Lesson: Composition and Elements of Design

Assignment #4:  Still Life with Potted Plant.  Take a relatively small potted plant, with or without flowers, either in a plain terra cotta pot or something more decorative.  Create a pleasing and balanced design by incorporating two more objects – a piece of fruit, a shell, a stone, for example – into the composition.  The two objects should be subordinate in size to the plant and vary in size relative to each other to add interest. --from Braldt Bralds

The Process:  I set up a composition incorporating three elements: an orchid in a decorative pot, a small celadon teapot and a ceramic Asian plate in plate stand.  The photograph, shown on the left, was taken outdoors against an adobe wall.  After transferring the image onto watercolor paper, I added graphite details and shadows to the pot and the wood-grain tabletop.  I applied liquid frisket to mask the white orchid blossoms and some of the lightest highlights on the pot, plate and rim of the teapot.  Using a mixture of Burnt Sienna, French ultramarine and sepia, I applied several washes to the background walls and a lighter wash to the tabletop. To create the celadon color of the teapot, I used a mixture of Naples yellow and Cobalt blue.  I applied a light wash of the celadon mix to the teapot and a second wash after removing the frisket.  After adding more Cobalt blue to the mixture, I applied several washes of color to the decorative pot, adding dark shadows under the rim and the diamond-shaped insets; the same color was used in the abstract design on the plate.   The plate was completed using a light wash of Naples yellow with a wash of Burnt Sienna along the rim.  Lastly, I painted the leaves and flowers of the orchid plant after removing the frisket.  By adding a bit of Gum Arabic to the shades of green paint, the leaves took on a glossy glow.  The delicate orchid flowers were completed with touches of white gouache, a mixture of Alizarin crimson and gouache, and touches of grey to outline the pedals, while leaving some of the white paper show through as the brightest highlights.

The Critique:  This was my most successful work of the four assignments.   It is also my most realistic painting, a clear departure from my typical loose, abstract style.  The painting is successful in part because of its composition, an orderly arrangement: the orchid provides a strong center of interest and there is good variation in the proportions and shapes of the three elements.  The painting incorporates a good degree of light and dark elements.  The orchid pedals could be set off further by darkening the shadowed wall.  

Lesson Learned:  The elements of design are the building blocks; they provide the structure for a successful painting.  Values create gradation in light and contrast; without them, the painting would be flat. 



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