Oil Painting: Using Subtle Grays in Still Life Painting

Two masters of still life painting have much to teach us about developing our paintings.

by Joseph Gyurcsak

Ochre & Blue Gray
2007, oil, 12 x 16.
Collection the artist.

Two of the most admired masters of still life painting are the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi (1890–1964) and the French painter Paul Cézanne (1839–1906). They are revered because artists can learn a great deal from studying their paintings and trying to understand how they dealt with a selection of common objects, a composition of interrelated forms, the subtle manipulation of harmonious colors, and a unified light arrangement.

I want to discuss some key components in the creation of a still life oil painting by providing a step-by-step demonstration based on my understanding of Morandi and Cézanne. Whether you are a beginner or an advanced painter, this demo will help improve your approach to still life painting.

My painting Subtle Grays is a still life created within a two-hour period using an alla prima technique (painting in one sitting). The oil painting was inspired by the compositions, subjects, and colors of Morandi, who worked with similar objects and a limited palette to create some of the most magnificent still life paintings ever made. His paintings are useful reminders of how rich a still life subject can be if one understands and embraces the genre. What at first appears simplistic becomes complex as one emulates Morandi’s subtle use of muted color and visible brushwork.

Subtle Grays was carefully modeled so it wouldn’t lose the spontaneity implied by the brushmarks. More detail does not necessarily enhance a painting. In fact, careful editing often has more impact than excessive elaboration. It’s important for an artist to constantly observe and edit as his or her painting takes shape.
The colors I used in creating this painting were Naples yellow, yellow ochre, cadmium red light, burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, and titanium white. My palette choice was limited, and that helped in establishing color harmony. I toned my canvas with a light wash of burnt sienna in advance (establishing an imprimatura), and let the surface dry thoroughly for a few weeks before starting the still life. I thinned the burnt-sienna oil color with a small amount of Utrecht Alkyd Glazing Medium to ensure that the color would not become reinstated to its wet properties once the painting process began.

One of the key ways to achieve excellent gray mixtures is not to take the shortcut of using blacks or premixed grays but, rather, to use various color combinations. For example, when I wanted a gray-green for my demonstration, I combined ultramarine blue and yellow ochre and added permanent alizarin crimson to deepen and mute the color to the approximate color temperature and value I needed. I always mix the secondary color and then add a complement of opposite value and temperature. The result of this method is always a rich-bodied gray that has more depth. Both Cézanne and Morandi used grays in an exquisite way by making wonderful transitions between the pure colors and the lights and darks.

Fruit Still Life With Tapestry
2000, oil, 20 x 24.
Collection the artist.

Selecting a Subject
We all have tendencies, habits, or preferences. At the end of the day, the only really important thing is that we paint what excites us. Our paintings are more likely to have that personal “X factor” when we paint with passion.

That being said, I would suggest that you consider going outside your comfort zone from time to time to gain a broader understanding of yourself and the creative process in which you are engaged. For example, if you are attempting a still life painting, work from an arrangement of objects you wouldn’t normally group together. Another idea would be to visit an antique shop and discover old pots, pans, bottles, and other kitchen utensils that might allow you to tell a story through their worn appearance. Finally, select objects simply because of their shape, color, texture, or size and arrange them in a way that contrasts their appearance.

In the case of my demonstration, I focused on some very old, discolored bottles, a candle holder, a pestle, and a few wooden blocks that I arranged on top of a modeling table. I deliberately selected pieces that lacked strong color because I wanted to challenge myself to delve into the subtlety of the color relationships rather than an obvious contrast between vastly different surfaces.

Composing a Still Life
Once you select items of interest, place them where you can view them from different heights and angles—from a bird’s-eye view above, a straight-on vantage point, or a low, worm’s-eye view. This will help you determine the best vantage point from which to have the viewer see the subject. If you aren’t quite sure of the viewpoint from which to paint the objects, make thumbnail sketches or flip through the pages of a book on still life painting to see what other artists have done. Consider how their compositions suggest balanced order, anticipated movement, unsettling disarray, or mysterious uncertainty.

When you finally lock in a composition, it may present a very complex image or one that is quite simple. You’ll quickly see this decision-making process is an essential step in the creation of a painting. Take your time, absorb the subject, be with it, let it speak to you, trust your intuition, and you will know when it is right.

For this demonstration, I arranged a composition at eye level so the variations came not from the spatial relationships but from the differences in color, height, and shape.

The Importance of Lighting
Once you have an arrangement of objects and an established vantage point, it’s then time to bring on the light. It may come through a sunlit window as a strong warm stream of light or with north-facing exposure as cool, even light creating softer edges with blue-gray tones. Incandescent lamps can illuminate objects with strong directional lighting, creating hard edges, and can heighten areas of light that could be sharply defined.

Mustard Jar and Brown Bottles
2007, oil, 12 x 16.
Collection the artist.

Artists often recommend north light for a painting studio because it is a steady glow of cool light that creates warm shadows. They find that preferable to a shifting pattern of warm sunlight and cool shadows. No single lighting situation is right or wrong. Each is different and establishes varying relationships between the intensity and temperature of the colors. North light tends to remain steady, allowing a subject to be painted over a long period of time without the light changing during the normal course of a day. Natural light offers the chance to work with the warm, golden light available at the beginning and end of the day; the stark, overhead sunlight at noon; or the silhouetted pattern of dark shapes against the light that has dropped below the horizon in the late afternoon.

If you don’t like the thought of dealing with unpredictable patterns of natural light, or if your schedule only allows time for painting at night, artificial lighting can provide you with unlimited hours for painting a subject. Some artists view incandescent lights as a disadvantage because they are warm in temperature and remove most of the coolness of a subject.

