How to make like a lemon and just roll with it : Painting from imagination.


Recently I wondered how I’d fare painting a still-life - without an actual still-life set up in front of me.  

I wasn’t going to do it completely blind; I’d paint from reference drawings I'd done of the key objects, but the composition would be plucked from my head.

Since this was an experiment, I didn’t want to invest in using a super large panel, but I did want to give myself room to move. Since I have lots of small panels about the place, I reasoned that a few in combination would make for a neat mid-sized study.

Apparently, the trick to creating a successful diptych or triptych is to make each panel look interesting enough to be a stand-alone piece, but maintain a clear connection from one panel to the next so that they hang together well (visually and literally).

Three panels and a rough sketch later, I had things mapped out.


The biggest hitch was that I’d included a glass bowl in the composition – to fill space – but I hadn’t actually done a reference drawing of one. I can’t think when I last drew glass… I certainly haven’t ever painted glass. ‘No time like the present,’ I mused… and then threw, ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’ into the mix of pithy self-talk to really get me going.

Scaling my thumbnail sketch up to size, I transferred it onto my panels and then tweaked my drawing where needed.


Since yellow paint has a tendency to be a little transparent, I chose to use a green acrylic for the under-painting. If any of it showed through, it would only serve to give my lemons a ‘still ripening’ kind of appeal.  I left a lot of white showing through though, so there wouldn’t be a green cast over the whole painting, and to keep the colours as clean and pure as possible (like me 😆).


It felt odd to paint mostly from my imagination. I’ve been illustrating for years as part of my graphic design business, but it seemed a bit slap-dash to be doing it for my oil painting. I'd be curious to get your feedback. From a viewer's perspective, does this painting look different from my other paintings?

A major difference with ‘illustrating’ a painting off the top of your head is that there's nothing in front of you to guide your choices about the balance of lights and darks, and the strength of the hues. In my mind’s eye, I had some idea of the palette of colours I was looking to use (reasonably low key, lots of yellows, blues, some greens and neutrals), but exactly how they’d all hang together was a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle with a blind-fold on: The pieces were all there, it felt vaguely familiar and like it should come together, but the chances of screwing up were pretty high.

I reminded myself that, 'Everyday’s a school day' and then I got stuck in.

I started with the juicer but knew from the outset that it wasn’t clear enough that it was white. I also sensed that my half-lemon on the left-hand panel had issues. As per usual, the background was messing with my head. My tactful kids asked me why there was a swarm of flies in the scene (thanks, boys) and after initially painting the pattern blue, I decided it was looking too dominant and 'country' for my liking. 

Enter Photoshop: The fix-all for determining how to iron out problems quickly. Except perhaps the problem of world hunger. And how to get kids to hang a damp bath towel up properly.

Below is what I settled on: White patterned background, far more lighter greys in the juicer, and a more elliptical base for that half lemon and some highlights to my glass bowl.  I also included some - albeit abstract - shadows across the back wall to add movement by echoing the lines of the creases in the tea towel, and to serve as subtle 'pointers' to the key subjects in the painting.


The problem with Photoshop (that even Photoshop can’t iron out) is that it makes these things seem really quick and simple to do. Switch up a mouse for a paintbrush however, and that notion is soon dispelled.

To date, this is where things stand: So close, but yet so far


The hold-up has been the background colours, which incorporate a good deal of slow-drying, white paint – making the application of that subtle pattern over the top really tricky. My off-white paint will get muddied too quickly when the background colour starts to blend in, and it will all turn to custard. Very annoying.

Perhaps I’ll ditch subtleties and go with a bolder style of patterning. I’m not really a petite country-wall-paper kind of girl anyway.

So – I’m sorry to leave you hanging folks. **

Remember though (while I’m on a roll)… Good things come to those who wait!


** The final piece will definitely appear in my monthly e-newsletter, so add your email below if you're curious (it's absolutely free and you can opt out whenever you grow tired of my paint-fueled antics). 

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