Peeling Back the Layers of the Watercolor Still Life

Watercolor Still Life in the Man Cave

Watercolor Still Life in the Man Cave

Ernest Hemingway could not write about Michigan until he was in Paris, and could not write about Paris until he had returned to the United States.  On this first day of the New Year, I am returning to my ninth grade in House Springs Missouri, at Northwest High School.  In Proustlike fashion, this still life with the kerosene lantern is transporting me back to my Art I class, period 1, when we walked into class and saw a collection of at least fifteen objects assembled in the middle of the classroom, and the table arranged in a circle about the perimeter.  Each of us was given a full-size sheet of newsprint paper (perhaps 18 x 24″), a charcoal pencil, a blending stump and a kneaded eraser.

Immediately, a girl protested: “Mr. Scucchi, I cannot fit all that on this paper!” Coolly, the teacher replied: “Did you ever draw a house?”  Discussion over.  Time to draw.

At college there was an ancient Greek vase on the table in the seminar room where our class in Greek was held.  Fresh from Michigan, I had never seen anything before with lines so simple and yet so beautiful, and I marveled at it day after day.  In those hours of a student’s trancelike wonder there was born the resolve, unconscious at first, to go to Greece. 

The Art I students would sit before this giant still life for three weeks, fifteen instructional periods.  And in those periods, I became lost in wonder at the kerosene lantern, the focal point (for me) to this immense pile of objects that included a jug, a Ruffino wine bottle with straw bottom, corn scoop, football helmet, antique water pump, bricks and drapery.

With charcoal pencil and blending stump, I became absorbed with the textures of the kerosene lantern, the complications of a smoky globe with highlights and scratches and thin wires wound about it, the rusted and pitted armature catching highlights and absorbing shadows, the thinness of the bail that arced above the lantern, and the issues of rendering this delicate piece of iron with charcoal as it presented itself as a string of highlights, mid-tones and shadows.  I realize now that, as a ninth-grader, I was not as dull as I and my peers had regarded me.  It is a certainty that I was not academically astute or interested, but during those days I realized that I was visually alert and interested in these objects.

No Ideas but in Things.

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85 Responses to “Peeling Back the Layers of the Watercolor Still Life”

  1. Allie Ward Says:

    David, I am a new follower to your blog and I’m enjoying watching the progress of this painting. I smile each day when I open the entry because my first thought is, “Why does he have a cast iron skillet hanging on his painting?” You have the shadow so perfect I always assume it is an actual skillet hanging there. Thank you for sharing your stories and your process.

    • davidtripp Says:

      Why thank you, Allie! What a compliment, to hear that an object painted looks like the actual object attached to the work, thank you! Funny thing–I had all kinds of plans to texture and layer the skillet, but as soon as it got to where it is now (rather quickly) I thought it seemed O.K. to leave as is. So I have not gone back to touch it. Thank you for your gracious comments, and thank you for following my blog. I appreciate you.

  2. Jane Newton Says:

    Painting? I am… CD of the day is a 2004 compilation of Neil Young’s greatest hits… long versions of great songs. Memories of painting in ninth grade are in my head. Wish I had followed the call then. It was certainly loud enough.

    • davidtripp Says:

      Oh my! An artist after my own heart–Neil Young! I read his biography (“Shakey”) from cover-to-cover and absolutely loved it. Then I went out and bought a Martin guitar (Neil’s fault!). I love his work, and his unceasing creativity. Glad you’re painting. I’ve had a very fascinating day-long conversation with a kindred spirit, so I have yet to get into the Cave. But I’m starting a late lunch now, and will enter the Cave for the first time afterward. I’m ready! Thank you again for posting.

  3. under the skies of arkansas Says:

    that is a wonderful man cave picture

  4. segmation Says:

    Great art blog! Love your style! Thanks for sharing.

