A Guide to Painting a Still Life like Matisse
In their comprehensive painting primer, How to Paint: A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Watercolors, Acrylics, and Oils, artists Angela Gair and Ian Sidaway share step-by-step exercises to help beginner and aspiring painters learn painting techniques and hone their skills. Below, we share an excerpt from the book’s new edition, on using the historic painting technique known as “alla prima” to portray a still life.
The French painter
once declared, “To copy the objects in a still life is nothing. One must render the emotions they awaken.”
Matisse’s ideas on using color and design to communicate feelings about a subject are evident in his paintings. Speed and brilliant color are the keynotes of this work, which expresses the joy he felt through color and the very act of painting.
This picture by artist Kay Gallwey was painted in the alla prima manner—that is to say, completed in one session, without any preliminary underpainting. Working alla prima requires confidence, but it is very liberating—the idea is to work rapidly and intuitively, using the brush freely to express your instinctive response to your subject.
The alla prima technique
The Italian expression “alla prima,” meaning “at the first,” describes a painting that is completed in a single session. It also describes a direct method of working, in which each brushstroke is applied decisively and left alone; the colors are applied directly onto the painting surface, often without a preliminary underdrawing or underpainting.
Acrylic paints are ideally suited to this type of painting because they can be used thickly—straight from the tube—or diluted with water for wash-like effects. And because acrylics dry so quickly, you can apply one color over another within just a few minutes, without fear of disturbing the color beneath.
An alla prima painting normally has a certain amount of untouched white canvas, because the brushstrokes are applied freely without modification or any attempt at precision. (This can be seen in the demonstration painting that follows.) The combination of expressive brushwork and glints of unpainted canvas gives the painting a verve and energy that is very appealing. Just as a quick sketch often has more immediacy and vigor than a fully worked drawing, an alla prima painting can convey the artist’s emotional response to a subject better than a more deliberate studio painting.
Alla prima painting requires a confident approach, so it is important to start out with a clear idea of what you want to convey in your painting and dispense with inessential elements that do not contribute to that idea. It is best to stick to a limited range of colors so as to avoid complicated color mixing that might inhibit the spontaneity of your brushwork.
Painting a still life alla prima
Materials and equipment:
- Sheet of canvas, canvas board, or hardboard (Masonite) primed with acrylic primer
- Soft hair round brush or charcoal stick
- Bristle brushes: large and medium
- Acrylic colors: Naphthol Crimson, Cadmium Scarlet, Azo Yellow Medium, Hooker’s Green, Light Green Oxide, Cobalt Blue, Prism Violet, Cadmium Orange, Raw Umber
1. Sketch out the main outlines of the composition using either thinned paint and a round soft hair brush, as here, or a stick of charcoal. Soft charcoal allows you to erase mistakes, but you should “knock back” the drawn lines by rubbing away the excess charcoal dust with a cloth to prevent it from mixing with the paint and muddying the colors.
2. Mix together Naphthol Crimson and Cadmium Scarlet and dilute to a fairly thin consistency with water. Use a large flat bristle brush to block in the red backcloth. Leave the patterned areas of the cloth and the “window” unpainted.
3. Paint the two lemons with Azo Yellow Medium leaving a sliver of white canvas just inside the drawn outlines. With the same color, block in the yellow floral pattern on the backcloth. Paint the flower foliage and the leaves in the window with Hooker’s Green. Roughly block in the vase with light green oxide overlaid with Hooker’s Green in the darker parts.
4. Paint the pattern on the plate with thin Cobalt Blue and a medium-sized flat bristle brush. Quickly wash in the sky outside the window with Cobalt Blue and white. Mix Prism Violet and Cobalt Blue for the flowers in the vase and the blue pattern on the backcloth. Add the pattern on the vase with quick strokes of cadmium orange.
5. Paint the visible areas of the wooden table top with thinly diluted Raw Umber. Before the paint dries, draw undulating lines into it quickly with your thumbnail. This gives a suggestion of wood grain and also adds to the decorative effect of the painting.
6. Add curving strokes of Cadmium Orange to the tops of the lemons to give a suggestion of form. Finally, use fairly diluted Cobalt Blue and Prism Violet to complete the linear details of the painting, such as the pattern on the vase and the linear pattern, folds, and creases on the backcloth.