What Lies Behind The Brushstrokes?
Centuries of tradition. Intensive preparation. Painstaking process.
The path to creating a painting is neither quick nor easy.
The results speak for themselves.
What Lies Behind The Brushstrokes? How A Traditional Still Life Painting Is Made
Centuries of tradition… Intensive preparation… Painstaking process…
The path to creating a traditional still life painting is neither quick nor easy. In fact, each painting is often the product of months of concentration and effort.
The result is an absolutely unique, original work of art, finished to the highest level of craftsmanship, beauty and elegance.
There is no other like it in the entire world.
You’ve seen many paintings in museums, galleries, perhaps even in your own home. But what goes into it? How did the artist create it?
Let’s explore the creation of a painting – from the initial vision to the finished work of art. Discovering how a painting evolves will deepen your appreciation for artwork you already love, and broaden your enjoyment of new works as you encounter them.
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Perfect Paintings Require a Perfect Foundation
Ultimately, the magic in a work of art is no magic at all, just painstaking and fanatical attention to detail. No efforts are spared. No shortcuts are taken.
A painting is constructed much like a home – according to time-honored traditions and scientifically-informed techniques. It begins with the perfect foundation.
First, a hardboard panel is cut to exactly the right dimensions and sanded to the perfect finish. A heavier sanding for the front ensures the adhesive which glues the linen to the board will sink in. Only very light sandings are required for the sides and back to ensure a proper seal. Several layers of sealant are applied to the back and sides. This prevents moisture and humidity from seeping into the panel and causing the fibers of the panel to expand, which could damage the painting.
Any panel large enough to warp – usually over 12×16 – will then be mounted on a cradle to ensure stability. Cradles are simply frames fitted to the back of larger panels which prevents them from twisting. This torsion could mar the appearance of the painting and damage its longevity.
Panels which show any signs of warping at this point are rejected. Only those which lie perfectly flat are selected as the foundation for a painting.
“Museum quality, perfect work. Beautiful, sophisticated, and poised.”
– L. K., a Collector from New York
Linen – Purity, Strength, and Beauty
The priests of Isis in ancient Egypt valued the purity of linen so highly that it was the only clothing they wore. Similarly, artists today prize linen for its purity, strength and beauty. When glued to the panel, it forms a solid, durable, archival foundation – these paintings are meant to last generations.
Only the finest Belgian linen is used – produced from flax grown in the fields of Western Flanders. The linen was crafted by Claessens – a firm that has been run by the same family for over a century. Made in small batches according to a formula hundreds of years old, it is an exacting process taking several weeks to complete.
The very long fibers of the flax plant (individual fibers can be up to 6 inches long) make linen a stronger, more durable cloth than cotton canvas. These fibers also produce a slightly uneven and irregular weave. This is by no means undesirable. In fact, it is highly prized by both artists and collectors. Far from appearing like a perfectly smooth industrial product, linen has all the vitality, energy, and interest of a living part of nature.
After the linen is glued to the panel, it is often given a “tone” – a very thin wash of color. The brilliant white of the primed linen can often make accurately judging colors more difficult. Use of a tone helps tremendously, by giving the artist a working surface that is midway between light and dark.
Most of these paintings were created with an earth yellow or earth red tone. In some passages where the final paint was thinly applied, the tone can show through for a naturally warm, glowing effect.
A dazzling rainbow of ancient tradition and modern chemistry.
Bohemian Green… Chinese Vermillion… Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan.
The best colors sometimes come from the far ends of the earth, and these paintings have been created using the finest pigments available.
In addition to a rich spectrum of traditional colors, modern chemistry has provided artists with dazzling rainbow to select from.
Although literally hundreds of paints are available, years of experience has narrowed them down to a regular selection of 13 pigments used for most of these paintings – a powerful and flexible base to mix nearly all required colors.
This beautifully balanced spectrum allows the artwork to glow with the authentic colors of the world around us.
