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Still Life Painting Design Ideas

Still life painting in watercolor – especially interiors – is loaded with design opportunities to embellish. You can change the color palette of the room completely. Go ahead and edit the scene by removing objects, or adding others that weren’t really there. It’s like magic and you are the wizard!

With a little imagination, you can assemble parts of separate reference photos to create a scene much like a set-designer would on a stage. Look at other paintings you love by your favorite artists. Can you find a local equivalent in your design idea that would pay homage to their painting without copying anything directly? Pattern on pattern? Geometry of a room? Do you play with imaginary design elements when planning a still life or interior painting?

Still Life Painting Design Ideas - two black and white reference photos combined to create a watercolor, shown next to the photos
Two reference photos on the left, combined to create an interior and figurative watercolor on the right

Assembling Different Photos to Create Imaginary Scenes

Still life in watercolor is one of my favorite genres to look for and be inspired by on social media. When assembling a still life in my studio, I like to increase interest in the arrangement by incorporating imagined backgrounds.

My studio is a small spare bedroom that also houses my etching press, so there isn’t enough floor space to stage a compelling background, other than the studio itself.

Fortunately for us artists, it doesn’t take a lot of equipment to print photo-copies of other rooms, windows, walls and hallways to incorporate as a faux background to compliment a focal point. have you walked through your house, or the vintage photos of your family’s rooms, to find an interesting background idea?

Interior still life watercolor design ideas - a photo of a bedroom in black and white, and art based on the photo in imaginary colors
Reference photo on the left, interior still life watercolor and colored pencil on the right. An experiment in warm and cool color glazing.

Playing with Contrast and Color

If cutting and taping composite photos to create a whole new environment to paint seems like a lot of work, you can narrow your alterations for painting design ideas. Instead of painting your subject or reference photo as it appears, change the colors. If the room was primarily red and violet, use a gold wheat and gray slate colored palette instead.

Or if the objects around your subject were so lost in shadow, they disappeared in the composition, bring them into a focus a little bit, and brighten their shadowy hues – just a tad – to give empty corners some interest. If there’s nothing interesting outside a window in your reference photo, add something fun, like in this watercolor. Know what I mean?

Painting ideas for still life and interior watercolors - a reference photo in black and white of a bedroom with a girl reading on a bed, and a watercolor version of the scene with embellished details around the room
The reference photo on the left, and a watercolor study on the right. Subtle changes in the brightness and shape of the objects around the figure to play with a meandering path for the eye.
daffodils and pears in a still life arrangement for a watercolor
A still life arrangement assembled by my friend LG for an afternoon of painting watercolors together. I used the reference photo again many years later in an interior scene watercolor titled Aperture below.
Aperture (11×14 watercolor) began with a surreptitious photo of my son sleeping while we were on vacation. I embellished the interior while painting the watercolor. The green curtain in the foreground was a wall, the daffodils were borrowed from a previous still life set up (above the painting), and the dog sleeping on the figure’s legs was added from a photo of one of our greyhounds.
Pink Winter, 7.75 x 6 inches – Watercolor on Bristol Plate Finish Paper (sold)

A Watercolor’s Journey

My friend LG sent me a photo of her newly build bedroom drenched in squinty winter light about a decade ago. Her cats’ unanimous feline approval-sprawl confirmed that this room was an excellent addition to their home. I asked to use the photo as a reference, with a few little changes here and there. (You ask permission to paint from other folks’ photos, right?) Lucky for me, she said yes. (Thanks, LG. 💜)

Later, when I exhibited that interior watercolor (above), two couples attending the show together split the purchase of the painting as a gift for another couple who just lost their cat. We’ve all grieved for animals before, and the heartbreak is profound.

a cat sleeping in a round cat bed
Scout sends a studio cat hello to you, in the form of soft snoring.
The fact that his humans are stuck in the house with him, during a pandemic,
all day long, every day, is a gift. From his perspective, that’s a lot of opportunities for love. Smart kitty.

Unanticipated Artist Benefits

A watercolor that bridged the miles to my far away friend (and her cats), and was so fun to paint, has now traveled with a new purpose as a gestural salve for grief between friends. That experience, from start to finish, was an artist’s torte cake of goodness.

What sort of lovely exchanges have you had recently because of your artwork? And how have you altered your source material to make watercolor paintings that felt more akin to your personal vision? Tell us a story in the comments.

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you in the next post –


Watercolor paper sample pack of 10 5x7 sheets of artist's grade watercolor papers to try
I found this sample pack of watercolor paper online, and I think it’s a good way to test five different artist-grade watercolor papers (2 of each). If you try them, let me know in the comments which you liked best and why.

Share this post with an artist friend….

P.S. Under normal, non-pandemic circumstances, I’d be loading my car today, to drive a road case full of watercolors and printmaking to a series of art events. All my Spring art festivals are cancelled, so this season’s painting, printmaking and framing was for naught. Instead, I’m hosting a Virtual Art Festival sale in my Etsy Shop. For a limited time, everything will be 20% off with Free Shipping. I’ll relay the date and time of the sale in the next post.

P.P.S. Watercolor Painter extraordinaire Shari Blaukopf posted a free video demonstration of her five favorite brushes. It’s an excellent overview of how each of them can be used for specific areas in your watercolor paintings. Check it out here.

A cloverleaf style artist's travel palette for painting with watercolors
Have you seen this nifty little compact palette? It’s called the Cloverleaf Paintbox, and when the leaves are closed, it measures just under 5 x 5 inches.
The paint well insert comes out for re-loading or cleaning, and you can rotate the configuration, so the thumb-rest on the corner works for right or left handed. How cool is that? Get more details and artist’s photos here.

