What Lies Behind The Brushstrokes? How A Traditional Still Life Painting Is Made

What Lies Behind The Brushstrokes? How A Traditional Still Life Painting Is Made

“Contemplation: Silver and Orange”, oil, 9×12 inches

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.

 Perfect Paintings Require a Perfect Foundation

“Contemplation: Oranges, Olives, Ginger Jar”, oil, 9×12 inches

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.

Gluing a cradle to the back of a large panel

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

“Museum quality, perfect work.  Beautiful, sophisticated, and poised.”

– L. K., a Collector from New York

Linen – Purity, Strength, and Beauty

“Shotglass, Knife, Ginger Jar, Salt Shaker”, oil, 9×12 inches

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.

Toned linen panels

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.

“Family Portrait”, Oil, 20×16 inches

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

“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

“Tea and Oranges”, oil on panel, 15×24 inches

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.

These paintings are 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.

Easel and in-progress painting, with shadow box and model to the right

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

Thumbnail composition sketches

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.

A color study

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.

“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

“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

 Strong Drawing is Key

The final drawing

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.

Underpainting for the strongest outcome

An underpainting on the easel

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.

“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

“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

Rich Color and Intricate Detail

The final layer on top of the underpainting

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.  

“Contemplation: Oranges, Silver, and Red Teapot”, oil, 9×12 inches

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.   

Varnishing for Protection

“Silver, Wine, and Cheese”, oil, 24×24 inches

Although tremendous effort has already been devoted to creating the painting, it is still not ready for a collector’s 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 the 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 these paintings 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.

“I feel privileged to own such beautiful works of art.  They bring grace to my home”

S. K., a Collector from Michigan

“I feel privileged to own such beautiful works of art.  They bring grace to my home”

S. K., a Collector from Michigan

Frames – the Setting for the Jewel

The warm glow of a silver-leaf frame

Frames do so much more than simply providing a way to hang the 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.

And with a frame, the painting is now complete.  It is ready for the right collector to bring it into their home and enjoy it for many years to come.

An Artistic Journey

Every month I complete between 1 and 4 paintings.  I show these to my subscribers first, and also share an ongoing narrative about art.  Would you like to see this new work before anybody else? 

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