OCAD Studio: Alla Prima Still Life Part 3

Following on from Part 2, here are a few suggestion for carrying on your painting:

  1. Now that all the major shapes and colours are established, you can begin adding details and blendings to create softer edges.
  2. You can use a dry brush to soften transitions where necessary, this can be helpful if you want to make blend brush strokes together.
  3. You don’t want things getting muddy so you need to clean your brushes regularly with your thinner.
  4. You can start using much smaller brushes. This will allow you to add more subtle textures and fine lines where necessary.
  5. You can alter colours and values by painting into the wet paint. For example – if you need to shift the hue of a green to be more blue just paint a little bit of blue into the green on the painting. This saves mixing lots of new colours and/or overloading the paint surface.
  6. To finish, make sure that you have reinforced the darks and lights sufficiently. It is common for the lightest whites and darkest black to become a bit muddied during an alla prima painting. I recommend that the last thing you do is repaint the brightest highlights in pure white and the darkest shadows in pure black.

OCAD Studio: Alla Prima Still Life Part 2

Following on from Part 1, here are a few suggestion for carrying on your painting:

  1. Once you have sketched in all the major shadow shapes, you will need to roughly block in all the major colours.
  2. Don’t get bogged down in detail during this stage, just aim for a solid general impression.
  3. Use fairly big brushes, and stiffer brushes for applying thicker paint.
  4. Paint the shadows and lights separately.
  5. Paint the shadows thinly and apply lighter colours more thickly (impastoed).
  6. Look for cool and warm shifts, as this will add interest to your painting.
  7. Once you have reached a point where you have matched to general colours and values, you can begin stage 3 where you will be refining the detail.

OCAD Studio: Alla Prima Still Life Part 1

This project is based on the ‘alla prima’ method which means that the painting is completed all at once – in a single sitting before the paint dries.


  • You can work in either oils or acrylics, using your preferred colours.
  • You can work on any type of surface; panel, paper, canvas etc. ideally prepared with a brown or grey-brown tone but you can work over white.
  • I recommend limiting the number of brushes to 2-4 of varying sizes and cleaning them when necessary.
  • You will need a medium to thin your paint (mineral spirits for oils or water for acrylics).

Setting up Your Subject:

  • Limit your first attempt to just a few objects – one or two pieces of fruit for instance. As you get more confident you can increase the complexity of the scene.
  • Keep the background uniform and simple, just a simple table and block colour background is ideal.
  • Light the scene from one side with a single light source (such as a window or strong directional artificial light). This will make the shadows clear and manageable.
  • Try to make the colours interesting, so using a few different pieces of fruit that are different colours are ideal.

Blocking in:

  • Use a neutral colour to looseley plot the major elements – the lines of the table and the rough dimensions of the objects.
  • The make a slightly more detailed shadow pattern with washy paint (thinned a lot with medium).
  • It doesn’t need to be detailed, just enough information to allow you to block in the major colours confidently.
  • That’s it! Check out Part 2 to find out how to get the colours in.

Task 9: Colour Scales and Still Life

TASK: Understanding your media and how to mix/use colours

1) Make some painted tonal scales.
2) Make a colour still life painting incorporating appropriate colour tones and universal forms.

In my previous tutorial I used Oil Pastels. For this one, I will demonstrate powder pastels

Follow the link to my earlier blog to expand on this task:  CLICK HERE 

Task 8 looked at colour theory and ideas on how to mix colours. We will build on this with colour scales in this Task, but we will apply both to our still life art work.

You want a still life that considers composition, colour combinations and incorporates a range of universal forms. Think about colour theory to see which colours are going to appear in the art work and what mood this would create. Will it be an Analogous colour scheme perhaps? It is up to you. Also, use colour theory to help mix the colours and to create the tonal scales. Will the red objects incorporate oranges and yellows into the lighter areas? Or will a complementary colour give the shadows? Remember from Task 8 to try adding complementary colours to make paint/pastels darker, instead of black. Black can flatten an image if overused. Complementary colours are the ones opposite your chosen colour on the colour wheel.

How many objects shall I draw? One object is fine, but maybe 3 will give you the best arrangement. The Rule of Odds works well, so if you combine this with 3 different forms of objects, you will create a nice set-up.

Think about what colours you need first and do some colour scales so that you can plan the tones before you begin. How will you mix the colours to get what you need? How will you create the brightest highlights and the darkest shadows? Which colours would these be?

This task is about testing, experimenting and applying knowledge of colour. Trial a variety of combinations and you will see how the various colours used will impact on the overall feel and look of your art.


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Varnish is the final protective layer added to a completed oil or acrylic painting. They can also help to enhance the painting once it’s dry. You can varnish an acrylic painting as soon as it’s dry, but it’s best to wait at least 10 weeks before varnishing an oil painting as the paint will take a long time to cure sufficiently.

There are lots of different types of varnish to choose from so I’ll explain the main differences between varnishes and what you should think about when picking the right type.


Varnish comes in different types of finish. Different types of paintings and personal preference affects what type of finish you need.

Gloss: Traditional representational paintings usually opt for a gloss finish because the smooth surface ensures that the colours are rich and the blacks are deep.

Matte: Whereas more textured abstract painting will generally look better with a matte varnish as it can look messy of the surface is too glossy. It is always best to use a varnish as they are important for protecting the painting’s surface so if you don’t want the varnish to be apparent, then a matte varnish is the best option.

Satin: Satin varnish is a good compromise and tends to suit more modern, figurative or semi abstract work.

Spray vs Brush-on

Spray varnish comes in an aerosol can (like spray-paint) and is very easy to apply thinly and evenly. Whereas brush-on varnish comes in a bottle and needs to be applied by brush. In general I would opt for spray varnish as it always results in a nice even coat. However there are some instances where brush varnish can work better, usually when a very glossy finish is required. This is because liquid varnish can  be applied in a much thicker layer, so if it is glossy, it can achieve an almost glass-like finish quite quickly.

Soft vs Hard

Modern synthetic varnishes are usually hard, which means they can’t be easily dissolved and removed once they’re dry. Hard varnishes are easy to maintain and do a good job of protecting the painting surface.

Some traditional varnishes are soft, which this means that they can be dissolved once applied. This can be useful for cleaning purposes and they were often used in traditional painting practices because it was possible to remove them after several centuries of collecting dirt. A new layer of varnish would then be applied to replace the removed layer.

The most common way to use a soft varnish is to layer it over a hard varnish. This way the top layers of the painting are protected by the hard varnish while the soft varnish can be removed to get rid of dirt.

Applying, Drying and Layering

Always look at the guidelines and safety warnings on whichever varnish you choose to use. It is best to varnish in a well ventilated area because they are often quite toxic (particularly when sprayed) before drying.

Let the varnish dry in the most dust free and still environment you can find, otherwise it will gather dust. If the varnish is applied quite thickly, you will need to let it lie flat for a while so that the varnish doesn’t run down the surface and streak while drying (this is usually more of a concern with brush-on varnish).

Always apply varnish in reasonably thin layers so that they dry fully before applying more. Otherwise there is a risk that the varnish will take a long time to dry and there is a risk it will collect dust and dirt in the meantime.