Last week, the day before my 32nd birthday, I finished a 6×8″ still life study of three lemons. One lemon sits in a silver parfait dish, which I bought at a collectibles shop that was painful to leave with only this cup. If you have any beautiful, timeless-looking objects you want off your hands, I’ll pay for shipping!

This was a three day study that presented fun, new considerations of painting bright color, chromatic highlights and silver. Last year my projects took forever (weeks and weeks and weeks) and were done in a very painstaking, methodical manner. This year the mantra is “get it off your easel.” Year three is the full-color year, and the best way to get your sea legs with color is to burn through a ton of studies. This is my first attempt, starting in the key of yellow.

I set up the lemons in a box with an incandescent light affixed to it. I adjusted the light until I got the shadows to look the way I wanted.


Day 1: I set up the still life composition and drew directly on my canvas with sanguine Conté pencil (red chalk crayon). Then I painted over the drawing, making a grisaille underpainting with raw umber and titanium white. I left the shadows transparent to keep them lively and warm.


Day 2: Lemons! I’ve never painted in high chroma (pure color) before. I’ve painted in grayscale and in neutral warm and cool limited palettes. [Between you and me, I just had to look this up for the umpteenth time: Your “palate” is the roof of your mouth, and by extension, your sense of taste. A “palette” is the flat board an artist mixes paint on. A “pallet” is either a bed or a flat platform onto which goods are loaded. – From WSU’s English Usage webpage. Though I do think what’s on my palette reflects my personal palate, don’t you?  Back to regular programming…]

I asked one of our teachers, David, who had earlier completed a lovely still life that included lemons how to proceed. He recommended mixing a couple of cadmium yellows (the brightest colors on the planet, like staring directly into the sun, and that’s probably because like the actual sun this paint is full of heavy metals so we must use it with care) and adding raw sienna, yellow ocher and raw umber to darken. This was my first brush with color tuning.

If you’ll allow, I’d like to introduce this topic now because I think I’ll bring it up a lot this year. Oversimplified, color tuning addresses the problem of creating a value scale with pure color. Remember value is what you use to turn form. So let’s pretend we want to turn form on a juicy red delicious apple. We squirt our red paint out of the tube and it’s a value 6 but painting the apple with one value will not give us any roundness. So how do we darken to 9 and lighten to 1 while keeping the color true to red? When we add white we freak out because the color cools down and produces pink paint. We look at the apple and sigh. There’s no pink on that apple. So we need to warm it up by adding a lighter, warmer color. Orange might do the trick. So we tune, just like tuning a musical instrument, step by step to value 1, adding a little of this and a little of that to keep our red chroma. To darken, you might think black is the solution but if you remember from last year’s grisaille trials, black is actually a blue, so while it would definitely make our red darker, but it would also turn it purple. We look back at the apple and sigh again. There’s no purple on the real apple. Because we want to stay chromatic, true to red, we need to get creative. We can use a deep cool red, alizarin crimson, and then warm it up with a warm brown, burnt umber, little by little tuning down the scale to 9. Bravo, we created a beautifully tuned red value string (in our minds).

Back in lemon land, I tuned my yellow string, took a breath and dove in. After the first lemon was painted I took a bathroom break and noticed some one had left a jar of hard candies at the water cooler. Normally if they’re not chocolate (or my gran’s apple pie), sweets don’t really turn my head, but my eye caught a lemon drop floating in that jar so I grabbed it and went back into my studio mouth watering with lemony flavor. Suddenly I had three juicy lemons on my canvas.


Day 3: This was the longest day believe it or not. The background is pretty neutral so you’d think slap some paint on that underpainting and call it a day but you’d be wrong. I came to my second major hurdle: I’d never painted a metal object. This time I sought the expertise of our other assistant teacher, John, for a lesson in metal. Of course being a true teacher, John was not satisfied to tell me how to paint the metal object in my particular still life but rather I received a personal lecture on all metals. I kept hedging by trying to direct questions back to silver, but John was too quick for that. My notes are extensive. Name a metal, I now have all the answers.

Then I got back to painting. I stayed late fussing with edges. A classmate Paul came by and helped me figure out the highlights which were bothering me just then (thanks Paul!). Emmett was at the climbing gym late that night and came to pick me up so I got to show him the final painting, unvarnished as it is below. Emmett never asks to have paintings for himself, because there are lots of them and because I want to sell them, but he requested this one on the spot. And since he’s been very well behaved for the past 12 years I said ok. Emmett’s lemons:


PS: My mom asked me if I ever name paintings anything other than the obvious (I have a history, ie. “Cup and Scone”) as I’m calling this painting “Lemons.” Good question. There’s a tradition of naming academic studies really obvious names because they’re not necessarily idea-driven pieces but rather small technical practice paintings, however I’m open to suggestions. Leave a comment: what’s the name of the lemon painting? We’ll let Emmett pick the winner.