Pears in a Basket watercolour

Pears in a Basket, watercolour on Langton Prestige NOT watercolour paper, (30x42cm)

Practise your still life watercolour painting and learn how to paint pears in a basket, step-by-step, with Amanda Cooper.

Top tips for still life composition

Still life, or nature morte, forms the basis for all drawing and composition. The sheer unpredictability of shapes means that they can be interpreted in a multitude of styles and media.

The art of converting three-dimensional shapes onto a two-dimensional surface is all part of the challenge and translates directly into landscape painting as well.

It does not matter how simple the subject – anything goes – from the contents of your kitchen to an old pair of trainers. Van Gogh painted his boots in search of reality, to find the essence of a comparatively mundane object and make it visually interesting.

I once mentioned that still life was about making an inanimate object look alive, and one lady of a certain age quipped: I do that every morning when I look in the mirror!

Still life set up

Garlic and Ladle, watercolour, (52x36cm). The most difficult thing about this painting was the ladle. Metal is never easy and often works best as a combination of all the other colours. It is the tone that matters, not the colour. In this case, it was useful to have drawn the vital areas of light and dark, as these can inadvertently be painted over by which time it is too late. I always make an area of light on everything, even if I have to invent one – but just remember that your light source must come from the same angle. It will look odd if you have a white light on the left side of one apple and the right side of another.

A glance into the wonderful chaos of your garden shed or tool box will tell a hundred stories, and there are ways of grouping objects to make them look quite naturalistic, if it is not possible to set up in the actual shed. Over the years I have amassed an impressive array of defunct household items, all in the name of still life.

When selecting objects to draw, try not to be over-sentimental or controlling. Most people tend to gather together far too many objects and colours, but a selection of similar objects can be extremely effective, including hats, bags, jugs, vegetables and foodstuffs of every kind. The list is endless and the more unpredictable the subject, the more fun it makes the whole exercise.

The moment that you turn a saucepan on its side, you will be amazed at how your brain fights it and almost tries to ‘right’ it subconsciously. The same brain games occur if you suspend things from the ceiling or turn pots upside down. This is why we have to rid ourselves of preconceived ideas of shape and form, and let our hand do the talking.

Rope and bucket

Rope Trick, sepia pen and French ultramarine wash, (80x60cm)

Ellipses and planes

Apple sketch

Watercolour diagram of an apple with the planes shown as arrows

Almost all objects are made up of ellipses and planes, which are a great help in drawing. Planes are the straight lines that you see which, when joined together go to make up a curve, rather like the new pound coin except you don’t want a pointed corner on an apple. Your curve will be 100 per cent better if you construct it from a variety of straight lines, which in the end become round as demonstrated in this picture of an apple. Try drawing an apple using a ruler!

Pembroke Table with Apples and Pot

Pembroke Table with Apples and Pot, watercolour, (35x45cm).  I always want to give the impression that the fruit could roll off the page at any moment. Never put your pot – in other words, the one and only upright – in the centre page.

Paint the ordinary

Straw bags

Spanish Straw Bags, watercolour, (60x42cm). This arrangement in an Andalusian farmhouse was just begging to be done. It goes without saying that the best still lifes are often lurking unobtrusively on the sidelines, waiting to be noticed like a wallflower at a party. Fabric and folds feature regularly in still-life painting and achieving the right tones can be challenging. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, the drawing is crucial – a rather general swoosh of a brush is not usually quite enough.

The everyday trappings of life always appeal to me and that is the key to enjoying and engaging with any still life. A vase given to you by your mother or bought on holiday in Corfu is going to hold meaning for both artist and audience. No one is looking for picture perfect. Better by far to have character and an element of mystery in your work, as this will give far more satisfaction.

We need to be interested in order to be interesting and if I may use a quotation from Georgia O’Keeffe? ‘It was in the 1920s when nobody had time to reflect, that I saw a still-life painting with a flower that was perfectly exquisite, but so small you really could not appreciate it.’

Demonstration: Pears in a Basket

Top tips before you begin:
  • Make a habit of completing a tiny thumbnail sketch before you begin, as it will help with composition. We always think we can trust our eye, but you will be amazed how much the thumbnail exposes our weaknesses.
  • Make your main drawing as large as you can on the best quality paper that you can afford. It is a shame to do a nice drawing then find that your paper is not up to the job of accepting paint.
  • Fill the page with the drawing. It is helpful to begin in the middle with key shapes and work outwards rather than draw a little table then end up with an even smaller bowl of fruit in the middle.

Pears in a basket photo

Reference photograph of the studio set-up