Still Life with Limited Palette by Will Kemp
The topics we will be covering in this lesson:
We expect that each part of this lesson will take about one hour to complete, though this may vary from student to student depending on your individual pace. Take your time, don’t rush, and if you need to stop you can. If you have more than an hour to spare, then work as long as you feel comfortable!
I just adore Will Kemp’s videos! He’s easy to follow and recommends the same beginning palette we do, so it will be good for those of you who only bought the three most important colors (Titanium White, Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna). This milk jug exercise is broken down into three parts. Each part should take around an hour, so you can conveniently stop after each part.
Don’t feel like you have to finish the painting in one session of course. Remember, you can always come back to your canvas later. Don’t worry about how long it takes you—it took Michelangelo four years to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel!
Here is the image you will need for your painting:
If you have a printer available, print out this picture in color to use as a reference.
We recommend for each Part, you first watch the video completely without painting—then paint the second time you watch the video. Please consider using the closed captioning and language translation features described here, if you would benefit from them. We always recommend watching the video in full-screen mode. To make the video full screen, click the box in the lower right-hand corner:
Then click on the same box after you are finished to minimize the video screen and return to the text. Don’t forget, you can pause any time you need by clicking on the two vertical lines, then restart by clicking on the white triangle seen in the above illustration on the lower left.
It’s also always helpful in each Part to read our text all the way through before you try to paint along.
Acrylic still life painting for beginners – Part 1 of 3 by willkempartschool
If you’d like a transcript of what Will says in the video, it is available for viewing or download here: Milk Jug Part One Closed Captions
Take your 8” x 10” or larger canvas and lay your grounds (mid-grey tone from Titanium White, Ultramarine Blue, and Burnt Sienna). Once that has finished drying—20 minutes or so depending on how thick the paint is/how cold or hot the weather is, etc.—draw the pitcher onto your canvas using a 2B or 3B pencil. Don’t push too hard—this is just a light sketch to help guide you through your painting. Recall our lesson Quick And Dirty Tricks For Getting Your Image Onto Canvas. Watch video #1 up to 3:43 to get through the sketch part.
The rest of video #1 (after 3:43) will guide you through the beginning steps of the painting. Remember to have your paints with you, whatever brushes you have (Will Kemp is using a size 6 filbert and size 10 round but you can really use any brush you have), your glazing medium, and of course the essentials: rags, water dish, palette, easel. Your paint colors don’t have to match exactly (remember—that’s why it’s art!). As a side note, Will mixes his paints with a palette knife. If you have a palette knife, great! If not, you can mix colors directly with your brush, just make sure not to get paint up underneath the ferrule (metal part) of your brush because that can damage the bristles.
In the video, Will Kemp has his palette standing upright next to his canvas. You do not have to do this! You can keep your palette flat on your table next to your easel and canvas setup…Will Kemp is doing this so that we can see his palette as he’s painting. He’s also talking a lot about warm and cool colors. If you have your color wheel that you made in Basic Color Theory, it’s helpful to have that around so you can follow along with Will Kemp as he discusses a little color theory in this video.
As he mixes his first color to paint with, he briefly mentions the very fine line between paints that are thin versus paints that are thick. Thinner paints are going to be a bit of translucent while thicker paints are more opaque. Will says, “it takes a bit of experimentation and really don’t underestimate how much of a difference it can make–from being too thin or too thick–can make a massive difference in the success of your painting.” Don’t worry too much about this. Will Kemp will walk you through it in the video and as he said, it takes some experimentation so the more you paint, the more it will start to make sense to you!
In the video, Will begins by painting in the darkest colors first. This is a good habit to get into! Start with your darkest colors to help establish value in your painting. If you start with light colors, it can be difficult to revise them and make them dark (remember when white is mixed with another color it becomes lighter). When you’re looking at your reference image to see the values, it helps if you close one eye and squint the other. Try it before you start painting. Don’t worry if your paint colors don’t match Will Kemp’s exactly. You will get better with practice and creating something that’s your very own is so unique and special—if we wanted exactness we’d all have paint-by-numbers kits in front of us!
When painting the bottom edge of the jug, Will brings up a very good point: remember not to flatten it out. This goes back to our earlier lesson Learning To Trust Your Eyes. We know logically that the bottom of the milk jug is flat, so our tendency is to paint it with a flat bottom, but if you really look at the photo, you can see that in fact the bottom edge is rounded. Paint what you see, not what you think you should see.
In the reference image, there’s a dark line on the table that runs diagonally through the painting. Will leaves this out, which brings up another excellent point: you don’t have to include everything you see in your painting. You are free to edit out things that you don’t find necessary to the composition, such as that line. Of course, if you want to paint it in, that’s up to you as the artist!
Don’t forget to keep your brush clean and damp. Rinse it off in your water dish when switching between colors and when it’s not being used. You may need to add small amounts of water to your brush as you’re painting so it doesn’t dry out. If the paint becomes difficult to move around you probably need to add a little water and/or glazing medium to your paint.
Acrylic still life painting for beginners – Part 2 of 3 by willkempartschool
If you’d like a transcript of what Will says in the video, it is available for viewing or download here: Milk Jug Part Two Closed Captions
As you did before, watch the video through once before you attempt to paint along with Will. Depending on how long it’s been since you finished Part One, you may need to lay out the paints on your palette again if they have dried out.
