Painting a still life with green and red apples is a great watercolour exercise to practice. It’s a relatively simple subject at first sight and one that’s easily set up.
It’s not immediately obvious but there are some interesting artistic and technical challenges that need to be addressed when tackling a subject like this.
In this post I will cover how to –
- Render three dimensional forms
- Apply colour theory in order to paint convincing shadows.
- How to mix vibrant colours and avoid creating “Mud”.
- Understand colour mixing from a split primaries palette.
- Understand drying times and how paint acts on paper at different stages of drying.
- Control your paint with glazing and wet into wet painting techniques.
Ultramarine Blue: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Cerulean Blue: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Lemon Yellow: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Cadmium Yellow: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Burnt Umber : Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Alizarin Crimson: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Paynes Gray: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Arches Watercolor Paper Block, Cold Press, 9″ x 12″, 140 pound Buy from Amazon
Foldback Binder Clips
Understanding The Forms
In the image below, I’ve highlighted the curvature of the form of the apples.
It’s worth spending some time just drawing apples. If you can draw an apple convincingly, painting an apple will become much easier.
Notice also, the patterns of the shadows on the apples, how the shadows curve around the form. There are highlights and shadows created by the distribution of light on the apples themselves. There are the shadows cast by the objects on each other and on the surface they are resting on. The shadows cast by the apples also contains some of the reflected colour from the apples creating a series of complex interactions.
Using Complementary Colours
Red and green are complementary colours sitting opposite each other on the colour wheel. Putting complementaries next to each other in a painting creates a dynamic colour contrast and tension that makes your painting more vibrant.
The problem with putting complementary colours together in watercolour is that allowing them to freely mix will result in muddy greys as they essentially cancel each other out. This is something I’m really trying to avoid in this particular painting.
Creating muddy colours, ( Low key, coloured neutrals, for want of a more positive term) is not necessarily always a bad thing. If you place a low key neutral colour next to a bright colour. The bright colour appears to be even brighter in comparison.
Split Primaries & Colour Temperature
To keep your colour mixes as bright and vibrant as possible it helps to be aware of the “Split Primaries” palette. Most people know that the primary colours are Red, Blue and Yellow. i.e the colours that can’t be created by mixing any other colours together.
Most people are aware of the concept of colour temperature. i.e. the idea that colours can be warm or cool. e.g reds/yellows = warm, blues/greens = cool.
Warm & Cool Bias
Did you know that even a warm colour can have a cool bias and vice versa?For example if we take two yellows. Cadmium Yellow and Lemon Yellow. Cadmium yellow leans slightly towards the orange-red side of the colour wheel, whereas Lemon Yellow leans more to the blue- green side. This is the same for all colours.
In order to keep your colour mixes as bright and vibrant as possible you should avoid mixing cool biased colours with warm biased colours. If you would like a more in-depth explanation of all this, have a look at my blog post on how to mix watercolours.
Step 1: Initial Wash
I began the painting by mixing a pale green Cerulean Blue and Lemon Yellow. Both of these colours have a cool bias . I applied the initial wash loosely with a squirrel hair mop brush. I preserved some small areas of white paper for white highlights.
Step 2. Adding Red, Wet Into Wet
For the red in the apple, I used Alizarin Crimson (Cool bias again) but I want to avoid actively mixing the red with the green. So I dropped the wet Alizarin Crimson in to the wet green wash with very light flicks. The trick here is to do as little actual brushing as possible, jst allow the colour to drip off the brush tip. Painting in this way, allows the red to infuse into the green wash. The red pushes the green aside and never completely mixes in and muddy colours don’t occur.
Step 3: Indicating Form
The red patterning of the apple had distinct rows of lines curving around the entire form. I wanted my brush strokes to have definition and maintain some hard edges but still diffuse and blend a little. This is where water control is important. I waited and watched for the paper to dry a bit. Just enough for the shine to go off the paper but not enough for the paper to become completely bone dry.
I then stroked in lines of red, radiating out from the stalk and following the form of the apple around and down.