P.P.P.S. Do you take advantage of the free classes offered each week over at Creative Live? There is a Simple Email Marketing course for Makers coming up, as well as another one called The Art of Selling What You Make. They may both be very timely for folks who make art, but have no shows coming up in the foreseeable future. (I have my hand up.)

Art Quote

The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.

Randy Pausch
a greyhound dog resting on a carpet with a leopard skin collar and a speech bubble asking if you wish you had more time for art
Visit Six Tips to Paint More for some ideas that will get your back on the road to making art
Petite ceramic watercolor rinse cup to beautify an art table
a gray cat rubbing my shins on a summer day after a swim in the pool in Provence France
After a swim in the pool, a local cat stopped by for a cuddle and conversation
a monotype ghost print with colored pencil added to enhance details of a woman floating in water with her eyes closed

Seven Questions to Help You Roll Past Creative Block

Yield: Progress
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Active Time: 30 minutes
Additional Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 50 minutes

Stagnant creativity feels like a heavy fog pill slipped into your coffee when you weren’t looking. How do you get past Creative Block?

You want to make things. But there’s an invisible sludge haze blocking creative idea generation, inspiration and motivation to get something started. <---Started is the key word.

If you feel like your creativity is blocked, and inspiration eludes you, try this exercise. Sometimes, you just need a hand to hold on the Start part of making art....


  1. Secure 30 minutes, a pen, a note pad, and some quiet time. Sit in a favorite chair, in a sunny spot in a quiet corner. If home is too chaotic, go to a coffee shop and sit in a sunshiny spot. In either case, if it helps, use earbuds or headphones, and listen to instrumental (no words) music. Fill in the blanks below…
  2. If I were the King/Queen of the world, and I could sweep a magic wand to clear time and space to create a beautiful piece of art, I’d work in (fill in your medium: oil, acrylic, pastel, watercolor, pen and ink, colored pencil, graphite)._____________________________.tin watercolor palette
  3. I could make something abstract, or impressionistic, or representational – and since I have a magic skill wand, I think I’ll choose _________________________________.watercolor-sketching-landscape
  4. Since I’m in charge, when I think about size and format, I’d like to make something (small, medium large, huge)__________________________, and in a (horizontal, vertical, square)___________________________ format.using a magnifier light to paint tiny details of a face in profile
  5. I’ve got a hankering to work on (paper, yupo, aquabord, canvas, panel, gesso’d paper)_____________________________________.three hahnemuhle paper blocks
  6. I’m imagining colors that appeal to me right now, in this season of my life, so I’ll focus on a prominence of these three colors, with supporting hues around them: ______________________________________________________.watercolor test swatches for wet in wet painting experiments
  7. I know I can choose any subject that appeals to me, like figurative, portrait, still life, landscape, city scene, interiors, sky/cloudscapes, animals, ocean/shorelines and genre scenes. So, right this second, I feel like painting a __________________________________, with elements of __________________ and ____________________ included.shading a graphite drawing of roses and a bowl of apples
  8. Now, flip open to a fresh page on your notepad, and stomp on that creative block by doodling some layouts, angles, and compositions (no details, see below) that might fill the format of your paper or canvas.9 tiny pencil sketches of still life flowers and fruit arranged in different compositions


Feel free to print this, and alter the questions or add new ones that fit your style. Think about times when your art-making was more active, and jot down elements from that time (positive, encouraging) that you can visualize and pre-plan to help you get past the hump of stuckness.

You aren't alone in this. Every artist in history has felt creative block at one time or another, so we are all rooting for you. Set some time aside, and slay it. You've got this.

Have you made one of these?

Please leave a comment on the blog or share a photo on Instagram

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10 thoughts on “Still Life Painting Design Ideas – Adding Interest to your Art (even if it wasn’t there)”

  1. Belinda! You are an indefatigable force of nature! I think you must have a considerable staff or maybe Santa’s elves moonlighting during theoff season! You are truly an inspiration to us all and I’m confident that I’m speaking for all of us! Stay safe; God bless!

    1. Ger, You are one very kind human! And if you’ve seen any off-season elves looking for an art studio gig, please send them my way! Thanks very much for your encouragement and compliments. Your prodigious output of beautiful art keeps me motivated every week! High five and a jolly rousing of Carry On, my friend! XO

  2. Thanks as always for an amazing post. Beautiful paintings and great ideas. It is a hard time for artists.
    We need people like you to inspire us.


    1. You inspire as well, my friend. Thank you for that. You’re always encouraging, inventive and generous. Let’s fill the well together. Art is always better when we make it together. XOXOXO

  3. Caroline Harding

    Thanks for sharing your ideas. I’ve enjoyed watching your tutorials too. I have only recently picked up a paintbrush after a long break. Our family was living in Glasgow, Scotland for a year and we have now moved back to Australia. Before we left I gave each of our neighbors a painting of their home/front entrance. I wished I had gotten some tips from you beforehand but I was still pleased with the results and our neighbors were thrilled. I am hoping to get some more done whilst in isolation. Its pretty tricky with 2 young boys. Thanks again.

  4. Kathleen Harte Gilsenan

    Thanks for sharing this great post. It’s a great way to develop a piece. I assign a similar approach to my students for their observational drawing sketchbooks. They have to sketch one thing, then add something else to the sketch from a different place, then go to another location to add something else…. It’s amazing what they come up with, and it helps to give observational drawing a creative boost.

    1. Hi Kathleen, I *LOVE* that assignment! I think I should start deploying it from real life objects around my house. Observational drawing was one of my favorite and most surprising exercises in college. I learned so much. Thanks for sharing your details, and reminding me to take it farther than photos.

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