Toolkit Watercolor Still Life Painting – Step By Step


Still Life Painting Inspirations | Choosing Your Composition | Step by Step Watercolor Still Life Painting Process 

Above is the step by step painting process of my watercolor still life.

The first thing you need to think about when doing watercolour still life is the overall composition. Even if it’s just a single object, you have to thoughtfully consider how and where to place it. There should be a balance between the positive and negative space. And there should be a balance between all the elements in your composition. Knowing the Golden Rules of Composition in Art and some nifty Tricks of the Composition Trade will greatly help you with this. So please do consider checking them out for some useful tips that you can use for all your artworks.

Color is just as equally important especially when you start to add more and more objects to your set up. Choosing the right colors and making sure they go well together will also affect the final outcome of your composition. Another thing that you can really delve into (and I personally enjoy) are the varying textures that you can explore and also complement with each other. The right play between different textures will give your work that extra impact.

TABLE OF CONTENTS: Looking for something in particular? Jump ahead using the links below:

Choosing Your Watercolor Still Life Composition
Materials To Be Used
How To Paint A Watercolor Still Life
Sketching It Out
Painting The First Layer
Continue With The Succeeding Layers
Painting In The Final Layers and Touches

Choosing Your Watercolor Still Life Composition

When starting out in still life, I suggest you keep it simple and easy to begin with. You can start with just one object and practice placing it in different positions and surfaces. Simply twisting a cup to show the handle at a certain angle can change the whole effect. Evaluate the right amount of space ratio between the surface and the wall or backdrop. Slowly build your understanding of what makes for a good composition beginning with just one or two elements. Then you can slowly add more objects and elements as you gain more confidence. 

Below are some still life paintings by the masters that I hope will inspire you. Each one painted according to the artist’s own perception and painting style.

Clara Peeters, “Still Life with Nuts, Candy and Flowers”, 1611. Oil on panel. Clara Peeters was trained in the Flemish Baroque painting style and was considered to be the earliest significant woman painter of the Dutch Golden Age. This is quite an achievement as female painters that are acknowledged are quite rare during her time.
Pieter Claesz, “Still life with a burning candle”, 1627. Another Dutch Golden Age painter, Pieter Claesz along with Willem Claeszon Heda were well-known for their “ontbijt” or dinner piece paintings. Ontbijt is Dutch for “breakfast piece”, paintings considered to be Ontbijt are called “Stilleven” in Dutch. The root word for the term “Still Life” that we use nowadays.
Vincent van Gogh, “Still Life – Vase with Twelve Sunflowers”, 1888-1889. Oil on canvas. He created a whole series of sunflower paintings which he intended to decorate the Yellow House in Arles with, where his friend Paul Gaugin would be staying as a houseguest. But alas, they had a quarrel which resulted in van Gogh slicing off his earlobe in a moment of extreme distress. 
Paul Cezanne, “Basket of Apples”, 1895. Oil on canvas. This painting is a cross between impressionism and cubism, the painting uses two different points of view or perspective.
Georges Braques, “Still Life (with Clarinet)”, 1927. Oil on canvas. Known for his great role in the development of Cubism along with Picasso, Braques greatly explored the simultaneous perspective of visual perception. He was greatly interested in the effects of light and perspective and broke away from the conventional way of depicting objects or scenes.
Giorgio Morandi, “Natura Morta” or “Still Life”, 1946, oil. Morandi was fond of using the same objects repeatedly for several different still life paintings. Bottles, bowls, and other familiar everyday objects were depicted in a sculptural way rather than for their domestic use. Most of his still life paintings veer towards a more muted, toned down and earthy color palette that’s reminiscent of his native Bologna.

And finally, here is the reference photo I have chosen to paint. There are barely any colors, but the lighting is just beautiful and creates a wonderful range of values. There is enough contrast and balance between the shadows, the highlights, and the midtones. This makes for a compelling image, and by only using two simple clay jars at that! So don’t underestimate the importance the right lighting brings to your works.

Here, I’ve overlaid a grid based on the rule of thirds over the image. See how the upright jar is located at the left, where two intersecting points are. And the tipped over one similarly with two intersecting points. It’s a well balanced composition with just the right amount of elements. I especially love how the jars are positioned. The curves of both jars interact with one another, creating a seamless flow that makes your eye smoothly travel across the entire composition.

When I do my realistic watercolor still life paintings, I’m not aiming to paint it hyper-realistically. I don’t enjoy that style and I find it very limiting. I just make sure to get the proportions right and colors somewhat the same with a few tweaks of my own here and there. So don’t be pressured to get everything exactly the same, you’re not a camera after all. Your own interpretation and how you see things in your own way are actually part of the charm that will give your painting that extra something.

If you’re looking to paint a more colorful composition, I suggest planning out the colors you’ll be using ahead. This way you can swatch them out and see if they go well with each other. Have a look at our Oil Painting Mixing Colors article for an in-depth guide to the use of color wheel, the four characteristics of color, and color harmony. Don’t worry, the theories discussed there will work across all mediums and not just for oil.

Materials To Be Used:

  • Watercolor paints – ZenART’s Espresso Palette from the Aspiring Artists series.
  • Watercolor brushes – ZenART’s Turner Collection
  • Paper towel
  • Watercolor paper – cold pressed, 140 lb, A5 size
  • Mixing plate
  • Jar or two of clean water
The pocket-sized Espresso watercolor palette from ZenART Supplies is the perfect limited palette, 12 half-pan colors that you can use to mix a multitude of other colors. Also shown above are two round brushes from the Turner Collection, they are my most used brushes out of the whole collection.

