How to Paint a Classic Still Life in Oil

Skill Level : 2 Intermediate, 3 Advanced

Medium : Oil Painting

Subject : Still Life

Tutor : Nolan Clark

Class Length : 5 hours 20 minutes

Avg Rating : No Ratings Yet

Gold Level or Higher Class

Class Description

The Old Masters are known for painting beautifully detailed, but highly posed still life paintings. In this class we will paint our own classic still life, just like the Old Masters used to.

During this multi part class you will learn:

Part 1

1) How to paint hessian (burlap)
2) How to paint the semi transparent glass of the wine bottle
3) How to make the wine label look real without having to paint every single detail
4) How to paint transparent glass

Part 2

1) How to paint cheese in various ways - Smooth cheese, blue cheese as well as cheese with holes
2) How to paint pretzels
3) How to paint wood
4) How to create the illusion that you can see "underneath" the table

Part 3

1) How to paint bread
2) How to paint grapes
3) How to make the grapes look transparent and shiny
4) How to correctly add shadows so that the painting looks real and has heaps of depth

Note this class is part 1 of a six part series on painting still lifes. You can go to the other parts of the course here:

Part 1 - Introduction to Still Life Painting

Part 2 - Painting Shiny Metal

Part 3 - Painting Folds in Fabric

Part 4 - Painting White Objects

Part 5 & 6 - Painting a Classic Still Life (This class)

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Class Tutorial

Part 1 - Painting Hessian and Glass

Composing the still life

composing the theme for the still life painting

Using techniques from previous still-life lessons, Nolan composes the scene for this painting.  He then takes dozens of photos of different arrangements of the elements.  By taking the photos from different angles and distances, he actually amasses quite a number of possible still life paintings for future use.

Once he finds the very best composition for this painting, he draws out the template on a piece of paper equal to the size of  the canvas and then transfers it.

Painting the background

colors used to paint the background

Like Nolan, transfer your template to canvas.  Then mix the colours you will need, carefully matching each against the reference photo.

painting the background

Starting at top right, block in the background fabric colours.  Apply the skills you learned in the class on painting folds. Then blend the colours together to get the basic shadings.  Use the highlight colour to create the Hessian weave (burlap) effect in the fabric.

Use the same colours to get the basic shadings for the breadboard table top.  Use Nolan's techniques for creating both the looking-in effect and the wood grains on the tabletop.

Painting the wine glass

painting the wine glass

Begin blocking in the  wineglass, beginning with the area of greatest distortion, then adding the areas of basic shadings.  Blend your shadings together, being careful to leave a hairline width of white canvas to mark the outline of the glass.

Once your basic shadings are in, use a rigger brush to apply the highlight colour, working in the direction of the distortions.  Note the technique Nolan uses to suggest the Hessian effect as seen through the glass.  Where appropriate, use your shadow color to detail the “holes” in the Hessian weave.

Painting the wine bottle

painting the wine bottle

Mix the colours you will need for the wine bottle.  Begin blocking in the darkest colour, starting at the top of the bottle and moving down to where there is wine in the bottle.   Look for the distortions and the color changes as you paint.  As you blend, note that there are no really hard lines – it's more of a blurred effect.

When you paint the wine bottle behind the glass, look for other distortions.

Once you have the base coat on the bottle, paint a suggestion of the Hessian weave behind it.  A few flicks here and there should do it.

Once you begin painting the part of the bottle with the wine in it, adjust the colour of your paint accordingly.  Paint carefully around the label.  Be sure to highlight the meniscus (curved upper surface of a column of liquid).

Move down and paint the bottom of the bottle.

Light reflecting on the glass

reflections off the glass

Carefully mix the colours for the reflected objects as they appear on the glass and paint them in.  Use the same procedure to paint the stem of the glass, but give extra care to placing the many spots of reflected light.

Reflections of surrounding objects on the glass

shadows on the wine bottle


Now paint the reflected objects onto the bottle, noting their degree of distortion and intensity of colour.  Remember that the reflections will be soft and subtle.  Now add the light reflections and sparkles.

Move on to the base of the wine glass, using the same procedure as you did above.

Add the shadows

Add the shadows, both those that appear on the glass and those that the glass casts on objects around it.

Part 2 - Painting Cheese and Pretzels

Mixing the cheese colours

colors used for painting the cheese

Examine the reference photo to determine the colours you will need.  Get the tonal value right first, then adjust for the basic mid-tone colour, highlights, and shadows. Using a tool such as a Color Buster or Tonal Chart is useful at this stage.

