…And one step back.

It’s funny how I can mention the same thing week after week — “I did a good job with my values,” “We’re waiting on color so we can work on our values,”– and still manage to miss the mark. I’d been admiring the work on Etsy of this amazing Ukrainian pet portrait artist, and wanted to see if I could create a background like his — loose, unstudied, the perfect complement to the (also perfect) subject. Turns out…I couldn’t.

My original thought was that the green bug would be the focal point and the butterfly and blue beetle would be a similar color to the background and therefore less prominent (I’d read that the area with the most contrast draws the eye the most and should therefore be your focal point). And it is true that parts of the butterfly and blue beetle are fairly subdued next to the dark background — their values are fairly similar. But instead of doing what I should’ve done — simplifying and darkening the background beneath the green beetle so that the contrast is greater, perhaps increasing its size — I plopped a very small beetle on top of a busy area of varying values. Perhaps, if you squint, you still notice it first because of the contrast between the bright yellow and the very dark green beside it, but it’s a close toss-up with the butterfly wing (which has the advantage, of course, of being much larger), and that, in my opinion, makes for a pretty unfocused painting.

While I’m glad that I don’t have even more detail in the background, I’m no Ukrainian Etsy artist. It would’ve been helpful to have a horizon, or some depth of field, and certainly the line of the driftwood should’ve been softened to integrate better with the background. As it is, it looks more like a collage than a painted-from-life still life.

In general, though, the entire thing is just way too complex for such a small (6×6) painting.

What?! Way too complex? Who are you, Jennifer Caritas!

(As an aside, if anyone’s curious about my subject matter, I used to make these fancy insect displays, and still have tons of insect inventory. Look for more bugs in future paintings!)

What I did well:
Individual elements are okay — I actually quite like the blue beetle.
I attempted some brushwork of varying directions and colors — a first for me. A for effort!

What I could’ve done better:
Too much going on!
Too much similarity in values — need a more obvious focal point
Better integration with background

Still life with veggies: I’m a complicated gal!

One thing I always tend to do when taking up a new endeavor is to rush in and take on the most complicated challenge I think I might possibly be able to handle, skipping over those baby steps that really build a solid foundation. With painting, it’s not just the challenge though: I worry that if I were to, say, paint apples, my painting would be one of five billion other apple paintings with nothing to really separate it. Logically I know, of course, that focusing on more simple subject matter is a way to develop a style (as a hack — I mean, a novice — I haven’t yet found my style), and that I’ve seen apple paintings that have taken my breath away. This tussle between my logical self and my…self-self (for lack of a better word) is on display in my latest still life: Veggies.

My logical self led the way: I was going to skip the shells and driftwood this time and find something from my fridge to paint. But me being me, I once again got over-complicated (in my defense, though, I’d eaten the other half of my still life the night before).

My proportions seem pretty far off here — the purple cabbage looks more like a purple Brussels sprout (though would a Brussels sprout leave a big purple mark on my husband’s pink shirt?) — and both veggies look a bit cut-and-pasted. Part of that, I think, is because the cabbage is actually half-eaten as well (it’s missing its entire back half), so it’s not casting the shadows one would expect of a spherical object. The pepper, though, also has that effect and I have no excuse for that (I…suck?). I suppose I’m at the stage with this whole painting thing where I can see my flaws but can’t quite identify why they’re happening or how to put a stop to them. It’s a frustrating place to be, but I know, logically, that it’s one step further than not being able to see my flaws at all (I’ve evolved from the Trumpian stage, happily).

Things I did well:
Decent composition — objects aren’t simply plopped in the center any longer — and decent values/contrast
I like the brushwork on the top part of my cabbage — it says a lot with just a few brushstrokes

Things I could do better:
Better integration into background

Moving forward? My first still life with controlled light

Once I’d finally gotten my light situation under control, I was ready to see if it actually made a difference in my painting ability. Maybe I actually had a hidden genius inside of me, ready to pop out when the conditions were right!

Jim had sent me a link for building a shadow box, and although that particular one seemed like a bit more effort and money than I wanted to spend, I did find an easy tutorial online that involved simply cutting panels out of the top and side of a cardboard box and covering them with tissue paper. Easy, cheap, works. I’d never quite understood the reason for an actual shadowbox — couldn’t I just put things on the table if I was painting with a tabletop easel? — but I’ve read in several places that it was helpful for controlling ambient light and generating interesting shadows, so I decided to give it a go.