  5. The Smile Scavenger Says:

    Hah! I love Mr. Scucchi’s reply. Lovely post! Thank you for sharing. :)

  6. Ushamrita Says:

    David, my mother is an artist. Although not too fluent in English, she is a truly creative communicator. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing her working on her big canvases, and what a pleasure it is! I love the entire process of artistic creation, and your post just brought alive this entire process. Good to have stumbled upon your blog. Hope to keep following it! And I so wish my mother gets to speak to you some time… She has worked extensively with water colours and the Tempera, and I’m certain the both of you will have lots to discuss and share! Here’s to a creatively satisfying and enriching new year!

    • davidtripp Says:

      Ushamrita, thank you so much! I would love nothing more than to communicate with your mother, and with you. Thank you for connecting with me, and for your precious words. We find it hard to express what the arts do to our lives, and how they move us. Thank you again.

  7. Matthew Wright Says:

    Such a cool concept – capturing the meaning of the ‘man cave’, the essence of the ‘things that fill the places where we work and think’. And that, I guess, is also the essence of art.

    Thank you for sharing. And all the best for 2013 and your work!

    • davidtripp Says:

      I appreciate you, thanks. When I started my own man cave, I frequently laughed at myself, because my garage was the only one in the neighborhood that wasn’t filled with the sounds of table saws, hammering, or revealing a car with the hood up and a man working under it. I was making paintings in my man cave. It was like I was the only man on the block that wasn’t really a “man”–I am useless with tools and mechanics.

  8. J.C.V. Says:

    You are not just a talented painter, but a great writer. You are very talented!

    • davidtripp Says:

      Thank you, J.C.V. I love to write, and often wished I put more into it. I guess I could say the same for painting. But thank you, I appreciate what you said.

  9. uncarick Says:

    A great piece of Art, and a great blog. Congrats on Freshly Pressed!

  10. 5thingstodotoday Says:

    I really like your blog and would love you to feature on mine, All you have to do is write five suggestions along with a link back to your site. Please check out the blog and see the sort of things people have written about.

    • davidtripp Says:

      Thank you! I would love to contribute to this. I will first read carefully the things already posted, then draft a list of five of my own. I really appreciate this invitation.

  11. niasunset Says:

    so exciting… Congratulations being on Freshly Pressed. I am so glad to meet you and your art. Thank you, with my love, nia

  12. Greenhousestarter Says:

    This is a beautiful painting of such seemingly unbeautiful objects! Nice blog.

  13. brain4rent Says:

    Such a great blog. I love the art and the story. Thanks for sharing and for your Freshly Pressed.

  14. G Says:

    May you keep spreading art and knowledge with your lantern. Excellent work. Impressed.

  15. heraesthetics Says:

    Reblogged this on k a t h e r i n e | her aesthetics and commented:
    This is just brilliant. I absolutely love the textures.

  16. sonsothunder Says:

    Great Nostalgic Look…
    Love the writing too.,.
    ~Happy New Year~

    • davidtripp Says:

      I appreciate your saying that, thank you. I love to write about the things I paint, and am always happy when I can connect with other creative spirits. Thank you for posting and encouraging.

  17. malvikajaswal Says:

    Congratulations!!!!! Well Deserved :)

  18. MarkMorbidity Says:

    Just came across your blog :) Love the painting :D

  19. bakingnotwriting Says:

    This is very cool! Weirdly, I blogged about Proust this week too. And I never even think about him…Must be a New Year’s thing! Anyway, I like the vintage advertising stuff and color and the way you have organized it. I’m a follower now!

  20. williamw60640 Says:

    The rich complexity of what strikes me as a sepia tone in your still life fascinates me. The shadows and lines, sharp and dull, are all married so well I think. Thanks for sharing this image and your related intriguing introspection. Congrats on being FP.

    • davidtripp Says:

      Thank you! I have always loved the sepia tone, and threw away my sepia about three years ago. It now rises out of my mixture of primary colors (the only colors I use that are not primary are Winsor Green and Winsor Violet). Thank you for your kind word.

  21. Harley Manifold Says:

    How good is watercolour! =D Actually how good is just painting, that is the stuff of awesomeness… :) Great stuff

    • davidtripp Says:

      Thank you. I’ve loved watercolor since high school, and always wished I could make something good of it. It took awhile, but I’m finally finding satisfaction with it. Love it!