Painting the cheese

painting the white part of the cheese

Begin by applying a light layer of white, thinned with medium, over the front face of the cheese.  This will prevent the other colours from overpowering the cheese.  Next, using dabs and dashes, apply the lightest tones where appropriate.  Add a few little touches of texture.  Move on to painting the background of the little holes/indentations in the cheese, using the second lightest colour.

painting the side of the cheese

Starting with the second darkest colour, begin blocking in the left side of the cheese.  Adjust the tones as you go, using the reference photo as your guide.  Blend the colours and add the highlights.

adding detail to the cheese

Now paint the holes and indentations with the second darkest colour.   Thicken the paint in areas where there is more texture.  Follow Nolan's example as you go back and fade out, define, or apply shadows to the indentations.

Next, add a white outline to indicate the thickness of the cheese.  You will add more definition to this area after you finish the veining.

Painting the veins

painting the veins of the cheese

Note that it is important to not only paint the veins, but also to show that the vein is receding into the cheese itself.

Mix the tonal ranges of blues that you will need for the veins.  Start out by applying subtle lines of veining, then continue by adding a more bolder blue for the darker veins.  Finish up by using your blue vein color to outline the white in places around the skin to accentuate its thickness.

Painting the pretzels

colors used for painting the pretzels

Mix the paints you will need for the pretzels.  Starting with the pretzel to the left, begin blocking in the pretzel colours.

painting the tonal range of the pretzel

Then blend the colours, followed by adding the highlights, shadows, and fine details. Use Nolan's technique for “salting” the pretzel.

blending the colors to a golden brown pretzel

Add the reflections on the shiny surface of the pretzel.  The same technique will be used to paint the remaining pretzels.

Part 3 - Painting Bread and Grapes

Mixing the bread colours

colors used for painting the bread

Examine the reference photo to determine the colours you will need.  Because of the shapes and angles in the bread, you will need to mix quite a few bread tones, both the inside and the toasty crust, plus highlights and shadows. Remember that there are lots of colours reflecting off the bread so just don't assume that the bread is white.  Carefully examine each variation to be sure you are getting it right.

NOTE: Keep your paint mixes as you move from bread, to grapes, to stems.  There may be opportunities to use the colour again.

Painting the bread

painting the bread

You will be painting only one slice for demonstration purposes. Begin by blocking in lightly the correct colours in the correct places.  If needed, make an impromptu mix when the shade you have is just not right.  Note how Nolan applies the very thin bands of paint toward the edge of the bread to get the effect of gradual shading.  See how effective the clean, dry brush technique is when you go to do the blending.  Add in the details.  Don't be afraid to use your finger, like Nolan does, to soften in those details.

Paint the sesame seeds and the shadows they cast, using the technique that Nolan demonstrates.

Mixing the grape colours

colors used for painting the grapes

Look carefully to determine all the different colours in the grapes, including highlights and shadows.  Try painting each grape individually by mixing impromptu colours for each.

Painting the grapes

painting the grapes

Starting with the grape on the left, block in the colours where you see them.  Use a dry brush tapping technique for blending.  Try to keep the integrity of each colour.

Add highlights in a thick layer, then blur out any hard edges.  Adjust shadowy areas.  The grape may be a tiny object, but it's all about the details in getting it to look real.  Move back from your painting often to see if it looks right.

Watch as Nolan demonstrates how to do the impromptu mixes as he paints the next grape.  Note how many colours actually go into the tiny grape.  Heed his advice for painting round objects

Other tips for painting grapes:
Watch out for lost and found lines.  They will help differentiate one grape from another.

Leave a tiny white space between grapes in the dark shadows so that you can easily see them while working.
Capture the reflections on the grapes even in the dark shadows as Nolan does.

Keep the shape of the grapes in tact as you work.

Add in the detail work after you have finished the basic shading of the grape – things like little imperfections and reflections.

Don't be afraid to use your fingertip to lift off a bit of paint in an area to give that transparent look to the grape.

Painting the stems

painting the stems of the grapes

Block in the correct colours in the correct places.  Get the basic shadings right to show the curling nature of the stems.  Preserve the roundness also.

In painting the grape, don't be too concerned if you overpaint your grape into the stem.  That way you don't have to make your stem too wide to fill in any gaps.

Be sure to get the shadings correct where the stem connects to the grape.

If a stem gets lost against the background, leave it that way – it's natural.

Painting the shadows

painting the shadows of the grapes

Mix the table colours to form the shadows, including the tones to indicate that the shadow grows lighter as it moves away from the object.  Accurately portray the shape of the shadow.  Add some of the grape colour to the shadow to make it look realistic.  Imitate Nolan's brush strokes in fading out the shadow.

final painting of a classic still life

About Nolan Clark

Read more about Nolan Clark

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