“No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition.”
Morning class! This week we’re taking inspiration from around your home.
You might have always wanted to capture the corner of your sunlit living room or an interesting collection of books stacked up on your coffee table or a section of your garden or patio with all the vibrant greens and spring colours.
But when faced with a new painting subject, where do you begin?
How do you decide on the pigments to use or what’s important to focus on?
The tendency can be just to get started and work it out as you go along.
But without adopting a systematic approach to your painting, you can be faced with frustration with your colour mixing, wasted time on your drawing and an unsatisfying result; I want to show you an easier way.
In this acrylic still life tutorial, I go through the steps of how I think through my colour composition, from choosing the coloured ground to introducing the pigments and then slowly building up the piece before putting the brush to canvas.
So let’s grab a brew and any remaining biscuits you may have left, and let’s get painting!
Unravelling your subject
Original reference image
This lovely little collection of pots were part of a cottage garden I’d visited recently, and I like how they have the intense orange of the terracotta next to the muted purple of the red brick, which is then broken up by the fresh greens on the leaves.
I squint my eyes and consider the scene as a whole. On the right-hand side, the pots start to blend into the background too much, and the tones become too close in value. In comparison, the shapes on the left hand still read quite clearly.
So I focus my attention on the main pot and find by rotating the crop, I can reframe it while still keeping all the elements I want to capture. Vibrant terracotta colour, green leaves with nice shapes and interesting negative spaces, some tonal contrast and the lovely old brickwork, but now I have a much simpler composition.
An indirect approach
It’s all about peeling back the layers of the subject you’re looking at and reverse engineering how you’re going to approach it.
Now I’m happy with my composition; I begin to observe the parts in the subject that may cause me trouble and what I can do to give myself the best chance of capturing the subject accurately.
What’s going to be the three main issues?
For this scene, the three perceptional stumbling blocks that I can foresee are:
- An accurate drawing of the ellipses on the plant pots
- Keeping the background hues muted so they don’t overpower the main subject
- Judging the greens on the plant leaves
1. An accurate drawing of the ellipses on the plant pots
Ellipses can make or break your drawing of pots or cups when painting still life’s, the most common mistakes are overstating the ellipse shape or creating a sharp edge at the centre of the ellipse rather that one continuous smooth curve. (You can see an example in Set up #4 here: Are You Making Any of These 7 Compositional Mistakes with Your Still-life Paintings? )
To help with this, I’m going to be sketching out first with a pencil and then using an acrylic marker.
I’m initially looking for the value pattern in the composition. This is the arrangements of the lights and darks, which help me understand the painting’s mood and feel.
2. Keeping the background hues muted, so they don’t overpower the main subject.
Colour swatch from the mortar between the bricks for the coloured ground
If I know that the colours in the background of the subject will be low chroma and low tonal value, I can select a pigment that already has those characteristics.
For example, the general hues I can see on the brick wall are a yellow grey (in the mortar) and a muted purple and muted red-orange in the bricks.
If I paint the ground colour a yellow-grey, then use a muted purple (Violet Iron Oxide) and a muted red-orange (Venetian Red), I know I can quickly mix 90% of the colours within that area of the painting.
Then scanning the rest of the scene, the terracotta of the flower pot can also be mixed using the muted red-orange (Venetian Red). The front of the wooden crate has a subtle purple hue, so the Violet Iron Oxide will also be handy for that too.
Could you mix the colours using a more vibrant palette?
Yes, you could mix the same colours with brighter pigments. When I’m teaching the theory of colour mixing, I’ll often use a few intense colours to demonstrate how to manipulate bright pigments to create both muted and bright intense paintings.
But when working on paintings in the studio, I’ll often use other pre-mixed pigments to work quicker.
3. Judging the greens on the plant leaves
Having greens that are too vivid will fight with the overall colour balance in the scene, so for blocking in the greens in the shadows, I’m going to use Raw Umber & Cadmium Yellow Light. This (when painted next to the reds in the brick) will read as a muted green. Then I can slowly introduce Ultramarine Blue to this mix, creep up on my greens, so they don’t overpower the painting.
A step-by-step terracotta plant pot still life
Downloading the reference photograph
The photo above can be ‘clicked’ and ‘Save image as’, so you can use it as a reference image, print it out and follow along with the video.
You can also download a High-Resolution Image here.
Materials you will need:
- Round – Small nylon round brush – My brush doesn’t have a brand name or specific size on the brush; any small round will be fine. The dimensions are approx 3-5mm in diameter and 1.5 – 2cm in length
- Flat – Rosemary & Co – Small Flat ‘Bright’ Golden Synthetic, Size 10, Series 302
- Filbert – Isabey Isacryl Acrylic Brush, Filbert shape, Size 6 – Series 6572
- Filbert – Rosemary & Co – Shiraz for blocking in the coloured ground (any large brush would work fine for this)
- 10 oz cotton duck canvas 20.32 x 25.4 cm (8 x 10 inch)
I demonstrate on a 10 oz cotton duck canvas, 38mm profile. You could also use a canvas board.
