Monday, 24 January 2011

The Colors of the Flowers in my Still Life look Wishy-washy

The paper-thin texture of flower petals or popular imagery or flowers in delicate watercolour washes may compel the artist to reflect this view when mixing colours for flowers in a still life. Candyfloss pinks and peaches make parts of the painting appear bleached out or faded like a photo left out in the sun. How can the artist paint vibrant flowers in a still life without the risk of the colours looking garish?

The Problem with Painting Flowers

Dark Colours in Flowers
Rachel Shirley
Flowers often provide the focal point within a still life, which may lead the artist to take extra caution when mixing colours. However, dissatisfaction may occur if using the following practices:
  • Assigning flowers with simplified chromatic labels according to type, and then applying the colour concerned without further observation, such as: lilies are white, daffodils are yellow, poppies are red and roses are pink.
  • Applying a pale colour mix such as pink or pale blue onto a white painting surface, creating the impression that the colour is dark. This may cause the artist to mix pale colours throughout, leading to an overly pale painting of flowers.
  • Thinning the oil paint into thin washes in the style of watercolours in alla prima (in one layer), will often result in lifeless colours once the oil painting has dried.
  • A fear of darkening bright colours for shadows may lead the artist to use pale greys or neutrals instead, which without the full complement of tonal values, will make the painting appear like an over-exposed photograph.
  • Leaving highlighted areas blank or just white, giving the impression that the painting is incomplete.

My Youtube clip on the painting process of a daffodil might be helpful. The demonstration took around half-an-hour or so to do, but the clip has been speeded up to a couple of minute viewing time.

Rich Colours for Flowers

Flowers contain contradictions: lilies may contain dark blue; daffodils may possess violet; poppies often contain indigo and roses may harbor ochres. Stripping away labels regarding the colour of flowers will help the artist view flowers honestly.

Rather than use grey, or even black, a bright colour is best darkened with its opposing colour. In the case of yellow flowers, this will be violet or any colour containing violet, such as ultramarine or permanent rose; green can be darkened with red or any colour containing red such as cadmium red or burnt sienna. Mixing opposing colours will result in rich, deep darks in flowers. I find ultramarine with a dab of burnt sienna provides the ideal darks for white flowers such as lilies. Substituting ultramarine for pthalo blue will suggest cooler darks.

The Best Imprimatura for Flowers

Rather than paint flowers onto a white canvas, apply thinned paint over the surface first. Acrylic paint will dry quicker than oils and provides a stable surface. Such an under-glaze is known as an imprimatura. Any colour can be used, although neutral colours are the norm, which might be an earth colour or grey. This enables the artist to more accurately judge the tonal value of a given pigment when applied on top. Pale blue will indeed appear pale rather than dark in context.

Try other colours for the imprimatura. Using the opposing colour to the hue of the flower heads will inject energy, vibrancy and movement into the overlying paint if applied as a broken glaze. A red imprimatura will make blue flowers appear to shimmer, as would a violet under-glaze for a painting of daffodils.

Try to use every tonal value in the flowers from very dark to almost white. Half closing the eyes will filter out the chromatic aspect of the flowers and help simplify the flowers into basic areas of light and dark. Reflect this simplified view when rendering the flowers at first.

Glazing Technique for Flowers

Delicate flowers can in fact contain rich tones and saturated colours. Glazing is one such techqnique to try. This is done by thinning the paint with linseed until it has the appearance of stained glass, rather like a watercolour wash. Subsequent glazes are applied on select areas of the painting once the previous glaze has dried to achieve deep rich colours and a high finish. Detail can be applied on top by dragging the paint via a fine sable for stamens or tight folds in petals.

Flowers in Impasto

Painting Flowers A to Z with Sherry C. Nelson, MDAThick paint can also suggest delicate colours made more intriguing by the use of robust brush marks as opposed to a delicate application. Peaks and troughs in the paint, when viewed under oblique lighting will often add punch to the most delicate colours and suggest form. The use of impasto medium, an alkyd-based agent that thickens the oil paint, and palette knives are ideal for suggesting rich textures in carnations or dandelions, for example.

How to Make Flowers Stand out in a Painting

Stand back from the painting every now and again to ensure the colours of the flowers can be appreciated from afar. This will also enable the artist to view the flowers within the context of the still life. Do the flowers appear too bright; too dark? Are the colours too heavy? The surrounding areas can also be used to add form or provide the stage for flowers such as shadows and reflections. A blue shadow juxtaposing poppies will make the poppies appear more “red.” Bright light will also create reflected light; light bouncing back into the darkest part of flower heads from a neighbouring bright surface, creating pinks, golds or creams.

Relevant Articles on Painting Flowers

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