Create a Winning Still Life Painting Step by Step

Second-place winner in the still life painting category of The Artist’s Magazine’s 29th Annual Competition, David Cheifetz, takes you step by step through the process for his winning oil painting Spool as he focuses on his deft handling of edges, contrast and color.

By David Cheifetz

My inspiration for Spool was initially born of being fed up with my stash of still life objects and grabbing a spool of picture wire as something new to paint. The still life oil painting then became a little challenge to further validate my suspicion that it’s not what I paint but how I paint it that really matters.

David Cheifetz's winning oil still life painting "Spool" (oil, 16x20)

In his still life oil painting “Spool” (oil, 16×20), David Cheifetz shows masterly oil painting techniques in his use of edges, color, value and contrast.

Cheifetz’s Oil Painting Techniques

I enjoy painting with lots of color, but I also like to explore the concept that you can make a painting appear colorful by restricting intense color to small areas in the still life composition—that it’s the relationship of these small colorful areas with the surrounding neutral tones that matters.

My still lifes are painted from life. I begin with a toned panel. I prefer panel to canvas—I like how the paint sits on the firm surface and becomes a 3d medium from the very beginning. I loosely (but accurately) block in the drawing and shapes of shadows with umber. At this point if I don’t like the composition or placement, I’ll wipe it out and start again. After I’ve got my shapes of shadow blocked in (always squinting to see dark shapes, not detail), I start painting directly with spots of color, being sure to establish my darkest dark and lightest light as quickly as possible. This helps me judge my range of values for the rest of the painting. I like to paint direct, alla prima style. I’m finished with a painting when the work I’m doing is no longer making any significant improvement. It’s the point of diminishing returns—which usually happens to be when I’m sick of that painting.

These days my typical palette is: ivory black, 
phthalo blue, 
ultramarine blue, permanent alizarin crimson, 
cadmium red, 
cadmium orange, 
burnt umber, raw umber, yellow ochre, 
cadmium yellow
, cadmium lemon
, titanium white. and my favorite medium is Neo-Megilp (by Gamblin) because it is the next-best thing to the Maroger medium made by the teachers at the Schuler School.

If you like learning about Cheifetz’s winning painting, view other winning pictures in the December 2012 issue of The Artist’s Magazine. Click here to download the issue.


1. Still Life Oil Painting Process—Step by Step: The Setup

Photo of setup for still life oil painting "Spool"

I have a cool fluorescent coming from above left and a warm incandescent bulb coming from the right. The objects in the foreground—the spool, paint tube and red glass—will be high contrast and in focus. I want the pitcher to recede into the background.


2. Painting Process: The Block-In

Step 2, the block-in, for Cheifetz's step-by-step demo

I start blocking in the shapes. I start painting directly into the spool of wire. This start is a bit messy. I’m relying on the ability fix things later. Not always the best strategy, but it worked this time.


3. Painting Process: Establishing the Value Range

Step 3, Establishing the Value Range for the still life painting "Spool"

I want the pitcher and onion to eventually become secondary. At this stage I’m intentionally holding back with the darks in the pitcher, searching for the value range that will help it to recede.


4. Painting Process: Establishing the Background and Cloth

Step 4, Establishing the Background and Cloth, showing oil painting techniques

I establish background and cloth, deciding on a neutral tone (with reflected light in the folds of the cloth) to showcase my chosen elements. Now I have a better idea of what I’m working with.


5. Painting Process: Getting in the Red

Step 5, Getting in the Red, where the spots of bright accent color are established

Finally getting the red elements in. These red objects might compete a little with the primacy of the spool. I kind of like how the unfinished cloth looks at this point, like it’s vibrating or something. But know I’ll be taking it further.


6. Painting Process: Finishing the Cloth

Step 6, Finishing the Cloth, step by step in the composition

I begin working the cloth to a better finish, working my way from left to right. I’m in the zone right now, deep in an audiobook. I’m lost in the folds and creases. Satisfying work. At this point I realize my pitcher has too much value contrast: it’s commanding too much attention.


7. Painting Process: Finessing Detail and Edges

Step 7, Finessing Detail and Edges, Cheifetz's oil painting tips

At this point I’m killing the contrast of the pitcher to push it back and draw more focus to the spool and red paint tube and glass. I decide to start obliterating the edges of the pitcher and onion. I want the eye to go to the darks and sharp edges. I tighten up the detail of the foreground objects.


8. Painting Process: The Finished Painting

Step 8, the finished still life oil painting, end of step-by-step demo

David Cheifetz demonstrates the results of his oil painting techniques for color, edges, contrast and compostition in “Spool” (oil, 16×20).


Other Information You Might Like:

To see and read about the other winning paintings of The Artist’s Magazine’s 29th (2012) Annual Competition, get a copy of our December 2012 issue. Click here to download the issue.

To learn more about The Artist’s Magazine’s 29th Annual Competition and the Artists Network’s other art competitions, follow this link.

If you’re just getting started in oil painting, Alwyn Crawshaw shows you all the materials you need. He demonstrates brushwork techniques and color mixing to help you understand how oils work. Click here to learn about his video download.



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