How To Paint A Watercolor Still Life

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not looking to copy my reference photo as exactly as I can like a scanner. Instead it’s there to serve as a composition and tonal values guide. I like to tweak the colors to my own preferences, so feel free to do so for your own as well. In fact, I highly recommend it – you’ll have more fun this way!

Sketching It Out

First lightly sketch your still life composition on your paper. Keep in mind that you’ll be using watercolors which are transparent compared to other mediums. So any dark pencil marks will easily show through even after several layers, especially if the colors used are light. It’s also near to impossible to erase those pencil marks once you’ve painted over them. Some even prefer to sketch using watercolor pencils just to err on the side of caution. I usually sketch using an HB pencil, it’s very light even when you try to draw dark lines with it. 

Painting The First Layer

The basic rule when painting your watercolor layers is to start with the lightest colors first and the darkest last. Assess your composition and see which colors are your first layers, this will vary across different objects in your composition. In my case, I’m going with a very light and watered down layer of Yellow Ochre for my first layer. 

Continue With The Succeeding Layers

This part is now up to your own personal preference and painting style whether watercolour still life or otherwise. If you prefer to do wet-on-wet or wet-on-dry, or whichever technique you feel will work best on the style you’re aiming for. Just remember the light to dark rule of building up your layers. Each watercolor technique has its own advantages and quirks. If you’re not quite sure yet, I suggest you check out Watercolor Painting Techniques. It’s an essential guide covering the most often used techniques, with an accompanying how to video.

Using a mix of Raw Umber and Yellow Ochre, I lightly added the next layer. Focusing on the light values for the most part and painting in the shadow in the opening of the horizontal jar. I waited for the previous layer to dry before doing the next one. Now, I’ve added the dark shadows to the upright jar and added extra definition to the body of the other one.

Another thing to keep in mind is that watercolors tend to dry lighter than when they were wet. So patience is key here when painting your watercolor still life. If you find that your colors have lightened, just add another layer. The more layers you add, the more saturated and vibrant your colors will become. Just be careful to allow each layer to dry before painting on the next one. Most especially if you’re adding another layer with a color that’s not analogous to the previous one. Otherwise it’s quite easy to end up with muddied colors instead of the beautiful layering that you’re looking for. 

For a handy guide to help you understand watercolor mixing, click on the banner below and get your FREE Watercolor Mixing Guide now!

The jars are about 95% done and it’s time to paint in the background and the surface where the jars are placed on. They are just as important as the objects, otherwise they will look like they’re floating in the air. You have to give them grounding and a backdrop that perfectly accentuates them. 

I first painted a light Yellow Ochre wash on the left side to add a bit of warmth that I have observed from the reference photo. Then used Indigo from the Sereno palette that’s also from ZenART’s Aspiring Artists series to paint a light wash for the rest. Once that layer has dried, I added a darker layer using Payne’s Grey from the same watercolor set. Painting in the varying gradations for all four corners of the painting, creating a sort of soft framing around the jars.

Painting In The Final Layers and Touches

After working on the background, I moved on to finally painting in the colors and shadows on the surface the jars are on. I mixed Prussian Blue and Raw Umber to create a deep greyish blue that I wanted to use for the surface. This was my way of subtly differentiating the background from the table, still in keeping with the limited color palette of the whole composition. I kept the background and surface in cool colors to perfectly contrast with the warmth of the clay jars.

My watercolour still life is now almost finished, I took a short break to give my eyes some rest before doing the final touches. I like to do this every now and then when working on my paintings, getting back to your work with fresh eyes later on can give you new insights. 

The final painting with most of the colors used  from the Espresso palette and brushes from the Turner Collection, both from ZenART Supplies

And here’s a close up of the final painting, I just darkened some shadows here and there and added some minor detailing that I thought the painting needed. I didn’t want to overwork it and ruin it in the process.

Check out this still life watercolor painting by ZenART’s very own co-founder and an artist herself, Ardak Kassenova. Notice how she beautifully captured the rising and swirling smoke coming from the burning incense stick. Say hello to @ardak_zenart on Instagram!

I hope you found this helpful and inspire you to venture into the world of watercolor still life painting. Try starting out with something simple and focus on the composition, the tonal values, and the color harmonies. Once you’ve mastered the basics, it will give you that solid foundation to be able to do more complex still life paintings. Don’t be discouraged if the first few tries don’t come out the way you imagined them. That’s all part of the important learning curve and process that all artists go through. Just keep it up and before you know it, you’ll be hanging your masterpieces on your walls!

We’d love to hear back from you!

What subject/s are you looking to paint for your still life painting? Which part of the process do you find the most challenging? Are you fond of using bright and vibrant colors or a more monochromatic palette? What future content would you like to see from us? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll happily get back to you. Join our friendly art community Painting Inspiration Daily on Facebook. You can share your art and ideas, watch LIVE tutorials, and be inspired to paint! 

For our next Toolkit blog post, we’ll explore the Tropical Color Palette for some painting ideas and inspiration. I’ll be sharing some easy painting inspiration ideas that you can do to brighten up your home. Until then, have a wonderful time creating your still life paintings!


Kathleen is the Wordsmith at ZenART, resident artist and art editor. When God sent a shower of talents, Kathleen made sure she got a basketful of them! She’s a visual artist with practical knowledge on various fields from painting and sculpture, to costume and set design which comes in very handy when writing about various art techniques and theories. She also shares her passion for the arts through teaching. She runs her own brand of handmade wirework jewelry designs.