How to Paint a Still Life with Acrylics – Apricots


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

painting wood effect with acrylics

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.

wood effect with acrylics

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.

This Post Has 70 Comments

  1. Honey Lea

    Love this! Thank you for the detailed WIP. So helpful to me at this very moment because of a piece I am doing!

    1. Will Kemp

      Cheers Honey, so pleased to hear it.

      1. Jenni

        Will you’re brill! Honestly, I await your posts with great enthusiasm, I love the fact that you share these details with us and most importantly, I pass it on.
        Great advice deserves to be shared and it’s good to know that your words are spreading!
        Yes, even here in
        Deux Sevres

        1. Will Kemp

          You’re very kind Jenni, that’s much appreciated.

    2. Monica

      Can’t wait for the new course!

      1. Will Kemp

        Cheers Monica! just on the final edit at the moment.

  2. Martha P Lamkin

    Thank you, Will! This definitely caught MY eye, because orange (and yellow) are my favorite colors, and I particulary like them contrasted against nice blues and purples. This is one I would definitely like to do and then hang it in my kitchen!!!
    You do such a wonderful, professional job of laying out a lesson like this. I will share this with my granddaughter who is a fine arts major in college this year!
    Again, thank you for your efforts to benefit us. I am 80 and on fixed income, so have no money to spare, but I can still paint (and crochet!)
    God bless you!

    1. Will Kemp

      Glad you found it of interest Martha, hope you granddaughter enjoys it.

  3. Lela McKee Friel

    Hello Will,
    I can see why this bowl of apricots derailed your schedule. Truly beautiful your rendition of them. Love the lighting and the placement of the bowl and ceramic knife. Thank You for sharing your process.
    Wishing You a good painterly week,

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks very much Lela, very much appreciated.

  4. C-Marie

    Good morning Will, Beautifully painted. The colours are so very rich! Am going to try the prussian blue and burnt sienna mix for a great dark. I use oils, but even so, I expect those two will work very well. Thank you for the step by step instructions. Cheers, C-Marie

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks very much C-Marie, yes Prussian Blue in oils is a particularly lovely paint, hope you enjoy experimenting with it.


    HI WILL,




    1. Will Kemp

      Lemon curd on toast is an excellent choice Cheryl! especially a good homemade one. Pleased you enjoyed the lessons.

  6. Christina Stefani

    Fantastic as always! Lovely painting. Thank you, Will, for being such a generous teacher. Can’t wait to see the new course. -Christina

    1. Will Kemp

      Cheers Christina, thanks very much.

  7. Leonard Mair

    That’s a well structured and helpful demo Will. Thanks. It is also good to get a bit of thoughtful insight into the tricky business of still life composition.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Leonard, glad it helped. Yes, working in smaller groups of objects can often help to guide the overall effect of your composition.

  8. Irina Devyatkina (Chrisco)

    Very interesting, Will!
    I did not understand if you are going to make a video how to paint those apricots or it will be something new in May? Anyway I look forward to those video.
    Thank you.

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Irina, I’ll be making a colour mixing course that includes a lesson on how to paint the lighter three apricots with the pale blue background.

  9. Irina

    After reading more closely your article about painting apricots I realized that video will be something different not apricots. Sorry for misunderstanding! Your painting is really very lovely. I would like to paint it too. Colors are beautiful.
    As always I like your paintings!

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi again Irina, there will be a lesson on apricots and a few other still life setups that look at other complementary colour schemes.

  10. Maria K. Motz

    Hi Will, Beautiful painting and always excellent step-by-step instruction. I’ll buy some apricots and make an easier still life arrangement… I’ll try acrylic and oil. Yours looked so fresh that makes me take one and enjoy eating it… As a child I climbed in the trees and eat the apricots as I picked it from the brunches…… Wonderful time. Hope I could make an “original” painting… Have a wonderful day and productive painting time.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks very much Maria, hope your setup goes well.

  11. Pallavi

    How neat and methodical! A pleasure to see the process of how your painting develops. Makes me want to be less impatient when I paint. Thanks taking that call on your schedule.

    1. Will Kemp

      Really glad you enjoyed it Pallavi.

  12. Sherry Morrison

    Fabulous, Will! Can’t wait!

  13. Margaret

    As a newcomer to Art I really appreciate your great tutorials and clear instructions. The apricot demo uses fantastic colours and I can’t wait to have a try.

    1. Will Kemp

      My pleasure Margaret, so glad you enjoyed the lesson.

  14. Karen

    Gorgeous painting and wonderful tutorial as usual. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge on how to paint. A lot of info to absorb at the moment but I appreciate it.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Karen, pleased you found it helpful.

  15. Pamela Runde

    What an inspiration you are!
    I have been receiving your newsletters for some while now and I feel newly inspired every time one arrives.
    I have been silently appreciating your work!
    Thank you!

    1. Will Kemp

      That’s great to hear Pamela, so pleased you’ve been enjoying the articles.

