Will Kemp, Still Life with Apricots (detail), acrylic on canvas
Distracted by Light…or how a bowl of apricots sent my schedule out the window
I’ve been distracted by an apricot.
It’s not the usual thing that grabs your eye but I’m deep in the midst of filming a new simple colour mixing course and the apricots have got me.
They were the perfect subject to teach colour theory for one of the studies and as I arranged them in the studio, a light, impressionistic, muted blue and orange composition began to form.
Pleased with the setup, I headed down the garden for a tea break.
Will Kemp, New simple colour mixing course, blue & orange study, acrylic on canvas board
Then the light changed.
When I returned, a stronger pool of light fell onto the tabletop giving a more dramatic sense of mood. It now felt more like a classical Dutch still life, I loved how the apricots had taken on a new luminosity due to the shadows behind them and I wanted to capture it before it disappeared.
I quickly began to move things around, swapping the background for an intense navy and piling in with more apricots. It already looked like a painting and I needed to paint it.
So instead of filming and editing what I should have been doing, I found myself painting different groups of apricots furiously for five days solid, schedule firmly out the window.
I’ve always had a soft spot for lemons (we paint some of those too) but the apricots have proved surprisingly enjoyable to paint, both for the course and my own practice.
They have many attributes.
- You can create a realistic rendering of the form with just a couple of colours.
- Cutting them in half and revealing the dark brown of the stone gives you a strong contrast between lights and darks.
- They have a less uniform shape than oranges.
- They have a variety of hues, from yellows to oranges to reds, all within the same scene.
- Apricot jam and Wensleydale cheese sandwiches are my Dad’s favourite.
So the painting below is one of the pieces I’ve been working on when I should have been filming the new course, but I thought it might be of interest to see how the painting came together.
Drawing out and blocking in
The scene is a plate of apricots with a small porcelain bowl on an old wooden mangle that Vanessa picked up at an auction. There is also a little porcelain handled-knife that I seem to be obsessed with painting at the moment. I prepared the canvas with a coloured ground mix of Burnt Sienna, Titanium White with a touch of Cadmium Red.
I arranged the scene on the table into 3 main groups.
- The porcelain bowl and a single apricot (lights, high contrast)
- A single knife (lights, high contrast)
- The plate of apricots (mid-tone, medium contrast)
When I approach a still life setup, I’m always trying to vary the shapes and spaces of the contour line around the edges of the subjects. I continued to work within an orange and blue complementary colour scheme for this piece, so each of the three groups has both blue and orange elements within.
I used a Burnt Umber acrylic marker and a thin wash of Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna diluted with water for the drawing out and a hog brush, usually used for oil painting. The bristles can go a little splayed when submerged in water for a long time but I like the broken edge you get with this older brush.
Here you can see how when more water gets into the hog bristles, they lose their shape and start to spread outwards. Not always a bad thing!
Detail: At this stage, I’ve tweaked the colours and transparency, a little more Burnt Umber for in-between the apricots on the right and a thinner watery wash of Burnt Sienna on the surface of the apricots.
I dilute down a mix of Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna, a lovely dark red-orange with water and scrub it into the canvas surface. I go a little darker to the top left because I know this will be a lot darker in the final painting.
I also block in the cast shadows of the apricots and under the plate, I want to keep the sense of the central shape of the apricots being illuminated by a spotlight.
Blocking in the background
I now mix a dark inky black using Burnt Umber and Prussian Blue Hue. Prussian Blue has a subtle turquoise tint to it and I want this cooler blue for the background.
I work around the edge shape of the bowl and the apricots so I can judge my drawing. Viewing the scene from a distance at this stage (stepping back a few feet from the canvas) can really help you to get a sense of the overall impression before too much detail has been added.
I block in the shadow under the mangle and add some Titanium White and a little Burnt Umber to warm the mix and paint in the tone on the right-hand side.
Adding the whites
Now I wanted to establish my overall tonal range, so I bring up the two lightest areas of the painting. I’m using grey mixed from a little Burnt Umber, Prussian Blue Hue and Titanium White and a diluted wash of Titanium White.
Blocking in the wooden table
Now I can start to scrub in the table top surface, using a mix of Burnt Umber cooled with a little Prussian Blue Hue and Titanium White. I’m varying the consistency of the paint so in some areas there is a warmer feel, especially under the apricots. I’m keeping the warmer underpainting to give that illusion of a reflective surface. You can also see a few little dashes of the contrasting blue in the knife handle and within the darker shadows on the plate.
First stage block-in
Now I’ve got most of the canvas blocked in, I can see how the colour balance is working and the tonal range of the main subjects as a whole. As I work through a painting, I’m always reassessing the balance between the different elements, bringing the piece all up at the same time, rather than completing one element at a time.
Blocking in the apricots
Using Cadmium Yellow Light and Permanent Alizarin Crimson, I mix orange and begin to work along the form shadow line of the apricots, covering over the initial pen lines and looking for the differences in tone. When I cool or darken the colour in the shadows I’m using either Burnt Umber or Prussian Blue Hue.
I add a little dash of Cadmium Red to give a stronger base and a more saturated colour for certain areas, so I can better judge the more subtle surrounding hues. The apricots are quite close in value, so the colour differences can help to separate them out.
Before I paint any more, I add Ultramarine Blue to the palette and block in the pattern on the bowl and the knife handle. With this brighter blue in, the orange hues of the apricots will pop a little more.
I can then start to push the intensity of the oranges, looking for a range of tonal values as the light changes across the form.
By adding the highlight reflections you get a greater sense of the light source and I refine the colours on the knife and the bowl. I really like the painting at this stage and there is something really enjoyable about the freshness of the marks.
Here’s a detail of the knife, you can see the reflection of the apricots in the top of the knife handle is the initial ground colour. The subtle white glazes on the surface under the knife, reveal the sheen of the table surface. Notice how the edges of the reflections are kept really soft.
I now look for the little dashes of light around the edges of the fruit, judging the balance between the different shapes in the arrangement.
I wanted to keep the central element of the fruit slightly separate to the front of the mangle, so I start to bring up the value to the front of the wooden surface and add few glazes with Raw Sienna, so it has a lighter, more yellow hue.
I also change the hue of the background on the bottom right to a warmer neutral colour and paint in the metal work using a mix of Raw Umber, Titanium White and a little Raw Sienna.
And here’s the finished painting:
Will Kemp, Still Life with Apricots, Acrylic on Canvas
Will Kemp, Still Life with Apricots, Detail, Acrylic on Canvas
Back to the course
For the study on the new colour mixing course, we’re using a simpler set up and a lighter background, but we do use many of the same approaches and a four colour palette (with the little knife!)
When will the new course be ready?
Hopefully, the end of May. We look at 3 different still life paintings, alongside colour theory exercises so you can understand the properties of paint, how colour works in paintings and learn the foundations of colour mixing and theory.
What if I want to get started today?
If you want an introduction to form and cast shadows, have a look at the still life e-book.
If you want to go dark and learn more about painting reflections have a look at the still life masterclass, (Mary Tabor has even featured her fab painting from the course on her new book “The Women Who Never Cooked” on the front cover!)
If you want to catch the original version of the beginner’s colour mixing course for 50% off you can grab it here.