Wet on Wet Oil Painting With a Limited Palette - How to Paint a Still Life Step-by-Step

Updated on December 30, 2019
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she's learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

In This Article

  • Step-by-Step still-life oil painting completed in one session or alla prima.
  • Video showing the painting process and how to chose the colors of the limited tetrad palette.
  • Description of each step and the thinking behind it.

An article describing the process to complete a still life oil painting in one session, featuring a short video that shows the painting process, including how I chose the colors in the tetrad limited palette.
An article describing the process to complete a still life oil painting in one session, featuring a short video that shows the painting process, including how I chose the colors in the tetrad limited palette. | Source

The Subject

The simple still life that I painted wet on wet during this demonstration.
The simple still life that I painted wet on wet during this demonstration. | Source

What Is the Alla Prima Painting Process?

Alla prima is an Italian term that literally means “at the first." Its definition is a painting completed in one session by applying the paint wet-in-wet. This is my favorite way of painting, but it did take me a while to feel comfortable with it.

Steps of the Wet-on-Wet Painting Process

The painting process can be divided into the following steps:

1. Start by toning your support.

2. Wipe away the lights.

3. Draw with paint.

4. Create a loose underpainting.

5. Add strokes to fill bigger shapes.

6. Add details and texture.

Watch: Time Lapse of the Painting Process With Explanation of the Color Choice

When I hesitate, I do not paint.

When I paint, I do not hesitate.

— Jean-Paul Riopelle

Beware of Mud

The tricky part about wet-on-wet is that you risk that the different layers of paint mix on the support while you paint on, which can end up with a muddy look.

A direct, unfussy application of brushstrokes will avoid this problem.

The great advantage of this style is the freshness and spontaneity of the finished artwork.

How to Keep it Fresh and Minimize Mud

When working alla prima, the blending of paint on the support should be kept to a minimum. Do so only with very specific aims in mind.

  • For example, I blend paint when I paint a sky because I don’t want hard edges in it, especially at the beginning stage of the painting.
  • In still life, though you want some lost edges, try to apply brushstrokes and leave them alone.
  • Don’t go over correcting them or blending. Spend a little more time making sure you are mixing the correct colors. Then, apply it and let it be.
  • If a color is totally wrong, you can always correct it later on in the painting. In the beginning, have no fear of mistakes—just keep applying your carefully mixed paint.

Many times we destroy our work by going back over it again and again.

I tell my students, the more strokes it takes, the more mud it makes.

— Sandra Meyer

Step 1. Tone the Support

Before you get started, you may want to tone your canvas or board with a ground color. The choice of color is up to you. I like to use a warm color like Burnt Sienna or the color of the main elements of the composition. You can pre-paint the tone with oils and let it dry, or even use acrylic paint.

  • Spread the paint thinned with solvent, but don't let it be too runny. In the video above, my paint was a little too runny for the smooth gesso board.

Step 2. Wipe Away the Lights

If you are working on a wet ground, use a rag to wipe off the areas that are going to be your lightest lights. This will get you started placing your objects and establishing the proportions.

Step 3. Draw With Paint

I like to limit my drawing to a few lines of reference. I do this with thin paint using a color that has enough contrast against the ground and is somehow representative of the final color of the object. I also like to vary the color of the drawing depending on the object.

  • For example, if I was drawing a bunch of grapes, I'd vary the drawing color every few grapes, inspired by the different light or reflections on them.

Set up to paint where you can have a clear view of the still life set up.
Set up to paint where you can have a clear view of the still life set up. | Source

Step 4. Underpainting

There are two main ways to get started painting. For both, the intent is to place the main elements of the composition, while establishing proportions and tones.

A. Monochromatic. Some artists establish the darker areas by creating a tonal underpainting of one color used thin on the light areas and a little thicker on the dark areas. It's a great starting point for your darks and lights, in fact, the monochromatic underpainting will be your guide as you mix paint colors and provide a reference for the value or tone of the paint.

B. Polychromatic. While I think the monochromatic system is fine, I like to start painting each object with a thin version of the local color. To do this, mix and apply a thin coat of the object's color all over its area. When in doubt about tone, pick the mid-value of that object.

Step 5. Alla Prima Oil Painting

Finally, you can start applying thicker paint to create the local color of objects.

  1. Observe the different areas of the object and try to match the shifts in color, tone, and temperature.
  2. Mix the colors you need on the palette, trying to avoid color mixing on the support.
  3. Apply fluidly, without rubbing the colors in or dabbing too much.
  4. In the beginning, use bigger brushes. Apply direct, sure strokes and let them be.
  5. Ignore details. Instead, apply broad areas of color.
  6. Compare, compare, compare.

It’s ok to add paint medium or thinner to the paint, but don’t make it too runny. Keep in mind the fat over lean rule.

The still life I completed in one session, wet on wet.
The still life I completed in one session, wet on wet. | Source

What is the Fat Over Lean Rule?

When painting with oils, it’s important to remember that thinned paint dries faster and contains less oil. Oil paint dries by oxidation, with happens when paint comes in contact with the oxygen in the air. During the drying process, the oil in the paint expands a little at the beginning and shrinks later on.

  • Lean layers of paint don’t expand as much, so if they are applied on top of fat layers, the expansion of the lower layers will make the upper layers crack. This is why you want to apply thinned paint first and oilier paint later in the process.

Step 6. Add Details and Texture

Once you have all your main elements blocked in, you can switch to smaller brushes to add details, highlights, and texture. Pick and choose the details that are most important for the composition.

  • Avoid overworking the painting by adding too many small strokes. Try to preserve the freshness.
  • Apply relevant details with precise brush marks. You may also use painting knives, scrapers, your fingers, or any other tool that could be suitable to get the effect you are after.

