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How to Paint a Still Life Step-by-Step

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

An article describing the process of completing 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 of completing 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.

Still-Life Oil Painting

In this article, we'll cover:

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

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

My painting process in this demo using oil paint 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.

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 avoiding the different layers of paint mixing on the support as you apply them. When that happens, you 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. Allow blending to happen 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.

  • 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.

You may also pre-paint the tone with oils and let it dry, or even use acrylic paint.

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.

Some of the toning color will still remain even after you wipe it off, but it will have a much lighter value.

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.

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 the fat over lean rule in mind.

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

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

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, which 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 wheelTubes 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.

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!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

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

Answer: 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


alan dawson on November 22, 2018:

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 if i grey the initial mix is this more like the local colour?

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 06, 2018:

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.

Adrienne Farricelli on May 05, 2018:

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 (author) from Ohio on April 30, 2018:

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 (author) from Ohio on April 29, 2018:

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 (author) from Ohio on April 29, 2018:

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

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on April 27, 2018:

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!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on April 26, 2018:

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!

bushraib on April 26, 2018:

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 (author) from Ohio on April 26, 2018:

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 (author) from Ohio on April 26, 2018:

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 from USA on April 26, 2018:

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

Leah Lefler from Western New York on April 25, 2018:

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 from Texas, USA on April 25, 2018:

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.

Dan Reed on April 25, 2018:

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!