Lighthouse Watercolor Tutorial

See how to paint a lighthouse in this step by step lighthouse watercolor tutorial. Includes access to the ChromaMagic color tool.

It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure but I just love painting a lighthouse. Luckily here in New England we have a lot to choose from. Lighthouse paintings have a lot of things I like about painting with watercolor. I love the sunlight on white walls and how they curve into shadow. I also really love hos the white looks against the blue sky, And the small details of windows and railings just give enough interest to make the painting convincing.

A Lighthouse watercolor painting is a good choice for a beginner

If you’re looking for an easy subject to paint in watercolor then lighthouses are a great option. They’re easy to draw and are fairly simple to make convincingly three-dimensional. In this subject the foreground is a little trickier (although I really enjoyed painting it). If you’re at the beginning of your painting journey then simplifying or leaving out the foreground might be a a good option.

Owl Watercolor Demo Video

Interested in Learning to Paint in Watercolor?

I have many real-time videos you can paint along to. Please check out my youtube channel or see the selection here.

Materials Needed

  • 100% cotton watercolor paper. I mainly use Fabriano Artistico.
  • Scrap/student paper for color swatches (I like the Fabriano ‘Fat Pad’).
  • A couple of 10 or 12 round watercolor brushes (sable or a good synthetic)
  • Palette
  • Spray bottle
  • Mechanical Pencil
  • Masking tape if you’re not using watercolor blocks or you want a crisp edge to your painting.
  • Colors: cerulean blue, lemon yellow, vermillion, permanent rose, burnt sienna, ultramarine, black.

Lighthouse Watercolor Reference Image

lighthouse reference with grid
pixabay lighthouse reference with grid

Here is the reference I’ve chosen. It’s from pixabay.com and was drawn to the strong sunlight and the red and white stripes on the lighthouse itself. The foreground has quite a lot of detail which I’ve simplified and kept to just a few values.

Start your watercolor lighthouse with a pencil drawing.

Lighthouse watercolor pencil drawing
Lighthouse watercolor pencil drawing

I started with a line pencil drawing. There is no shading on here as we’ll be putting in light and shadow with paint. I aim to put in just enough detail to outline everything important but not go overboard with every single little thing. This was trickiest in the foreground as there is a lot going on there. I tried to keep the lines that separated regions of light and dark and keep everything else to a minimum

Vermont farm watercolor landscape by Michele Clamp

Online Zoom Classes

I run online zoom courses regularly for both beginners and more advanced students. Please check out my workshop page.

Values are the key to a good watercolor painting

If you’ve been painting for a while then you’ve probably heard or read people saying that good values are the key to a good painting. You’re not going to hear me say anything different – if you can get a good handle on your values then you’re well on your way to a successful painting. To help us with this I recommend a couple of different things. The first is a good (as in accurate) value scale. I recommend Paul Centore’s one pictured above. It’s laminated and has 20 steps from darkest to lightest. It’s great for watercolor and oil or acrylic painting.

Estimate the values for the sky using the value scale

If you have a printout of the reference you can use the value scale to first estimate, and then measure the values of the sky. Even though the value scale is gray and the sky is blue squinting your eyes can take the color out of a scene and make it easier to measure.

Use ChromaMagic to Get the Color *AND* The Value

We realize that people don’t always have printed reference handy so here at Clamp Watercolor Towers we have built a tool that can tell you the value of any region of a photo just by clicking on it. Additionally it will tell you the exact color and chroma of a color so you know exactly what your color is. From the screenshots ChromaMagic says that the sky is a value 8 at the top and a fairly bright blue. At the bottom it is still a value 8 but now it’s a much grayer blue. Find out more about ChromaMagic here and try it out now here. You’ll need to download the reference photo and load it up into the tool using the ‘load file’ button.

ChromaMagic for Still Life Watercolor

Use ChromaMagic now

Find the color and value in *any* reference. Basic version is free to use.

