Still Life Oil Painting Made Easy: A Simple Step by Step Tutorial

still life oil painting made easy

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Want to strengthen your skillset as an oil still life painter? Want to build the confidence to showcase your work within your home or display them in gallery shows (ready to sell)?

Like any ‘problem’ or ‘issue’ you face, creating accurate oil renditions of your subject matter requires that you break down each step into easy-to-digest, actionable parts.

So where do you start?

Below, you’ll find out the simple steps, tips and tricks you can utilize to make oil painting still life process as easy as possible, but the first question we should address is:

What Makes An Artwork A Still Life Oil Painting?

A still life is any work portraying a simple subject that’s inanimate, or without life. The French call it nature morte, or “dead nature.” (Morbid, I know!)

But don’t let the name deter you. They can include anything from fruit, to flowers, to random objects around your house, and can even hold symbolic significance (when paired with a skull for example – meaning death or mortality).

An oil still life is painted with oils, which can either be water-soluble or require a mixing medium. (If you are just starting out, I recommend using water-soluble, although this article will make it the original method easy).

Now that you know what components make up a still life, it’s time to:

still life oil painting for beginners

Gather Your Materials

Before you start, here’s what you’re going to need to produce an oil still life portrayal:

what makes an art work a still life oil painting

Brainstorming Still Life Ideas:

Now that you’ve gathered your materials, let’s get into the meat of the subject: what do you paint?

We can gather inspiration from anywhere (I love searching through Pinterest for ideas)…but take a moment to look at the things around your house.

Is there anything that sticks out to you?

An old ceramic coffee cup? A reflective glass? A fluffy pillow? Something of sentimental value?

(Here’s a list of some drawing ideas for beginners.)

The bottom line is: find objects that you find interesting, and it will be a direct reflection of you as the artist.

Now that’s you’ve got a general idea of what you’d like to include in your artwork, here’s how to get the ball rolling:

painting still life
Jorge Paz – Still Life

Construct a Beautiful Oil Painting Still Life in 8 Simple Steps

Step 1: Put Together A Strong Composition

Composition is how you arrange your subjects in an interesting or unique way while adhering to art and design principles.

To assemble a strong composition, consider these tips:

  • Make use of interesting textures and colors.
  • Stray from centering your subject dead-center of the page. See: rule of thirds or the golden ratio in art.
  • Use a strong light source to build heavy contrast between your highlights, lowlights, and shadows.
  • Position a strong focal point.

Step 2: Prep Your Painting Surface

Why should you prep your surface?

The canvases we typically see in our local art supply shop are cotton-made, meaning paints absorb easily into the material…

This absorption causes the oil to “halo” and spread out, forever damaging your surface ground..

prep your painting surface
Real example of oil ‘spreading’ onto the cotton surface (causing discoloration) (Source)

So, what do you do to combat this?

Apply a few layers of Acrylic Gesso or use a Size (a type of glue such as PVA) to seal your art surface (especially if it’s cotton).

If you are a new oil painter, we recommend sticking with Acrylic Gesso for its simplicity and effectiveness, but each option prevents accidents and better preserves your paint.

Step 3: Place a Sketch and Underpainting

After you’ve arranged your subject matter into a strong composition and have prepped your surface, the next step is to set your sketch and underpainting.

Your sketch requires that you observe your subject matter very closely; take note of form, shadows, and distances between objects.

Tip: There’s no need to add unnecessary details here (as you’ll be painting over the sketch anyway).

Using Charcoal to Sketch Your Subject Matter:

This is a technique used by many artists, novel or professional…

…but as you’re probably aware, charcoal is notorious for getting everywhere when you use it: be it your hands, clothes, or face.

So why would you use it?

The simple reason is to sketch in depth and understand your shadows and lights before putting any actual paint down onto the art surface.

This method gives an overall idea of how your final painting will look.

beginner easy still life painting

To seal it, spray a layer of spray-on mod-podge over your final drawing to prevent the charcoal from further spreading and muddying your paints (a few layers should do).

Starting Your Underpainting:

It’s not absolutely necessary to begin with a charcoal sketch. In fact, you can skip it altogether by starting with your underpainting.

With underpainting, you’re essentially doing the same thing as you would with a piece of charcoal. The difference is that you’re using a paintbrush and oil paints instead.

You can also use your underpainting (your first layer) as an opportunity to wash the whole art surface down with a thin coat of paint in the colors burnt umber, yellow, or burnt sienna to fill the white space.

Using these colors warms your painting and creates coherence throughout the piece as you progress.

starting your underpainting
Rita Kirkman – Celestia

Step 4: Identify Light Sources and Start Adding Values To The Forms

When painting an oil still life, what differentiates a polished, finished painting and its opposite is how you execute light and shadow throughout your piece.

Using a strong light source reinforces where your highlights, lowlights, and shadows are going to be.

easy oil painting
Adding value to the forms: from underpainting to the final product (Source)

Artist tip: Further deepen the depth and intensity of those shadows by using blue and purple hues inside even your darkest shades (like black or brown).

If you want to understand depth in further detail, this free mini course below shows you step by step how you can execute depth and volume in your art.

>> Find Out How To Easily Mimic Depth and Volume in Your Art

Step 5: Oil Pigment: Choose and Mix Colors

choose and mix colors

Choosing Your Color Palette:

We can match our palette to reflect the colors we see in our still life, or we can adjust the colors to fit into a particular theme.

