Friday, March 9, 2012

Painting vegetable still life--beets and carrots on a cutting board

Hi Folks!
I'm glad you are enjoying my blog--I have been getting a lot of positive feedback!  Please feel free to comment even if you are not part of the class.
This past week we tried our hand at painting vegetable still life.  I went to the grocery store Roots, and purchased some fresh beets with their greens still on, plus farm-fresh carrots, onions and large mushrooms.  Took them home and set up some still lifes.  I had to play around a lot with the arrangements of objects and the lighting, and took about 60 photos.  Here is the reference photo I finally selected for my first painting, where the beets were placed on a dish towel and cutting board in front of a window with bright indirect light.  I like the back lighting and creates a white rim around the leaves and the top of the beets!

Step 1.  Beets and Carrots was painted on a piece of 16x20" bright white Arches 140 lb cold-pressed paper stretched on a washed Homasote board.  I traced the image onto the paper using graphite transfer paper and a light gray template I made on my printer.  No apologies for not drawing it free-hand!  But for students who need to improve their drawing skills I would always encourage you to draw the image on tracing paper first and then transper it to the watercolor paper using the graphite paper if you wish.

Step 2.  I decided to use a somewhat limited palette for most of this painting.  Using three primary colors that blend well together, I was able to do almost the entire painting.  They were Winsor & Newton quinacridone red, cobalt blue medium, and Da Vinci hansa yellow (an arylide yellow such as Winsor yellow from W&N).  I also used cerulean blue combined with the same yellow to get some of the bright greens.  Ultimately I put in a very dark background using darker colors which I will describe later.  Here I started the beet leaves with mixed greens (sounds like a salad!) and painted the middle beet with quinacridone red mixed with cobalt blue.  I allowed the colors to blend on the paper and allowed back-runs (some people call them "blooms") to form on purpose to create the texture of the beet skin.

Step 3.  Notice I left white edges around the beet greens to suggest the rim lighting.  I painted the carrot with quin red and arylide yellow (a very bright yellow).  I started painting the dish towel shadow parts with a very light mixture of my three primaries.  When painting shadows on a patterned surface like fabric, it is always best to paint all the shadows first before you paint the pattern.  If you paint the shadows after the pattern, your pattern might run.

Step 4.  Continuing with another beet and it's greens.  Try to get a lot of variety in your greens.  If you mix your greens instead of using a green pigment, it will encourage more variety.  I did end up using some W & N perylene green for some of the darkest greens here.  Also I often injected a little quin red into my green washes for variety.  The veins are a nice dark red, so they were easy to paint on after the greens dried using a rigger.  Negative painting between the beet stalks brought out their shape.

Step 5.  Moving on to the cutting board here.  For this I used quinacridone gold with blues and red mixed in.  I am not going to duplicate much of the wood grain.  I have seen very few watercolors where people successfully duplicate wood grain, and have come to feel that it is best to merely suggest it a little bit...  Will do more to the cutting board later.  In the early stages of a painting, I am using just getting down the local color of the objects with the intention of coming back and adding their shadows later.

Step 6.  Here I have painted the luscious black shadows on the knife, plus the second carrot.  When painting an actual black object, I usually use actual black paint, in this case, W&N neutral tint.  On the knife blade I showed the reflection of the beet.  On the knife tang I showed the reflection of the carrot.

Step 7.  Finally I began to paint the red stripes of the dish towel, using quinacridone red (one of my favorite colors by the way).  I noticed that the stripes in the shadow parts appeared more intense than the stripes in the sunlight.  I wiggled and wavered them according to the slight folds in the towel, and tried to paint them imperfectly to keep the painting on the loose side.

Step 8.  Big changes here!  As you can see, I decide to go with a dark background.  You might wonder if the background is so dark, where is all the light coming from?  But we could imagine that the table is below the windowsill and the wall is in dark shade.  The advantage of doing this is that it is very striking and really makes the lights dance!  My first pass on the background was a little too light and mottled (I felt) so I glazed it again later.  Colors used were permanent magenta and perylene green.
Also you will see that I darkened the cutting board board edge considerably so that the carrots would stand out more.  Plus I began painting the third beet and its greens!

Step 9.  Here I have darkened the background using the same colors again and made it smoother so it would be less distracting.  Also I finished painting the stripes on the sunlit part of the towel.

Step 10.  The painting is just about finished here.  I intensified the orange of the carrots, essentially painting them again, and I put in the scar on the bottom carrot.  I finished all the beet leaves and their veins.  I did some darker negative painting to accentuate some of the "crevice darks".  Generally I went around and tweaked things a little.  This last effort in a painting is so important and can make the difference between a good painting and a very good paintings, or a very good painting and a great painting!
Susan Avis Murphy      Beets and Carrots     image 14x18"
Self-critique:  I am pretty happy with this effort and like the bright colors and variety within these colors.  I wish the bottom carrot had been aiming down instead of up, and perhaps going off the bottom of the picture a little...  Also I kind of wish I had painted all the objects completely before doing the dark background so that I could see what it would have looked like with a light or white background.  I am going to try to create that look using Photoshop and post the painting below.  Give me a few minutes...

OK, here it is.  I have put the above image in Photoshop and used the magnetic lasso tool to isolate the black background, then created new adjustment layers and changed it into either white, magenta or purple, shown below.  What do you think?  Do you prefer any of these over the black version?


  1. I prefer the black. I think it makes the vegetables really pop.

  2. Me too...the black background is my favorite :)

  3. I just love this is so stunning....especially in person. The black background is me it ties in the handle on the knife so well and creates such depth besides.....beautiful Susan!

  4. I have a question. When you say "cobalt blue medium" what brand is that? I haven't come across the "medium" part at all and was wondering if it is lighter than regular cobalt blue.

  5. Beautiful Painting, Susan! The black background is perfect.

  6. cecile kirkpatrickMarch 10, 2012 at 6:15 AM

    I love the black background, the contrast is perfect.

  7. Thanks for your comments everyone! I still have mixed feelings about the black in this case, but do agree that it makes the painting very striking. I wish I had brought some of the beet greens up a little higher to make a more interesting line back there...
    As for the Cobalt Blue Medium, it is by Winsor & Newton and actually is called simply Cobalt Blue, but they also carry a Cobalt Blue Deep, which I don't like because it doesn't seem to mix very well with other colors. So I was just kind of trying to distinguish the two in case someone had both.

  8. Susan, this is fantastic!!!! It is such a treat being able to see your progression through each painting. My "unprofessional opinion" is that the black background draws your eye to the shadows of the beets and dulls down the painting rather than bringing it to life. The red is too close to the center of interest. I prefer the blue or white and actually the white background to me makes it restful and brings out the highlights on both the beets and carrots. Of course a computer image and the real thing may look entirely different

  9. I knew this was going to be a beautiful painting and it really is. I'm cleaning my palette and getting ready to jump in. Hopefully I'll get this one right the first time! Thanks so much for the step by step.

  10. Susan,

    Your work is JUST Fantastic!! You are so brave with color; the results are just outstanding... I can't wait to taste those beets & carrots. I AM in awe of you work.


  11. Susan,
    Your painting had a good start last Tuesday and now it's simply gorgeous. I prefer the white background because it brings out the brilliant colors of your vegetables, they are so beautiful that they do not need anything else. Brava Susan!

  12. Wow I love how we see the piece enfold step by step. The vegetables are very realistic and well rendered. I prefer the black as well as it makes the vegetables pop.

  13. thanks for sharing this ....i mostly use plastic chopping makes the vegetables really pop.