“I’ve known Jeffrey and collected his work for several years now. I always look forward with great anticipation when he shows his new work. The realism he achieves is astonishing. He brings a remarkable precision and clarity to his Still Lifes, and his compositions are always thoughtful and interesting”
– L.A., a Collector from Massachusetts
Setting the Stage for the Drama
Still life is the ultimate playground for an artist’s imagination. Any items can be included, in any arrangement whatsoever, to make any statement desired. It is a true test of artistic ability, vision, and taste. The end result is the deepest measure of the artist’s creativity.
Your painting was created directly from life – that is to say photography was not used as an aid to the process. Instead, the composition was staged in a shadow box next to the easel. This was the source of the direct study and careful observation that the painting is based on.
This shadow box – a 2 x 2 x 2 foot cube with an open front – was specifically designed to allow tremendous flexibility in setting up a painting. Arrangements can be large and dramatic, or small and intimate. Objects can rest flat on the bottom, or can be raised with platforms, shelves, and risers. The box can be flooded for light, or a small, dramatic spotlight can be directed to just one object. Moods can be created ranging from energetic and exuberant to mysterious and evocative.
The objects that populate these paintings have been collected over the course of many years, and the studio shelves now contain many hundreds of items for use in paintings. Treasures you might find there range from fine silver, cut crystal glassware, Asian antiques, handmade pottery, oriental rugs, and on and on. These offer an incredibly broad range with which to build compositions, always with an eye towards elegance, refinement, and beauty.
A painting might start with an abstract mood, a certain lighting effect, or with a particular object. From that point, the composition grows organically – items are added and subtracted, arranged and rearranged until the perfect design is arrived at. Crystal goblets are moved fractions of an inch to be in exactly the right location to catch a particular reflection. Teapots are turned ever so slightly allowing the light and shadow to fall on the handle in precisely the most dramatic way. Satin cloth is endlessly rearranged until the folds fall in exactly the right way to lead the eye into the painting.
In many ways this is the most creative and absorbing stage in the process. Many happy hours can pass without any awareness of the time as the compositions are built, evolved, and perfected.
Careful, Deliberate Study
Having already spent hours preparing the panel and designing the composition, the natural tendency would be to rush into the painting itself. Such impatience would be a mistake, however, since more preparation is needed before beginning. Each step carefully builds on the previous step.
Preparation for a painting usually involves making several different types of sketches and studies. Although this phase can be lengthy and time-consuming, careful attention here is repaid many times over. A far stronger painting is the final result.
One or more thumbnail sketches help define the exact placement of objects in the paintings. These are quickly done in pencil, and are usually small – often no bigger than a postage stamp. Although these never contain detail, they often do contain information about large areas of light and dark. As such they are invaluable in moving towards mastery of the subject matter.
The next step is a color study. This is a simplified version of the painting done in full color, and usually takes about half a day to complete. Details are completely omitted, and the composition and arrangement is simplified – precise and accurate color is the only goal.
In many ways, it’s like having a dress rehearsal for the final painting. While working on the final painting, the color study often sits directly next to it on the easel for easy reference.
Strong Drawing is Key
Having worked out the composition and color studies, it’s time for a careful drawing on the panel itself. The entire composition is meticulously drawn directly onto the linen, usually with charcoal. Mistakes made here are much more difficult to fix later, so all effort is made to produce a perfect drawing. Proportions, perspective, and symmetries must all be absolutely correct.
Throughout, the image is viewed from different angles, upside down, even observed through a hand-held mirror over the shoulder so it can be seen in reverse – all to catch any uneven lines, errant curves, and false symmetries. After spending many hours creating the drawing, these errors are often difficult to see straight on. However, they become immediately obvious when seen from a different angle.
“We have several of Jeffrey’s paintings. While they are usually paintings of very everyday things, what he does with them is extraordinary. Reflections and light through glass are masterfully shown, and are particular examples of the ‘inherent’ light we see in all the things he paints, and that we love seeing in our house.”
