The following article is an abridged transcript of the article 'Making Arrangements' first published in Artists and Illustrators in April 2014. It gives a brief insight into how Jeremy Galton approaches still life painting.
One characteristic of still life painting is that its subject matter is necessarily physically very close to the painter. At this proximity, if the painter leans forward the subject appears bigger and more detail can be seen. The same applies to the viewer – closer scrutiny of the painting will often reveal more. Partly where the beauty lies is how the painter draws our attention to even the most banal objects, things we’ve all seen but never really looked at before. The painting invites us to share his or her original observations. It is gratifying to know that every little bit of the still life set-up has been seen by the artist who has then transcribed it all in paint.
I usually start a still life by putting a cloth on my studio table top, and distribute some possible objects on it more or less at random. I often like to include flowers in my paintings, sometimes as the main subject but often merely subsidiary to the dominant theme. I will hang a suitable backcloth and maybe a side screen to cast a shadow on the back part of the set-up. Now comes the juggling as I move things around, adjusting the lighting, varying the height of the table top and so on. The dimensions of the painting, the colour of the ground on which to work have to be decided and, by peering through a number of different empty frames, after a day or two I hope to arrive at a suitable composition.
I use a mixture of ordinary tungsten spotlights and fluorescent tubes with or without daylight from a skylight. I seldom use daylight alone as I cannot guarantee a constant sky for the duration of the painting (which always takes at least a week). Being right-handed I find it much easier to have illumination from the left. Occasionally I will try painting with light coming from the right but I encounter endless problems, not least with shadow cast by my right hand onto the painting. Historically, most still lifes are lit from the left and I suspect this is purely for such practical reasons.
I like to paint on a primed and toned panel of MDF board or hardboard. Once I’ve decided on the composition I use a pencil to draw the outline of the objects very accurately by carefully measuring vertical and horizontal distances with a ruler held at arm’s length. Flowers and perishables I draw and paint immediately one at a time because they change so quickly.
It is essential to get the tones right (i.e. how light or dark a paint mixture is) – these are even more important than the colours (although I try to get these right too). First of all I pitch the painting, ensuring I can achieve the darkest tones with pure blue-black and the lightest with pure titanium white. (Actually, it is impossible to reproduce the brightest highlights reflected in metal – the whitest paint is usually nowhere light enough, but here we have to compromise and just make do with it).
Mixing paints on a palette until the colour is equal to, say, a rose petal, is not easy. On the palette, the mixed colour is surrounded by the surface colour (my palette is wooden, so it's dark brown), whereas the petal may be bordered by green foliage in reality. In their different environments the colours are almost impossible to match. I usually don’t even try. Instead I take the paint up to the petal so the two colours are side by side. I do this by placing the paint on a flat palette knife and then holding the knife up to the petal so a direct comparison can be made. This method only works well with oil paints. Mixing the colour that will eventually match the original can take a long time but I will always persevere until it is exactly right. I often find that when a colour is first applied to the painting it may look alarmingly wrong, but once all the adjacent colours have been added it always turns out to be correct.
I use the thinnest round or flat sable brushes (sizes 000 to 0) to apply the paint. Only where the colour doesn’t change much over a wide area will I use slightly larger brushes. To blend two colours together where they meet I use a size 000 sable and gently stroke one colour into the other. The hatching that results can be seen when viewing the picture at close quarters. I also soften edges in this way where necessary.
Two materials that we tend to marvel at when they have been painted well are glass and polished metal. I suppose it is because they are perceived as being “difficult” and we wonder how it is possible to portray them convincingly by the medium of paint. Metal is totally reflective. It owes its appearance entirely to the surroundings it is reflecting. A metal object’s shape remains the same but the pattern of reflections constantly changes as it is moved around. In contrast to metal, glass allows most light to pass through it. However, because light is bent or refracted at the air-glass boundary, images seen through it appear distorted. Glass does reflect a little too; more so as the slant of the light gets greater from the perpendicular and, beyond a critical angle, it reflects all the light.
In my approach it is important that the entire picture surface is painted with a consistent degree of observation. If I’ve bothered to show, say, that the bloom on some black grapes has been rubbed off during handling, then I must equally show the folds and wrinkles in the cloth they are placed on, right up to the extreme foreground. Such details make the subject unique and special and convey the sense that the artist was really looking at the things in front of him. It is the particular rather than the general which has the greater interest.