An important fact about lighting your subject with anything below 5500 Kelvin (a rating of the color of the bulb that best assimilates natural light) is that the artificial light will appear warm. Some light bulbs on the market offer a better balance of light to help you get cooler colors in your painting. For example, many artists use Chromalux full-spectrum incandescent light bulbs mounted in a Daylight professional artist’s lamp or a combination lamp.

Lighting is the unique component that enables you to establish either vivid or dull coloring, shading, highlighting, or flat tones on your subject. This is a key decision in creating atmosphere around your subject. Many great still life paintings use lighting as a main theme. For example, if you arrange objects so a few of them are illuminated by a strong light and a few others are in the dark, you will create great drama and depth in your painting. However way you chose to light your subject, remember you have a tremendous tool at your disposal to influence the overall effect of how your subject appears and how viewers are likely to respond to it. Cézanne knew this well, and he sometimes spent a few weeks setting up his still life arrangements so he had just the right lighting and environment.

I used a combination lamp while creating the painting Subtle Grays. My work schedule does not always permit me to paint under natural lighting conditions, so I set up this still life painting in my studio late at night using balanced bulbs or florescent lights that carry the same color temperature as natural light.
The decision of how to direct the light on the objects was guided by a Morandi painting that was generally lit in a flatter type lighting that did not cast large shadows. Painting flatter light is certainly much more difficult to record because it relies more on tonal color shifts than cast shadows, distinct middle tones, and sharp highlights. It also requires a painter to be more sensitive to observing temperature shifts.

Color Mixing Within a Limited Range
It often happens that one color harmony dominates a still life, while two or three others play supportive roles in the drama. If you aren’t sure what that harmony should be, place a sheet of white paper on a flat surface within the general areas of the subject, and then place a small white object on that paper so it will immediately reveal to you what the color temperature of your cast shadows should be in terms of its warmth or coolness. The illuminated area will automatically be the opposite temperature. Having that information will help you mix colors more accurately in terms of the correct color temperature of your shadows, middle tones, and light areas.

Still Life on Suite
2006, oil, 8 x 10.
Collection the artist.

For example, if the overall tone of your subject is bathed in a warm light you may have color combinations such as yellows, reds, and oranges in the light and middle tone areas. The shadow areas will include combinations of blues, violets, and cool greens.

In order to realize a harmony of colors, it helps to establish color mixtures using a limited palette of four to six tube colors rather than a wide assortment of a dozen or more. It is also recommended to use white sparingly to avoid weakening a color’s chroma. It is more advantageous to heighten the value of a color by mixing lighter-value colors to it, such as Naples yellow light or cadmium lemon yellow instead of whites. I recommend using small amounts of white in order to maintain color intensity. Similarly, I suggest neutralizing color mixtures by adding a pigment’s complementary counterpart. The more familiar you become with a color’s unique properties, the more success you will have with color mixing because you will gain greater color control, consistency, and harmony.

The photograph of my palette clearly shows how my colors were arranged and premixed. I established large piles of color and focused on mixing all the main spots of color I observed in the subject. Using fewer colors in the painting does not necessarily mean using less volume. John Singer Sargent and Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida applied generous amounts of oil color to make their brushstrokes quite apparent. Artists who witnessed Sorolla at work commented that he squeezed out entire tubes of color on his palette before starting his demonstrations.

Value, Color, and Shape Beget Form
Once artists learn to see big spots of color and not details, they focus on value relationship, color temperature, and shape. When they strip away objective notions about the identity of the subject, they are free to create with tremendous expression. And when their drawing is accurate and their colors are mixed well, a lack of detail doesn’t detract from the recognizable subject matter emerging and reading as the subject of the painting.

Cézanne had the ability to juggle lines and forms with just the right attention to both. It is rare for an artist to command such a balance because most painters favor one or the other. The volumes of his painted shapes were sometimes broad, flat tones and, at other times, turned from light to shadow. The line qualities are calculated colors with strong directional movements that vibrate against the mass shapes. He relied on those lines to hold the contour of the object so that his orchestrated broken tones or open tones of color could retain their freshness.

Knowing When to Stop
In my painting classes, I often advise students to stop, put their brushes down, back away from their painting, and assess their creative experience. They need to evaluate what they already expressed and then determine how to go further—or to stop while they are ahead.

Traveling Show
2006, oil, 11 x 14.
Collection the artist.

I make a point of taking a break every 20 to 30 minutes to review my work from a distance. It’s always surprising to see how things look from a few steps back, and it helps to view a developing painting from a different angle, or to put it away for a few days and look at it with fresh vision. Painting is more than a process of applying oil colors to canvas. It’s one in which thoughts and feelings are expressed. As those become evident in the picture, artists have to guard against overstating them or working the canvas until the image becomes stiff and inexpressive.

About the Artist
Joseph Gyurcsak studied art at Parsons The New School for Design and the School of Visual Arts, both in New York City. He began his professional career in the late 1980s as a freelance illustrator working for advertising and publishing clients. He is currently the resident artist/brand manager at Utrecht Art Supply, in New Jersey, and teaches and lectures around the country on behalf of the company. The artist is represented by Bucks Gallery of Fine Art, in Newtown, Pennsylvania, and Gallery RoCa, in Havre DeGrace, Maryland. For more information on Gyurcsak, visit his website at www.josephgyurcsak.com.

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2 thoughts on “Oil Painting: Using Subtle Grays in Still Life Painting

  1. HI Joseph Gyurcsak

    Great article, but you just missed the special Cezanne stil life characteristic…he’s objects is always tilted slightly to the left, yours is tilting right.

  2. Mr. Hendriksen,

    This is a keen observation you make and it is true. However the intent was not to copy works but bring revelation to an artist’s approach.

    Each artist naturally produces unique marks and impressions on the canvas as individual as their signature.

    Joe Gyurcsak