Still life in watercolour – how to rectify common mistakes

I’ve chosen two simple subjects for this still life, and their contrasting colours make a pleasing combination.  I chose a green background that is darker than the pear, so it shows off both the lightness of the pear and the complementary colours of the orange.

still life photo

I selected a limited palette of light red, alizarin crimson, lemon yellow, raw sienna, ultramarine blue, cobalt, phthalo blue and burnt umber.

For brushes, I used two sizes of mop brush, a sable number 10 brush and a rigger.

Here are two studies that I made before I did the final painting.

The first picture looks like a disaster! I deliberately experimented with backruns – these happen when your brush contains too much water and you add a watery wash to a wet surface. But the second picture is perhaps a little too finished – there is a lot of fussy detail in the orange.  It’s difficult to know when to stop.

This is stage one and two of my final painting, which is on a sheet of Bockingford Rough 300 gsm paper, approximately A3 size.  I began by wetting the background with the large mop brush, then dropping a mix of phthalo, cobalt and lemon yellow with the smaller mop brush.  Then I painted each fruit from right to left, darkening the wash as I went. In the first stage I produced an accidental backrun, as I didn’t have the patience to let the pear dry before I added a darker colour.

When the washes were completely dry I added a second layer of colour to each fruit – and eliminated the backrun.

In the close-up on the left you can see how the colours can run into each other if they remain wet.  I avoided this in most places by leaving a narrow gap between the two fruits.  But an accidental backrun can sometimes be attractive – don’t try to correct mistakes, let them dry and then see what they look like.  As the board is at a 30 degree angle, you may have a pooling of colour in an area where you don’t want it. This can be rectified by applying a ‘thirsty’ (dry) brush to the offending pool.

Here the background has been darkened, an ultramarine shadow has been added to the left of the fruit, and an even darker shadow (made from ultramarine and burnt umber) is directly beneath both fruits.  Finally the stalk has been added to the pear and the orange has its navel, added by the rigger, with burnt umber; more tone and texture has been added to both fruits using the size 10 sable brush.

still life 6

The result looks like a pear and an orange, but maybe it’s lost some of its spontaneity along the way. The background has been worked into too much and it would be hard to take it back to the loose impression that we had at the beginning – all I could do would be to darken it further.

It’s important to decide how finished you want your painting to look: sometimes a more sketchy painting with the odd backrun looks fresher and more fun that a skilled realistic rendering. Tell me which you prefer!

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