About the Limited Palette in This Painting

  • When choosing the colors to use in the painting, I used the color wheel to help me pick.
  • I knew I wanted a yellow for the pepper and a red for the tomatoes. I saw a tetrad color scheme that was just perfect.
  • Tetrad: Four colors that form two sets of complementaries on the wheel.

Tetrad Limited Palette Used in This Painting

Hue on the color wheel
Tubes of color used
Cadmium yellow lemon
Cadmium Red Light
Winsor Green Phthalo + Radiant Green
Dioxazine Purple
Zinc White and Titanium White
Warm Toning
Burnt Sienna (belongs to the red family) I used this for toning and to darken and dull when needed.
The tetrad limited color palette I used, with two couple of complementary hues: yellow, violet, red-orange and blue-green.
The tetrad limited color palette I used, with two couple of complementary hues: yellow, violet, red-orange and blue-green. | Source

How I Chose the Colors

Looking at my color wheel, I focused on the tetrad schemes. There is an upper disc on the wheel that rotates, and you can create color schemes based on the diagrams in the center. For the tetrad, you either follow the indication of the square or the rectangle.

I chose the square with one corner on the yellow because it allowed me to maximize the colors that were most suitable for my composition.

Enjoy the Process!

I don't consider myself a master artist, but I enjoy sharing what I know with others. I wrote this guide hoping that it will help beginner artists in their creative process, not because I believe I “know” how to paint.

I hope you found it useful and enjoyable. Happy painting! : )

Questions & Answers

  • Do you always need to choose a color scheme like the tetrad, for every painting?

    When I pick colors, my first priority is to be able to create some kind of color harmony, either by using colors that relate to one another in some way, like they are next to one another on the color wheel, or the tetrad, or by using a limited amount of hues. I love that the mixed colors end up being all somehow related and create color harmony.

    I start by deciding which colors I am going to use, then, if I handle the chosen colors well, I try to to create a harmonious painting.

    Here is the link to an article on the use of a limited palette, you may want to check this out


    It includes a nice explanation on what a limited palette is and what colors to include.

© 2018 Robie Benve


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • profile image

      alan dawson 

      20 months ago

      Hi Robie.The initial mix of something,taken from the light area,i tend to mix the most saturated colour.would you grey this intial mix down slightly and use it to represent the light side when blocking in light and shadow,with the intention of using the more saturated mix on top of the greyed version,or would you use the most saturated version for the initial block in.Its just that when i mix for something my initial mix is usually the most saturated version from the light side im not sure if this mix is the actual local colour as they say the local colour is the colour of the object viewed in a more even light.so if i grey the initial mix is this more like the local colour?

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      2 years ago from Ohio

      Ciao Adri! I did not make eggplant parmesan but I surely ate those veggies, lol! I actually used the eggplant to make a pasta with ricotta salata, came out very good, yum! Thanks a lot for your comment, I hope one day you can resume painting.

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      2 years ago

      Ciao Robie! I enjoyed reading this. I used to paint with oil a while back but rarely have the time now. I like this technique because it's done in one session! Enjoyed your video and the painting looks realistic. I feel like baking some eggplant parmesan now.

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      2 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Linda, how wonderful that you found it enjoyable and informative! I'm also thried that you liked my video, that's a totally new thing for me. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      2 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Bushra, yes this technique does work with acrylics as well, though some aspects of it are easier with oils because the paint stays wet for a much longer time, and you can wipe off and blend until the end.

      You may draw with pencil or charcoal before the under-painting, but be aware that the drawing will most likely smear with the first paint application, Also, many times the graphite ends up mixing with the paint and stays visible in the final product. To avoid this, I'd spray the drawing with a fixative, and start painting when the fixative is dry. Great questions, thanks!

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      2 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Carolyn, give it a try! Maybe you can write an article about it as well. :) Thanks

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      2 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Leah, there are other reasons why a painting cracks, but not following the fat over lean rule is definitely a big cause. A lot of the old masters' paintings that we see in the museums are cracked too though, so no reason to throw away a good painting. :) Thanks!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      The information that you've shared is all new for me. I enjoyed reading the article very much. I enjoyed watching the video, too. Thanks for the education!

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      This is an awesome article, and that painting looks so good. Question, does this work with acrylics? Also, could I use a graphite pencil to sketch my preliminary drawing before the underpainting?

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      2 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Dbro, I'm happy to hear that the info can apply also to other mediums, I wasn't thinking about that while writing the article, but now that you mention it it makes sense. :) Thanks!!

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      2 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Dan, paint nights sound fun! Glad to hear you go often, that's awesome. I'm guessing you paint with acrylic on those, right? The challenge to finish in one sitting with oils is that the paint is so wet until the end that it mixes on the canvas, and you risk creating muddy colors. This is my first video, I was kind of shy about releasing, but the conference inspired me to give it a try. Thanks for your feedback! :)

    • carolynkaye profile image


      2 years ago from USA

      Great article, Robie! I'll have to try this technique sometime. Thanks for sharing this :)

    • leahlefler profile image

      Leah Lefler 

      2 years ago from Western New York

      I really love your tip about "fat over lean." I have an oil painting in my house and I wondered why the paint was cracked in some areas - the thickness of the paint clearly matters! Excellent article, Robie.

    • Dbro profile image


      2 years ago from Texas, USA

      Hi, Robie! It's been a while! I enjoyed this article very much. Though I work in watercolor, much of your advice/instruction is translatable to my medium as well. Thanks for writing this informative piece.

    • Cre8tor profile image

      Dan Reed 

      2 years ago

      This was informative. We go to paint nights from time to time so finishing in one sitting is obviously implied but I've never been any good at it. Next time perhaps I'll shock em'. Very nice job on the video too!


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, feltmagnet.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)