indeed I took so long that half the items in the still life were looking decidedly past their best by the time that I finished. I had initially added the celery to give height to the composition but I feel looking at the drawing now that it would have been better without the celery. I don’t think that it adds anything to the composition, rather that it detracts from it.

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