B. C. and J. C., Collectors from Massachusetts
Underpainting for the strongest outcome
The next step is at the discretion of the artist, and not always employed. That is, to make a base layer of the painting in white and one other color – usually black. This monochromatic layer is referred to as the underpainting, and it serves several important functions.
By working with the values – simply the degree of light and dark – independent of the color, the artist can define a much stronger and more accurate design of the painting.
It can also set the stage for one of the most exciting techniques in painting – glazing. A glaze is simply a thin, transparent layer of paint applied over an existing dry layer. The result can be a deep and lustrous character to the paint that cannot be achieved any other way. It also allows the artist to work out very intricate passages in black and white, and simply apply color later as a glaze.
About half of these paintings use some form of underpainting – usually determined by the complexity of the subject. Use of this technique can add as much as a week to the process, since the underpainting must be completely dry before proceeding. It’s a small price to pay, though, for the beauty and depth of the effects it can create.
Rich Color and Intricate Detail
Finally… this is where the magic happens. Although many steps preceded this point, the color layer is what you actually see when you view a painting.
For this stage, all the stops are pulled out. Study and preparation are done, and now it’s all about the rich, full color and glorious, intricate detail: The gnarled rind of an orange.. the cool shine of a silver creamer… the glowing highlight on a wine glass, the loose fibers teased out of a piece of twine.
Inch by inch, brushstroke by brushstroke, the color layer builds up the artistic vision.
Color is constantly tested – often by holding the brush directly next to the model in the shadow box.
Details are judged and selected – not every detail is included, only those which lead to a stronger overall design.
Edges are carefully controlled – crisp and powerful here, dark and lost there: A hard, crisp edge will always attract the eye, while a softer – or even imperceptible – edge will allow the object to recede into the distance.
In this way the surface of the painting is slowly and deliberately built up. When complete – dozens or even hundreds of hours later – your eye is purposely led on a journey through the painting – experiencing the vision the artist intended when the process began.
“The variety of his paintings over the years has made multiple purchases greatly satisfying. Each work is unique and awe-inspiring because his ability is transcendent.”
R. T., a Collector from Massachusetts
Varnishing for Protection
Although tremendous effort has already been devoted to creating the painting, it is still not ready for your wall.
The surface of a painting is fairly delicate, and can fall victim to ordinary problems found in any home. Dust and airborne dirt particles can settle into the interstices between the weaves of the linen, causing the painting to darken. Even ordinary environmental pollutants can affect the quality of the paint layer itself – in extreme cases even causing the hues of various colors to shift over time
A layer of varnish helps to protect your painting from these destructive forces, isolating the paint from the environment and perfectly preserving its appearance. When properly maintained and cared for, even after many years your painting should look as if it just left the studio.
First, the artwork must be totally dry – up to several months is required depending on the thickness of the paint. Then a layer of varnish is gently brushed over the entire surface of the painting.
Traditional varnishes were made by dissolving the resins of particular trees found in India and East Asia into refined turpentine. Prone to cracking and darkening with age, these natural resins have been replaced with superior synthetic versions. Modern varnishes are completely removable, and can be re-applied by a qualified conservator should the need arise.
Gloss varnish is the preferred finish. Even though it introduces some reflection, it imparts onto the colors a depth and liveliness that no other varnish can give. It makes the painting come alive and glow – as though it had just come off easel and the paint is still fresh and wet.
Frames – the Setting for the Jewel
Frames do so much more than simply providing a way to hang your painting on the wall. Like a tuxedo or evening gown, the right frame truly presents a painting in its very best light.
Good frames manage the transition from wall to artwork, and set the stage for appreciating the beauty of the painting. It sets the work apart in a world of its own – defining the boundaries in which the painting exists and should be appreciated. In a room with many pieces on the wall, good framing helps to isolate each painting from its neighbors, so it can best be appreciated on its own merits.
A tall order for a few pieces of carved wood.
For smaller works, custom frames are made in-house – usually just a simple but elegant black molding. Larger pieces are placed in frames crafted by professional framemakers.
