Extreme Makeover 4

Still Life with a Conch Shell Cup
by Vicente Collado Jr
Thu 11th October 2012

Deciding what to paint is not always an easy task. This is true even when one already has a specific theme in mind - a landscape, a still life, a portrait or a floral arrangement. The still endless possibilities for each theme almost always lead to indecision and inaction.

I was once browsing a book of classical paintings in 2003, while in a similar state of paralysis, when the "bright" idea of creating a painting by combining cut-outs from old masterpieces hit me.

This was how the model for this featured painting came to be. In a desperate effort to jumpstart a new project, I resorted to this cut-and-paste method which resulted in a triangular composition with the conch shell cup as the main attraction and the shells, platter, fruits, flowers and drapery as supporting cast.

This collage of Old Masters became my guide for this piece, and so, it should not be surprising if many of the items in the picture sound familiar.
Original Painting

I was still a neophyte then, a time when my primary concern was just to paint forms correctly, obsessed on realism but understandably oblivious of other equally important elements of a good painting like linear and aerial perspectives, unity, variety, harmony and contrast.

It goes without saying I was quite happy with the result. But, it never really struck me as convincing enough. I admit even something less should have been too much to keep me satisfied given my level of expertise then. But, even though the shells, fruits and other images looked lifelike, I just felt something was off, and the bigger problem was I never knew what it was.

Now, of course, just a brief glance at it instantly produces in me a long mental list of shortcomings.

For example, the dominant color (umber or brown) is so overpowering that the viewer is left with no energy to appreciate other aspects afterwards. This is specially true of the massive curtain in the background which was initially placed there as a color balance to the conch shell cup and table rug but which had the unwanted effect of absorbing all the viewer's attention.

Likewise, although the color umber as intended unifies all the elements in the canvas, it makes the whole work too warm to my liking. This suited me well then when I was doing it in the cold of winter. But, as I look at it now under ambient temperature of 45C, I simply have to cool it down a bit.

Also, despite my focus on realism, I failed to include some basic elements like body and cast shadows that would have added more volume. There are also several occurrences of "kissing" where the edges just touch, like in the clusters of lemons and the shells at the bottom left. And, I don't like how the front edge of the silver platter seems to be a continuation and a part of the marble table edge. And, lastly, the shells look anything but natural.

But, most importantly, the whole composition is a bit chaotic. This must have been the adverse effect of the cut-and-paste method; it is simply hard for different pieces yanked out from distinct settings to mesh perfectly. For sure, it can stand the test of any compositional analysis if one tries hard enough, but I feel that a more harmonious and unified distribution of colors, forms and patterns is still possible and within reach.

These and more are reasons enough for me to start another makeover.

The following sequence of images depicts the major stages of the modification. In them, one can have a general idea of how forms were relocated and reshaped, colors redistributed, intensity readjusted and patterns removed. The culmination is the picture below, a more cohesive and balanced composition.

Stage 1

To start the transformation, I quickly brushed in a cooler background, using titanium white, ivory black, blue, burnt umber and yellow ocher, getting rid of the bulky curtain in the process. The bluish coat makes the background recede, creating the needed atmosphere. The previous warm background advanced, making the whole scene flat.

Decision time. First, I swapped the white flowers with the lemons on the basket. As the focal point, the shell cup is where the greatest value contrast should be. This stronger contrast is achieved better with the white flowers adjacent to the dark underside of the cup. Then, I added more flowers to the right to balance the color white. Also, I extended the edge of the silver plate forward so as not to make it look like a continuation of the front edge of the marble table. Finally, I outlined what would be the final layout of the table drapery. The basic composition done, I proceeded with painting per se.

Everything looks messy after the basic colors of the grapes, lemon and leaves were applied. The bronze figures making a toast to each other were originally added out of fun and, having no compositional purpose, were duly discarded. The foundation for a more natural-looking color was also painted on the shells.

Stage 2

The fruits, flowers and leaves were remodeled with more appropriate body colors, body shadows and reflected lights. The transmitted light of some grapes, the little glows at the bottom in their shadow parts, were also added.

Another layer was added to the shells and the petals of the flowers were made for distinct and clear. The marble table and drapery were toned down, and the blue curtain was made a notch more intense.

