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Art Masterclass - 124

Dramatic tension – dynamic still lifes with Alison Rankin

February 2017

I am passionate about still-life painting and place a great emphasis on light, colour and composition. I love conveying the weight and texture of fruit and vegetables, creating a classic and sensuous still-life feel. Textures, shapes and colours are harmoniously combined to elevate the mere domestic to iconic status.

My most recent work involves fewer objects, sometimes just single fruits, an egg, a piece of cutlery, string or suchlike. I aim to extend the genre by adding movement and dynamic relationships; to introduce dramatic tension into the tranquil world of still life. This is often done using balance, items falling (or are they rising?) items hanging, tied and just barely balancing, with collapse just a moment away.

My starting point is often the colour of the main item. I always work directly from life and tend not to sketch out ideas; I fiddle with the set up until all the components are exactly and precisely placed. I often use Sellotape, pins and Blu Tak to secure my props for the duration of the work and then paint exactly what I see, although I’m not aiming for photorealism. I love the contemporary but traditional paintings of Henk Helmantel and Eric de Vree as well as the extraordinary draughtsmanship of Michael Angove.

Falling Apples and Pearl Knife III
Falling Apples and Pearl Knife III


Basic working method

I work in acrylic paint, often combined with coloured pencils, graphite and inks, building up to create a smooth but painterly result. I work on Fabriano 5 300gsm paper; I love the way it grabs the paint and that the paint dries immediately, so I can work really quickly. I work on wet paper, stretched and taped onto a piece of plywood.

After I’ve finished the painting I varnish it with four or five coats of Polyvine Decorators Varnish, one part satin mixed with two parts matt. When dry I cut it off the board, work out the exact area, that of the finished piece, and tear the edges using a deckle-edged ruler. I then float mount the work using 5mm foamboard in a black box frame.

I have recently been using Tru-Vue non-reflective glass in my frames; although expensive, it stops a painting with a dark background turning into a mirror. This glass is practically invisible, which somehow makes the painting more precious looking.

Alternatively I bond the paper with PVA glue onto a piece of 6mm MDF, then paint on that and varnish it with five or six coats of the same varnish. This gives an extremely robust and durable surface and can be framed without using glass.

Three Persimmons with Hanging Key
Three Persimmons with Hanging Key



Acrylics are wonderfully versatile paints. If you can’t get on with them, my advice is always to buy the best quality you can. I use Chroma Artist Colour; they have fabulous density and depth of colour and are very natural looking. I couldn’t work without ivory black, Chroma white, unbleached titanium, parchment (incredibly useful), warm grey, sepia, raw umber or Payne’s grey. I also use Liquitex heavy body acrylics, their transparent colours make a really good bright glaze.

I also use a lot of pencil, ordinary graphite as well as graphite sticks, rubbed on with stump sticks as well as Derivan liquid pencil in sepia, which is more like creamy paint than liquid, and Schmincke Aerocolor inks. I particularly love Prismacolor pencils, they are fantastic for small areas of intense colour as well as creating shadows and texture. The French greys are perfect for shadows and the black for tiny points of darkness; the white and cream for gently suggesting a highlight or softening an edge.

An ordinary B pencil for drawing cracks and crazing on old pottery is invaluable. I am always looking for a good opaque bright white – very difficult in acrylic. I have been known to use a little white oil colour or oil pastel for highlights. In fact, oil pastels are great for rubbing on lightly to add texture and highlights; as you paint over them they can act as a resist to the acrylic and create a very interesting texture.

I have two Mastersons Sta-Wet palettes, one to lay out my colours, the other to use as a mixing palette. These are invaluable as acrylic paint can stay useable for weeks. I intermittently spray the surface of both palettes with a fine water spray to keep them damp.

My brushes are Pro Arte Prolene and Polar, mostly the flats, with the very fine rounds for detail. I use inexpensive brushes because I’m very hard on them – rubbing, scrubbing and stippling.

Falling Cherries with Chinese Bowl
Falling Cherries with Chinese Bowl


Texture and backgrounds

I always have a piece of dampened kitchen roll in my hand to blot almost every paint mark as it goes on. I also use my finger to smudge and rub the paint. I work the paint in layers, thick and thin, dry and wet. I rub it out with kitchen roll, my finger, a putty rubber, a tiny piece of green kitchen scouring pad, and sometimes use fine sandpaper when it’s dry to smooth the surface again. Dry brushing is a very useful technique with acrylics; combined with thin washes it is a wonderful way to obtain texture. Heavy weight paper can take quite a lot of rubbing and scrubbing but you have to know when to stop, or a hole will appear. Equally you can keep layering up the paint but there will come a point when you just can’t make any more paint stick.

I work from white up to dark and then back again, adjusting the tonal values as I go along. I do use black in small amounts, but usually soften it with a little sepia and warm grey, or I mix indigo, raw umber and dioxazine purple to make a fabulous rich ‘almost black’. I very rarely use straight primary colours. Sludgy ‘off’ colours seem to work for me. I often add a tiny dab of black or sepia to dull down a mixture. Dark backgrounds are a mix of sepia, warm grey and a small amount of black and raw umber.

Backgrounds can be light, medium or dark but always have some mottling, shading and blurring to give depth and sometimes mystery, particularly the dark ones – this is done by very patient stippling and blending. Also very time consuming are the edges of the items, this is done last, to ‘neaten up’. Getting the balance right for soft, hard, light, dark edges that don’t look like they have a line drawn around them or make the object look cut out, takes careful work, often with a tiny brush.


DEMONSTRATION - Old Jar with Knife and Balancing Egg

I wanted to portray something a little quirky and mysterious. Could the weight of the egg actually hold down the blade of the knife? Or was it about to be flipped up in the air by the arrangement collapsing?

Stage 1

As always, I began with a simple but accurate outline drawing in 2B pencil.

still life line drawing

Stage 2

When painting fruit I got into the habit of always doing them first before they wrinkled and went mouldy, so the main item is always done first to set the tone of the painting. Most of the detail is finished but I work up the lights and darks as I go along.

still life, paint main item first


Stage 3

I always get the base colour and shading of an object right before I add the detail or pattern.

still life, add base colour

still life, add detail

Stage 4

I blocked in the background roughly, after deciding where the horizon would be, then blended, stippled, rubbed and washed the horizon line until it was exactly right; not too perfectly ‘airbrushed’ looking but not too patchy or blobby either.

still life, block in background roughly

Finished painting

Lastly the edges were neatened and either softened or sharpened, highlighted or shadowed.

Old jar with Knife and Balancing Egg, acrylic on paper, (60x75cm)
Old jar with Knife and Balancing Egg, acrylic on paper, (60x75cm)

Alison Rankin has a BA hons in Graphic Design. She has worked in book and magazine publishing, as a photographic stylist for food photography, editorial and advertising and also produced paint effects for interiors, furniture and photographic sets. Alison has been painting still lifes professionally for 20 years and has exhibited widely, in the UK and internationally, including in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Alison will be represented by Quantum Contemporary Art at London Art Fair, Business Design Centre, Islington, London, January 18 to 22, and the Affordable Art Fair London, Battersea Park, London, March 9 to 12.


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