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Emma's Lavender Bear, (21x16cm)
Emma's Lavender Bear, (21x16cm)

How to paint a simple watercolour still life


Fiona Peart - Posted on 17 May 2011

A Simple Still Life

A still life is one of the simplest subjects to choose: you can set up exactly what you want to paint and take as long as you like to paint it; the subject doesn’t move; and the lighting can be controlled. However, the key to success is in keeping it as uncomplicated as possible.
A still life doesn’t mean endless drapes or beautiful objects, but can comprise the simplest of items. I chose to paint a teddy bear, because so many of us have fond memories of such a toy. Or perhaps you have children or grandchildren, who would love to have a painting of a favourite toy, especially as a keepsake when they are older.

Easy arrangements

Consider the following when setting up your own still life:
  • Position your subject in natural daylight. If this is not possible, use an angle-poise light.
  • Place a white sheet underneath and behind the toy. This will keep the background simple and cover up any possible clutter.
  • Having your subject in front of you is the easiest option. If you are unable to leave your subject in situ while you complete the painting, work from a photograph instead.

How to draw from life

Try closing one eye when you are drawing from real objects. This flattens the subject. Then look at your subject like a simple shaped jigsaw puzzle. Don’t worry if it’s not completely accurate, you will draw better with practice.

How to draw from a photograph

First, print off your photograph in colour, then photocopy it in black and white and enlarge it to the size you will be painting. You can now either copy it by hand, or trace the outlines onto your watercolour paper.

Think about the frame

If you intend to frame this picture, choose a ready-made frame that includes a mount. Before you begin to paint, place the mount onto the watercolour paper, allowing space all the way around it. Use a 2B pencil to draw lightly around the inside of the mount onto your watercolour paper – this will be the final size of your painting. In this way you know the painting will be the size you need for the frame. Use a square or rectangular frame, but the mount could be round, oval, square or rectangular. The picture need not be the same shape as the photograph. Take your time deciding on this.


Leave plenty of space around the subject so you can see all the shadows (see below). You need not include all this space in your painting. Consider turning your subject so that it isn’t square on.

Place a sheet of white paper to reflect the light from the window onto the right side of the bear. Notice how much brighter the photograph appears (see below). There are still lovely contrasts to be seen, but not a very dark half and a very bright half.
Teddy Bear for painting a still life

Techniques to practice

Dropping in

Dropping in painting technique

This is when wet paint is dropped into a wet area, allowing the colours to merge together naturally. Use: background and the surface of the bear.

Teasing out


While the section of paint remains wet, the embossing tool (or cocktail stick) is used to flick out the paint thereby creating a fur like edge. Use: the entire outline of the bear.


1 A stippling brush is needed to apply the paint onto a dry surface. The brush is held upright and dabbed onto the paper: the wetter the brush, the bigger the blobs of paint; the dryer the brush, the finer the texture. Use: all over the bear.

2 Additional dry layers are added over the stippling to create even more texture.

Colour mixing

  • It is easier to combine fewer colours within a painting than to use too many.
  • Once two colours have been mixed together, the colour can then be changed on the paper by dropping another colour – or more of one of the initial colours – in while it is still wet.
  • Choose the best colour combination for the bear you have, unless you are using my picture.

Ultramarine + burnt sienna

Violet + raw sienna

Ultramarine and cadmium scarlet

Fiona's Top Tips

  • Watercolour always dries lighter than it appears when wet.
  • If you want a more yellow or honey-coloured bear, use mainly raw sienna with just a touch of burnt sienna, and mainly violet to drop in.
  • If you’re stippling near the edge, use a piece of paper as a mask to cover any sections you want to avoid stippling onto. A curved edge can be created by tearing a piece of paper into the shape that you need.
  • To create a softer edge, lightly wet the paper before adding the colour, wet into wet.

If you would like to follow Fiona's step-by-step instructions for painting Emma's Lavender Bear, click here to purchase the July 2011 issue of Leisure Painter.

Every month Leisure Painter is full of practical instruction like this for beginners and improving artists. Save money with a subscription and get all of the step-by-step demonstrations from Fiona and others delivered to your door every 4 weeks!

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