Although these are available in black, gold-leaf, and many other finishes, experience has shown that a silver-leaf frame often shows these paintings to their very best and most beautiful effect.
Simple and understated – but unmistakably elegant – silver frames never compete with the artwork itself. They admirably set the painting apart from its surroundings, and allow it to shine in its own right.
Whereas gold-leaf frames are the very standard of traditional decor, a silver-leaf frame carries with it the whisper of modernity. With it, even a traditional painting can feel at home in a more contemporary environment. Furthermore, its restrained and neutral character works with the widest range of home decors – your painting will harmonize well with many colors and styles.
Exhibiting and Displaying the finished artwork
In the past, collectors were forced to travel to a physical gallery to view new artwork – an inconvenient burden that also severely restricted the art that you could see.
The internet, of course, allows collectors to follow any artist they choose, without limitations of time, distance, or the need to travel to gallery shows displaying the work of only a few creators.
Without a doubt, the community of art collectors is far better served by the convenience of online exhibits. For that reason, my painting are now available exclusively through this website.
Some collectors are hesitant to purchase artwork online without the benefit of seeing it first in person. They feel they don’t have a sense of the scale of the piece, or can’t be certain of the colors and effects based on the a smaller image on their monitor. It may not clear how it will fit within the decor of their home.
While there is something to be said for seeing a piece of art in person, galleries themselves are artificial and contrived environments. They rarely present artwork as it will appear in the collector’s home. The decor – and especially the lighting – present in most art galleries is remarkably different than most home environments, where the work of art will finally reside. This can actually make it more difficult to judge the painting.
To solve this, as much visual information as possible is provided to you. This comes in the form of detailed images of different sections of the painting, video of the painting where possible, and images of the painting in its frame hanging on the wall. Everything is done to give you the clearest possible view of the painting before you decide to acquire it.
More important even is the unconditional guarantee: You will be even more delighted with your painting when you unwrap it and hold it in your hands than when you saw it online. If not, you may return it for a full refund of the purchase price and the cost of return shipping. This guarantee gives you the same benefit of an in-home approval period that many galleries offer. There is simply no risk to try this painting in your own home.
“I feel privileged to own such beautiful works of art. They bring grace to my home”
S. K., a Collector from Michigan
Shipping your painting
Every care is taken to ensure that your painting arrives in the same condition that it left the studio. Multiple layers of bubble wrap, nested boxes, and full insurance means your painting will ship without worry, and arrive without a scratch.
Free shipping is not offered, as that would mean cutting corners and using cheaper shipping options. When dealing with a precious cargo such as this, compromises and shortcuts aimed at saving a few dollars are simply not acceptable. Therefore, full price for shipping is always charged, as that will give your painting the very best chance of arriving in your hands in pristine condition.
What’s it like to live with one of these paintings?
Falling in love with a painting… Carefully hanging it in the perfect place… Making it part of your everyday living…
Buying original art is certainly not for everyone. A successful collector needs taste, confidence, vision, and of course the resources to acquire luxury. The collection you build says more about you than it does about the painting or the artist. It speaks to your unique and individual sense of beauty, style, grace, and elegance.
For an artist, there is no greater satisfaction than a collector committing to a work of art by making the decision to bring it into their home.
I’m extraordinarily proud that many of my collectors own more than one of my paintings. Several collectors own more than twenty paintings each. The connection they form with this artwork is the highest professional honor an artist could ask for.
In the words of one collector who owns 33 of my paintings, “I always stop, look, and marvel at the paintings of his that I have hanging on my walls. I am both proud and honored to have him as part of my collection.”
Another collector says that she finds them to be excellent “examples of the ‘inherent’ light we see in all things, and that we love seeing in our house.”
Knowing that a community of collectors share this vision of beauty and elegance is a daily inspiration to create more. The opportunity to enrich the lives of others in this way is powerful and humbling, indeed.
“When you finally hang your new painting on the wall, you’ll be glad you have the only one.”
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