White on White Paintings

Art Prompt

Create and paint a still life using only white objects.

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Supplies

White still life objects: bed sheets, bottles, cups, bowls, folded or crinkled paper, candles, rocks, soap, clothing, rice, eggs, etc.

A list of acrylic painting supplies is here.

Process

Step 1

Collect white objects for your still life.

Step 2

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.

Step 3

Set up your light source. You could use a clamp light* or desk lamp* to illuminate your objects and create dynamic shadows.

Step 4

Mix your colors. With each cup of white, mix only a tiny pebble’s worth of color.

Suggested mixtures

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*

Step 5

Make several thumbnail sketches of your still life to work out your final composition.

Step 6

On a large piece of Bristol board*, using a pencil, loosely sketch the composition of your photo. Block in all the walls, floor, ceiling, and large objects, and don’t worry about details.

Step 7

Block in the biggest shapes of your composition with a 1” flat brush* and your white mixtures.

Step 8

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.

Step 9

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.

Step 10

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.

Step 11

Using a ¼” – ½” brush, add smaller highlights with your mixed whites. Blend these areas as well.

Tips

See our Still Life Tutorial for more on how to set up a fun and successful still life.

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.

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.

Responses

“This painting was difficult for me because I tend to avoid acrylic paint, so I came into this project rather inexperienced. However, even though it was frustrating, it was very fun to incorporate a narrative into my still life.

When I was organizing the objects to use, I came up with the idea to make a coltish scene that includes the body of a girl and the bones of the beast that killed her. For me, including a narrative or some kind of twist makes the process of painting a still life a lot more interesting.

This painting in was especially interesting because I had to figure out a balance between the lightness of the objects in the still life and the dark theme I wanted to convey.

Overall, I learned a lot through this project–especially to keep in mind canvas size and color theory–and I am definitely planning on experimenting more with acrylic paint as a medium.”

Amelia Rozear
Work by Amelia Rozear
Work by Anya Chen

“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.”

Anya Chen

“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.”

Cindy Qiao
Work by Cindy Qiao