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The Muted Tones of Cupcakes

The cupcake in today’s painting lasted over a month in my still life set-up. Yeah, that’s a little gross to think about. But it was great for my art. I first painted it in gouache for Tilted Cupcake and noticed it was still holding up, so I put it together with a coffee mug. I wanted to focus on the purples and pinks while keeping everything fairly muted.

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I started with a blue-gray background and tried to keep the colors tonally similar to that starting gray. From there I was able to deviate into darks and lights.

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I spent a good amount of time rendering the cupcake and its frosting swirls. It became the basis for my lights. Nothing could be brighter than it.

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Muted Cupcake

8″ x 8″

With the cupcake started I could branch out tonally and with color. My goal was variety from that point on. I introduced complementary colors into the shadows. You’ll notice that the perspective is also from my other still-life set-ups and that was because this was my last one before I moved. I wanted to try something new before I had to put together a new studio space.

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The Energy in a Sugar Jar

Summer is here. It doesn’t feel real. A couple weeks ago I graduated with my M.Ed. and now my internship will be done in a week. It’s hard to believe I’ll be teaching in a few months and being paid to do it. Really the reason it feels weird is because I’ve been so busy with work. I was able to get a little reading done in my free time, but my art progress slowed. Occasionally I got to paint. And because I wasn’t able to devote large blocks of time to making art, it to took me several months to finish one painting.

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Sugar Jar

9″ x 12″

I started this painting right after I finished my Blue Winter Self-Portrait. I was inspired by the color variety I was able to explore in the shadows. Hopefully the pinecones are still readable as pinecones. Here are the progress photos:

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And the final photo once again:

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I’ve been finding and following a bunch of artists lately. Many of them have mentioned the difficulty of taking the energy present at the beginning of the painting and maintaining it until the end. I loved the looseness and playfulness of the self-portrait and wanted to replicate it. I did bring an energy into this still-life but I’m not sure I carried it through. I think I got caught up too much in the exactness of the sugar jar. Edges are my new focus. I have a feeling the movement and energy of a painting can die there.

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Week Old Cupcake

We had a friend over for food about a week ago and she left a cupcake for me, but I wound up not eating it. I forgot about it, honestly. Before bed that night I told myself to take it in the morning to work and then four days later I realized it was still on the counter and the icing was hard and the cake was starting to sag to one side. While I’d lost a chance to eat it, I’d gained an opportunity to paint.

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Tilted Cupcake, 8″ x 5,” Gouache

I started sketching the dessert at the kitchen table this morning. The sun eventually moved and I was forced out onto our porch to chase my light. I set up at an old painting table surrounded by freshly potted plants. Still the sun was moving fast and I had to constantly push the cupcake back into the moving light. After a couple hours I wound up with the above sketch.

I’ve been having trouble retaining the lights in my gouache paintings. With that in mind, I purposefully started working in the midtones and shadows without touching the lit side of the cupcake. I follow Benjamin Bjorklund on Facebook and he’s posted a lot of interesting watercolor paintings lately, so I tried to keep his technique in mind as I worked. Not to say I was as successful as him, but I turned out a pretty decent sketch I think. Still not entirely comfortable with gouache. Nothing seems to beat the opacity oils can give me in the lights. Which reminds me that I need to return to that oil painting I let sit a couple months ago…

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Beards, Mustaches, and Mr. Smooth-Face McKinley

I recently had a relaxing weekend at home and was able to get a good amount of work done. The final projects for my M. Ed. are due in a couple weeks, so I spent most of my time on those, but when I needed a break I did some reading and worked on my presidential sketches. I finally finished Harry Ammon’s James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity, after picking through it for two months. Perhaps it’s time to turn back to fiction for a little while. I think I’ll dive into Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Somehow I’ve never read that classic.

For my sketches, I worked my way from Chester A. Arthur to Theodore Roosevelt. Looks like our presidents used to sport some awesome facial hair. I had too much fun rendering President Arthur’s mutton chops.presidentialportraits - 9

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I included Grover Cleveland twice because he came before and after Benjamin Harrison, even though only the first portrait is official. But the second was painted by Anders Zorn and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to study one of his paintings. My goal is to finish all the sketches and then paint over them in Photoshop. This’ll give me an opportunity to experiment with the digital medium, but also a chance to study the color and brush work of the original artists.

Perhaps when I’m done I’ll upload all the portraits in a single collage or poster.

