Australian Fine Artist

Still Life Workshop 1

This is the first of five workshops that I will be attending for the first half of 2014 with esteemed artist David Chen.

“Apple Theory”

The topic for this first workshop covers basic modelling. The observation of light, mid tone and shadow and how we can see the planes of a three dimensional object and use these to create a painting that has depth with the use of tonal values. We also looked at how we can translate these values or tones into colour to produce a three dimensional object on the canvas in colour.

From the title, you can see that what we were initially working from was in fact a peeled apple. David made the start very easy by cutting the apple so that we could see the planes of tonal changes around the object as the light touched one side and the other side was in shadow.

This “modern” method of rendering an object came to China from Russia during the 1950s. Rather than trying to draw or paint all curved lines and directly copy like a photograph, the method of using many short straight lines nearly reflects how a vector image is built on a computer.

Circles are made up of many straight lines (like in Illustrator on the computer). By breaking up an object into planes it makes it easier to translate values of tone for each segment, rather than the continuous look of a rounded apple where one value or colour seems to run into another making it difficult to see where one starts and the other ends.

Our first task was to draw or paint the apple with the “planes” method in just black and white, no tonal values.

The second was to do the same apple with grey (from white through to black) tonal values.

The third for the morning was to translate the single or grey coloured tonal sketch into colour.

The secret in this exercise was to NOT see the apple as an apple, but as a group of tonal planes. So it is a painting not necessarily an apple.

David went over the description of the areas of tone on an object.

Highlight, Light Area, Grey or Mid Tone – all in the light area working towards the dark.

Core Shadow, Occlusion shadow – in the shadow area. Working from the edge of the light area to the darkest point.

Cast Shadow – what the object casts when light is cast on in an angle. Darker or sharper depending on the strength of the light source.

David also talked about the reflected light and colours and how they affect the shadow areas on an object. This area may not be as flat or devoid of colour as you may think as what lies around an object will reflect on smooth or shiny surfaces.

Palette Set Up

I have seen loads of ways to set up paint on a palette over the years. Not all artists tell you why they place colours where they are on theirs. I wasn’t even aware that there could be established methods until this workshop and had been experimenting with ideas for years.

Spectrum Order

Laying the paint out from one side of the palette to the other starting from the red end of the spectrum to the purple or violet end of the spectrum on the other side.

Light to Dark

Starting with white on one side and putting out progressively darker colours as you work your way to the other side of the palette.

Impressionist Order

Three rows of paints.

Top row, top of the palette. All your warm colours working from lightest to darkest left to right.

Middle row, whites

Bottom row, All your cool colours working from lightest to darkest left to right.

You may like to try using all of these for one painting or another as the mood suits you. I have used similar methods in my aims to work out something that works for me and will be giving these a go to see if one of them works better.

By the way, David said, “Never be stingy with colour on your palette”. Far better to have a little too much than having to mix up a heap of paint because you ran out half way through.

Afternoon exercise – Paint a small still life arrangement.

Our set up was a dark green jug, apples and cherry tomatoes on a variety of fabrics and on a white plate, with a spotlight giving a nice shadow. The colours were carefully selected so that we would have a good balance of cool and warm that would be clean and balanced. When I looked to see what I needed to put on my palette I think there was only five tubes needed from my kit.

David wants us to practice more from life when painting still life as photos can flatten out and the shadows can be too dark or hide detail. having the subject in front of you leaves you free to move things around and interpret everything, so that you end up with your painting and not a desperate struggle to copy a photo. Observational skills are what David wants us to improve.

A final hint for painting any subject, but importantly still life is to make the highlights either warm or cool by using some lilac, blue or yellow for example in with white so that the highlight looks more “alive” and interesting.

This leads me to the paint-on critique at the end of each session. David looks at everyone’s work and give us hints on where we can improve our work for the day.

Mine was: He liked mine when it was at about the half way mark, I “over cooked it” a bit. I asked if a bigger brush would have prevented that, and he said yes. So out they are coming for more use. I could have also used a cooler green in the background. I worked on these thoughts today during my first day back at TAFE and am happy that I understood what he was getting at, it looks much better.


Even though I am studying to complete an advanced diploma this year, I feel that the technical knowledge of a formally trained fine artist that you admire, is not unlike an apprenticeship from a master during the Renaissance. For a more rounded education and to get as much from my few years of fine art training for my career, the more I can learn from artists that I admire and who have successful careers themselves, the better artist I will be. The extra effort is worth it as I see my skills improving each year and enjoy the journey so much.

Next Month: Learn More About Colour. Mixing, Breaking, Modifying, Glazing and Intersecting Colour.


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