Milly England demonstrates a still-life of fruit and vegetables in gouache, with advice on achieving bright, fresh colour and realistic textures.

Plant-based Smörgåsbord, gouache on Botanical Ultra Smooth HP, (32x26cm)

'I find such joy in painting fruit and vegetables,' says Milly. 'The combination of the colours, shapes, texture and shine can be quite a challenge, but the end result is always a bright, cheerful and mouth-watering sight.

'For this study I set up a chopping board piled with fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts, with hummus and sundried tomatoes in blue-and-white bowls to add a splash of blue. I was careful to arrange the foods in groups of colour, running from red to yellow to green. I’m a stickler for colour coordination so I quite like the effect this gives but having the colours all mixed up would also look great!

Reference photo

'I photograph a lot of my flat lay on A1 mountboard covered in wallpaper that resembles washed-out wood panels – this gives a clean background finish. It’s light and off-white but with a little detail so as not to look dull; it’s also perfect to offset this kind of detailed subject, and allows me to concentrate on the actual items. I worked quite quickly and took the photos very soon after slicing to make sure I captured the freshly-cut fruit glistening in the light. This means that the finished painting looks fresh, abundant and nutritious. After balancing the crackers and giving the hummus an artistic swirl, I was ready to go!

'I taped my paper to an upright drawing board using masking tape – no need to stretch the paper as I used the gouache quite dry so no chance of wrinkling. As an Illustrator I usually have to send my work digitally. I find that I get much better reproduction of colour and texture by photographing it rather than scanning. I use my Olympus Pen E-PL9 to do this and am always delighted with the results.'

Top tips for working with gouache

  • Block out the colours and shapes across the painting first using very watered-down gouache.
  • Gouache dries matte (as opposed to acrylic, which dries with a sheen) and layers beautifully – remember this when adding colour. By layering the paint you will create more depth and a lovely richness.
  • This is quite a complicated painting. Although small, it took some time to complete because of the level of detail, so if you like to see progress quickly, work on the most striking parts – in this case the blue patterned bowl on the left.
  • Use a muslin cloth as you work to blot the paint and then add more paint on top to give a sense of depth – such as the seeds on the crackers.
  • Paint what you see – where the shadow in the photo is black, paint it black, not a washed-out grey or charcoal. The definition of the shadows will lift the other elements.
  • Don’t be afraid to use colour – I wanted the gorgeous bright tones to jump out and create an appetizing feast on the paper. The Holbein opera gouache really helped with the radish, passion fruit and pomegranate.
  • If you’re unsure how something is going to dry, test it out on another sheet of paper first (although the beauty of gouache is that you can paint over your mistakes!)
  • Rub out your pencil lines as you go, before layering too much paint on them.
  • Pick out the light with bright white paint at the end.


Demonstration: Plant-based Smörgåsbord