First Major Project: Still Life

Our first paintings in my Intro class were some basic black and whites and then two simple paintings in color. However, our first major project was a multi-step still life that stretched over about three weeks of class time.

The project used the canvas and stretcher frame from my previous post. In retrospect, I wish I had gotten the canvas stretched a little tighter and done more than one layer of gesso. This might be another reason to purchase your canvases, rather than do the stretching yourself, especially if, like me, you’re looking for ways to save time.

I spent the first available class period getting the basic sketch down and making sure the proportions were right. I paid special attention to the bottle, as I still have trouble with the symmetry on both sides. Overall, I think the sketch came out well and the symmetry was good. Although, I was already getting nervous about how I was going to tackle those grapes.

Next, for the underpainting I did a wash with burnt sienna. Then I used a rag to wipe away portions to bring out the objects and other shapes. Being new to painting, I was surprised that after the wash, I couldn’t do much to work further with the underpainting. Everything was too wet. So I set it aside to dry overnight.

After the wash dried, I was able to get some better detail. Overall, I was pretty happy with it. I think the shell turned out well, as did the book. However, trying to work with shading on the bottle, I lost some of the symmetry on the curve of the neck. Luckily, the great thing about painting is that it seems like there are always ways to fix things.


After my underpainting was checked off by my professor, I began the process of color blocking. This ended up not being a straight-ahead or uniform process for me. I would color block one or two shapes, then add a little detail. Block out something else, then add detail in a different spot. I basically just tried to tackle whatever was catching my interest on each particular class period.

Of all the shapes the book was the easiest. The colors came out naturally and the pages worked really well as a way to bring out the underpainting. I was even able to flesh out a lot of the detail up front, just adding some additional shadowing and highlights close to the end.

On the other side of the spectrum, the grapes and the shell kept me in a state of near constant anxiety. When I started painting them, I had no idea how to approach it. I just started laying down color and messing with the shading. Eventually, it started working, and I got something that I’m actually pretty happy with. I did, however, have a half hour of sheer panic as I had laid down some color blocking for the grapes early on, but when I went back to finish them (only an hour or so before I had to finish up the painting) I couldn’t get the colors to match at all. I ended up repainting over them and making it all work.

Other pain points were the cloth on the draping and trying to maintain the proportions on the bottle neck. Overall, I was fairly successful with the later and mildly successful with the former. The teacher helped me get the draping so that it worked, help me understand a bit more of the blending and creating “micro-folds.” He also helped me understand how to do the highlights, mainly that highlights aren’t just a dot or splash of white, they have graded intensity from the source that diffuses out. While I am still working on getting good at this technique, the idea really helped with the bottle and even the grapes.

Overall, I was happy and excited with the final product. For my first major painting I felt there was a lot of good things going on. There still needs more detail and refinement in certain areas, especially the bottle top and the pear. This was mostly from time constraints/management. I just ran out of time before the deadline and these are the areas I didn’t quite get to. But even with these problem spots I am happy with how it turned out.


If you are a new artist, like myself, don’t panic about something you haven’t done before. Even if you don’t know how to approach a particular subject (like the shell and the grapes), just start putting paint down and playing with it. I’m still amazed at how forgiving oil paints are and how much you can continue to work with and modify different objects and parts of the painting. If you don’t like the way something is working out, just keep at it and experimenting until you get something you like.


A lot of the painting we did for this project was done under low light. We had a number of still lifes setup throughout the room with lamps to provide interesting shadows and highlights. However, my class is late in the day, so as the sun went down, the actual work area I was at would get dark. Once the lights came up, the colors that I had often looked markedly different on the canvas than what I thought they were while I was painting.

Does anyone have any good ideas of how to adequately light your workspace while preserving the low light of your subject? If you have any thoughts, please comment below.