Paint the sky using a light cobalt blue wash

Graduated wash for the watercolor lighthouse sky
Graduated wash for the watercolor lighthouse sky

I paint in the sky using a cobalt blue wash that fades out as it goes towards the horizon. I change the color by first adding in a little water as I go down the page. At the bottom I add in a little cadmium yellow orange to neutralize the blue a little and make it grayer. I actually made this sky a little too light – it’s more like a value 9 rather than an 8. But never fear! We can darken this a little later to correct this. We just need to wait until the first wash is completely dry before tacking it.

Check the values on the lighthouse

Checking the value of the lighthouse watercolor shadow
Checking the value of the lighthouse watercolor shadow

We’re now going to paint the lighthouse. Or at least the main values – the details will come later. If you have a printout and a value scale you can measure the value of the shadow side or you can use ChromaMagic with the reference photo.

The white part of the lighthouse is around a value 6 in the shadow. The red band, however is much darker in the shadow – around a 2 or 3. And in the light the color goes to a value 7 orange color – quite a big swing in value there. We’ll need to get this right to make sure the lighthouse reads correctly.

Lighthouse watercolor shadow side
Lighthouse watercolor shadow side

I put the value 6 grey on the whole of the shadow side of the lighthouse. The gray is mixed using burnt sienna and cerulean blue (ultramarine blue can also be used). The transition from shadow to light is softened with a clean damp brush to make the lighthouse look round.

Michele Clamp Studio Wall

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Watercolor lighthouse light red
Watercolor lighthouse light red

I mix a mid value 5 red for the mid part of the red band. I use damp brush to soften the transition out into the light and hit that value 8 we found earlier. This is used to carry the mid value into the shadow side. It won’t be dark enough for the shadow yet but we can layer on a darker color later.

Watercolor lighthouse dark red and sea
Watercolor lighthouse dark red and sea

While I’m waiting for the red strip to dry I put in a wash of a mid-value blue (ultramarine with a dash of lemon yellow) for the sea. I also use a fairly thick mix of ultramarine and burnt sienna to start putting in some details and windows.

After that I mix up a dark red value 3 mix of vermillion, permanent rose, burnt sienna and just a *touch* of black if I need to hit that value 3. I try not to use black if I can avoid it to keep that dark red rich and vibrant. After softening the transition from shadow to light you can see how that color really sings out.

Use a light brown wash for the initial foreground wash

Light first wash for foreground
Light first wash for foreground

The foreground looks complicated but we’re going to simplify as much as we can. The base layer is just a light wash (probably around value 9) of burnt sienna with a little yellow ochre. This goes over the whole foreground regardless of any detail drawn in.

The green foliage in the foreground is pretty dark – probably around a 4 or even darker. I mix an olive green using lemon yellow and black and add just enough water to get it to the right value. I then roughly put in the foliage and try and leave the edges choppy to suggest vegetation.

At this point I adjust the sky color and layer over another wash of blue which fades out to orange at the horizon. This brings the sky value more in line with the reference and *really* brings out the white on the lighthouse!!!

I continue to add in more foreground detail for the foliage and the shadows. This is all pretty rough. It just has to suggest what’s there as the main attraction of the painting is the lighthouse itself.

Final Touches with Opaque White

opaque white for detail on watercolor lighthouse
opaque white for detail on watercolor lighthouse

For the final touches I use a little of Dr Ph. Martin’s Bleed-Proof White paint to add in some railings and detail on the lighthouse window. A little gray to indicate the lamppost and I’m done!!!

Final Thoughts

Well I hope you enjoyed that. Not everything went to plan but most things could be fixed. As usual if you do have a go at this scene I’d love to see what you do!

Watercolor Fox Tutorial

See how to make a watercolor fox easy with this step by step watercolor tutorial and video. Complete with reference image and color tips.

Why Paint a Watercolor Fox?

It’s been a number of years since I’ve done a red fox watercolor painting and I thought ‘why not have another go?’ Watercolor animals can be tricky to paint and I’ve discovered that making a good drawing helps enormously. If you want to have a go at this painting I recommend using the grid reference to give you the best shot at getting the proportions right.

Materials Needed

  • 100% cotton watercolor paper. I mainly use Fabriano Artistico.
  • Scrap/student paper for color swatches (I like the Fabriano ‘Fat Pad’).
  • A couple of 10 or 12 round watercolor brushes (sable or a good synthetic)
  • Palette
  • Spray bottle
  • Mechanical Pencil
  • Masking tape if you’re using watercolor blocks or you want a crisp edge to your painting.

