Still Life Painting in Watercolors

Still life of glass and a persimmon

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Painting a Still Life in Watercolors

If you enjoy the accessibility of painting still life in watercolors, but struggle with deciding what to paint, this is for you.

One of the reasons that still life as a watercolor painting subject is so powerful for artists is related to control. (Read this post –> about the definition of a Still Life Painting, and tips for adding interesting backgrounds to yours.)

Possibilities in blues and greens on my butcher palette after painting a watercolor still life of flowers on a tiled kitchen counter.

Be the Boss of Your Still Life in Watercolor

If you paint Plein Air, you know the difficulties of trying to paint (chase) shadows, sunlight and shifting-colors, moving with the sun under clouds.

If you paint portraits and figures, you’re familiar with the challenge to capture nuance and symmetry in the human form, and how unforgiving views can be if any part of your painted anatomy looks a little “off”.

The beauty of still life is that you – the artist – can arrange any item, in any color or texture, in any composition. You are the boss of your still life.

You can use natural light, or artificial light. Set it up on a box to control the light, or put it on the kitchen table. You get to move the arrangement to cast shadows or create reflections in in your favorite composition. (Read more about making your own floral still life painting arrangements in this post.)

And you can leave a still life painting set up to paint from life, or you can photograph the arrangement in a variety of compositions, and use those reference photos over and over again. (<—this one is my favorite approach)

Look for sketching and painting opportunities in the things you surround yourself with. Paint a watercolor still life of a side table, or paint a watercolor of your kitchen.

Consider a Series of Watercolor Still Life Paintings

Many artists select a theme and work in a series of similar subject still life paintings. Here are a few of my favorites.

Chris Stott paints beautiful books in various arrangements, often with additional sub-themes in the title of the books.

Karen Hollngsworth did a beautiful series of breezy, coastal windows with assorted chairs, beds or tables in the composition.

Carolyn Lord did a beautiful series of budding flower bulbs in glass vases in watercolor.

Chris Beck did a colorful, fun series of watercolor still life of vintage tin and enabled toys.

You can get a lot of mileage from a few flowers in a glass bottle. Move the arrangement to different windows and surfaces in your home and snap photos on a bright, sunny day.
No flowers to paint? Raid the fruit and veggies in your frig, and line them up on a sunny windowsill. Take photos from a variety of angles.
Do you collect things? Lay them in an interesting grid pattern against a white background, or place them in a bowl in the sun for a quick cell phone photo shoot.
Look through existing photos from recently, and long ago, and use a small viewfinder to pan around the images, looking for interesting still life arrangements.
A wide, flat brush on my butcher palette, ready to wet the pigments and bring the pigments to life.

Persimmon on the Sill 8.75 x 10.75 Watercolor on Paper

Wait for Time vs Making Time

One afternoon of walking around, taking photos of objects in the sun, or plants in the yard can result in years of paintings. I took photos of the San Luis Obispo mission in California a few decades ago for a commission painting. I’ve probably made at least 30 watercolors, linocuts, monotypes, sketches and collagraphs from that one afternoon of photo harvesting.

I hope you take your phone for a walk on a sunny day. If there are no paintable vignettes in your home, arrange a few on a cleared surface in a sun spot. A pile of lipstick, a jumble of keys, a clear bowl with an egg in it, a spool of thread and a button, a book and a pair of eye glasses… pick something that resonates with you. Take photos and sketch ideas for your next watercolor still life studies.

Be selfish with your art-making. No one will follow you around to make sure you get some painting time in this week. You are the only one who can insist on that, so be firm in your convictions to make more art, more often.

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


P.S. The always generous James Gurney demonstrates painting a bright yellow forsythia bush from life. I love his approach of “subdividing the mass into smaller shapes”. Very effective, and demonstrated clearly in this clip.

Art Quote

I was one of those kids in my twenties who’s like ‘I am not going to be an artist in my twenties and grow up to be a businessman in my thirties! That is not the kind of person that I am! I’m going to stay an artist in my life. ‘ And then I found myself running a business.

Jack Conti, Founder of Patreon
At the very least, if nothing is moving you, skip the still life, and draw each other. (A portrait of me, by Ainsley.)

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