The shells were given another coating in preparation for a richer finish, and the folds and creases of the table fabrics were finalized. Some green grapes and leaves were neutralized, and the jar in the background and the mortar were covered with earth color. The silver plate was reshaped and the wine was made more intense.

Stage 3

Some structural changes were made here. The background niche which compounded the 'riot' in the middle ground was leveled off, and the shell cup base was nudged to the right for stability.

The interiors of the shells were refined, and the grapes and lemons were given more texture.

The grapes were further remodeled. The shadows in the drapery were darkened and the flowers were reshaped more accurately. The white cloth was removed to allow a bigger part of the basket to show. Yellow ochre was used to warm the shell. More details were added to the outer surface of the shell cup.

Stage 4

Here, delicate work was done on the basket weave and the cup handle. The distant jar and the mortar were also mellowed down.

The cast shadow on the mortar was darkened, and the middle shell was enlarged to show its real structure. Furry texture and design patterns were added to the table rug.

The background colors were brushed into the inner sides of the shells to simulate their shiny prismatic nature. The surrounding area of the middle shell was also darkened for greater contrast. More details were built into the tapestry, basket, mortar and distant jar.

Stage 5

The smallest shell was lightened, some flowers and leaves were refined, the column was retouched, and the reflections of the lemons and grapes were painted on the plate.

The cup handle was reshaped and brightened, and the grapes and lemons were coated with another layer. The conch shell was adorned with more grooves and growth line patterns.

Stage 6

Intense colors (red and yellow flowers and green leaves) were added to spice up the focal area. Hints of transmitted light were also painted on the shadow side of the shell cup.

The intense yellow of the lemons were subdued by glazing them with light green, making them look like young lemons. Highlights and shadows were applied into the brass casing of the shell cup.

The grapes were given their defining highlights. The transparent wine glass was finally painted. Minor touch-ups were also done on the cup handle, on the white table cloth and on the blue background curtain and its partner, the blue table cloth.

Finished Painting

Still Life with Copper Trinkets
Oil on Canvas
50cm x 60cm

To finish, the background was glazed with a final coating. The wine was lightened and the glass stem was given a highlight. The reflections were added into the column and cup handle to make them blend with their surroundings. Final touch-ups were made where needed.

In this modified version, the dominant color brown has been replaced with a muted light orange - table rug and background. This color was chosen to complement the blue curtain and table cloth on the right. Its dullness ensures that it will stick to its supporting role always.

A greater balance in color and form was also achieved. The background color scheme (blue and pastel orange) is mirrored in the foreground (blue and pastel orange fabrics). The white table cloth is a counterweight to the white flowers and inner white surfaces of the shells. The light brown jar on left balances the mortar on the right. The conch shell cup is held in equilibrium by the shells on the left. The pedestal and silver platter offset each other.

To strengthen the unity of the composition, the conch shell cup was set on a broad swatch of green, yellow and burgundy (grapes, lemons and flowers) that spans across midway across the canvas. These act like threads that stitch all the elements into one piece.

Finally, to lead the viewer's eyes to the conch shell cup, the center of interest, I first made sure the greatest contrasts are situated around it. Value-wise, it is here where I placed the darkest dark (the underside tip of the shell) together with the lightest light (white petals). Second, I situated the most intense colors also in this area. The most vivid pinks and yellows are contiguous to the cup. I deliberately dulled the other yellows (lemons) and pinks (flowers)in the peripherals to silence them. Third, I made the drapery folds and rug border patterns all point to the focal point. Fourth, the sharper and more defined edges are also in the focal area; the edges of the leaves and other forms outside this area are blurred on purpose. Finally, I retained the bamboo basket in its original place as a strong textural contrast to the hard rock shell and the gold metal cup handle.

Naturally, I am much happier with this revised version, having achieved - at least, according to my judgment - all the goals I've initially set for myself. Screaming colors have been eliminated except in the focal point where they are needed; a solid equilibrium has been established among the contrasting shapes and colors; and, despite the initial impression of anarchy and chaos, unity and harmony actually reign supreme over the whole composition.


Still Life with a Conch Shell Cup
Thu 11th October 2012