- RGM Classic Line, Medium size 45, Diamond-shaped, cranked (angled) handle. I use an RGM 45 for mixing the paint.
- Uni Kuru Toga Roulette Mechanical Pencil 0.5mm HB pencil
- Faber Castell Putty Eraser
- Liquitex Acrylic Paint Maker (Burnt Umber)
- Kitchen roll/paper towel
- Clean water
- Metal double dipper (you could use two small pots)
- Tear-off palette or stay-wet palette (In this tutorial, I demonstrate on an A3 size Grey Pad from New Wave tear-off palette)
Paints – The Colour Palette
I’ve used a mix of Golden Heavy Body colours, Winsor & Newton Professional Acrylic (also called Artists’ Acrylic) and Old Holland artist quality acrylic colours.
- Titanium White (Golden)
- Burnt Umber (Golden)
- Cadmium Yellow Light (Golden)
- Venetian Red (Old Holland)
- Violet Iron Oxide (Winsor & Newton)
- Burnt Sienna (Winsor & Newton)
- Raw Umber (Golden)
- Ultramarine Blue (Winsor & Newton)
- Airbrush Medium (Golden Paints)
Step 1. – Preparing the Ground
N7 Neutral Gray & Yellow Iron Oxide
I found a canvas in the studio that had been prepared with a ground colour that was very close to the colour I was after. I tweaked the colour slightly by mixing some Neutral 7 Gray and some Yellow Iron Oxide. (The neutral colours are a mix of Burnt Umber, Bone Black and Titanium White if you’d like to mix your own).
When looking at the reference image, I wanted the hue (colour) and value (how light or dark) of the ground colour to be close to the lime mortar colour in-between the bricks.
Golden Airbrush Medium
When diluting the paint, I used water that had a few drops of airbrush medium added to it. The airbrush medium helps when you are diluting the colour not to thin the paint film too much. (you can read more about thinning acrylics in this article on painting surface absorption)
HB pencil & Burnt Umber Acrylic Marker
Uni Kuru Toga Mechanical Pencil, 0.5mm HB
I started the sketch using a Uni Kuru Toga 0.5mm HB mechanical pencil. What’s great about this mechanical pencil is the lead slightly rotates when you click to extend it, so you always have an excellent crisp point. Even though it’s marked as an HB, it feels slightly more like a 2B to me, so it is nice as a general sketching pencil.
I mark out the width of the leaves and the top and bottom of the terracotta pot, so I have some construct lines to work within. I then draw straight lines around the contour to create an ‘envelope’ of the subject. Once this is established, I can observe the smaller shapes within this larger form.
Faber Castell Putty Eraser
I then erase back the construct lines with a putty eraser, so I have a cleaner drawing. I’ll often also lightly rub the eraser over the surface to remove any excess graphite before painting on-top.
Liquitex Acrylic Paint Maker (Burnt Umber)
To establish some darker lines into the drawing, I use an acrylic marker. This is a 2-4mm chisel tip marker; you can also get finer tips for more detailed works.
Blocking in the background
I start by creating a ‘black’ by mixing Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue. I then mix a warm brown with Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna. Diluting the paint with water, I work between the small round synthetic brush and the Isabey filbert to block in the darkest shadows. I then wash in a flat colour of Burnt Sienna as a colour note to judge my next mixes against.
The acrylic marker has already helped with the shadows within the plant pots, so it’s just the main areas in the background.
Burnt Sienna, Ultramarine Blue & Burnt Umber
Painting the brickwork
Using the Violet Iron Oxide, I can paint in the brickwork behind the plant. The coloured ground is left unpainted and creates the illusion of the mortar joint in-between the bricks.
The Venetian Red (you could also use a Red Iron Oxide) can then be used for the main pot. I lighten the value with a little Cadmium Yellow Light and Titanium White as the form changes value as it turns towards the light.
The Violet Iron Oxide, Titanium White and a little Ultramarine Blue can then be used for the colours in the wooden crate in the foreground.
Venetian Red & Violet Iron Oxide Acrylic
Once I have the brickwork, wooden crate and terracotta pot established, I start to paint in the greens. Green can easily overpower a painting and become garish very quickly, so for the first very muted green; I’m using Raw Umber and Cadmium Yellow Light. This creates a nice muted base that the shadow shapes of the leaves can be painted in with.
Raw Umber & Cadmium Yellow Light
How to Mix Green Paint
To lift your green value, the two colour options you’d usually pick are either white or yellow.
Yellow will warm the green.
White will cool the green
I start with a warmer base to the greens in the shadows and then introduce more blue and more white into the mix as I get lighter.
Pro tip: If you prefer not to work with Cadmium pigments, alternatives are Bismuth Yellow or Hansa Yellow Medium.
Once the greens were painted in, I then take a step back and look at the whole piece. Even small tweaks in the drawing at this stage can make a big difference to the overall feel of the painting. When I switch back to my ‘drawing brain’, I’m looking for shapes and shadows more than shifts in colour.
I really hope you enjoy the lesson, and it helps to give a small window of meditation in these unsettling times.