Acrylic Still Life Painting Tutorial – Terracotta Plant Pots (Free 1 hr video tutorial)


“No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition.”
Claude Monet

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 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

Acrylic Still Life Painting Tutorial - Terracotta Plant Pots (Free 1 hr video tutorial)

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.

Acrylic Still Life Painting Tutorial - Terracotta Plant Pots (Free 1 hr video tutorial)

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:

  1. An accurate drawing of the ellipses on the plant pots
  2. Keeping the background hues muted, so they don’t overpower the main subject
  3. 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? )

So 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 to understand the mood and feel of the painting.

2. Keeping the background hues muted so they don’t overpower the main subject.

Acrylic Still Life Painting Tutorial - Terracotta Plant Pots (Free 1 hr video tutorial)

Colour swatch from the mortar between the bricks for the coloured ground

If I know that the colours in the background of the subject are all going to be low chroma and low tonal value, I can select a pigment that already has those characteristics.

For example, on the brick wall, the general hues I can see 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) and 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 that help me 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

Acrylic Still Life Painting Tutorial - Terracotta Plant Pots (Free 1 hr video tutorial)

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.

Palette Knife

  • 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)

Other Materials

  • 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 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

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)

Drawing Out


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 a bit more like a 2B to me, so 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-umber-acrylic-golden paints

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 old holland acrylic_small

Venetian Red & Violet Iron Oxide Acrylic

Mixing green


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 the value of your green 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.

Finished painting


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.



This Post Has 58 Comments

  1. Judy gilmer

    Hi Will, this painting Lesson was so much fun and educational too.
    I am an abstract artist. I learned a lot by reading your approach to seeing and developing your subject. I love mixing colors and often my pieces have lots of layers, but this approach gives such a fresh painterly finish. I look forward to painting a few new pieces from a subject. I especially enjoy reading your process. I am not terribly fond of watching videos, so having the photos with your process and reading thinking process was perfect for me, I like to read and take my time observing that stage of the painting. Thank you.

    new pieces with a subject

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Judy, so pleased you enjoyed reading the steps and how you can adapt the layering approach to your own abstract pieces.

  2. David

    Will, your great talent and clear instruction presented in the relaxing and calming way that you do (complimented by the soothing background music) is as good an antidote to the world’s current troubles as I can think of.

    Thank you!

    1. Will Kemp

      That’s very kind on you David, glad you enjoyed it

  3. Andi Pisacano

    This came after my morning meditation and it is so healing. Thank you for your good heart and keen eye.
    In Joy

    1. Will Kemp

      Cheers Andi, pleased it helped to keep that meditative calm

  4. Patsy Walton

    Thank you so much for this free lesson. I can’t wait to do it.I prefer to use oils, though, will that work?

    1. Will Kemp

      Sure thing Patsy, yes, you could paint the tutorial with oils, would work great

  5. Tracey Carnahan

    Beautiful, Will. Looking forward to the lesson. Stay well.

  6. Linda

    Thank you very much for this. I haven’t painted in over a year and I’m very rusty! I was indeed frustrated yesterday when trying to get started. This video tutorial is just what I needed.
    Thanks for sharing this Will.
    Linda G. From New Jersey.

    1. Will Kemp

      So pleased it was good timing for your Linda

  7. Pat

    Thanks so much for this Will. We need to keep our minds busy during this trying time. Stay healthy.

    1. Will Kemp

      Will do Pat, really hope you enjoy the lesson

  8. Linda Harris

    You must be reading my mind. I was wanting to paint a terra cotta pot of geraniums just lasto
    Monday. Thanks for video. Stay well.
    Linda Harris
    Austin Texas

    1. Will Kemp

      Well that is good timing Linda, really hope you find it helpful as inspiration for your geranium painting

  9. Sharon jackson

    Thanks for the tutorial, Will. I am going to give it a try in oils. Love hearing from you. Stay safe.

  10. Lise

    After moving to the retirement home I now live in, I never bothered unpacking any of my artist materials. The first thing I did after receiving your email and watching your video was to unpack everything as if it was Christmas Eve. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for giving this old lady something to look forward doing, and with any luck given the hard time we now live in, finishing. God bless.

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Lise, what a lovely message to receive, so pleased its helped to get your art materials out of retirement! have fun

  11. Nancy

    Can’t wait to get started? Thank you.

