Are you 1cm away from the perfect composition? Part 2 of 3

helpwithlighting copy

Creating a great still life painting often occurs before you’ve even picked up the brush.

In this part of Setting up a Still Life series, we’re going to look at using natural light, whilst also considering the incremental changes in the actual composition of the piece.

In Part 1 we looked at how to master the basic features of your digital camera so you can emulate how your eyes see things in nature, to give you fantastic reference photographs for your still life painting.

Once you understand how to get the depth of field and exposure that you are after, the next thing to consider is the lighting.

I happened to be chatting with my sister about my new Still Life Painting Course on Reflections, when she asked: “Are you going to paint a really hard subject like a glass of water?”

Interestingly, I had overlooked how the ability to paint transparent liquid and glass can seem very impressive – when in fact, with the right image – it’s very simple.

And if you’ve got the right set up, it can be really easy to achieve.

So inspired by this, we’re going to arrange a simple glass of water and next week…paint it…

To create the same set up at home, you will need:

  • A simple highball glass 2/3 filled with water
  • Sheets of coloured paper/ or card (about 24 x 24 inches) the size isn’t exact, just enough to act as a continuous background for the photograph
  • A DSLR camera. If you haven’t got a DSLR you can try with any camera you have, just turn off the flash, it’s just a bit less controllable
  • A 50mm lens (or kit zoom lens 18mm – 55mm)
  • Natural window light (we’re looking for light from the window, not direct sun)

How are you lighting your subject?

More often than not, beginners start with a still life set up on a window ledge or a table and use a mixture of natural window light, and overhead incandescent bulbs.
This set up makes it difficult to have really dramatic shadows because the first light source is confused and makes it harder for you to judge realistic colours as the colour temperature of different types of light sources vary tremendously.

Lots of different light sources from different directions can lose ‘light logic‘. (See: A Beginners Guide to Light & Shadow)

Light logic describes how light would fall…logically, based on natural sunlight.

How do you create realistic looking water and reflections, using only natural daylight as the light source?

Even though we just use a glass of water in this example, exactly the same lighting principles apply if you wanted to add flowers to the water to create a more challenging subject.

Th below sequence of shots (using natural light from a large window) record the successes and failures from my first setup, my thought process as I altered various elements and how incremental changes can have a big effect on the final image.

3 Compositional Elements to focus on

You might have learnt about the rule of thirds, maybe even experimented with negative spaces and avoiding tangents, but often when you’re setting up just one object, especially a reflective object, learning what to observe in the reflections, can make the difference between really good or really bad painting.

Nothing to do with how you hold the brush or the colours you choose, but if your initial reference photograph is flawed, you will be inadvertently making things a lot harder for yourself.

Although there are lots of different elements involved in creating a balanced composition with multiple objects, for our single object setup we can focus on three things.

1. Lighting Direction

With the first two images below, I’m positioned with a large window to my right-hand side, as indicated by the white arrows. The glass of water is sitting on a grey board, that can be moved around.
I begin by trying out two different backgrounds behind the glass and we can start to see why water can be tricky to get the full sense of what it is, in a photograph.


The image on the right-hand side has a white background, which doesn’t really give the photograph much punch. And the lighting coming from the side offers us some contrast, but not a great deal.

It didn’t improve much even when we had more contrast and a warm tone being reflected in the glass with the table top behind it.

So the next stage was to try positioning myself so that the glass of water is back-lit, and not side lit.


This has automatically given the image more drama, and the water seems to be more ‘water like’. Look at the really bright, white light at the bottom of the glass, this is going to be so great to paint.

Would my photograph make an interesting drawing?

Even though I’m looking through the camera lens, I’m still thinking of how would I approach the subject if I was drawing it. Would my photograph make an interesting drawing?  I’m looking at the photograph on the left at the reflections on the side of the glass and judging their tonal range.

I decide I’m looking for a larger tonal range for this particular painting and to do that, I need to have darker objects reflected in the water.

2. Contrast

As water is a clear subject, it always reflects or shows whatever is beyond it or reflected within it. Because of this, moving your position as you arrange the glass can start to show you different shapes and colours that are surrounding it.

If we placed a yellow lemon out of shot, but to the side, we would see a yellow colour reflected into the water.

Because I wanted the subject to be quite tonal and close to a monochrome study, I need to arrange it so I have a wider tonal range within the water part of the glass.

If you look at the above image on the left-hand side, this has reflections of the warm wooden table the grey board was sitting onto, into the glass.

In the image on the right-hand side, I created darker lines in the reflections by moving the board about 12 inches closer to the window frames of my studio (painted a neutral grey)

These darker lines help to differentiate the object from the background and give us a nice contrast in the subject and I now know the light direction is right for this piece.

Pro tip: The window frames appear darker than neutral grey in the reflection because the light is behind the frame.

3. Pattern

I was really liking the darker lines at the top of the glass now, but what I didn’t like was the grey tone I could see through the bottom part of the water.
I felt it would be a more powerful image if I tried to bring these dark side lines into the whole of the water.

The first photo had the warm orange of the table, the second a light grey tone, the next step in creating form in the reference image is to place the glass onto a piece of black paper or board.

I used a board painted with black acrylic, hence the slight sheen to the surface which is giving the light a nice glow.

The black of the surface gives us a great tonal contrast in the bottom of the glass.

drawing clear glass

I can now start to look at the patterns and shapes within the glass itself, when I move the background board, change my angle of view, or move the glass closer to the window light source, the shapes within the glass are constantly changing.

When I look at the first photographs, the shapes within the water look too regimented – evenly spaced horizontal stripes. They remind me of a Liquorice Allsort!

