Painting a Still Life in Watercolour

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I offered my daughter a painting when she made her confirmation last May, and she asked for a still life in watercolour. I didn’t get around to it so I guess I still owe her one, but meanwhile she turned 14 the other day and I thought I’d do her a still life. I fully expected her to say “Hey, you owed this to me last May” when I gave it to her, but she didn’t – she was delighted, and when her friends came over for a party the day after her birthday, she was extremely hyper, but I heard her say “Look what my mum painted for me” – which was so nice to hear as she’s at “that age” when it’s all me, me, me (I’ve yet to come out of that stage).

I decided to do a selection of fruit simply because I thought it would look nice. I was in the mood for painting green or red, and I thought berries would suit my daughter better than limes, which she can’t really tuck into.
So I came up with this selection of plums and berries. I put them on a sweet little chopping board from Northern Spain, and onto a lace cloth, and then the bare table because the wood grain is nice.
I started with a 2B pencil, kept nice and sharp, always. I often sharpen my students’ pencils with a craft knife as I go around as you can’t do anything with a blunt pencil.
I’ve left out the drawing stage for this demo but I would still like to point out that I took considerable time over getting the drawing nice and accurate.
To produce an accurate drawing, you draw with a light line (no gouging with your extra-sharp pencil, or you’ll be left with troughs that your paint will sit in when you need to rub out your mistakes).
You look very carefully, you ask yourself questions the whole time – “where does that particular blueberry sit? Under that raspberry, or to the left of it? Is there an air gap between the two plums in the foreground? Have I drawn the right number of redcurrants? Is the stem of the redcurrants centred above that one?” – etc., etc. Obviously these questions are clumsy when you write them like that but a zillion questions flit soundlessly across your mind as you draw. In one way, the more elements that are in your still life, the harder it is, because you have more to draw, but in another way that makes it easier because you have so many more reference points to use as a guide.
So let’s assume your drawing is strong and accurate. The method I am using here is to layer as I go. This is where you let each layer dry completely before adding the next. If you add the next layer when the previous one is wet – AT ALL – you will (a) lift the paint underneath or (b) make a messy, impure colour or (c) make one of those things I have recently discovered is called a cauliflower. So wait till it’s dry. Be patient.

1. I have started to paint the redcurrants first, because I am right-handed, so I work from left to right. If I start on the right and work my way towards the left, my hand will smudge the wet paint.
The redcurrants are easily the shiniest element in this still life, so I will leave pure unpainted patches for the highlights. No paint at all! If you put even the slightest bit of colour, you will lose the brilliant shine on them.
So I circle the tiny bright highlights with a small pointy brush – about a No.4 should do it – and I pull the paint out towards the other highlights, letting a tiny bit of extra colour gather DIRECTLY around the highlight itself. This serves to intensify the effect of the brilliant shine.
Then I paint the first layer of the plums – why? Because there are going to be a LOT of layers of colour on the plums, dark and intense as they are, so I might as well get started, and anyway they are on the left so I won’t smudge the paint by accident.

I have used a dark red for the berries – I’m not great with names of colours but I didn’t need to mix it for the first layer. For the plums I used a blueish purple for the one at the back and a similar pinkish red for the ones in the foreground. again respecting the areas of highlight, as with the redcurrants.

2. In this stage, I have added a few dark patches between the redcurrants, painted the first layer of the chopping board and started the blueberries. I have also started to intensify the colour of the redcurrants. I have added more colour to the top halves of the redcurrants, which appeared to me to be a bit darker than the undersides. As I previously mentioned, I intensified the red EXACTLY around the white highlights. Remember: keep all paint, water and wobbly hands away from those precious white highlights.
I haven’t needed to be so paranoid for the blueberries as they don’t have sharp highlights – they have a much softer blush, which is kind of more forgiving, but there is still a lot of variation in the blue across the surface so be careful – and always start with the lightest shade first. This applies to all watercolour, or to my way anyway.