This is, admittedly, an odd composition. It looked much better to me before I put it into the shadowbox — after that, with the shadows that were generated from the harsher light, it started to look a bit…random. The backdrop beneath and behind the objects was a piece of patterned paper — I ignored the pattern when it curved behind because I worried about the amount of noise in such a small painting (it’s 6×6), but it still looks unnatural to have the driftwood stick poking into the back of the box.

Aside from this, though, I actually like this painting. My values look good, and my brushwork doesn’t look fussy like it did in my last painting (stones). I’m not sure I got the light quite right — I was having trouble making sense of this complexity of this crinkled old leaf and winged it — but I’m not sure it’s noticeable to the untrained eye (at least it’s not to my untrained eye). Overall, I think, a step forward!

Things I did well:
Brushstrokes are fairly loose and unfussy
Good contrast and values

Things I could’ve done better:
Weird composition without a meaningful focal point
Intersection of driftwood stick and driftwood chunk is odd — is it floating? Is it resting?
Bug could be brighter — in real life it’s almost metallic-looking (I wasn’t quite sure how to make that happen. Glazing?)


Soon after I’d finished my trying-way-too-hard still life of stones, vase, and bowl, a couple of things happened that threw me out of my routine and kept me away from painting for awhile. The first (non-painting-related) was that I got a splinter. Since I realize that sounds pretty silly, let me say that I went through childbirth without drugs and I still think this experience might’ve been more painful. It was the kind of splinter that the doctor asks if you’d like to keep as evidence, and it was right in the meaty part of my foot. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t walking for while, let alone going to the gym (which had become, over the last 6 months, a valued part of my morning routine). It wasn’t long before I began to feel flabby, driftless, and depressed. Ugh.

The other painting-related thing that coincided was that I showed Jim the three latest paintings I’d done on my own: shell, bug, and stones. While I didn’t expect gushing (though a little part of me hoped for it!), I also didn’t expect…crickets. He looked at them silently a long time. Finally he asked, “What’s the light situation in the room where you paint?” I told him that light had been an issue for me — since I was trying to fit in an hour or so of painting every morning in between gym and work, I’d start when it was dark out, and then, when possible, do a bit more in the afternoon when it was light. Often that meant that I was seeing a very different view with each session: different details were apparent, and the differing shadows often dramatically affected the shapes and positions of the objects I was painting (which, in retrospect, was probably the reason for the warped wooden bowl in my last painting). I knew, of course, that this wasn’t ideal, but I didn’t realize it was a big deal — I’d been compensating (to some degree) by doing the shadow part of my drawing right before I started painting, so at least my shadows would be marked correctly. But to Jim, it was a non-starter.

“You’ve got to get your light situation under control,” he told me. “Don’t bother painting until you’ve fixed it.” Then, for the next ten minutes, he sketched out with me the position of all of my windows and gave me ideas for covering each. (My paintings must’ve really been bad, because he also sent me an email the next morning telling me “Don’t paint! You’ll never create a good painting until you have the right light!”)

As I’ve mentioned before, I paint in an alcove off of my living room — a very public area. To my mind, it’s a beautiful room — I was so proud of my decorating job that last year I emailed Clever, Architectural Digest’s blog for poor people, to ask them to feature it in their home tour (I’m sure they’ll get back soon).

Hello, Gorgeous!

It’s bad enough that now that area is filled with crap — tabletop easels, lights, etc. (in fact, it’s making me sad looking at this “before” picture!) — the idea of modifying it to reduce the light (the very reason we bought the place!) was, well, not going to happen. But Jim seemed to understand my concerns and talked me through some fixes that could be removed when I wasn’t painting — a shower curtain, for example, that could be hung over the larger opening.

In the end, I invested in a system through RoomDividersNow that adds a track along the ceiling in about half the room, and a floor to ceiling room-dividing blackout curtain. That way I can simply drag the curtain to cover all three openings when I’m creating a still-life, and make it like midnight in there so I have complete control of my light. Then, I can tie back the curtain out of sight when I want everything pretty again (of course, I’d also need to pick up my shit).