Too even – remember the secret of good composition?

So to create variety within the shapes I decide to place the glass so it is surrounded by the board (which is 60cm x 60cm)

This helps to ‘fill’ the whole glass with the darker shape.

I can then leave a slight view at the top of the glass that places emphasis on the curve of the form. This will help when painting the cylindrical shape. Also, the green in the background will add a bit of depth and subtle interest in the surroundings, whilst the tabletop line helps to bring the object forward and stop it from ‘floating’.


My Final Photograph

Finishing touches

The final shapes I’m looking for are the catch light, the little areas of light that hit the rim of the glass. These will really help to bring the realism to the top of the glass and balance well with the strong white light at the bottom.

Also, there is a very fine darker line around the ellipse of the water, this will help add to the realism and make it feel like a volume of water.

I’m always looking at the subject as if I were to draw it, and then start to look at colour considerations.

Drawing is always the underlying structure to your composition, even though we’re using a camera.

I’m always thinking to myself, ‘would this make an interesting drawing’ and if the answers no, change position or background and really focus on the shapes within the reflections as if they are a mini abstract painting in their own right.


Good luck with your photographs for this week and next time we’ll be getting the paints out to put our reference photograph to good use!

The colours we’ll be using are:
Burnt umber, Ivory black or Mars black, Yellow ochre & Titanium white.

Here’s the painting demo final Part 3

You might also like:

1. How to paint reflections with Acrylics | Part 3 of 3
2.How to shoot stunning still life setups for your paintings | Part 1 of 3
3.The secret of good composition


This Post Has 30 Comments

  1. Micki

    WOW! Thank you. I always know I don’t take the time to take really good photo’s and this is an eye opener for me. After this I will certainly be more aware of my lighting and what I want the end results to be. Thanks for the lesson!

    1. Will Kemp

      Hey Micki, you’re welcome, really pleased you found the article helpful. There are alot of elements to consider, but just address them a step at a time and it can really help to improve your eye, and your paintings.


  2. Ernest Treagus

    Hi Will Kemp,

    Thanks heaps for your information, I find it most helpful and study it carefully.

    However I prefer to paint nudes and preferably females. Could you encroach into the area of photography?

    Kind regards, Ernest.

    1. Will Kemp

      You’re welcome Ernest, pleased you’ve been finding the series helpful. There are different considerations when photographing models so you don’t loose proportions and distort perspective, I’ll add it to the list.


  3. Maria Carmen

    Thank you Will, I didn’t learning anything in the past about composition or light, but I think this is very good lesson, to star to thinking about composition, light, and look for better painting. this can be my first step to better result. I like to painting so much, and I like to find how I can learning to do in the good way
    thank you.
    Maria Carmen

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Maria, nice to hear from you, pleases you’ve found thw tutorial helpful. Taking a few moments to consider all the aspects of a composition before you start can really help your paintings in the long run.

  4. Gihan

    Thanks Will for your attractive topics :)

  5. barbara skolimowska

    Thank you very much for lesson

    1. Will Kemp

      You’re welcome Barbara,


  6. Alison Stafford

    Another subject broken down into “Willspeak” that makes sense and is easy to remember! Thanks Will :) x

    1. Will Kemp

      Hey Ali, nice to hear from you, how did your exhibiton go?

  7. carol

    Thanks Will, I found this trickier than I imagined I would! Its just good that its digital ~ can’t imagine how much film I would have wasted if not! Really helpful and clear.
    I think I have a photo to use now ready for the next (fun painting!!!) step ~ I love all the ‘practical’ tasks that go with the teaching you give. Brilliant stuff! :) Huge thanks!

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Carol, it can definetly be a bit ‘click and hope’ to start with, but as you mentioned, that’s the joy of digital! Great to hear you’re got a photo you’re happy with.


  8. Prabha

    A simple glass of water – and how different it looks with different perspectives and backgrounds! Thank you for this lovely lesson.

    1. Will Kemp

      Cheers Prabha, it is fascinating how different they can look.

  9. Cheryl

    Thank you so much Will I will never look at a glass of water the same way again thank you. As I always take my own photo’s for painting and I live in New Zealand were we have very bright light.

    1. Will Kemp

      You’re welocome Cheryl, so pleased you’ve found it helpful.

      1. cyndiw


        I second Cheryl. A glass will never be the same for me. You have a gift for teaching.


        1. Will Kemp

          Thanks Cyndi, kind of you to say so.

  10. krittaya

    hello Will
    i just want to say you,re professional of art i begin to learn step to step drawing you’re very helpful thank you so much will. take care

    from your student in Thai

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Krittaya, pleased you’re finding the articles helpful.

  11. Mary

    You are an amazing and generous talent! Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    1. Will Kemp

      You’re welcome Mary, pleased you’ve found it helpful.

  12. Dana

    Dear Will,

    Thank you for your articulate, clear information. I am learning so much. The color information is where I am at and am finding it amazingly helpful. I am truly grateful you love to share.

    Thank you so much.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Dana, pleased you’re finding the articles helpful.


  13. Anna

    Whenare you going to help with the chiaroscuro effect in photography with still life?

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Anna,

      You might enjoy this article . The main thing to focus on is a single light source and exposing for the light of the subject so the darks stay really dark.

  14. ping

    Hi, Will! Thanks for this wonderful lecture on photographing. I tried to re-create the scene in the ref photo and was baffled by the band between the black board and the window as indicated with a red arrow in this picture: If it is the wooden table, why the left side is darker than the right, while the same side of the black board is lighter? Is it a shadow caused by a window frame overhead? Thanks.

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Ping, that was just the edge of the table and the window frame shadow from above.

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