Still Life Painting Technique

This is a step by step guide to the principles of still life painting using the sight-sized method.


Set UpCover a canvas with a ‘mid-tone’ (a mid value colour imagined on a grey scale of one to ten) of an earth tone such as Burnt Umber mixed with white. This should be diluted to the consistency of house paint with mineral spirits. Lead white produces a great painting ground. This should be left for at least a couple of weeks to dry before you begin painting.

Ensure that there is sufficient constant light on both your objects, 'the set-up' and your canvas.

Choose your Composition

This may take longer then expected, as ideas often do not work in reality. Points to focus on are: the outline of shapes, the pattern of light and dark forms, the unity of colour, variation in texture and the meaning or story of the objects.

Place your Canvas

Place your canvas so that it lines up adjacently with the mid distance of your set-up. Stand a few feet away from both so that you are perpendicular to the set-up. Using a piece of dowel or a knitting needle measure the dimensions of each shape and mark them on the canvas using charcoal or a dilution of Raw Umber and mineral spirits. Take as long as you can in these early stages to be as accurate as possible.

Wash Drawing

Wash DrawingOnce everything is mapped in, complete a fully rendered wash-drawing a little darker then your mid-tone colour, with Raw Umber and White diluted with mineral spirits, to establish values and placement of the light shapes. At this point you can see how your composition will work in the final painting. There needs to be a harmony of light and dark.

Dead Colour each Object

Dead Colouring This is done by picking the mid-colour of each item and painting it as a flat shape. Having found the line, value and colours of the composition now move on to rendering.

First painting

First PaintingThis is the method by which artists, using oil paint diluted with mineral spirits, begin to give three dimensions to the flat surface of the painting. Concentrating on the form, mosaic each object, with single, separate, brush strokes matching the colours. Sometimes this can be left as the finished painting.

Second Painting

Second painting is done with a ‘fatter’ paint. This is oil paint mixed with the denser medium of half linseed oil and half varnish (demare). This thicker medium helps the paint to blend more easily and allows the first layers of paint stable drying time. Apply the paint to mimic the different surfaces of each object.

The Finishing Touches

These give the artist a last chance to view the painting as a whole. Some little changes to the values or colours bring the whole piece together. If each stage has been successful the painting, like a jigsaw, should now be complete.

A still life takes about one hundred hours, a masterpiece takes a lifetime.