  22. usman hashmi Says:

    Great Loved It….

  23. Agata Lawrynczyk Says:

    Hi David,
    I’m a new reader of your blog and I am really enjoying it.

    Looking back on my own childhood, it is all so clear to me that art has always been my passion. It’s funny how it takes a lot of growing up before we realize that. I actually wrote a post about it last week. Here is the link if you’d like to check it out:

    I would love to see what you came up with in that Arts I class back in the 9th grade…

    • davidtripp Says:

      Thank you. It took me a long time as well to acknowledge the importance of art in my life, and the need to create it (good or bad art–just creating, period). As to my Art I work, unfortunately, the charcoal was on newsprint and therefore didn’t last too long before being thrown away (along with nearly everything else I did in Art I). Nearly all my Art II stuff perished in a fire as the art department burned down. Art III and IV work I still have, and I was gratified that I sold some of it at the time as well! So many things to talk about here. Thank you for writing. I’m now following your blog and looking forward to reading you as well.

      • Agata Lawrynczyk Says:

        That’s really too bad about the art department burning down. I’m sorry to hear that. But the fact that you had Art I, II, III, and IV in school is pretty amazing. My highschool only had one art class and I actually chose not to take it. I didn’t like the idea of being graded on my art. In retrospect, I wish I had taken it… live and learn, right? And thanks for following my blog.

      • davidtripp Says:

        You’re still making art, and that is what counts. I also have one of those “live and learn” issues glaring at me–I got my Bachelors Degree in Art and didn’t even put it to work for over a decade, and then chipped away at it intermittently until only the past few years. So, if I got a head start in high school, I blew it down the road anyway. But . . . we’re still making art, and loving it, yes?

  24. Jessie Says:

    Hi stumbled upon you and instantly fascinated. I am learning to pain late in life. Love, love, love watercolour painting. Will follow with interest..

  25. kaytisweetlandrasmussen83 Says:

    I just discovered you through Freshly Pressed. What a find! I paint in all media, but watercolor is my favorite too. Very nice painting and blog.

  26. 1088acts Says:

    awesome. i feel great to be connected…love the work

  27. Jason Ministries Says:

    Enjoyed your article. :) My favorite art assignment was always when we had to draw using nothing but shadows or negative space. It was the challenge of making something out of nothing. :) Good times.

  28. Hearts of June Says:

    I was just taken back to one of my art classes. Great post!

  29. vincentfarrellartist Says:

    great post…my father was a painter by profession. there were periods when he could not paint fast enough and other day when nothing he tried worked. however isn’t it wonderful to have the passion and desire to suffer for art in any sense? all the best ;-) and as my father would say…”keep drawing and keep painting everyday!”

    • davidtripp Says:

      What an inspirational word, thank you! It comes across like an oracle. I’m happy to have a job that allows me time to paint after hours, weekends and summers. I’m not sure how well I would do if painting was my actual profession. I would like to think I have the discipline to stay at it, but I guess that’s something I’ll never know. Thank you for passing on your father’s legacy.

      • vincentfarrellartist Says:

        you are welcome! I think the big mystery for being a full time professional artist is quite simply , being focused and determined. it is a life which usually is only lucrative to a small chosen few but not impossible to achieve. my father sacrificed a great deal for his art, may be too much. my only goal with this blog is to be an inspiration to others to encourage people to take a chance on art in any form or level. You are a wonderful artist so I hope life will allow you the time to continue to pursue it! all the best and so glad you stopped by my blog!!

      • davidtripp Says:

        Words like what you just wrote spur me to keep on keeping on, thank you! After being away for days, I’m glad to be home at last, and I returned to the studio as soon as I finished my responsibilities for tomorrow’s teaching. I live now to make art, and wish it could offer a better financial return. But even if it doesn’t, I will not stop creating and blogging. It is wonderful to connect with you, thanks so much for the encouragement and inspiration.

