Still Life Watercolor Ideas, and the Grid System

Several times a year, I set up still life vignettes to photograph and use as reference material in watercolor paintings. This watercolor (above) is from one of those photo sessions.

If you’ve never created a catalog of scenes to paint, give it a try.  (Here are some helpful instructions aimed at Linocut still life ideas, but they apply to watercolors as well.) Gather things around your home that are single-color, not ribbed or patterned, with interesting, but simple shapes.

Keeping things simple in a multi-item still life will help you stay in the zone till you finish. Choosing items with lots of ribs, checkers, cut crystal, and pattern takes so long to render and paint, you might be more likely to quit before you finish. (Ask me how I know this.)

Still-life of fruit in a bowl on a striped table cloth by Pierre Bonnard. (You can read one in a series of posts about my Pierre Bonnard deep dive here.)

Foraging for Still Life Props

Pick up some flowers at the grocery store, or grab a bouquet from your garden (even better). Assemble simple things like plain bowls, or a shallow platter with some fruit.

You can use bedsheets, fabric swatches, wrapping paper, or table cloths. Cover a flat surface (a cardboard box will do) and arrange your collected items on colorful patterns near a bright window to get beautiful reflections on shiny surfaces and soft shadows.

I’ve written a few times on this blog about the practice of painting your own things or sprucing up simple still-life items by arranging them on beautiful patterned papers you can buy in booklets online.

This gridded viewfinder hangs on a lanyard, which is handy if you’re sketching or painting outdoors, and laying out shapes on your paper or canvas.

Using the Grid System to Draw a Small Sketch into Something Larger

There are a dozen ways to peel an apple. There may be even more methods to create a grid for simplifying, copying, or changing the scale of a sketch or a reference photo.

The grid system has been around for centuries, and artists still use all sorts of variations of it today. You can use numbered square approaches, dual-axis numeric and alphabetic measuring layouts, and software or applications to get the job done.

Betty Edwards’ classic instructional book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain uses a grid system to help with accuracy and scaling too. The grid method has been around for a long time because it works.

Using a Grid to lay in a drawing for a watercolor
Laying a grid on my (large, for me) watercolor paper to get an accurate drawing down before painting, with a little dessert on the side to make the process more fun. 🙂

Grid Drawing for Image Transfer – Simplified

I’m dyslexic, and significantly prone to distraction, so I need a grid system to break complex scenes into bite-sized, draw-able cubes.

Since I don’t love numbers, I simplify the use of the grid system with as little math as possible. (Here is a speedy [11 minute] overview of how to use a simplified grid system to lay drawings down underneath your watercolors.)

If you have any tips or tricks about using a grid to transfer your reference imagery or adjust the scale of your art, please leave them in the comments.

Alphonse Mucha used a grid to help transfer elements of his reference photos to paper or canvas

Use the Camera in your Phone

You don’t need a DSLR camera to take great photos for use in your watercolor paintings. The camera on your phone will work fine.  

Choose the brightest spot in your house, close to a window. If you don’t have a bright spot, set a table up outside, or put one on the threshold of your front or back door, wide open, to get light streaming in across your collected objects. If the patterned gift wrap paper mentioned above is too small a backdrop for you, try vinyl photo background sheets like these.

Take lots of photos, from all different angles, and when you look at them as thumbnails, you’ll see painting inspiration to last you for months!

audiobooks in the art studio
The map of South America on the right of my watercolor in process was a reference for the fantastic audiobook The Path Between the Seas – The Creation of the Panama Canal (1870-1914)  by David McCullough.
painting a bird in watercolor
Working much larger than I normally paint in watercolor required a stand up easel, and an artist’s mahl stick to steady my hand and keep it from resting on the watercolor paper.
using a mirror to reverse a painting
Checking for areas that need adjustment by looking at the art reversed in the mirror, and snapping a photo so I can reduce the image into the thumbnail of my cell phone screen. That helps check composition, wonkiness, and lights and darks.

Working Larger on Still Life Watercolors

If I didn’t use a grid drawing system to transfer sketches and photos to a larger sheet of watercolor paper, I could use a projector connected to my phone via WiFi. Many artists do this, so they can focus on painting, rather than both painting and drawing skills simultaneously. It saves a lot of time, too.

I prefer the meditative practice of drawing the shapes inside those grid cubes. I’m sharpening my observational skills and practicing the edict to draw what I see, instead of what I know.

After I finish creating shapes in the cubes, and I survey the entire drawing, I’m always surprised that I’ve got an enlarged drawing of my photo or sketch, in proportion! But the preference is all yours. Use whichever method leads to creating more art. The more we practice, the better we get.

Do you use a grid transfer drawing system? How about graphite carbon paper to trace your photos onto watercolor paper? How do you find painting reference material? Leave any tips or tricks you’d like to share in the comments below. Every little tidbit helps the artists who are behind you, climbing the same hill. Sprinkle your artist’s trail with flowers. 🙂


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

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floral still life watercolor with a bird
House Finch & Freesia 22 x 22 Floral Still Life Watercolor on paper (sold)

Art Quote

One can always acquire the additional knowledge and information that go into the production of a work of art, but – and I insist on this point – no will, no perseverance, no obstinacy during one’s later years, can ever make good a lack of practice. And is there any anguish like that of the artist who feels the realization of his dream compromised by the impotence of his execution?

~William Bouguereau 1885
How to name your art
Need some help adding titles to your art? Here’s a brief, effective art titling course I assembled just for that!

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10 thoughts on “Still Life Watercolors – Painting Larger Using a Grid Drawing System”

  1. I love it when you paint this way Belinda! You made my heart sing when I saw this today!
    Love the tip of listening to audio books while painting! 🙂

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