For the board, I’ve painted a layer of yellow ochre, knowing that I will (a) add more layers as I go and (b) still have plenty of scope for drawing wood grain on top, if I need to. A note about painting an area enclosed by pencil: see the way I only did a bit of the board, leaving the handle unfinished and uncorrected? That’s because I know that the area I’ve painted here is bounded by different colours. You have to paint any given area all at once, or you’ll end up with a line marring your nice smooth surface, but if you have a pencil boundary then you’re safe to paint a bit and come back to the next bit later on.
I painted the shadows under the fruit here: the sun was behind a cloud and the shadows weren’t too strong. After a while the sun came out again and I had to leave the shadows until it disappeared, so I was happy I got most of the information down at this stage.

3. In this stage I have darkened the shadows under the redcurrants a bit more, using a dark brown and of course never adding any paint unless the layer underneath is dry. I have also started to paint the little stems at the ends of the redcurrants.
The other noticeable thing I’ve done here is to start picking out the variation in colour in the blueberries. I can’t say what colours I’ve used for the blueberries except to say that I matched the paint to the colours of the blueberries! I mixed a bit of Payne’s Grey with a mixture of Cerulean Blue and Ultramarine, simply because those are the colours in my paintbox.

4. Now I’ve started the third plum, in the same way as the other two, respecting the highlights. You can always make the highlights smaller but you can never make them bigger. I have also started to draw more detail in the raspberries, which I always find hard because there are so many of those little round things, but I gave myself a little talking-to that went along the lines of “just draw what’s in front of you and no short cuts or it will show”. I then started adding the first bits of colour to the raspberries. I don’t like drawing in pencil on top of paint as a rule – the pencil has a different quality and so it’s always better to draw with pencil first, and then add paint on top.
I’ve also added the bit of board that I can see between the plums.

5. I’ve added more depth to the plums in this one. Now, with plums, the colour on the surface isn’t always perfectly smooth, and so I’ve been a bit rougher with my boundaries. Normally I blend my watercolour really smoothly but I didn’t feel the need to here. Also, the blueberries are a bit more carefully painted, I’m picking out the darks and lights with more precision.
I’ve also started adding a bit more depth of colour to the raspberries, making sure that I’m observing which parts are darker and which are lighter red – there are those questions I’m asking myself again.

6. I am further deepening the colour of the plums, adding their tiny centres, picked out in a mixture of Payne’s Grey and Burnt Umber.
As you can see I haven’t yet bothered to fiddle with the handle of the chopping board – I’ll get to that, there’s no rush. That’s not always the case: the light will often change during a painting, even a short one, and it’s therefore very important to get your shadows consistent across the entire sketch, by drawing them all at the same time, even if you just suggest them at first.
Also, I am being much more careful about the raspberries at this point, trying very hard to observe correctly the way the red changes over the surface of the little round things. from light to dark over each one.

7. In this picture, I’ve deepened the colour of the plums even further by adding purple at the one in the background, and by adding subtle tones to those in the foreground, as I see them. I’ve also picked out a few little spots on the skin of the plums, using a touch of white gouache (no purist, me – whatever works).
I have finally fixed the drawing of the handle, making it more accurate.
I’ve also added detail and more colour variation to the raspberries, including the tiny little hairs that are sticking out of them.

8. This time I’ve painted the wood grain, using a pencil to start with, and then going over it in parts with Burnt Sienna.
I’ve also tried to pick out the highlight on the edge of the chopping board – it’s a fine olive wood board, with a glorious shine, and I’ve left it unpainted to best show the shine.
I’ve also just abut started to get the position of the lace cloth under the board.

9. I’ve darkened the rim of the board, and I’ve done a bit more work on the grain of the handle. I’m being very careful at this stage to watch out for any perspective issues, as it would be very easy to draw the grain of the handle of the chopping board as if I’m looking at it from above. I need to ask those little questions again…what shape are they? Do they fit in relation to each other? Honesty, honesty, honesty. There’s no room for self-expression here.

