Friday, January 27, 2012

Watercolor still life demonstration: Gardenia in a glass vase

For our first class in Still Life Painting in Watercolor, the assignment was to paint a glass vase or bottle, in order to study transparency and reflection.  My demonstration painting is below, shown step-by-step.  In this first class, I wanted to emphasize that, before painting, you need to ask yourself, "Why am I painting this subject and what do I want to convey?"  In this case, the main point is to show the beauty of the flower and internal reflections and incredible smoothness of the thick glass vase, so I wanted to emphasize those qualities.

Here is the original photograph, taken of a gardenia picked from our plant in June and place in the vase on a white denim sofa in the sunlight:

Below is Step 1.  The painting was done on a quarter sheet of Arches 140 lb cold-press stretched on a Homasote board.   The image was traced onto the paper using graphite transfer paper.  Then the entire flower and vase were masked out with Daler-Rowney masking fluid.  I have discovered that dipping the brush into a 50/50 mixture of household ammonia and water before dipping into the masking fluid prevents the masking fluid from sticking in the brush.  This is because apparently the solvent for masking fluid is ammonia.  (My science background came in handy here...).  What I love about Daler-Rowner masking fluid is that it can be peeled off in a big sheet.  So there are two very useful tips for you!
Also in the above photo you can see the background that I laid in wet-in-wet.  Using a mixture of Winsor & Newton ultramarine blue and burnt sienna, plus a smidgeon of W&N Permanent Violet, I flooded in the large shadow on the right on already wet paper.  That way I got a soft edge on the left side of the big shadow.  Then to do the small shadow, I dried the paper and just painted it in with the same combination on dry paper so that it would have a hard edge.

Here is Step 2:  Now I started examining my reference photo very carefully.  I decided to apply masking again to the brightest highlights in the vase.  Then, observing that the next lightest color was a faint gray-blue like the background shadow, I used the same combination to do a light wash over the entire vase.  Also, in order to start getting the streaks and bits of light and shadow on the white sofa, I used a stencil brush to lift out a little paint.  For the streaks in the cast shadow of the vase, I used drafting tape on either side to get a hard edge. 
Also I painted the lightest color in the stem.  Basically I am working from light to dark in this picture.  And I painted the lightest color on the leaves, using W&N Perylene Green.  The greenish color you see around the left edges of the paper is an artefact of the photography...

Here is Step 3:  Again, observing the photo very carefully, I started painting the middle values that I saw in the vase.  I simplified them a little, and painted them precisely but not in all their glorious detail!  Here are all the colors I used in this painting:  ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, permanent violet, perylene green, thalo blue, leaf green by Holbein, and aureolin yellow.

Here is Step 4:  Now I have added some of the darkest values in the vase.  Strong value contrasts are very important in this picture, and will give the look of the smoothness and transparency of the glass.  The thickness of this glass vase is really concentrating the light and causing beautiful patterns.  Where do these dark colors come from if the vase is sitting on a white sofa?  They may be somewhere in the surrounding room, and are being refracted to our eye as the vase acts like a lens...

Here is step 5, the final photo:  Since I was doing this as a demo during several classes, I sometimes forgot to take photos along the way.  Sorry about that!  The previous photos were taken with a different camera under halogen lights and not the best conditions.  This last photo was taken with my professional photo equipment and correct lighting.  Huge difference.  The colors are more correct in this last picture than the others.
As for the painting process, I worked on the flower, using the same grey color mixture, along with some yellow in the crevices between the petals. I added more darks to the vase and refined it all over.  I added the darks to the stem, and painted the very dark part of the leaves.  You can see in the original photo of the gardenia that the leaves are much darker than the background.  This is important because it makes the sofa look white, even in that dark shadow.  I lifted out some thin veins on the leaves by using the "wet and rub" technique:  stroke on a tiny bit of water for the veins, blot with a terrycloth towel, then rub hard with the towel to wipe off the softened paint, and voila:  you have some faint veins!
Also, I decided to add soft rounded shadows in the sunlit area of the sofa by wetting that half of the sheet and stroking in lightly some of the gray mixture plus a tiny bit of yellow.  
"Gardenia in Sunlight"   watercolor 9x13"   Susan Avis Murphy, AWS

Now for a little self-critique:  I think the flower could have been handled a little more delicately, perhaps using non-granulating colors so that it would be smoother; you can't tell what the vase is sitting on--maybe I should put in the crease of the sofa; the background shadow divides the composition in two and could be a better shape...

My students are going to be painting this, or a similar image of their own devising, during the next two weeks.  If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below and I will respond as soon as possible.  Hope you enjoyed our first lesson!

Susan Murphy,  ARThouse,  Friday January 27, 2012


  1. I hope this helps with your painting assignment. In the Wednesday night class, I started a different still life with a small square glass vase with flowers along with some mugs, that I saw at "Cafe Blu" in Venice, Florida. I didn't get far with it, and may work on that painting next time.

  2. Your painting is just gorgeous. And the colors that you chose were perfect. I was lucky enough to see two of the steps.

    I have finished one painting - with 'old' masking fluid that didn't come off all the way - it has given the painting real texture!

  3. Thanks, Janet! Don't worry--I will be rotating through the classes as far as which part of the painting process I do in each one. Also, I have some Daler-Rowney masking fluid here if you would like to buy a bottle.

  4. By the way, did you know that you can click on an image in the blog, and all of them will open in another window much larger? Try it! It is a great way to see the pictures in step-by-step!