Create and paint a still life using only white objects.
Color, value, composition, depth
White still life objects: bedsheets, bottles, cups, bowls, folded or crinkled paper, candles, rocks, soap, clothing, rice, eggs, etc.
or any other gessoed painting surface
A yogurt container works well
Collect white objects for your still life.
Arrange the objects on a table against a wall. Hang a cloth up on the wall behind the table for a backdrop.
Be inventive with your still life! Stack, overlap, and place the objects in a dynamic way.
Set up your light source. You could use a clip lamp or desk lamp to illuminate your objects and create dynamic shadows.
See our Still Life Tutorial for more on how to set up a fun and successful still life.
Mix your colors. With each cup of white, mix only a tiny pebble’s worth of color. Below are some suggested mixtures, but you can experiment with your own.
Cup #1: titanium white + cadmium yellow
Cup #2: titanium white + phthalo blue
Cup #3: titanium white + alizarin crimson
Cup #4: titanium white + hansa yellow + black
Cup #5: titanium white + yellow ochre
Cup #6: titanium white + cadmium red + ultramarine blue + raw umber
Cup #7: titanium white + ultramarine blue
Cup #8: raw sienna
Cup #9: ultramarine blue
Cup #10: slow dry medium.
Make several thumbnail sketches of your still life to work out your final composition.
Block in the biggest shapes of your composition with a 1” flat brush and your white mixtures.
Observe the light on each object, and how the highlights bend toward a particular color. This will help guide you towards which of your white mixtures to use.
On your freezer paper, mix shadow tones. For each blocked shape on your canvas, take a small amount of one of your white mixtures and mix it with a bit of raw sienna and ultramarine blue.
Ultramarine blue will push your shadows to be cooler. Raw sienna will push your shadows to be warmer. Mixing in equal parts of the ultramarine blue and raw sienna will create a neutral shadow.
Add just a small amount at a time. It’s easier to add more color, than to backtrack to the original color.
If your paint dries faster than you want it to and mixing colors becomes difficult, dip your brush into the slow dry medium and add it to your colors.
Paint the shadows using a ½” brush. Use a ¼” – ½” brush dipped in the slow dry medium to blend your shadows. You may need to add more of your corresponding white onto the canvas to get a smoother blend.
Rinse your brushes in water to keep your colors from getting muddy. Rinsing your brushes often will also keep them from getting hard and accumulating gunk.
Using a ¼” – ½” brush, add smaller highlights with your mixed whites. Blend these areas as well.
Repeat painting and blending smaller highlights and shadows until you’re satisfied.
For highlights, use your titanium white/cadmium yellow mixture for warm highlights. For cool highlights, use titanium white/phthalo blue mixture.
Add the very brightest highlights by using pure titanium white with your smallest brush.
“I was pleasantly surprised with the challenge that this project gave me; although I am not a huge fan of painting still-lifes because I tend to find them a bit boring, this white-on-white painting project prompted me to constantly see the white objects as more than just one color, leaving my mind engaged and not bored for even a second.
I had to think about the reflected light on the white objects and see past the surface level tone. I often over-exaggerated the tints of the shadows and highlights by making them much more saturated with either a cool tint or warm tint or somewhere in between, which helped to make the piece more dynamic.
Though all the objects were technically white, I think this still-life was much more interesting to paint than a standard still-life with assorted colored objects. It encouraged me to really look closely and observe how the subjects interacted with the light along with its surroundings, something I am less likely to invest time in with a standard still life.”
“This project was the first painting that I’ve done in a long time. And as challenging as it was, this painting was also really fun and exciting. I haven’t painted a still life in a long time because they’re generally not too interesting to me, but the fact that it was a “white on white” painting made it more challenging and more exciting.
Layering a white pot with a white cup on top of a white background forced me to look harder at what I was seeing and question it. It made me see color in the different objects and their relationships to the others in ways I didn’t really pay attention to before.
I struggled a bit with finding the contrast and the different tones of white. Certain objects were warmer or cooler than others and at first that was difficult for me to see. I think my final painting is a little too contrasted and exaggerated. I started painting with darker more exaggerated colors because it made it easier for me to bring out certain objects.
But I think something I could’ve altered was the amount of exaggeration just because I think it changed the way the still life actually looks. Overall, I really enjoyed this project as a whole. It was relaxing and easy to set up, and it was a really enjoyable way to go back to painting again.”