  12. Laura

    Great lesson thank you for sharing it to me
    I am still doing the jar I will send you a picture
    I am not very sure I know how to but I will have a look
    Because of corona virus I am inclosed as it is forbidden grand parents to look after their grand children
    That means I have plenty of time to experiment with painting
    II have been involved with painting in the past and I find Will Kemp Art School very helpfull & inspiring And a very good company Tank you again

    Take care

    1. Will Kemp

      My pleasure Laura, enjoy your painting time.

  13. Karen

    I am not an artist at all – have little natural talent but love art and have enjoyed watching your videos –landscape seems more approachable as a beginner so am planning to experiment with your Cornish Fishing Village scene – thanks so much for posting your videos and information. Take care during this very surreal time – you are helping more than you know!

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Karen, I think that should be ‘I am not an artist at all, yet’ really hope you enjoy the painting of Padstow.

  14. Sharon

    Will, thanks so much for this. Was thinking last night what to paint while awaiting some supplies for the Venice painting. It’s beautiful! Stay well.

    1. Will Kemp

      Great timing Sharon, a few of the pigments I use on the Venice course are featured in this lesson. Really hope you enjoy it

  15. Beck

    This is such a generous gift. A way to calm the mind and body while we shelter-in-place. Thanks much! Beck

  16. Les Fraser

    Can’t tell you just how much receiving your video freshened my day. Thanks Will. Made me smile as I “grabbed a brew”.

    Kindest regards

    1. Will Kemp

      That’s so great to hear Les, keep well

  17. Olivia A Wylie

    So pleased with everything you send to people who love to paint. School has been cancelled so as a teacher this gives me something productive to do.

    1. Will Kemp

      My pleasure, really hope you enjoy it Olivia.

  18. Colleen White

    Thank you so much, Will!

    1. Will Kemp

      Hope the painting goes well Colleen.

  19. Linda Curphey

    Thank you so much for your generosity in sharing your beautiful technique


    1. Will Kemp

      My pleasure Linda, so pleased you enjoyed the painting.

  20. Mary L. Tabor

    Hi, Will, and thank you so for this tutorial in these difficult times. Q.: For the colored ground, if I’m starting with a white canvas, might I use a Purdy brush and the same n7, titanium white, and yellow iron oxide mixed with water and put on the ground in your usual way? Or should I use your approach with the airbrush medium and a smaller brush? –Mary

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Mary, yes that would work fine with the Purdy and water dilution.

  21. Valerie Turner

    Thank you so much for your generosity Will. I’m really looking forward to getting started. The instructions and video, as always, are so clear and concise. Stay safe and well.

    1. Will Kemp

      And you Val, glad you found the steps easy to follow.

  22. Mary Tabor

    Absolutely marvelous: Your generosity in these difficult times shines and defines who you are. Blessings, stay safe,


  23. Connie Rowe

    Thank you for this clear and useful tutorial! I enjoy every one of your posts.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks very much Connie, pleased you enjoyed it

  24. Gail

    Violet Iron Oxide Acrylic is not a tube in my arsenal as of yet. What can I mix to achieve and still work with the others as I blend?

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Gail, if you mix a purple with alizarin crimson & ultramarine blue, then add a little white, then tone down with some burnt umber.

  25. Maggie

    Thank you so much for sharing your talent. I just watched the video and will start the painting tomorrow. Something to look forward to during this trying time.

    1. Will Kemp

      Hope the painting goes well Maggie.

  26. Andrew

    Great the way you show steps to blend the mixing the thickness needed can not be overstressed for us new painters especially self-taught and it gives us courage to experiment

    1. Will Kemp

      Pleased you found it helpful Andrew.

  27. Margaret

    I love your work Will and I love to read your preparation method which is extremely interesting and is a bit like I, in my very beginerish (is that a word?) like to do. I really look forward to the tutorial and then having a go. Four of us in my art group have decided to each choose a subject and we all have to do it and choose our medium then send photos to each other whilst we are ‘grounded’. There is so much to learn in the art world but I have to say it is an incredibly meditative pastime. Keep well!

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Margaret, so pleased you’ve been finding learning about the preparation method helpful, hope the art group paintings go well!

  28. CHERYL


    1. Will Kemp

      That’s good to hear Cheryl, thanks for the toast!

  29. Monica Meitin

    Thank you for the lovely lesson. As an amateur artist, I always learn something of value.

    1. Will Kemp

      Really pleased you enjoyed it Monica.

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