Watercolor Fox – Reference Image

Watercolor fox reference image with grid
Watercolor fox reference image with grid

Full YouTube Watercolor Fox Video

The screenshots below are taken from the full youtube video. This takes you through the whole process in real time and should allow you to paint along.

Pencil Drawing for the Watercolor Fox

Watercolor Fox Pencil Drawing
Watercolor Fox Pencil Drawing

Let’s get started. I first started with a pencil outline drawing. There’s no shading in here as we’re going to put all the light and shadows in with paint. I did try and get the shape of the snout and ears right. These are important to convey the character of the animal and are quite subtle. Any small discrepancies can change the whole feel of the painting. I also put in the position of the eye and a lighter line separating the light part of the snout from the shadow. This will be an important part of the painting which will give the fox three dimensionality and also give a feeling of sunlight. If you’re looking for an easy way paint a fox getting the drawing right can be half the battle.

Finished pink carnation watercolor painting tutorials

I have many more step-by-step tutorials and videos!

First Plan the Main Values

Watercolor Fox Values
Watercolor Fox Values

A little planning helps enormously when painting in watercolor. Everything goes so fast once you start putting paint to paper. If you can work out some wrinkles ahead of time your paintings will benefit hugely. Figuring out the main values in your subject is one of the the first things to do. an accurate value scale is invaluable here and I recommend the Paul Centore scale available from eBay

Paul Centore Value Scale
Paul Centore Value Scale

The other tool (which you can make yourself) is a ‘color isolator’. This is just a piece of card or paper colored a mid-value gray. It has a 1/2 inch square cut out of the middle. The gray helps us separate the color we’re looking at from it’s surroundings (hence isolator!!!) and the mid value helps us estimate how light or dark our color is. If you have a printer you can download the image below and print it out and make one yourself.

gray color isolator
gray color isolator
Fox fur values
Fox fur values

Now we can estimate the main values of our red fox. At the very minimum we need to know a value for the light side of the head a value for the shadow side of the head. If we get these two values right then we’ll be in great shape to make our fox look three dimensional. Our fox has a value 8 on the snout, a 6 on the head, a 3-4 in the shadow part of the snout and around a 5-6 on the shadow part of the white fur. Let’s keep these in mind as we do our painting.

Michele Clamp Studio Wall

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Start the Fox Watercolor with the Light Values

Watercolor Fox First Layer
Watercolor Fox First Layer

We’re going to start the painting with the light orange values on the head. We know the lightest value is an 8 and it goes to a 6 on the top part. This color is very close to burnt sienna and adding in a little of our orangey-red makes it bang on.

Orange fox color
Orange fox color

We put the color on the head and make it slightly lighter on the snout. I use a second, clean, damp, brush to soften the edges where it transitions into the white fur. The top of the head is a little too light at this stage but we can always come back and darken that later.

Vermont farm watercolor landscape by Michele Clamp

Online Zoom Classes

I run online zoom courses regularly for both beginners and more advanced students. Please check out my workshop page.

Add a Light Gray for the White Fur of your Watercolor Fox

Fox fur value
Fox fur value

We now mix a light gray for the white fur of the fox. Most of the white fur is in shadow so it’s going to be a blue-gray and we know it’s around a mid-value. I mix up a gray with ultramarine blue and burnt sienna and add just enough water to make it a value 6 on our value scale.

Fox watercolor fur painting
Fox watercolor fur painting

I paint in the gray over all the shadow part of the white fur and, again, soften the edges with a damp brush.

Add the Shadows to Your Fox Painting

Watercolor Fox Painting the Shadows
Watercolor Fox Painting the Shadows

When the light colors are dry we can start to put in the shadows. The shadow size of the snout is quite dark – around a 3. I mix up a value 3 with burnt sienna and a little ultramarine blue and paint it onto the shadow side of the snout. Beware! It will look really dark and it will feel wrong!! If you’ve measure and mixed things carefully, however, it will all work out in the end. One thing we do have to take care with however, is to use our damp brush to soften the transition between the light and the shadow areas. We don’t want this to be too harsh a transition. A little softness here will make things look a lot more believable.