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Presidential Portrait Sketches

 

Way back at the start of the summer I vowed to read the best rated biography of each president. Why? Well, we kept getting stumped on presidential questions at bar trivia and I was tired of ignorance. I used bestpresidentialbios.com as my guide and started with James Thomas Flexner’s four-volume exploration of George Washington’s life. I read two of the four on a road trip to New Orleans and once I’d finished the series I decided to adjust my plan. I would read the best ONE-VOLUME biographies. Flexner’s work was amazingly comprehensive, but the sheer word count almost drove me to insanity. But I finished and moved on to John Adams: A Life by John Ferling, and then Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham, and then James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Ketcham. I’ve taken a break since Ketcham’s work to read a bunch of fiction, but when I resume I’ll be turning through the pages of James Monroe: The Quest For National Identity by Harry Ammon. Basically, I’ve been president obsessed this last year.

The other night I was listening to The Washington Post’s great podcast Presidential and decided to do sketches from the official presidential portraits. I used a brush pen in my moleskin sketchbook, spending about ten minutes on each portrait. Look for more to come! And if you like founding fathers and also happen to like musicals, check out Hamilton.

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Blue Winter Self-Portrait

 

Back before Thanksgiving I purchased two decorative gourds at the local Market Basket. They were a buck a piece and I thought their shapes would be interesting to explore in paints. I did a gouache painting of one and then put them both together to do an oil study. As I’d hoped, they were fun to work with. I then decided to include them in a larger still life.

I’ve been trying to improve several aspects of my art. First: my eye. I’ve been focusing on really visually understanding color and value, for example: not just assuming that a blue cloth is dark blue in its shadow. Second: technique. There are so many ways to work with oil paints and I’m still finding my niche. I’m trying to use more medium now to keep my paintings oily and alive. Third: color theory. Several recent visits to museums has made me realize how important color theory is. Van Gogh’s paintings really do sing in person because he understood what colors play off one another. So for the larger gourd still life I decided to focus on the secondary colors of purple, green, and orange.

The gourds served as my orange and I had a bed sheet that worked as my purple, but I was unsure of what to use for my green until I was once again walking through Market Basket. Pickles! They’re so strange and otherworldly, floating like museum specimens in a jar. It’s gross, weird, and despite all that, truthfully mundane. They’re only weird when you take a moment to think about it. I suppose that goes for most things.

Once I had my pickles I found that there was still something missing from my setup. It lacked balance. I don’t have a lot of orange things around my apartment, so I went with a NERF gun and bullets.

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  Harvest               9″ x 12″

I tried to balance the warm purples of the forefront with cool purples in the background. That may have worked better than the incorporation of the NERF gun. It seems too yellow and not enough orange. Overall, I’m happy, though I think the contrast between light and dark could’ve been stronger.

For a change of pace I turned the next day to self-portraiture.

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I used another 9″ x 12″ canvas washed in burnt umber and began with a blue gray underdrawing.

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Remembering to work in simple shapes, I kept my first paint through focused in one light, one medium, and one dark. Then I speckled in a few halftones.

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With the basic forms distinguished, I worked around trying to refine them by using warmer colors. Originally, I wanted to begin with cool blues and then paint over with warmer flesh tones, leaving the shadows cool, but as I worked I kept it generally cool all over.

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I managed to maintain the cool tones despite bringing in lots of warm colors. This flickering contrast really worked to sell the plane changes in the face.

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I don’t often paint the figure, but when I do I like to start at the nose when I’m refining shapes. Noses have so many wonderful plane changes and vary greatly in every manner, making them instrumental in creating a likeness.

 

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With the face mostly worked out, I turned to my shirt. I used green blues to separate the clothing from the blues in the skin.

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   Blue Winter Self-Portrait             9″ x 12″

You may recognize the background from my Patterns painting. I do like that fabric. This painting was mostly a sketch and color trial, but I like the way it turned out. One of my most successful paintings in a while. I learned a lot about color while working on it that has influenced my decisions in my upcoming still life.

And I would like to thank my lovely mother for taking the final pictures of my paintings. Thanks mom! And I would like to thank my lovely girlfriend for letting me use her belongings in my still life. Thanks Sarah!

Here’s an animated gif of the progress:

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Both paintings are for sale. Contact me at thewritingmann@gmail.com if you are interested!

Harvest – $600

Blue Winter Self-Portrait – $300