How is a human like a jug?

I hope you’re laughing!  In my classes at the Toronto School of Art, it was a running joke that if we can paint fruits and drapes, then we can paint nudes.  We never missed an opportunity to make that joke.  But the reality is, it’s true!

Don’t believe me?  Let’s take a closer look.

The main photo (above) shows two paintings I’ve been working on this year.  The first is a jug and fruit still life (by me, after my teacher Lorne Winters).  The second is a copy of a famous Bouguereau, “Femme au Coquillage” (original painting shown).

Consider first the shape of the jug.  Can you see the cylinders in Bouguereau’s figure?  They occur all over: each arm, the long thigh, the belly, and even the head.  Her skin colour is somewhere between the unpainted ceramic of the jar, and the ochre colour shining up at the top.

For the sake of this illustration I’m going to zoom into the belly, and flip the jar upside down so you can see how the two “objects” are modelled in very similar ways.  Look at the pattern of darks and lights.

Taking it further, let’s look at the values used for both paintings to help shape the form.   I’ve drawn lines to separate the darks from the lights, and also showing you where to see the highlights and halftones (more on that in a bit).  Note that the belly lines are a bit more complex than the jug – because in fact the belly is a hybrid between a jug and an apple.  It has a bit of a spherical bump.


If you squint your eyes and look at the value scale, you can see trends in what Bougeureau saw in the lady’s torso, and what I saw in the jug.  Tactically:

Highlights for both: 9 on the value scale
Lights for both: 8
Halftones for both: 6
Darks for both: 4
Darkest dark (on jug only, due to partial backlighting on the woman): 1

You can see that from an artist’s perspective, the jug and the torso are the same challenge.  In both situations we’re modelling a cylinder.  For both paintings we’re squinting our eyes and trying to decipher the proper values to record onto our canvases.

So, if you can paint a jug, you can paint a tummy!  Imagine what you can do with apples and pears!


Doing this analysis made me consider some “rules” to take forward in my own painting; I hope they might help you, too:

4 Value Guidelines for Creating Form

#1: Avoid using values 0 (black) and 10 (white) for as long as possible in a painting.  What looks black and white to our eye is rarely ever so.  Generally 0’s occur in occlusion shadows; that is, the shadow where an object meets a surface.  You can see those at the very base of the jug and fruits, and under the tip of the lady’s knee.   A value of 10 (white) only occurs on the tip of the seashell, and on the apple highlight.

#2: Halftones (the area of transition between dark and light) are lights.   They range in value from light (8) to half way between light and dark (6).   They also have some very special hue characteristics which I will write about in a future post.

#3: Shadow values are 4 levels darker than lights.  This is true in realistic painting in natural (outdoor) light.  If you’re going for an abstract or impressionistic look, this is an area where you can push the range or draw it closer together, but if you’re going for realism, the 40% reduction rule seems to hold true.

#4 Save mid-tones (4,5,6) for the background.  Let your background be full of value mediocrity, while your subject matter grabs attention with its contrasts!  It’s all about the drama!


Ok – those are built up from my observation, and I’m curious to know if you have any to add.  Drop a line below and let’s see how much we can learn together!


Yours in Paint,







Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s