Still life with flowers

The brief for this exercise was to set up a simple still life and to ‘try to create interesting and varied spaces and intervals between the objects’ in the arrangement.


My personal aims for the painting were to work on a larger scale (A2) and have a bolder viewpoint than I have tried before. To achieve this I hoped to crop in and exaggerate the size of the still life arrangement.


My initial starting point was a bunch of pale pink tulips which I thought would work against a bolder colour for the background. I chose the vase and the bottle because they both had a similar, muted colour though differing in texture.

My aim was to have the main objects in relatively neutral colours to contrast with the background colour of the curtains and patterns and textures of the tulips and the tablecloth. The teacup contained a pink candle but I wanted to paint this as if it was a cup of herbal or fruit tea – something with a splash of colour to balance the picture.

Initial option for still life arrangement

Initial option for still life arrangement

After some initial arrangements viewed from standing and seated positions I liked the potential of Option 1. At this stage I liked the curve of the tulip hanging over the vase on the right and the way this led the eye towards the teacup.

Another viewpoint for still life arangement

Trying out different viewpoints

For Option 2 I moved around the table and felt that the arrangement worked better with the corner of the table in the background which gave a greater sense of depth

Final version of still life arrangement

Final version of still life arrangement

By the next day the tulips had perked up. I liked the dynamic of the leaves and flowers – creating a sense of movement upwards and liked idea of cropping the top of the flowers. I also, at this stage, played with the idea of cropping in the whole composition more and having the objects aligned to the left of the picture.

Preparatory Drawings and Colour Study

My aim for the painting was to create something on a larger scale than I am used to and to be bolder with the viewpoint than I had been for Assignment 1. After some initial thumbnail sketches in my sketchbook I worked on a more detailed line drawing.

Line drawing for still life

Line drawing for still life

Tonal study for still life

Tonal study for still life

I then worked on a tonal study. Daylight was coming from the left through the patio doors but I had to work with the overhead light on given the darkness of some of the days. This meant there was also light coming from above right.  For the tonal study I moved the cup more towards the left and exaggerated its size a little.

Colour study for still life

Colour study for still life

Finally I worked on a quick colour study blocking in the darker terracotta of the curtains and contrasting pale beige colours of the central objects.

Colours used:

  • Titanium white, Naples yellow, raw umber, burnt sienna, yellow ochre, cadmium red deep, permanent rose, cadmium yellow, opaque oxide of chromium (green), ultramarine blue.


  • Daler-Rowney, long flat, 3/4″, Daler-Rowney, short flat,  1/2″, Pro Arte 3/8″, Daler-Rowney round 4.

Initial Development

Initial development of painting

Initial development

After drawing the image in paint onto A2 cartridge paper I covered the background using a pale wash of burnt sienna. Having looked at the preparatory drawings I decided to centre the composition. I blocked in the main objects and, as I didn’t know how long the tulips would last, I focused on working up the detail on them. I had liked the idea of the contrast of the dark terracotta of the curtain and the pale pink of the tulips but as I worked on this I felt that the flowers were getting lost as I didn’t find it easy to convey the different petals with so subtle a colour.

Tulips and Background

Work on background and main objects

Work on background and main objects

For the next few sessions I focused on the flowers and development of bottle and vase. After a bit of work I decided to use more colour in the tulips as I couldn’t seem to bring out the detail of them with the pale pink.

I worked over the pale pink with thicker titanium white to create more of an impasto effect representing the petals. I then used a wash of cadmium red as well as a mix of cadmium red and ultramarine blue to great more of a splash of colour and more depth. Using opaque oxide of chromium (green), cadmium yellow and white I developed the detail of the leaves – trying to maintain the sense of upward movement.

At this stage I realised that there was something wrong with the shapes of the vase and the bottle. They looked as if they were leaning on one another for support and, using pencil, I played around with the ellipses and main shapes. I also decided that the colours of the bottle and vase were too close and decided to paint the bottle in a darker colour for contrast.

The curtains were overwhelming the background and, having concentrated so much on the foreground, I had literally lost sight of the patio doors and the back garden. I blocked in the area to the left to start to address this.

Development – Background, Bottle and Vase

Work on background of still life

Work on background of still life

At this point I tried to focus on alternating between the background and the foreground and being more aware of the balance needed between them. I felt that the background looked wrong – as if the curtains were going round a corner – and decided to paint the right-hand side as a wall. This was, initially, a pale purple to complement the green of the leaves but, unsure if it looked right, I rubbed this off.

In the foreground I blocked in more of the vase and the teacup and made the tablecloth slightly paler to contrast with the main objects.

 Development – Background, Vase, Teacup and Tablecloth

Development of main objects

Development of main objects

In this session I was trying to maintain a sense of balance between the background and foreground. I added a more neutral colour for the wall while I considered how to resolve this area. I then started working on the detail of  the garden, tablecloth, vase and teacup. The vase was difficult –  I was trying to convey the texture of the ceramic rings and didn’t want it to look as if it was a pattern of flat, painted stripes. After some initial work and the addition of some shadow I felt that, overall, it still looked as if it was on a slant.

I also worked on the teacup – trying to suggest the pattern rather than being too detailed and distracting the eye.

The curtain has a textured pattern and I considered adding this in but decided that it might conflict with the shapes and patterns of the tulips, the tablecloth and the teacup.

Development – Background, Tablecloth and Teacup

Development of background and main objects

Development of background and main objects

After blocking in the wall on the right with paler colours I decided to be bold and introduce a darker purple shade to complement the curtains and bring out the flowers. I felt that it worked better than the paler colours and decided to add some more detail to the garden and not add much more to the background.

I built up more detail of the tablecloth and worked more on the teacup. Again, I felt that the ellipses weren’t right but found it difficult to know how to sort it.

Final session

Final version of still life with flowers

Final version of still life with flowers

For the final session I added a little more detail to the garden and added a wash of shadow on the wall to the right.

I also added shadows around the base of the objects. I tried different colours for this – more terracotta and then a darker grey-blue. Initially I used a wash of these colours but it appeared streaky on the paper. I added a small amount of titanium white to the grey-blue mix but this seemed too heavy and I removed some of this to create a mottled effect.

I worked on the shadows again the next day using burnt sienna, titanium white and a touch of ultramarine to create a darker colour than the tablecloth. I used this around the vase and teacup and a slightly paler version for the shadow of the bottle.

To finish I worked on the tulip hanging over the vase and added more shadow to the right of the vase.

At this stage I decided to consider the painting complete. It isn’t exactly as I envisaged it but to get to this stage (including setting up and initial drawings) had taken about 20 hours. Given that some of the issues with it (the shape of the vase and bottle) were in the initial structure I felt that it was better to stop and reflect on what had worked – and what had not – and use that knowledge in the following exercises.

 Learning Points

In terms of achieving the brief I think that I should, perhaps, have considered the negative shapes and spaces between the objects more. The arrangement focuses more on the vertical and I was concentrating on this – with the eye moving from the tulips in the vase, through the flower hanging over the vase and this, in turn, leading to the cup and bottle.

If redoing the exercise I would:

  • Be more careful with initial drawing in paint – it’s hard to retrieve if this is wrong to begin with
  • Think carefully about the background as well as the foreground
  • Consider using paper with a rougher texture – felt the cartridge paper was perhaps too smooth
  • Shadows – look at other people’s work for ideas on how to approach

On the plus side…

  • I worked on a larger size than usual
  • I tried to create a bolder point of view
  • I liked the texture and colours of the tulips and the reflections in the bottle
  • Felt that I conveyed a sense of depth

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