      • vincentfarrellartist Says:

        All the best to you David and thanks so much for stopping by ;-) happy creating!

  30. WanderingCanary Says:

    I strongly relate to the part of this post where you mention the girl who frets that she can’t fit everything in on the paper… very early on in my experience as somebody beginning to take art classes seriously, I used to feel a bit overwhelmed with large collections of objects. However, I was fortunate to have a very capable art teacher, who essentially told me: “Just because there is a lot of it, that does not mean to have to capture all of it.” Then began the process of learning that sometimes it can be even more powerful, or visually interesting, to be very selective with composition: have focal points off centre, experiment with cropping, choose the objects which create interesting shapes over the objects which look “right”. I think this is a very important realisation for any prospective artist among us.

    • davidtripp Says:

      Thank you so much for writing that! I’m sorry it took so long to get back to you–I left to attend a funeral and have just now returned. I had no blogging capability while I was away. Yes, I recall those overwhelming moments of trying to fit an entire complex still life on the paper, and in the past few years felt the same anxieties when I began watercoloring landscapes en plein air. I was overwhelmed at the immense world in front of me, and the 11 x 14″ rectangle on my easel. Same lessons–select, accentuate, allow negative space to endure. I just love the decision-making process in working out a composition on a limited rectangle of paper!

  31. Blackboard Daze Says:

    A very well written piece. Thank you for sharing your memories.

  32. kidwriterinc Says:

    I really liked reading this blog. Thanks for writing it.

    P.S. Want to learn how to make money with your blog? Go here to find out more.

  33. meekins Says:

    Ugh, your painting in progress is delicious. In fact, if you were to step back and just say “ok this is finished” I would actually really like it just how it is now.

    I’ve always been creative: love to paint, draw, take photos…am currently illustrating a children’s book….but I could never paint in such a realistic fashion. Ok, “never” is probably dramatic….but I just don’t know enough about painting techniques to achieve such a look without water-logging paper and having layers just bleed in together. Have you taken art classes as an adult?

    • davidtripp Says:

      Hello. So sorry it took so long to respond to this–I went away for a funeral and just now returned (I had no blogging capability during my time away). Yes, I took classes in watercolor, but no one could help me. I did not do my first decent watercolor until my mid-thirties. I always waterlogged the paper too, and all my colors collapsed into mud. I finally realized I was using cheap products. I now use D’Arches paper and Winsor & Newton watercolors. And as for waterlogging–I now know to stop when it is wet, let it dry, then I can go over the same area and re-work all I need to. As to the muddiness–I just have to remember that watercolor is transparent, and not to layer colors that create browns and grays unless that is the effect I want. It really turned out to be a simple solution. Thanks so much for looking at my work! I appreciate the honesty and sincerity of your responses.

  34. meekins Says:

    Forgive me, you’re in fact a teacher! Just started reading the rest of your blog….

    • davidtripp Says:

      No forgiveness necessary! I’m delighted when someone responds spontaneously as you did, before finding out there was more to read. Thank you for looking at my work and reading what I have to say.

  35. Crissi Langwell Says:

    “Ernest Hemingway could not write about Michigan until he was in Paris, and could not write about Paris until he had returned to the United States.” I’m finding so much meaning in that first sentence, it’s ridiculous. As a writer, I write much better about an experience after fully living it, instead of while I’m living it. As a painter, you get the lesson much better after time and experience have passed. Looks like you’re well on your way to fitting a house in your canvas. Looks wonderful!

    • davidtripp Says:

      Wow, thank you so much! I love listening to writers speak of their craft, and really appreciate your opening up to me the way that you did. And yes, I too find that as a painter I am more successful with subjects that have been allowed to “compost” in my consciousness over long periods of my life. The “old stuff” seems to be coming off better than subjects recently encountered.

  36. S. Thomas Summers Says:


    S. Thomas Summers
    Author of Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War

  37. absondesign Says:

    Amazing! really love how thought provoking this is. Thanks David.

    We are aspiring artists with a vision for aesthetics. Check us out and let us know your thoughts. Would be great to hear from such a talented artist.

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