A similar dark brown value gets put onto the nose and the lineof the mouth. Again the edges are softened to make the transitions less harsh. A little dark color is also put around the eye to make it recede.

Owl Watercolor Demo Video

Interested in Learning to Paint in Watercolor?

I have many real-time videos you can paint along to. Please check out my youtube channel or see the selection here.

Paint the Eye on Your Fox

This next piece usually brings the whole thing alive. We’re going to paint the eye. In this reference this is quite tricky. The surround of the eye is really dark but the eye itself is only a little lighter. Here is a close up to show you.

watercolor fox eye close up
watercolor fox eye close up

You can see that only part of the eye is very dark (at the top where the pupil likely is) and the rest is the same value as the surrounding fur.

Paint the Ears In a Dark Value

The ears are now painted in a similar dark brown (burnt sienna and ultramarine) value. At this point I thought the top of the head was too light (it should have been a value 6 and was more like an 8). I mixed up some more burnt sienna/vermillion paint and made that area darker. The extra paint also allowed me to add in a few stripes on the fur to show few of the modulations on the head.

Correct the Value on the White Fur

We’re almost finished now. Things were looking pretty good but the white fur looked a little light in value. This is always a scary bit as correcting this can look too dark when the paint first goes on. I mixed up some neutral gray (around a value 5 or so) and painted over the whole area of the white fur. While the paint was wet I dropped in some darker paint where the fur was darker and used my spray bottle to add some texture. Thankfully this all worked out and it definitely improved the painting.

The final changes were just to darken inside the right ear a little and the whole thing was finished.

fox watercolor by Michele Clamp
fox watercolor by Michele Clamp

Final Thoughts

Well I think it came out pretty well in the end. Shadows on white fur are always a little scary as the paint we have to use always looks darker than we thing we need. But some careful measurements and observation and all turns out well.

I hope you enjoyed the demo. If you try it or have any questions I’d love to see what you do. It’s been a lot of fun painting this cute fox watercolor and I think a wolf watercolor will be on the cards in the coming weeks.

ChromaMagic Munsell Color Tool

Munsell wheel at different values

Welcome to ChromaMagic – the online Munsell color analysis tool. Click the button to go straight to analyzing your photos. If you’re new to ChromaMagic check out the walkthroughs at the end of this post. I also have a post on Munsell and how it helps artists.

This version of ChromaMagic will always be free but any donations towards its upkeep, development and maintenance would be gratefully received. Click the button below to donate securely through Square.

Anyone who donates will get a free upgrade to the next version currently in development.

What is ChromaMagic?

Have you ever looked at a scene or a photo reference and thought ‘What is that color?’ As artists our color perception is crucial in knowing what we see and how we translate it onto canvas or paper. ChromaMagic was developed to help us quickly sharpen our skills in color perception and improve our paintings. It can show you the three Munsell components of color for any color in a photo reference and display them in the relevant color chart.

The Munsell Color System

ChromaMagic uses the Munsell Color System to define color. As artists it is a wonderful way to define and mix color. Munsell classifies color into 3 components of hue, value and chroma. If you’re new to this way of thinking about color it can take a little while to get into the swing of things. But it is well worth it. I can personally say that it transformed my paintings almost overnight.

Starting with ChromaMagic

ChromaMagic start screen
ChromaMagic start screen

When you first load up the ChromaMagic tool it has a color wheel photo displayed in the photo area. At the top on the left is the full photo and, on the right, is a zoomed in region. To load up your own photo click the black button on the top right.

Click Anywhere on the Photos to Select a Color

ChromaMagic Selected Color
ChromaMagic Selected Color

Click anywhere on either the left or right photo regions to select a color. The zoom panel on the right will center on that pixel and display a red cross-hair on the selected color.

Below the photo are 3 representations of that color. On the left are rectangles displaying the exact color and also the nearest Munsell chip color. On the right is the color highlighted in the relevant color chart.