This whole situation has gotten me thinking about sacrifices. I’d like to be good at painting, because it’s something I enjoy. There’s no real payoff for me in the future — I’m not, say, sacrificing the money and time to go to business school because I anticipate getting that back in the end. Other people understand that kind of sacrifice. But it’s difficult to justify — especially to myself — time and money spent trying to improve at something that’s simply for myself alone. And, unfortunately, so many of these sacrifices seem to come at the beginning of the learning process, when you can’t even tell yourself (and others) that you’re talented and somehow owe it to the world to nurture your gift. At this point, I’m a hack, and I might always be a hack, so why am I pouring money into art supplies, classes, ridiculously expensive room divider ceiling tracks? Why am I uglifying a room that’s always given me pleasure and pride? Why is my husband spending time with our daughter while I’m in my little curtained-off room? Does any of this make sense?

I don’t know the answer.

Another still-life: the perils of trying way too hard

As happens, life got in the way and I’ve let my blog slip for a bit as I dealt with some annoying and painful events that I’m now on the other side of. In my commitment to document every one of my paintings, though, I’m going to drift back in time to when I thought I was pretty hot stuff for creating my first work in color (extremely dark and under-saturated color, but color nonetheless). Now it’s — let’s say — a few days later.

Let me preface this next image by letting you know that I’m a little embarrassed by it. It’s no Dopey and the Oven Mitt. But hopefully someday when I’m famous(!), some insecure beginner like myself will see it and say, “What?! Jennifer Caritas started like this?!”

Yeesh. I think I hate it even more in digital form.

Okay, first off — what the heck is going on with that little bowl on the left? It appears to be doing some Dali-esque melting. And all of my little stones seem caught in their own little tornados. Maybe this is actually a masterwork of surrealism!

I’d probably forgive myself the odd perspectives and brushwork missteps, though, if I were happy with the style. What I’ve done here, though, is an unsuccessful mashup of realistic and expressive, which reads as unrealistic, and very messy. Hyper-realistic painting is not a style I care for anyway, but I’m realizing that once I start adding all the small-brush details (like the grain on the vase and the table), I’ve upped the ante for how perfect all the other aspects of the painting need to be. No little halos or tornados allowed! Now I have to figure out how I can suggest grain (and other details) without resorting to all the little ticky-tacky lines I’ve used here.

So much to learn!

What I did well:
I like the two stones on the right.
The composition was somewhat thought-out.

What I could’ve done better:
Too much to list! Odd distortion on bowl, too many little lines to suggest grain, light from several sources…


We’re still at the stage where all of our paintings for class have been in shades of grey: grey oven mitts, grey boxes, the beginning stages of grey horse heads (more on that to come). It makes sense — people perceive value before color, and mastering that in greyscale is much simpler and less distracting — but man, is it boring. Until now, I’ve been faithful to the method, figuring that painting one more grey oven mitt was just like Ralph Macchio waxing Mr. Miyagi’s car, but when I sat down to paint on Saturday and remembered I had run out of Portland Grey Medium, temptation got the better of me. I had recently been to a neighborhood estate sale, and had bought a big case of oils for $5 (to give you a better sense of the quality of these paints, they were mixed in with a bunch of Bob Ross acrylics), so figured what the hey, why not?

Good Lord but this was tough. There’s a reason, I’m learning, that people start out with less precise objects like apples and pears: Unless your apple is turquoise and shaped like a banana, it’s almost difficult to make an apple look unnatural — there’s so much acceptable variation. Not so with a machine-made, perfectly symmetrical brass ladybug sculpture with legs poking out every which way: You might not have ever seen one before, but you know what it’s supposed to look like. I drew and wiped off three times before I measured my way to a shape that was even remotely reminiscent of my model.

In his natural habitat.

As I’ve noted, I’ve been reading Carole Marine’s fabulous “Daily Painting,” and one thing she mentions is that she mixes almost all of her paint from three colors: Cadmium Red Light, Cadmium Yellow Light, and Ultramarine Blue. This seemed like an easier way to go than trying to get a sense of the dozen or so paints in my new box, and I didn’t have any other instructions to follow. Instead of simply adding black to a color to make it darker, she typically “greys” the colors she wants to recede, adding different combinations of the three basic colors to make them less saturated. So in this case, since my brass was primarily yellowish, I used mostly Cadmium Yellow Light with a speck of the other two colors for the brightest yellow, and then darkened them further with more red and blue as necessary. My darkest tones are really more of a dark olive green. But — I’m a rookie and this is a rookie painting, so why would you listen to me? Go experiment!

