Garden Still Life ( Furniture ) with Flowers

Posted on Oct 4, 1999

” Garden Still Life ( Furniture ) with Flowers ” by JOHN PATCHETT

Leisure Painter Magazine
Issue – October 1999, Deadline – 7th. June 1999.
( Part Three of a series of three x ‘3 page’ articles.)

In explanation of his choice of subject matter the Australian painter Tom Roberts wrote in 1894, “one of the best words spoken to an artist is, ‘paint what you love and love what you paint’, and on that I have worked “.

One of my great loves, when choosing a subject matter close to my heart, is that of garden environments. I have to admit to being relatively unaware as to what degree I included ‘still life’ (
furniture ) in my paintings of gardens until I was asked to write an article about it.

Furniture in a garden setting, provides a number of key elements to the composition. Besides ‘shape’ and ‘form’, these man-made features are a perfect foil to the natural forms of the different varieties of flora and become a contrasting focal point.

In Chinese philosopy, ‘Yin’-the soft, passive female forms, live in natural harmony with ‘Yang’-the hard, active male forms. I do like juggling the balance of these two extreme elements by introducing man-made ( Yang ) funiture, then compensating by adding soft shadows, water reflections, delicate textures in order to unify and balance the whole picture surface.

When I talk about garden furniture, I am largely refering to chairs, tables, ornaments, tubs and pots. The recent growth in popularity of gardening books, television programmes, garden centres and horticultural shows has made us all much more aware of the huge array of purchases available that can contribute to and enhance even the smallest patio, or container garden.

Basic considerations.

When setting up, I like to take in as much as possible, all the wonderful elements that make up the garden setting before me. I will consider just where I am going to stand and how much of the scene I am going to include, but before I make any more decisions, I need to look at the garden with fresh eyes, without rushing to any conclusion too early.

Like standing before royalty, ‘let the garden speak before you do’.

Of course any pots, chairs, tables, benches or ornaments can be added, moved, turned or removed altogether, to help create the desired composition. By placing ‘still life’ objects in feeling that these man-made objects tell a story about who owns, or uses the garden.

My approach to work.

I have a ‘plein air’ approach to painting and usually complete a piece of work in one day. My paintings are the direct response to light, composition, contrast and colour. Being a pastelist, this direct approach suits both my temperament and the versatility and immediacy of the pastels medium.

Gardens do present a difficult challenge to the inexperienced as it is easy to become overwhelmed by all the individual flowers, shrubs, trees, paths, fences, garden furniture and features. It is important that all these elements are not fighting against each other, but supporting each other. It is very easy to get seduced into focusing on particular parts of the painting, so to be able to see it as a whole is vital if you are to preserve your sanity! Certainly in the initial stages, it is important to work on all areas of your painting at the same time. This way you can easily give some things greater importance, where they are needed in the context of the overall composition.

Paintings generally get tighter as they progress, so you must allow for this by applying the pastel using loose, sketchy strokes in the early stages.

You should also try and keep the work as abstract as possible, for as long as possible. Gardens lend themselves to be painted as an abstract piece of work, where you can consider the elements of shape, texture, composition and design above all else.

Almost immediately, I block in the darkest areas to establish the tonal pattern of the composition. Consequently, a feeling of form and structure starts to emerge, creating an underpainting on which the rest of the painting can hang.

Any garden ‘furniture’ should look as if it co-exists with the rest of the painting , so it is essential to treat it in the same way as the rest of the painting It is dangerously tempting to spend longer getting the perspective of a bench, or the angles of a chair exactly right and as a result find that they look as if they have been painted by a different person when compared to its surrounding counterparts.

Still working on all areas of the painting together, I build up delicate layers of pastel, making sure that my pastel strokes follow the direction of the form that is being painted.

When blending colours, mixing should be done with the pastel sticks themselves rather than using your finger. This allows the ‘blend’ to remain fresh and alive. To control the density of your hues, the pressure of the second layer needs to be very controlled. Gentle pressure will cause the original layer to be slightly influenced (mixed) with subsequent layers. A firmer application will result in the mixture being more evenly proportioned, but a heavy handed pressure of the second layer will obliterate the layer underneath. To the uninitiated viewer, applying pastels will certainly look deceptively easy!