ChromaMagic Munsell Color Tool Detail Panel

ChromaMagic hue, value, chroma color chart
ChromaMagic hue, value, chroma color chart

Chroma Varies as the Hue Changes

Munsell 5B color chart
Munsell 5B color chart

Example Photo 1 – Apple and Pear Still Life

This reference is one I have used in a beginners class. It’s great for honing your skills identifying and mixing colors. See the link for a full step by step watercolor tutorial and video.

Munsell apple and pear example
Munsell apple and pear example

Light Values Vary Between the Fruit

ChromaMagic Munsell pear color
ChromaMagic Munsell pear color

Shadow Values Change Hue

ChromaMagic Munsell pear shadow color
ChromaMagic Munsell pear shadow color

Gray Colors Aren’t Really Gray

Munsell gray color
Munsell gray color

Example Photo 2 : Landscape Reference

I’ve come a cropper with beach paintings many a time. Finally, with the help of ChromaMagic, I could work out and learn where my colors were wrong. The result was that my paintings were much more successful.

ChromaMagic landscape sand color
ChromaMagic landscape sand color

Blue Sky is Surprisingly Dark

Munsell blue sky color
Munsell blue sky color

Distant Things are Blue!

ChromaMagic background landscape color
ChromaMagic background landscape color

Green Hills are Blue!

Munsell greens are actually blue
Munsell greens are actually blue

Watercolor Still Life

Want to know how to paint this watercolor still life? Follow along with the step-by-step watercolor still life tutorial and create your own version.

Is Still Life an Easy Option for Watercolor?

Still life painting might seem like an easy option when choosing something to paint. In some ways it is. For example things stay where you put them, you can arrange objects the way you want and have control over the lighting. However, I find that you need to increase your observational skills and really nail the values and colors for the result to be convincing. In this post I take you through this fruit watercolor painting. We start with making some value and color swatches. This helps us think through our color choices ahead of time. We then go through the painting in layers from light to dark. In between each layer we let things dry so we don’t disturb the color when the next layer goes down.

Fruit is an ideal subject if you’re looking for still life painting ideas. Most people will have fruit in the pantry and they are lovely bright colors which are always fun to paint. I think this tutorial is suited for all levels but, if you’re looking for a watercolor still life for beginners, you might be interested in my apple and pear tutorial.

Watercolor Materials Needed.

My full list of materials is here but these are the things you will need for this still life watercolor painting.

  • 11″x15″ 100% cotton watercolor paper. I use Fabriano Artistico 140lb cold press.
  • Size 10 and 12 round watercolor brushes. My favorites are Escoda Reserva.
  • Mechanical pencil
  • Kneaded eraser
  • Masking tape
  • Reference photo (see below)
  • Artists quality paint in the following colors
    • Lemon yellow
    • Vermillion or an orangey red like naphthol red, cad red light, or pyrrole red
    • Yellow ochre
    • Permanent rose or a pinkish red (permanent alizarin or quinacridone red)
    • Burnt sienna
    • Ultramarine blue
    • Cobalt blue
    • Black. I use lamp black but ivory black is fine.
  • A white palette for your paints and mixing
  • Paper towels
  • Water pot

Still life Reference Photo

Fruit Still Life Photo Reference
Fruit Still Life Photo Reference

This is the pixabay photo reference we’re going to use. I chose this for a couple of reasons. First the lighting is quite strong and from the side. This gives us a clear separation of light and dark on all of the fruit. This also gives us some nice rich cast shadows on the oranges. Secondly, the background is plain and white. When I’m painting still life in watercolor I like to keep the paintings light and airy. A dark background gives a very different feel and mood.

Michele Clamp Studio Wall

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Color Mixing Preparation for our Watercolor Still Life

Before we start on our main painting we’re going to do some analysis and prep. I like to work out the main colors for the objects ahead of time and do some color swatches. Watercolor is a fast moving medium and, when we’re in the middle of a painting, we might not have time to stop and think about colors. Doing some prep beforehand almost always helps with this and results in a better painting.

