Four Steps to Getting a (Still) Life!

10 Mar

Sometimes I feel rather moronic blogging about my art-ventures… who really wants to hear from a novice on how to do stuff anyways? I mean, if you’d want to learn how to paint a flower (or even an apple!), you’ll go to a REAL artist right??? Haha.  

Well, isn’t it always painfully normal to be plagued by such self-doubts (I bet even Van Gogh was). Anyway, I refuse to indulge in something that can only get in my way!! RAWR!  I give a unique insight into how beginners stumble along this learning path. And my readers probably follow me either to be amused or inspired by my naiveté.  At worst, I can be good for a laugh. That’s a nice thought. 🙂

In any case, I quote –

“It’s okay to be bad. Don’t concern yourself with being good. Discover.” –Philippe Gaulier.

SO… onwards with Discovery!

I thought I’d share on how I usually get started during my Sunday Still Life sessions.  Mitch Albom has Tuesdays with Morrie, I have Sundays with 洪老师 ! Haha…


Don’t know what Still Life is? Read this helpful blog post by artist Katherine Tyrrell.

Step One: Arrive early and Find a spot

Walk around, squint, frame, sit!

Sounds easy but it ain’t! It’s not just about finding an empty stool and plonking your butt onto it.  Finding the right corner with a good view to a good composition of the still life arrangement can make or break your painting efforts!  Composition can take up a whole blog post to talk about so I won’t.  But I will mention here that composition in painting reminds me of photography, because the Rule of Thirds applies here too.  The good thing about painting is that unlike photographs, you can “shift” things around to make your composition interesting… add a flower bud that doesn’t exist, remove an offending beer bottle etc etc… to your fancy. Yay!

Having found my spot, I sit and set up my easel & canvas.  I also take some photos of the set up because I KNOW I won’t finish everything alla prima (at one sitting)… and I’ll more likely need to conduct “rescue” work at home.  That photo will be my only reference point. :S

Step Two: Start draft sketch in charcoal

Sketching commences, but not before taking photos for reference!

After I’m comfortably seated, I start sketching on canvas with my piece of charcoal.  I take my measurements (less meticulously as I should) using the largest item as a reference point and scaling the rest of the objects accordingly.  I try to block in the major shapes of the many objects.  It is here that you decide what you want to keep and what you want to leave out of your composition.

In sketching, I read that one should not trouble with details at this stage and merely focus on outlines.  After a little over an hour (yes, you read me right, it takes me that long!), this was what I have on my canvas.

If Teacher is around, he will help me correct my compositional errors and inconsistent proportions of the still life objects.  If he’s not around, I usually fail terribly in getting this stage up to standard.  The photo above was taken on such a day and you’ll soon see why the composition is problematic.

Once done, I’ll dust off the charcoal with a rag and start preparing my palette with my standard range of colours.

I used Titanium White, Lemon Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Vermillion, Crimson Red, Cerulean Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue Hue, Sap Green, Viridian, Burnt Sienna, Black… Teacher says to squeeze out all colours even if you “think” you don’t need it (cause you usually do).  Because of my ignorance in colour theory, I just follow instructions. 🙂

Stage Three: Colour blocking

Leaving reluctantly for lunch

It is usually close to lunch time when I get to this stage and my stomach will start rumbling. But I will try as much as I can to put in the major blocks of colour so that it can dry up a little over lunch and I can start working on details when I am back. 

There’s a whole other potential blog post on the topic of colour mixing which I will not touch upon save to say that the best advice of the day has to be this (& I quote) – Don’t overcook! Haha… colour mixing is not like baking! You don’t need to get the colours all smooth and evenly mixed. Sometimes, it is nice to see splotches of uneven colours. Gives character. I tend to agree.

Step Four: Detailing

When I am back from lunch, I go back to fill in details as much as I can, building up the shape, shading/highlights, texture etc…  I can’t say much about this step because I seldom am able to see it through!  Except for maybe the three works done for the internal art exhibition. 

It was a floral set up that day and as you can see, I was completely stumped with flowers!  You can also see the compositional problems here. Everything looks like they are bunched up in the middle and there’s too much “white” space on the sides. SIGH~!

I am fortunate to have super nice seniors who were willing to share their tips and experience on painting flowers. I will share these too, in another post… soon, I promise!

Unlike newbies like myself, some senior art-sessioners were able to finish everything in one sitting.  I can only stare in awe and feel motivated to do better… next time. 🙂

Watercolour by one of the senior members


One Response to “Four Steps to Getting a (Still) Life!”


  1. Still.Life.April: A new canvas « Still.Life. by 宇晗 - May 5, 2011

    […] asked a fellow member for help. She generously shared her little secrets again (yikes, i’m owing a post on this!) and painted this little demo on my […]

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