In this video, Will Kemp starts by adding in the background blue color. While it may not seem like the background is very important, remember that colors are affected by surrounding colors. If you paint your object (in this case, the milk jug) perfectly, then add the background in last, it will change how you see the milk jug. So it’s helpful to add the background into your painting fairly early on so that you can better judge color and value in your painting. In order to keep his blue background from being too overwhelming, he’s adding the complementary Burnt Sienna (just a touch) to the blue to neutralize it slightly. If he just used straight Ultramarine Blue, it would be too bright and come forward in the painting–not something you want for the background.
You’ll notice when he’s adding the paint in the background, he’s using a sort of scrubbing motion to apply the paint. His brush isn’t loaded with a ton of paint but just a little and by using that scrubbing motion with a slightly stiffer brush, he’s creating texture. Texture is a nice addition because it gives the painting some visual interest instead of it just being flat, solid colors. Also, by not using the exact same color blue throughout the background, Will is keeping his painting lively and interesting. The blue on the right side of the jug is slightly lighter than the blue on the left side of the jug and that helps us to understand the lighting in the scene. The light is shining from the right side of the milk jug, which is creating the dark shadows on the left side of the jug. By varying the tone in the background, it will feel more realistic.
Acrylic still life painting for beginners – Part 3 of 3 by willkempartschool
If you’d like a transcript of what Will says in the video, it is available for viewing or download here: Milk Jug Part Three Closed Captions
Watch once completely before trying to paint along.
In the third part of the video, Will is starting to add the warm tone of the jug using his Burnt Sienna paint. Around 2:40, he starts painting a lighter section of the milk jug. Notice that even though it’s lighter, he’s not adding white to his paint. This would dull the color down, but we want the color to still be nice and vibrant, so Will is only adding water to his paint to make it lighter.
Even at this stage of the painting, it’s still fairly loose–nothing is refined or has details yet. That all comes at the end! Remember it doesn’t have to be perfect from the get-go. You’ll refine it as you go, but retaining some of that looseness will make it look like a more professional painting than if you try to make every edge perfect or blend too much. Go to a museum and look at some paintings up close to see how many professional and famous artists leave their work fairly loose–even if it looks perfect from far away, chances are that up close the brush work is very loose.
At around 4:00, Will begins using a bit of glazing medium–he’s using Golden Glazing Liquid (gloss) and pours it directly onto his palette in a clean spot. Will thins down his Burnt Sienna paint with the glazing liquid and scrubs it in on top of the dark shadows he painted on the jug in the first video. The glazing medium makes the paint transparent so you can still see what’s underneath. This allows the Burnt Sienna to be affected by the color underneath it, making it darker without losing any of the vibrancy of the Burnt Sienna pigment.
To lighten up certain areas where the light hits the jug, Will adds a touch of Titanium White to his Burnt Sienna. Towards the center of the jug, there is a shadow. To mix that color, Will uses some of his dark mix from earlier and adds Burnt Sienna and a bit of Ultramarine Blue to cool it down. Scrub this into the darker areas you see on the jug. You will notice that as Will works on this shadow section, he continues to mix new paint and keeps adding Ultramarine Blue to his mix in order to achieve nice, soft transitions between the shadow colors. Remember as you continue to paint to keep looking at your reference photo! Paint what you see, not what you think you should see. This is the best way to ensure success with your painting. Refine any parts of your drawing that don’t look quite right; add darks where you see them using your mix of Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna.
The front edge of the milk jug has some reflected light on it and Will paints this in by adding a bit of Titanium White to his Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna paint mixture. If at any time you feel confused about how to mix a color that you see in the reference photo, take your best guess and then hold your paintbrush up to the photo to see how accurate it is. Really look at the two colors next to each other and try to determine what you need to add to get your paint color closer to what you see–does it need more white? Should it be cooler in tone? Add blue. Should it be warmer? Add brown. If it’s too light, wash out your brush and try again with less white. It’s a bit of a guessing game in the beginning but trust me–it gets easier.
At the very end, you can add in your highlights using pure Titanium White. Because all the other light areas you’ve painted have been toned down slightly with your blue and brown, pure white will stand out and really make those shiny parts pop!
Knowing When To Stop
The key to a successful painting is knowing when to stop! Fussing too much will only make your paint muddy and the overall painting appear overworked. It’s really difficult to know when to stop painting, so here are a few tips:
- Move your painting to another area. Take it off your easel and prop it up in another room in the house. You won’t have the temptation of brushes and paint in another room so you can view the painting more objectively.
- Give it time. Sometimes you need a day or two to look at the painting before you see something you want to change.
- Ask opinions. Get the opinion of someone else. Do they think it looks finished? This can be hard to ask of someone else–as artists, we often feel very vulnerable doing this. Sometimes, though, it’s best to get the fresh eyes of someone who hasn’t been looking at the painting for a long time because they’ll notice something that you overlooked because you were focused on another piece of the work. Be brave, ask for opinions, and have confidence in your work!
All artists struggle with the idea of when a painting is finished. Here are a few notable quotes on the subject, just for fun:
“When something is finished, that means it’s dead, doesn’t it? I believe in everlastingness. I never finish a painting – I just stop working on it for a while” – Arshile Gorky
“To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow the coup de grace for the painter as well as for the picture” – Pablo Picasso
“How do you complete a painting, really? There are paintings by so many different artists that are interesting precisely because they haven’t really been completed” – Peter Doig
“Do not finish your work too much. An impression is not sufficiently durable for its first freshness to survive a belated search for infinite detail; in this way you let the lava grow cool…” – Paul Gauguin
“It is difficult to stop in time because one gets carried away. But I have that strength; it is the only strength I have” – Claude Monet
When you’ve finished your painting, share it with us! Take a photo and send it to us using our submission form.
Next lesson: Exercise Two: Lemon