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Painting the folds and shadows in drapery can be tricky. Here’s how to set yourself up for success.
By Jane Jones
From casual to formal, stately to festive, drapery can be an important element in a painting. It can set or support the overall mood of your composition. The configuration of the folds, their orientation and the intensity of the lighting all play a part in the expressive qualities of the drapery. Depicting those folds and tucks in paint can be intimidating and baffling. But with good preparation, painting draped fabric can become a fun part of your process and give you great satisfaction.
1. Reference material
Whether it’s the actual fabric or a reference photo (above), the first thing you need is good reference material. The reference should have lighting that reveals the folds clearly. I used outdoor light because it creates well-defined areas of light and shadow. You don’t want to try to “fake” or make up an area. One tendency is to include too many folds and layers. Keep it simple, especially at first; then, as you become more skilled, you can get more elaborate.
2. The drawing
Drapery is so much easier to figure out with a pencil and eraser than with a paintbrush! The individual shapes that indicate folds or shadows can be irregular, and they don’t make sense by themselves. Therefore, the shapes need to be accurate and in the correct location so that they fit into a coherent whole; it’s like putting a puzzle together. Draw each shape as carefully as possible, adjusting each as you put in additional shapes.
In step two, I draw lines to indicate where a value or color transition occurs, such as the areas of reflected light. Often these edges are soft, but those areas show a shift in value or color, so I indicate that in the drawing. Put as much information as you can into this step, even if you think you won’t need it. Draw it anyway—as a reminder for later when you’re painting.
3. Mixing the paints
Since the drapery in my painting is reflecting the sky (and so that it harmonizes with the morning glories), it contains a hint of blue. I mixed Payne’s gray with a little bit of ultramarine blue, and then added titanium white. For the lightest areas, I used mixtures of titanium white and Naples yellow light.
4. Creating folds and shadows
There are three main things to consider when painting drapery: value, shape and edges. Select the correct value of paint for the area. Remember that the lightness or darkness of the paint is relative to the surrounding areas. If you put some paint down and it isn’t quite right, wipe it up and put in the correct value. Scraping or wiping is so much easier than trying to “fix” the paint you’ve already put down.
Block in the shapes with the correct values, adjusting both as you go. This will be an easy step if you’ve outlined the shapes correctly in your drawing. The painting process is always a refinement and correction of the drawing.
5. Adjusting the edges
This step really determines whether your drapery looks realistic or not. If the edge of a shape is hard, then blend it just a little so that it appears to be part of the surrounding area. If the edge is very soft, then blend it to reflect that. If you overblend, simply brush in some paint of the correct color and blend again. After you’ve placed a few shapes, take a step back and evaluate the area.
In my reference photo, the far right shadow on the drapery is quite dark and presents a lot of contrast in an area too far from the focal area, so I lightened that shadow to create less interest there. Notice that even though I didn’t use any white paint directly out of the tube, the drapery appears to be white.
For some artists, there’s a tendency to paint all of the lights or all of one value in various areas at once. Instead, work each area to completion, and then move on. This will give you a quicker sense of accomplishment and let you know if you’re on the right track. It’s also easier to keep your hand out of the wet paint!
If you need to leave your painting before the drapery is completed, then find an area with hard edges, such as where one fold overlaps another. Otherwise, leave off in an area where you’ve already premixed the color. That way you can pick up the exact color of paint and just continue in another session.
Jane Jones is the author of Classic Still Life Painting (Watson-Guptill, 2004) and a popular workshop teacher. See more of her work and learn about her workshops at www.janejonesartist.com.
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