My biggest issue, once again, was light. Not only did the light on my model change throughout my session — making it look entirely different — but I had a bright florescent clamp light pointed directly on my canvas the whole time I was painting. To me, the colors I was using looked vibrant and alive, until I took away the light and…

Well, you see. (Or maybe you can’t — it’s over to the right….a little higher….)

I’m finding as I’m painting on my own that I’m breaking every rule we’re being taught at the school. Fat over lean? Bah! Carefully painting patches of color rather than shapes? Well, that one I should do — but I haven’t been. Shapes all the way. It’s been one thing to follow the correct procedure when I’m painting oven mitts and boxes, but a whole lot more difficult when painting something as complicated as this bug turned out to be. Besides, Carole Marine says she paints her backgrounds last, choosing her order based on the saturation of the colors, so perhaps there are other “correct” procedures as well…. So much to learn!

Things I did well:

I think I did a decent job capturing the way light fell on each object
My bug has decent (though not perfect) proportions and looks three- dimensional (though I do see that the line down the center is off and the right front leg is too wide)
Put a bit more thought into the composition so everything isn’t simply centered
My little pinch pot has a decent texture and shape and was painted fairly quickly

Things I could improve

Too dark!
Background was once again an afterthought — basically thrown together from my leftover paint. Should start thinking about using different brushstrokes and hues to make backgrounds more interesting

Still life #2 – Progress and questions

It was true that my first still life was a bit schizophrenic in its lighting and had some weird boob pimples, but it really wasn’t terrible. I’d certainly done a worse job on plenty of other things I’d attempted. And I’d enjoyed painting something that my copier couldn’t do a better job with. So once again, I decided to give myself a challenge.


One good thing about being old is that I have TONS of stuff. Not expensive stuff, but small, interesting, highly-paintable things I’ve collected throughout the years — especially natural objects that I found in the woods or on the beach (though this shell was clearly bought somewhere — who finds shells like this?). I thought each of these two objects would be a challenging way to try texture, and would together provide an interesting contrast while sharing a beachy theme that made them cohesive (though I’m not worried about composition at this point).

My painting was done at a different angle, since I don’t have a standing easel.


Now I wish I’d worried about composition. Blech. But there are some things here that I actually kind of like. I did a bang-up job with the top of my shell, and that was HARD. And I love the left side of my driftwood — I added a lot of interesting, blocky shading there that really shows the depth. But I can see the exact place where I started to get bored and lazy: pretty much in the exact center of the log. Everything to the right of that point is complete Amateurville Horror.

I’m struggling a bit — and this will be a question for Jim in my next class — with how much I’m supposed to draw. Of course I mapped out my largest shapes: the exterior of the driftwood and shell. And I did draw ovals for the largest indentations in the driftwood, and stripes for the spirals of the shell. But on the right side of the driftwood I mapped out next to nothing, in large part because the light when I did my initial drawing made most of the indentations look shallow and it didn’t seem worth it. As the sun came up, they looked…entirely different, but it seemed too late to map anything out, I was bored and lazy, and I winged it. And it shows.

I also had no idea what to do with the background, which was an old wooden table, as you see in the photo above. Should I attempt to replicate any of the grain, which in real life is so prominent? In the end, I just wanted to get it done — and, since I’d made the rookie mistake of not putting out enough paint, and what I had left of my mixed stuff was getting really thick and gummy — I just painted it pretty monochromatically. It was an afterthought — and again, it shows.

What I did well:
Left side of the driftwood, which — to me — seems to have a spark of that unfussy, effortless(looking) blocky style that I love in modern painting
The shell, while flawed, looks like…a shiny shell

What I could’ve improved:
The composition — yawners
Right side of the driftwood is lacking value and looks flat and unconvincing
In real life, the shell is poking out slightly from the driftwood. That doesn’t come through in my painting — instead it just looks squat. I’m not sure what went wrong here — maybe the placement or value of the shadows? Again, that changed throughout my session, throwing me off.
Background looks like an afterthought and entire subject appears to be floating in space.