Friday, 7 January 2011

My Painting of Food looks Like Plastic Toys

Painting food in a still life study will present challenges for the artist trying to make them look edible. Instead, a loaf of bread looks more like cardboard, fruit like plastic or a slice of cheese like Plasticine. How can the artist paint food that looks as though it can be plucked from the canvas it and eaten?

Problems with Painting Food

Tackling the problem of inedible looking food in a still life painting means recognising the practices at that lie at heart, which could be any of the following:
  • Pigeonholing food regarding colour and tone, and then illustrating them thus; cheese is pale yellow, tomatoes are deep red, apples are green and fish is bluish-grey.
  • Using the aforementioned colour in a simplified fashion, applying it neat and evenly in a uniform layer to represent perishable goods.
  • Darkening the colour of the food with black or dark grey for shadows.
  • Illustrating detail of the food with harsh lines, such as the blue veins found in stilton or the layers within an onion.
  • Similarly, using heavy lines to outline the food.
  • Using blobs of neat white for highlights.
Still Life Food Painting

Incorporating food into a still life setting can be a challenging yet satisfying experience if the painting is successful, but can be frustrating if the food fails to convey softness or suggest flavour. And this is often where the problem lies. Because food is experienced on many different levels, such as taste, smell and texture, the artist wishing to express all these qualities in paint may feel overwhelmed. The secret is to forget all other senses, but the visual. Observe food simply as a series of shapes, tonal areas and hues. Above all, dispel preconceptions about how food should look. The following tips may help:

Tips on Painting Food

An item of food often contains different colours and tones rather than just one pigment. A ripe tomato will appear red, yet under other lighting conditions may contain violet, orange, earth colours or even black. When illustrating other such shiny orbs such as apples, lemons or eggs, blend away abrupt tonal shifts to rid of dark crescents. Look out for reflected light. This is light bouncing back from a bright surface into the dark side of the object. Reflected light will make the food appear to inhabit space rather than appear flat. Soft blending will also suggest the waxy surface of fruit.


My Youtube video showing how I completed a painting of a strawberry may help inform on how to paint food. As can be seen, texture in food can be suggested by a few dabs of limited colours.

Art Techniques for Still Life

Intricate areas of detail such as the surface of crusty bread or the texture of cheese or a strawberry (see Youtube clip above) can be simplified and build over in glazes. This means blurring the vision in order to break down the area into basic tonal areas rather than illustrating every line and wrinkle. Allow imperfections to remain in the brushwork. Once the paint is dry, dragging a little neat paint over selected areas will enhance the crusty texture in a technique known as “scumbling.” Remember that highlights can often be found on raised areas next to dark crevasses or pits within bread or cheese.

The Colour of Food

Taking the time to mix colours accurately will convey the essence of food effectively. White with various amounts of burnt sienna is ideal for mixing the colour of crusty bread, eggshells and onion skins; viridian, a little pthalo blue and lemon yellow, for rich broccoli, Savoy cabbage and spinach. Cadmium red and various amounts of permanent rose can be found in red peppers, tomatoes, ripe apples and cherries.

Painting Fish Textures

The Encyclopedia of Oil Painting Techniques: A Unique Step-by-Step Visual Directory of All the Key Oil-Painting Techniques, Plus an Inspirational Gallery Showing How They Can Be Put into PracticeThe ribbed patterns found on fish often have soft and variegated edges. Softening harsh outlines will suggest the smoothness of fish skin. Silver fish can be captured with white, burnt umber and a little pthalo blue. A little ultramarine and permanent rose can be used for violet hues often found on cold water fish. Applying translucent white pigment is good for soft highlights found on fish scales. Protein foods will often contain sharp highlights, where neat white will do the trick, but look out for highlights of other colour temperatures, such a bluish or creamy whites.

How to Paint Food Effectively

Painting food often entails heightening visual awareness. Look out for different types of outlines: sharp or blurred, which can be found on the skins of meat and poultry. Look out for reflected light, often found on orb-shaped fruit, which will suggest form. Look out for different types of highlights, warm or cool, as found on fish scales, fruit or bread. Look out for different textures, which can be captured by either soft blending or scumbling. Stripping away preconceptions about how food looks and narrowing down the senses to the visual will help with painting food more honestly and therefore suggest flavour and texture by itself.

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