Pay Attention to Values and Colors

Watercolor still life color swatches
Watercolor still life color swatches

These are my color swatches for the light and shadow sides of most of the fruit. I treat the light and shadow colors as independent. Sometimes a shadow color will just be a darker version of the light color but often it has very subtle hue shifts. Paying attention to these will result in a more convincing watercolor painting.

Colors are Different in the Light and Shadow

While mixing these colors I pay attention to the values on the light and shadow sides. These values will vary depending on the local color of each fruit. For instance a red apple is often around a mid value on the light side (see the watercolor pear and apple tutorial for an example of this). In contrast a banana will have a very high value in the light – probably around a 9 (0 = black, 10=white). In this reference the fruit are mostly around an 8 or 9 in the light. When we look at the shadows they go from a 5 down to a 3 and the colors are quite rich or high in chroma.

Use ChromaMagic to Help Identifying Colors

ChromaMagic for Still Life Watercolor
ChromaMagic for Still Life Watercolor

If you have a printed reference a color isolator can help identifying the different colors. This is just a piece of mid-value grey card with a 1/2″ square cut out. Placing it over different areas of the photo helps enormously in judging colors without surrounding areas leading us astray. At the end of this post is another reference and some guidance on how to practice this.

Alternatively you can load the reference photo into ChromaMagic and click on different areas to show you the colors. I always like to make a guess myself before clicking and checking how close I am. It’s the best way to get better at seeing color accurately and you’ll be surprised how fast you improve.

First do a Pencil Drawing

still life drawing in watercolor
Still life watercolor drawing

I first spend time doing a fairly careful line drawing of the setup. I start by lightly marking out the topmost, bottommost and left and right regions of the setup. This helps me get the proportions correct and makes sure everything is placed correctly on the paper. I then go in and start drawing the fruit. I pay careful attention to when and how the fruits intersect and make sure things line up horizontally and vertically.

The grapes were a pain to draw. I didn’t go overboard with accuracy here but made sure enough shapes were down to give a convincing representation and that they made some interesting shapes. One thing I didn’t draw in were the cast shadow shapes. These will have mostly very soft edges and any graphite lines would probably show through. As I didn’t want this, and the shapes are pretty simple, I left them out and will put them in directly with paint.

The First Layer – Light Values

Now I have to warn you that this first stage will result in something very unimpressive. We’re going to start with just the lightest values on the fruit but paint over the whole fruit including the shadow side. This will result in something very flat. But that’s good! That’s exactly what we want! In subsequent layers we’ll go darker and darker and the painting will become more and more three dimensional. It’s almost like magic! Keep the faith at this stage. Keep the washes light and try and make them as even as possible. Don’t be tempted to try and make things look realistic at this point.

Moving from left to right I paint in the lightest values and colors on each of the fruit. This isn’t going to be a loose painting so I don’t lose any edges between the fruits but keep them nice and crisp. For the light highlights on the fruit I leave a little region of white paper showing and soften the edges a little with a clean, damp brush.

I darken the oranges a little with a slightly darker orange to start to give them shape. I make sure the edges are softened with a damp brush as they fade out into the light.

Vermont farm watercolor landscape by Michele Clamp

Online Zoom Classes

I run online zoom courses regularly for both beginners and more advanced students. Please check out my workshop page.

Second Layer – Mid Values

Wait for everything to dry before moving onto the next stage. We don’t want our next layer to disturb anything we’ve already put down. This stage we’ll start to see things take shape. When you’re done you’ll start to see things look more three dimensional.

Again working from left to right we refer back to our color swatches and see that we have mid to dark values on the shadow sides. The left apple is around a value 5 red and the oranges go right down to a value 3 brown in the shadows. I paint the mid values on the shadow sides of the fruit and use a clean damp brush to soften the transition between light and shadow. This helps show the round form of the fruit. Don’t worry about making them look like fruit right now. Aim to soften those edges to make them look round.

Paint the Grape Shadows – They’re Fiddly!

These grapes look great when they’re done but they’re fiddly! Try to resist painting each one individually. If you can join shadow shapes together and paint them as one do so! We aim to leave a little of the light side of the grape showing and soften the edge with a damp brush to make them look round. It’s the same procedure that we did for the apples and oranges but just at a smaller scale!

