Greetings, let me take you on a little “how to” tour of how this painting came about. If you’ve ever checked out my profile on Pinterest one of my boards is titled “Makes me want to paint”. It is filled with beautiful arrangements of flowers. Right now I can think of one “flower” still life I’ve done but it was a bouquet of Chinese lanterns in a teapot. I also tried painting a flower in one of my scrapbooks. That’s about it. What is this obsession with flowers? In particular, my obsession has been with peonies. I am so lucky in that I got married before Pinterest otherwise I would have wanted peonies for my November wedding. I think the expectation that every female watercolorist must, at least at some point, paint a beautiful floral still life has weighed on me.
Three things came together in August; I was getting more urgent to paint peonies, Day of the Dead show was coming up at Zapow, and I’m fascinated by watercolors of glass containers. We happen to own a crystal skull Vodka bottle which is shaped like a skull. What if I put together everything that I wanted to challenge myself with for the Day of the Dead theme? The best part though, I happen to have access to an actual human skull. I had a real skull, a crystal skull, flowers, and a pair of fake doves seemed to naturally need to be part of the still life. The doves were slightly cheesy, slightly romantic since they are our wedding cake topper. Do you ever just SEE how something needs to be done? There are 2 skulls, 2 birds and 4 flowers. In a way you would think that was too symmetrical but the materials of the skulls and how they handle light were so opposing and complimentary that it wasn’t about them being skulls. I feel the birds framed them in, and the flowers were just there, adding height and color with their glowing yellow centers mimicking the light glowing through the translucent bone of the skull. I put the flower in the background between the two skulls to bring them together and also so I wouldn’t have to figure out where the horizon line would be – then I ran out of time so I delayed my painting for the “Creepy Cute” show.
- As soon as I decided I would one day do this still life I made a board on pinterest and began collecting reference photos. I pinned pictures of perfect lighting and perfect peonies and examples of watercolorists that I wanted to emulate. Have you been looking at artists on instagram? there are 14 year olds drawing photo realistic art. I had no idea that type of realism was possible when I was that age. With tutorials on youtube and examples on the internet I think we are pushing what “average” is. In that way Pinterest is so inspiring for me. Here is a sample of go-to art from various artists of what I was hoping to accomplish:
Second reference photo attempt. I got the composition but I didn’t like how bland the light was.
2. I set up my own little photo shoot. I already knew the basic composition that I wanted and what I wanted to have in the painting. It was just a matter of it making sense. I did several on different days and different times as I tried to capture the light. I took my favorite of these photos and blew it up as large as I could to see all the nuances. My photo. I wanted the jeweled light that would fragment in the glass and sparkle on the ground. I experimented around, used fresh flowers from the farmer’s market during the summer but I never had the light I wanted. The reference photo that I finally settled on had a much more romantic light. It was soft, subdued, very lilac. I worked on getting the image in my head to fit with the reference photo in how the painting would be soft and gentle. I hoped that I would be able to use my imagination to get some highlights in the water to play around. Arranging the still life was almost instant. I want the skulls coming together like they were in a conversation, I wanted it to be clear what the glass was shaped. I didn’t know what a human skull would do when it was backlit. I was expecting a silhouette but the glow was beautiful. The nasal cavities are almost like flower centers and I was really amazed at how similar the coloring and light was to the flower petals. Some of the bone goes back into the head and makes such a strong point so I made that line up in the photo. 3. I did some rough value studies to see where I wanted the light to be or how I was going to bring balance to the whole thing. 4. Once it was drawn out I got key art direction from Lauren who recommended that I lower the right bird to bring it into the foreground. I think that minor adjustment really brought interest to the overall composition. 5. I layed down some colors and started painting.
Work in progress
6. About a week after I had put down the first lightest washes I was in my kitchen and saw my favorite cup glowing in the sun beam on my counter. This was the sunlight that I wanted to capture on my painting but had miss. The beam was only a small slit on the counter. I put the glass skull in the sunlight and began taking pictures when I finally thought to look at the floor and try to follow the sunbeam. There it was on the floor. Perfect. I grabbed all the props for my still life, unpacking the human skull, I grabbed my bouquet of flowers that I had got for my birthday to see how flowers would be backlit. It was a little tricky to recreate a photo from what I had drawn but I got it and NOW I had that light that I was so excited to try to paint.
This painting was such a fun experience in that every moment was new and different and exciting. I had the confidence in myself to know that it would work out but I couldn never see it happening until I would take a moment to step back. Following the reflections in the glass was so hard I did a lot of staring and searching out patterns to paint. I found it easiest to put a finger on a spot on the photo and just keep looking back and forth between the painting. I was lost for days but when it clicked I spent 17 hours at the studio and finished it in one go. I was so amazed that I cried. At about 8:30 in the morning I stepped back and finally looked at the piece. Ok, I get emotional when I don’t sleep and I had been up for about 20 hours by then. I’m not kidding when I say I was on a roll. I couldn’t believe what I had accomplished in one night, my first fine art still life. I immediately texted my art rep:
“I just had to tell you, I am an amazing artist. I cannot believe I painted this!”
And then I packed up and took a 3 hour nap. In the afternoon I took it to the gallery for a critique. The only thing I did was tone down the background flower ever so slightly and then I was officially done.
I originally designed this for a day of the dead show before I missed the deadline. I was thinking of past love, hindsight, and when we realize that what we had wasn’t as it seemed. When you love something, realize that sometimes what you are in love with is only a reflection of yourself, what you are projecting onto the other person or thing. Sometimes what is so beautiful and dazzling is nothing but cold glass, nothing to be jealous of or envy. What we are at the center is fragile, delicate, strong, and beautiful. Remember the warmth and life you can contain and how temporary it all is.
An conversation in passing, passing conversation, a conversation heard in passing