  16. jennifer

    Thank so much Will that was terrific, nothing nicer than getting distracted, which i have been at the moment and am busy doing graphite pencil drawings, having lots of fun doing them, just completed one of a wild dog, so yes i know what it means to be distracted, especiall as i am meant to be finishing a painting for a some one, but oh the joy of just painting when you see something that catches your eye loves the step by step process.. life is meant to be enjoyed, so thanks so much

    1. Will Kemp

      My pleasure Jennifer, so glad you enjoyed it and your drawings are going well.

  17. Heather Grauman

    This made my day! Thank you for so generously sharing your talent with the rest of us!

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks very much Heather, my pleasure.

  18. Bernie

    Thanks Will. I always enjoy your techniques and creative work.

  19. katerina

    Thanks Will for another great post. You are the best tutor and I wish I could follow live lessons in your studio but since this is not possible I try to be informed from all your helpful lessons and posts through the internet. Best regards.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Katerina, very much appreciated

  20. Oksanna

    What a lovely, luscious painting of apricots! I love the deep blue/green background, too. Glad you were distracted. Thank you, Will.

    1. Will Kemp

      Cheers Oksanaa, so glad you liked it.

  21. Laura

    delightful and informative as always

  22. Peter Browning

    Thanks Will. Another excellent tutorial and on one of my favourite fruits!
    All the best,
    Peter B.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks so much Peter, hope you’re keeping well.

  23. Shari

    Thank you for another timely, colorful post – just what I needed! Replace those apricots with some red rock desert, and you’d be painting a Moab landscape!

  24. Ran

    I just did this painting and I am very happy with it, thanks heaps. I bought your acrylics beginner and portrait course late last year, they are great and I learned a lot from them. I tried very hard to imitate your brush strokes which look effortlessly, but mostly failed. Can you please upload an article on basic strokes if it is ok? You already have a lot of free but very valuable content here, I feel it is too much to ask.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Ran, really pleased you found the courses helpful and good to know a basic brushstroke lesson would be helpful.

  25. Bethany

    Will, I’m so happy I found your website and I’ve been obsessively reading and watching everything I can from you! Even though I studied art and have taken classes at other colleges, no one has explained painting so well or made me so excited about the possibilities with my work! You are such a positive and interesting person— you inspire me not only to paint but to really enjoy life. What a gift! Thank you so much!!

    1. Will Kemp

      Hey Bethany, that’s fantastic to hear. So pleased you’ve been enjoying the courses and finding them easy to follow. Have a great week!

  26. Eduardo R de la Cruz

    Always good to see your posts. Refreshing and inspiring. Thanks.

    1. Will Kemp

      My pleasure Eduardo, hope you’re keeping well.

  27. Jody

    Will Kemp, I purchased your course on color mixing. In doing so I was somewhat worried that it wouldn’t offer anything I couldn’t find for free on YouTube. I was both pleasantly surprised and totally blown away. It is exceptional! Thank you, thank you!

    1. Will Kemp

      That’s fab to hear Jody, so pleased you’ve been enjoying the colour mixing course.

  28. Martin Parker

    Good Afternoon Will,

    Yet another interesting and inspiring post – thank you!

    Just referring to your comments about the new colour mixing course you are developing, I wonder if you have any advice and recommendations about which colours you would include in a “restricted” painting palette for those of us such as myself who are new to painting, but wish to develop their colour mixing skills rather than buying every tube in the colour range! I hope to use Golden Artists Heavy Body Acrylics. It would be great to hear your views.

    Best wishes, Martin Parker

  29. Tanya Cole

    Love the gloss reflection of the table top…and that you went with the apricot distraction!

  30. Jyotsna

    Hi Will- thanks for this and, indeed, all your posts! I look forward to the new colour mixing course. I enjoy both tonal studies & colour mixing! And, yes, could we get a solid primer or class on brushstrokes, please?

    1. Will Kemp

      Glad you’ve been enjoying them Jyotsna, and good to know that a brushstrokes class would be of interest.

  31. Kylia Eastwell

    This looks gorgeous, the warmth of the apricots against the cool blue background is sublime and I can really ‘feel’ the soft peachy skin of the fruit. I don’t have a cad. yellow light – ordered one weeks ago but it’s taking ages to arrive – or a Prussian blue. Could I use a transparent mixing white to lighten a cadmium yellow, and would another cool blue such as phthalo work (darkened somehow?!). Also, do you have the original photo of the still life by any chance?

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Kylia, the zinc white will lighten the colour but it will be much more subtle that a titanium white.

  32. Kylia Eastwell

    Thanks Will, that’s a useful tip, and I think my ‘transparent mixing white’ could fit the bill as I’m guessing it will lighten the colour but without imparting any chalky opacity. Are ‘mixing whites’ always transparent for this reason? I guess you answer a lot of these questions in your course!

    1. Will Kemp

      Yes, mixing whites are always more transparent so you can add a volume of paint to your mix and only shift the hue slightly.

  33. Charlie

    Even if I weren’t learning to paint, I’d enjoy watching how you bring a new work of art into the world from a few tubes of paint. One question though is how do you keep the paints on your palette from drying out? They remain wet for the duration of your video. Is it the brand you use? The amount of the paint you squeeze out? It doesn’t seem to be the result of adding medium.

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