Ellipses: Don’t Start a Still-life Without ‘Em

Ellipses: Don’t Start a Still-life Without ‘Em by Michael Newberry

Ellipses make or break any drawn plate, glass, or bottle. When beautifully done they transport the viewer to experience serene harmony. It’s rare not to have a man-made cylindrical object in a still life.

It should not be surprising that da Vinci painted/drew beautiful ellipses. This detail is a from The Last Supper–it is the plate in front of Christ.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci

The outer side, top, and bottom edges of the ellipses are always perfectly aligned: straight up and down and straight across on the horizontal. Think of a “+” sign.

Below, I overlaid the plate with a “+” in purple. This process is really pure math. Most artists make either the right or left side unbalanced and fail to keep the two outer edges on the same horizontal plane.

The exception to this would be if the surface that the plate is on or the plate itself is tilted. Then you would tilt the “+” to correspond with the tilt of the object.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci

A tricky part about ellipses is that there is a slight discrepancy in size between the back half of the plate and the front half. Notice that the top half of the green box is smaller than the bottom half.

In perspective, as objects are further away from us, they shrink; and as they are closer to us, they expand. Hence the difference between the front and back halves of the plate.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci

In The Last Supper, the edge of the table is also horizontal which might confuse us about the ellipse’s horizontal. But if the table is on a flat surface and not tilted, the plate would always be perfectly horizontal no matter what perspective we have of the table.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci

Here, for example, I have changed the angle of the table. The plate would still remain horizontal.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci

The last very important thing about ellipses is that the rim gets rounder, more circular, the further they are placed either above or below our eye level.

“Eye level” is literally the horizontal plane which is the same height as our eye, hence the term “eye level”.

In the diagram below, the blue line represents our eye level. The green ellipses get progressively rounder and open more as they get further way from our eye level.

For example, if you were looking across to a book shelf that had several shelves containing plates, the closest plate to the height of our eye level would have a very narrow rim, and a very wide rim on the lowest shelf.

If the bookshelf were up to the height of the ceiling and way above our eye level, the same thing would occur-except that we wouldn’t see on top of the plate, rather we would see it from below. This means we would only see the front half of the rim, as the orange rims suggest. This means we would only see the front half of the rim, as the orange rims suggest.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci
Here is an example of ellipses from a recent charcoal drawing of mine. The eye level is somewhere near the top of the paper. There are three bowls and one plate; all on different heights below eye level.

The highest bowl has a very narrow rim and the black plate at the bottom of the paper has the roundest rim.

I hope you enjoyed seeing, in a fresh way, this very technical and mathematical side to the still-life.

Himalayan Flight by Newberry
Newberry, Himalayan Flight, 2006, charcoal on Rives BFK, 19 x 26 inches

Michael Newberry
New York, August 30th, 2006

Charcoal Drawing Part 2

Charcoal Drawing Part 2 by Michael Newberry

In Charcoal Drawing Part 1 you will find what are quality materials you need to get the best results.

With this tutorial, I will take you through the drawing stages.

charcoal drawing demo

The preparation takes about 10 to 15 minutes. Now that you have prepared the paper you are ready to roll.

charcoal drawing demo

The charcoal rub on the paper is neither black nor light, but solidly in the middle of the tonal range. Here I am drawing with General’s charcoal pencil 6b. You will notice that I hold the pencil at the back end. It may not seem important, but you might be amazed at how the mark making becomes more fluid.

charcoal drawing demo

After the drawing the composition, I begin to “block” out the darker areas using the soft compressed charcoal stick. Notice that with this too I hold it lightly at the back end. My preference is to drag the charcoal barely touching down on the paper.

Shadows are s difficult business, it is crucial that they feel mysterious and transparent. If you are too firm they will “sit” on the surface, destroying the spatial depth, and any hope of the drawing creating a feeling of light.

charcoal drawing demo
Here I have blocked out the major areas of dark.

Charcoal Drawing Part 2

Using a kneaded eraser I block out the lighter areas, but only a small degree. As with the charcoal, lightly drag the kneaded eraser over the paper. I tend at this stage to draw and erase with uniform rows of lines, a la da Vinci. This keeps the whole image calm, and uniform.

Below, I roll the kneaded eraser into a nub, which I use to erase the charcoal. These erasers need to be kneaded. If not, the charcoal cakes it. Think of a dishwasher sponge covered in bacon fat. That analogy is a little extreme, but just keep kneading the eraser, and it will stay fresh and clean for a long time.

Charcoal Drawing Part 2

Charcoal Drawing Part 2

Here are the results of blocking out both the lights and darks.

Below, I start refining the details I see, both erasing and drawing.

Charcoal Drawing Part 2

Now I am at a difficult stage. The drawing is set up well, but I have to drive it home. Most important now is to clearly visualize the where the objects are in space. I compare the front corner of the glass vase, with other corners, and with the back and front of the table. Below you can see I am accenting the front corner with darker marks, which helps the corner pop forward.

Charcoal Drawing Part 2

While I am drawing and looking at details, I am squinting most of the time. Squinting enables us to see the nuance of tones and the essential details of light and shadow.

Charcoal Drawing Part 2

The kneading eraser will only wipe out so much of the charcoal. To make the brightest lights, the Pink Pearl eraser does an outstanding job. It is too powerful for the subtle earlier stages but perfect for slashing the shimmering brights.

Newberry, Glass Vase

Newberry, Glass Vase, 2012, charcoal on Rives BFK, 22 x 14 inches.

I hope you enjoyed seeing erasers in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
Los Angeles, May 2012

Triangulation of Light and Dark

Triangulation of Light and Dark

contemporary oil painting, stil life
Three Fruits, oil on canvas, 12 x 9 inches.

by Michael Newberry

Some months ago I had a catalytic, aesthetic breakthrough–I discovered the tremendous value of the triangulation light and dark. It has sped my realistic technique, intensified eye movement, and allowed for more subtlety than I could have imagined.

Here is one piece which fully realized this technique, Three Fruits, 2006, oil on canvas panel, 12 x 9 inches.

To create the feeling of light, it is important to have a hierarchy of lights and darks. If you have several lights and darks of equal value spread over a canvas, you will surely kill off any life and excitement in your work. The problem is that it is very difficult to keep track of all the subtle shifts in tone. On the opposite side, you can be so subtle and afraid to paint powerfully that you end up with a dull mess. One answer, for me, is this triangulation of light and dark.


The idea is to be clear what your bright, brighter, and brightest areas are. Hence, triangulation: you compare the three brightest simultaneously. The white plate is the brightest, the tops of the fruits next and then the front corners of the yellow cloth.

It is crucial not to have any other competition with those bright areas or you lose the effect.

Finally with the darks I did a similar comparison–finding my dark, darker, and darkest areas. Here the darkest is the area directly behind the plate and fruit. It’s as black ivory as I could make. Next is an area in the framed art piece on the easel, followed by the shadow under the plate. Again it is important that the 4th, 5th, etc. dark areas become simply neutral darks, not getting close enough in tone to compete against your darkest areas.

Do try it out on some of your works I believe you will see immediate rewarding results.

Michael Newberry