10. In this pic I’ve started drawing the lace cloth. It was easily the hardest bit…normally I really like painting lace but this wasn’t so easy. Again, I gave myself a little talking-to, and told myself to just look really carefully and get those shapes and marks in the right places. Then i noticed that the side that had the daylight streaming in had a blueish tinge, and the other side was more of a light yellow ochre, so that made it a lot easier to pick out the pleats and folds of the cloth. (I couldn’t be bothered ironing it in advance, not least because husband decided last week that the iron is a health hazard (it keeps tripping the switches) and we haven’t gotten around to buying a new one yet – so I’m stuck with a tiny travel iron for the moment.

11. Okay, there’s a big difference here: I probably got a bit carried away when I started the table, or perhaps it was the fact that I had been sitting there for five and a half hours by this stage. The fruit was smelling delicious..but I had to paint it, not eat it.
The table wasn’t too hard – I’ve done it lots of times but that didn;t mean i could take my eye off the ball. I messed around with the perspective and the lines of the planks disappearing and eventually I was happy with them (I was fooling myself, as we’ll see in the next pic).
The grain was very enjoyable: I started with a pencil, was fairly careful to get my observation right – including the bits of damage to the surface, which really add to the overall look.

12. Finally, I realised that my perspective was all over the place for the lines of the table, so I cheated a bit the next day – I took a long metal ruler and laid it along the lines from foreground to background, to show up my mistakes. It showed them very obviously! – and so I re-wet the colour on the table and just fiddled with both sides a bit. That’s the great thing about browns – they don’t stain, unlike most blues, which you’d have a hard job shifting.

Good luck with your own project: the best thing is, you slave away for hours…and then you cram all that gorgeous fruit into the beak. I don’t know when a pile of berries tasted so good…

Róisín Curé

Art Materials I Use and Can Recommend

My favourite watercolours are made by Schmincke. I use a very small set when I am on the move, or this set of 24, which is available to buy here from Utrecht Art Supplies (in the US):-

Set of 24

Set of 24

or in the UK and EU :-

Jackson’s Art Supplies
Schmincke : Horadam Watercolour : Metal Set : 12 Half Pans

I also use Escoda Versatil brushes (available from Dick Blick in the US) :-

Escoda Versatil Brushes

Escoda Versatil Brushes

or from Jackson’s in the UK and EU :-

Escoda : VERSATIL Kolinsky Synthetic : Series 1540 : # 8

There are three pens I always use. The first is the Platinum Carbon pen, which can be used with cartridges or a converter. A converter is useful when you are choosing your own ink. The Platinum has never let me down: they tell you to use it every couple of days to avoid clogging, but I have left it longer than that and I have never had a problem in many years of use. It is also very reasonably priced and is available to buy from Amazon :-

The second pen I am never without is the Kuretake Brush Pen. I always use waterproof Platinum Carbon ink cartridges in my brush pen. This is available to buy here from Dick Blick in the US :-

Kuretake Brush Pen

Kuretake Brush Pen

or from Jackson’s in the UK and EU :-

Kuretake : Bimoji Fude Pen : Black Medium BRUSH : Maroon pack XT5-10

The third pen I really enjoy using is more expensive, but I chose it for its flexible steel nib, which gives a lovely variable line thickness. It’s the Namiki Falcon and is available here from Amazon :-

I find that grey ink gives a softer line than black – it’s more like a pencil line – and I always make sure at least one of my fountain pens contains grey ink. I use Lexington Gray by Noodler’s, which is waterproof when dry, also from Amazon :-

I use various types of watercolour paper, but one I come back to a lot is by Langton, available here from Dick Blick :-

Daler-Rowney Langton Prestige Watercolor Blocks

Daler-Rowney Langton Prestige Watercolor Blocks

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