Green Grapes Have Light Shadows

The green grapes are a little deceptive. Their shadows are much lighter than for the purple ones so be careful with your mixing. Again, if you want to check the values have a look in ChromaMagic and it will tell you exactly how dark they are.

Add Some Cast Shadows

Using a mixture of burnt sienna and ultramarine I add in some cast shadows under and next to the fruit. I make sure to soften all of the edges with a clean, damp brush.

Owl Watercolor Demo Video

Interested in Learning to Paint in Watercolor?

I have many real-time videos you can paint along to. Please check out my youtube channel or see the selection here.

We’re Almost Done!

Well I hope you have something that’s looking pretty good by now! We’re almost done and we’ve done most of the hard work. All we have to do now is put in the darkest darks and a few details. These are the things that really bring the painting to life and make it look convincing.

Some of our shadows aren’t quite dark enough yet. We’re going to go through the fruit again and try and hit the correct value for each shadow. This is the point where you will want to make things look as convincing as possible. Depending on how your first two layers went you might have big adjustments to make or smaller ones. You’ll have to compare your painting to the photo and judge.

Paint And Adjust the Cast Shadows

In mine I first painted on the dark cast shadow on the oranges. These are pretty dark brown and I made careful comparisons to the reference to make sure I got them as close as possible. I also modified and deepened the shadow on the right apple just to take it a shade darker.

I adjust the shadows on the banana and the cast shadows under the fruit. The banana shadow has a little green in it so I blend the green color into the brown while the paint is wet.

Smaller Touches – The Super Darks!

We’re looking pretty good now but there’s still some darks we’ve missed. The crevices of the grapes go right down to a value 1 or 2 so I mix up a very dark value for the purple grapes and add small darks where there isn’t much light. I do the same for the green ones but, as the grapes themselves are lighter, I don’t go quite as dark.

Final Details

The final touches are to add the stalks on the grapes and the apples and to darken a few of the purple grapes even further. A few tweaks to the shadows and we’re done!

Final Painting

Fruit Still Life Watercolor by Michele Clamp
Fruit Watercolor Still Life by Michele Clamp

Here’s the final thing. I’m pretty happy on the whole. Looking at it a couple of days later I could probably go a little darker in the shadows on the green grapes but there’s not much else I would change.

Bonus Video Still Life Watercolor

As a bonus here is a video of another still life on my youtube channel that follows a similar method.

Bonus Color Matching Exercise

This exercise is to give you practice in assessing and mixing colors. I always find these quite revealing and fun to do.

still life color matching reference
Still life color matching reference

Here we have the photo reference. I’ve chosen this for a number of reasons. First it has clearly defined areas of light and dark – no wishy-washy flat lighting. Second the shapes are very clear – the apple, lime, and bananas all have clearly defined edges. Finally the colors are nice and bright. There’s nothing gray and muted about this setup.

A good learning photo does not make a good painting

Now all of these reasons are because I want to get across how to identify and mix color. If I were choosing a setup for a ‘real’ painting I would not choose this. Everything is a bit plainly stated and matter of fact. There’s no nuance, subtlety, or atmosphere here. But what isn’t great for a painting is perfect for learning! And the technique I’m going to describe can translate easily into any painting you like.

The numbered squares are the colors we’ll match

You’ll notice that I’ve marked out a series of numbered squares on the photo. Before we start painting we’ll go through each of these and try and identify and mix the color as accurately as we can. This will feel laborious to start with. And it will take a long time – much longer than you think. But every one of these swatches that you make is worth it. We will go through the hard work of identifying the colors we’ll need ahead of time. The final painting itself will be made easier and we’ll paint it relatively quickly.

A color isolator is a very useful tool for color identification

gray color isolator
Gray color isolator

I strongly recommend you have a color isolator handy if you’re painting from a printed photo reference. This is just a small (say 3″x5″) piece of mid-gray card with a 1/2″ square cut out of the middle. I have a number of these handy and there’s always one close to the easel.