For example, if you want to use a certain item in your house but the color of that object clashes negatively with the other items you’ve chosen, you can change the color of that object better to match those items (and color theme).

Which is Better: A Range of Ready-Made Colors or a Limited Color Palette?

Another important factor to consider when painting with oils is, do I use a limited color palette?

A limited color palette can maintain a sense of unity throughout your piece, and makes color mixing a simple and easy operation.

Here are a few common examples, and why they may or may not work for you.

easy fruit still life
Zorn Palette Still Life by Marlene Lee
  • The Zorn Palette consists of yellow ochre, vermilion (or cadmium red), ivory black, and white. This palette excludes using cool colors, so your shadows won’t have much depth. While commonly used in portrait painting, it is also fun to try with still life.
beginner still life painting
Ingrid Christensen (Source)
  • Palette’s which consist of one warm pigment and one cool (plus white). This provides good contrast, but blending the cool and warm colors can easily muddy the paint.
easy still life painting ideas
Ingrid Christensen (Source)
  • Black and white, plus one other color for a monochromatic palette. Beautiful transitions between colors, but depending on the color, but creating your object without it blending into the background is more difficult.

Artist tip: What’s important in a still life is not exactness, but likeness, especially in shadows, form, and texture.

Mixing Your Colors:

There are several color-mixing techniques oil painters utilize when creating their still-life paintings.

You can mix your colors on your palette (recommended beginner method), or you can blend directly onto the cotton surface as you paint

Blending paint directly onto your art surface does pose its risks. Mixing too much into wet paint can make your colors muddy and dull.

When you mix colors on your color palette, use several color variations for subtle transitions to help mimic the look of soft blending:

Step 6: Block-in Your Shapes

Blocking-in in painting consists of filling your forms with a thin, often translucent, layer of color.

This helps you lay down the general composition of your work and helps you to figure out your piece’s color harmonies (without having to worry about the tedious details.)

Block-in your shapes is not wholly necessary, but it will make the entire painting process much easier.

block in your shapes
Take subtle consideration of your light and dark areas (Source)

Step 7: Build Up The Colors of Your Oils (Using the Fat Over Lean Technique)

The fat over lean technique is the #1 oil art technique you must learn about and be aware of.

Essentially, painting fat over lean means that with each progressive layer, you add a little more mixing medium to your paint and repeat this build-up until you reach your final layer.

build up the colors of your oils
Image depicts mixing oil paint with a mixing medium

You might be wondering: do I have to use the fat-over-lean technique?

No one will hold you down and force you to use this painting method, but as a novice painter, it’s best to start with the F-O-L technique to ensure you produce a high quality, vibrant artwork that doesn’t crack over time.

The fat-over-lean technique is useful if you decide to layer your oil paints, but if you want to attempt to produce the painting in one go, consider…

Alla Prima

The term for painting without letting layers dry (wet-on-wet painting) is called Alla Prima.

The famous artist Bob Ross primarily used this method for his landscapes, but you can use this technique for any subject matter: whether it be portraits, still life’s, or otherwise.

beginner still life reference

Step 8: Seal Your Work + Do Oil Artworks Last Forever?

There’s no question about whether you should seal your work once you finish up your final layer.

A varnish seal will further enhance the colors in your artwork, protect your painting from smoke, dust, and other encounters, and will help your painting last a lifetime.

If you’re looking for a glossy, colorless, non-yellowing, highly resistant topcoat, I’d recommend Gamblin Gamvar Picture Varnish (apply after at least 6 months).

If you want a matte finish, I recommend a spray-on varnish alternative like Liquitex Professional Spray Varnish.

You can find a more in-depth tutorial on how to varnish your oil artwork here.

As for the question, do oil artworks last forever? There are plenty of artworks displayed in museums that date back hundreds of years ago. With the proper care (using that varnish I mentioned before – wink, wink), your painting will last generations.

oil painting still life


Why Paint A Still Life?

Whether you want to express your feelings, improve your skillset, or produce a work you’re proud to list for sale, there are such important lessons to be learned painting from life or reference..

Creating a still life painting:

  • Increases your focus and observational skills
  • Makes you more aware of small details you might have otherwise overlooked
  • Boosts your ability to paint in a 3-dimensional space
  • Improves your focus and skills when using oil paints as a medium
  • Increases your ability to paint distance, shapes, shadows, and the illusion of depth; which you can apply to any of your future art endeavors

Short Intro to Contemporary Still Lives:

What I have revealed so far details realistic renditions, but a contemporary still life can be made to look any way you desire.

Basic rules like fat-over-lean, awareness of shape and form, and composition still apply, but in terms of realism, contemporary works break the standard.

Here’s a couple of examples:

simple still life
An artwork by Alec Egan (I love the use of pattern here)

Experiment with either style to find which you prefer (but oftentimes, every artist starts with a realistic rendition).

oil painting images for beginners
A still life by Pedro Pedro

The Final Countdown

In this blog post, you’ve found out the tips, tricks, and knowledge that’ll help you construct realistic oil paintings of your subject matter.

Everything listed here is everything I had to learn on my own, but the ultimate goal in creating this article was for you to avoid the trouble I went through (so, make sure to bookmark this tutorial when you want a refresher.)

The only thing left to do is pull out your canvas and get started.

And, if you want to learn to paint still life’s with guided instruction, I highly recommend you check out Evolve artist.


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