A Happy Accident
The image above shows where I’m tidying up the edges by painting just slightly outside the lines, wet on dry. Wet paint on dry paper will always form a distinctly hard edge. The red bled slightly into the adjacent apple but it wasn’t a problem. The green apple had a bit of a red blush on it too and in a way, this unintentional bleed ties the two forms together quite nicely so I just allowed that to happen and added some more red to it. Let’s just call it a happy accident and move on!
Little accidents such as unplanned bleeds happen all the time in watercolour painting when we like the unexpected result we call it a happy accident. Try to go with the flow whenever possible and be flexible when this happens.
Once the initial wet into wet washes were completed it was time to stop and let the whole painting dry completely before moving on to the next stage.
Watercolour paintings tend to progress in very distinct stages. The temptation is to try to make your painting to look good at each stage. Often though, a painting doesn’t really come together until the darkest values and detail strokes are added towards the very end.
Sometimes the hardest part of watercolour painting is having the discipline to just stop and do nothing more.
If I could give you one piece of advice it would be, Resist the temptation to fuss and fiddle with your paintings in the early stages!
Step 4: Glazing
Once the painting is completely dry, it’s pretty much set in stone. You can now paint over it again and even completely re-wet it without having to worry about disturbing the paint that has already been laid down.
The next stage is glazing, Glazing is the process of laying down transparent washes of colour, allowing the layers of colour underneath show through.
Creating Vibrant Shadows
When you add more layers of paint, less paper will show through and the painting will become progressively darker. So there is no need to add black to make colours darker. In fact adding black will almost always make your paintings dull.
Shadows tend to shift the local colour of an object towards the cooler side of the colour wheel. Adding a touch of blue to red will achieve this, creating a red/violet.This glaze will naturally create a darker tone without a loss of colour intensity.
In the image above, I added a small amount of Ultramarine to Alizarin Crimson and I added thin washes of glaze to my red apple. It was important to keep the curve of the apple in mind as I painted because I didn’t want to flatten out the form.
In the image above, I’ve lifted out a highlight towards the bottom of the apple by dragging a clean, almost dry (Thirsty) brush through the shadow. The highlight was caused by reflected light from the table surface bouncing back and reflecting on the apple.
I waited for everything to dry once again and added a third layer of glazing. Little flecks of red, with my no.2 round brush. To add the stalk, I completely avoided the use of any black, by mixing Burnt Umber with Ultramarine creating dark but coloured grey.
Step 5: Adding background & Cast Shadows
I could have painted the background first but in this particular painting I decided to add it at the end.
Adding a whole lot of detail, would just take away attention from the main subject. I just wanted to create a little contrast and keep things nice and indistinct by painting wet into wet again.
I carefully painted a wash of clean water around the apples and dropped in some Ultramarine mixed with Paynes Gray.Adding the Paynes grey dulls down the color here so as not to compete with the colours of the apple. Blue is a complement to red. As I mentioned earlier complementary colours create a contrast that makes them pop even more.
The blue background diffused nicely but only up to the water line, so there was no danger of the blue background bleeding into the apples
As we saw in the photograph at the start. The colour of cast shadows is influenced by light reflected off the object. The more you can anticipate and be aware of these interactions the more comfortable you can be including them and playing with them. Observation told me that I should add shadows that again leaned towards the violet rather than just assuming them to be neutral grey for instance.
I wanted the shadows to be well defined, with a very subtle soft edge to them.
Timing is the key when it comes to controlling edges. I waited until the paper had turned from wet to barely damp. A way to test this is to gently place your palm against the surface of the paper and if it feels cool at all to the touch, then the paper is still slightly moist. Just enough to slightly diffuse the edges but not enough for the paint to bleed uncontrollably.
It can be difficult to know when a painting is finished. Better to err on the side of unfinished then overwork a painting. In my opinion. I couldn’t resist a few last dashes of Alizarin Crimson. Time to stop and call it done.
I hope that you got something useful from this post. The main takeaway I have is that sometimes even the simplest subjects can be full of challenges and opportunities for artistic growth.
I’ve made a video of the full painting process from start to finish and put it on my YouTube channel. This is a video of the whole painting process from start to finish in real time (I’ve only edited out the drying times).