Your brain lies to you about color

One of the many problems we face as painters is that our brains are constantly translating what we see into what it thinks we need. If we look at a white cup in shadow our brains helpfully disregard the shadow and will be insistent that what we’re seeing is white. In practice of course it’s likely a dark blue gray and, if we want to paint it so it reads realistically, that’s the color we should paint it. We have to constantly remind ourselves that we can’t trust that little brain voice and think and look harder.

Context also makes seeing color harder

The other problem we have when identifying color is that what is around a shape affects how we see it. A mid-value gray can look lighter than it is next to black. But when it’s put next to white paper it will look darker than it is. This is where the color isolator helps us.

Use the isolator as a learning tool not a crutch

The color isolator is very useful but we need to be conscious that it’s a learning tool not something we need to rely on. So we need to use it in the following multi-step way

  • Look at the color you’re trying to match and identify it. e.g. it’s a mid-value bright pinkish red.
  • Use the color isolator by placing it over the color and see how close you are.
  • If you’re correct (or close) pat yourself on the back and have a biscuit.
  • If you’re wrong try and imprint in your memory why you were wrong so you’ll be closer next time.

The first step is the hardest! Thinking – it takes soooo much effort. But it’s really worth it. And you’ll be amazed how quickly you get a lot better at seeing color. And maybe more importantly you’ll start to learn which types of colors you get consistently wrong. For me (and I suspect most of us) it’s shadow colors and especially shadow colors of light objects. After a while when you come across these when you’re painting a little alarm will go off in your head reminding you to pay extra attention to these regions.

Color match each swatch

watercolor color matching swatches
watercolor color matching swatches

Here’s my version of these swatches. You can see that I’ve put test swatches by each box until I’m satisfied that I’ve got it as close as I can. Only then do I put the final color in the box. And you can see that some of these colors are very different to what we consider a fruit color. Number 2, for example is the shadow on the bananas. It’s a sludgy dark green. Not bananaish at all! And the shadow sides of both the apple and the lime are really quite dark even though they are still identifiably green and red.

I’m going to be making some more videos on how I go about this. It’s hard to describe in text and much easier to show and learn from a video. I warn you that the process feels awkward at first but has huge rewards. And you’ll be going around identifying colors everywhere you go!

Livestreams and Videos

If you’re interested in this process (and have I mentioned how much it’s helped me? 🙂 I livestream paintings and techniques. If you want to know when these are coming up please sign up on my mailing list. I’d love for you to join me.

Alla Prima Primroses

Alla prima primroses were the subject for oil painting today. A very complicated subject and an exhausting painting session. Almost 6 hours to get this to an almost finished state. This was done as part of a Paul Foxton workshop and this was the final subject.

Mixing colors Takes Time

I spent a good portion of the time just mixing the colors. It took around 1.5 hours to mix up colors for the light and shadow sides of the flowers, the leaves, the teapot and the background colors. I dialled back the chroma quite a bit from last week’s study as I thought the yellow flowers were too bright. Definitely a good decision.

Small Oil Study

Here is the study for reference:

Alla prima primroses oil study
Alla prima primroses oil study

This was an 8×10 study and was blocked in quite quickly and with only a little drawing. I thought it came out well but wanted a slightly quieter feel to it. I also went larger – 11″x15″ for the final thing. It’s a busy subject and needed a bit more elbow room so took the plunge and went larger. This is always a bit of a risk as relationships can take on more or less impact as you scale up or down.

In Progress Shot

Here is the painting part way through. We spent quite a bit of time on the central 3 flowers. These are the main stars of the show and we wanted to make sure we had the values nailed down here. I think they just about work. Yellow flowers are always tricky especially the shadow colors. We also made sure the values of the teapot were better than the study. The white of the spout in the shadow is really quite dark and we wanted to ensure it really looked like it was in shadow.

alla prima primroses - progress shot
alla prima primroses – progress shot

Alla Prima Primroses – Studio Shot

oil painting station studio shot
oil painting station studio shot

This is a shot of my easel in the studio. Some people have asked whether I have trouble with distorted drawing as I have my board at an angle. To be honest I keep it like that as I mostly work in watercolor and I’m used to it. I do stand up a lot and I don’t think I get any distortion from the angle. One day I’ll try the vertical easel and see how that feels.