Shadows tell us from where the light is coming, as well as indicating any changes in the ground surface and describing the form of bushes, shrubs, pots and funiture. Small accents, details and highlights tend to be put in towards the final stages of the painting.

For me, gardens are at their most inspirational when the sun is shining and local colour is replaced by reflective colour and natural light.

This was the case in ” Sunlit Garden, Cathedral Close, Norwich “, where the slightly lemon sunlight was particularly strong causing the shadows to take on a mauve tint. The two antique pedestals, both being in the foreground were put in quite boldly with strong highlights ,which emphasised their form, allowing them to contrast against the garden behind. The diagonal pathway takes the eye back towards the far building, which is treated with a soft edged raw umber and grey mauve scumble to create an atmospheric feeling of distance (aerial perspective).

Counterchange was one of the problems that I had to resolve in ” Chardonnay Time “. Careful positioning of the white table and two directors chairs allowed me to place the light and dark tones against each other. This small Australian courtyard was alive with textures and patterns but the painting overall would have been quite dark had it not been for the focal point of the sparkling glass and bottle on the white table top.

Similarly, in ” Shady Retreat “, the white cast iron garden furniture was arranged in such a way that the back of the left hand chair stood out against the dark background and the back of the other chair appeared like a dark silhouette against the luminous pool. The patterns and textures made by the furniture, the shadows, the backdrop of foliage and the surface of the swimming pool all helped to unify the painting. Because the oval shape of the chair seats was echoed in the table, straw hat and the shape of the pool, quite a unique composition resulted. I can remember that the intensity of the Australian light was almost blinding, but it did allow me to emphasise the chiaroscuro in the finished painting.

I do like to find a composition that takes the eye into and through the painting. In “Spring Garden “, the steps, the paved middle distance and the distant gap by the side of the dark shed, give the painting a strong focal point. Here the Yin and Yang sit side by side throughout the picture surface and the strong play of light creates extra dimensions to the steps, the old chimney pot and the plants in the foreground.

As one would do when arranging a ‘still life’, it is possible to do just that on a large scale outdoors in the garden. In ” Garden Retreat “, I did spend a great deal of time moving pots of flowers and positioning and repositioning the wooden bench ( not to mention the ceramic squirrel!) in order to create my own composition. I had to soften and lighten the distant garden and make it appear out of focus to stop the painting becoming too fussy. The dark areas, which I established quite early in the painting, eventually became even darker, to create a cocooned pocket in the garden where one could sit at peace by the small pond.

“Patio Garden”, is a painting of my own small garden and the intensity and richness of colour of the blooms were achieved by using broken colour, which allows one colour to show through another and by choosing dark brown pastel card for my support.

Like watching a slow-moving sundial, I waited for the exact moment before putting in the elaborate shadows on the flagstones in the bottom right-hand corner . As I wanted the garden furniture to look part of the overall composition, I had to make sure that the painterly technique which was used for most of the painting, was used when working on the
table and chair, otherwise it would have appeared far too dominant.

After all that I have said about painting what you love and loving what you paint, it should also be about how you paint!

John Patchett

studied at Grimsby School of Art, Kingston-upon-Thames College of Art, where he graduated with a B.A. in Fine Art, and Brighton College of Art.
He worked and painted in South Australia for nineteen years before returning to live in East Anglia five years ago. His paintings have been included in numerous mixed exhibitions in this
country and overseas, including The Himeji Exhibition, Japan, The State Bank Exhibition, Christchurch, New Zealand, The Pastel Society, The Royal Society of Marine Artists and the Laing Exhibition at the Mall Galleries, London.

John’s pastel paintings can be viewed at his forthcoming solo exhibition entitled ‘Drawn by the Light’, on 5th.- 20th. November, at ‘The Haste Gallery’, 3, Gt. Coleman Street, Ipswich, IP4 2AD. Telephone ; (01473) 258 429.

← Return to News