Four Jumbo Oranges - Oil Painting by John Morfis

Four Jumbo Oranges

Four Jumbo Oranges - Oil Painting by John MorfisWhen I was in college I painted several still lifes involving vegetables you’d find in your kitchen.  At that time I was studying works by Chardin and Caravaggio.  Well here I am more 20 years later and I spent over a decade painting only landscapes and the last several years painting tools.  I had the urge to attempt a classical-style still life.  This time I would be approaching the painting with a much higher skill set ( I hoped).  I had much persistence as an artist in college but I did not have the knowledge and skills that I have now.

I know so much more about paint mixing, form realism, perspective and all the important aspects to painting a still life in oils and not only making it look convincing but looking beautiful as well.  Above all I think I’ve learned a thing or two over the years about picture making.  It’s almost hard to put into words, but the art of making pictures that “look good” is more than just about attention to detail and accuracy.  Copying a photograph is completely out of the question.  That’s the quickest way to get a boring, dead-looking painting that not only looks flat, but yearns to be nothing more than what it is; a copy.

I really spent a great deal of time and mental bandwidth designing this painting.  I did several sketches and a few poster-studies.  For those of you unfamiliar with a poster-study, a poster-study is basically a thumbnail sketch in paint.  It’s an artist’s attempt to see what the final painting could look like in full color but of course a much simpler version of the painting.  The colors need to be “posterized” in that they are mostly solid areas of color and there is a limitation in palette. – not in the limited palette sense that’s all the rage with some modern painters.  I’m not limiting myself to primary colors here.   I’m using my full box of artist colors, I’m just limiting how many varieties of each I use in the poster-study.

Below is a photograph of some of the poster studies I completed prior to starting the major painting.  The break the composition down into its basic shapes and colors – they are not meant to be refined.


The sketches and poster studies were really helpful.  They enabled me to glimpse ahead to the final painting and rule out some poor color choices.  One of my studies wasn’t very strong and I can only imagine how disappointed I would have been if I had pursued such a painting.  (You can see that study towards the bottom left of the photograph above)

As I came up with pleasing color harmonies in my poster-studies I kept notes in my sketchbook.  I recorded paint-mixture recipes as best as I could and left paint swatches right there in my sketchbook.  This way I could find the same colors again later for the final painting.  I tend to do this with complicated paintings in which I feel I might need to re-make certain colors and especially during subject matter in which I’m unfamiliar.

Check out this page from my sketchbook:

color samples from sketchbook

Well, the studies came and went and I finally got to work on the final painting.  At 26 x 19 inches and no detail left undone this painting was a huge undertaking compared to my usual repertoire of tools, fishing lures and equestrian equipment.

I had to repaint the oranges a couple of times.  Such an everyday object seems so easy to paint but until you actually try to render them in oil paint you have no idea how difficult they are to render.  Oranges have dimples everywhere, an overall waxy sheen and a color that can be deceiving to be quite honest.  These tasty delights were going to be the death of me but I did what I know best and that’s pursue to no ends.


    1. John Morfis says:

      Thank you Teresa!

      1. Really enjoyed reading about this process. Can’t wait to try some of these techniques

        1. John Morfis says:

          Awesome Jill, post back here if you have any questions!

  1. Caroline Riedel says:

    Just love your site! Always read and try to incorporate the info into my work. The method with grisaille was one of my major issues in oil, as I started our in the late ’90’s. Unfortunately my workshop professor was a visitor from Vienna (now a prof at the Akademie there = far away). In short, we learned the grisaille thing, then painted the lights with our own tempera (first white “raising”), followed by “glaze” and another white-raising. A workshop is just like a “whiff” of the work. And I was never able to get into the really chemical side of the “glazing”. So, what seems like “a la prima” on top of, say, a dark/white realistic (portrait, usually for me) is not quite what I am after. Missing is my knowing how to deal with the tones between……. I attended another workshop where an excellent artist did just what you’ve explained. His grisaille guided his final work. Well, this is getting long. But I would wish to know if you can help me with the chemical composition of a glaze = have had drying problems. Or that my painting remains tacky. Over time, and with some experience getting the glaze-colors right, I still fear the non-drying effect…..especially if I here and there use a “spreader” like Maroger (mix this deadly stuff here at home). I’d love to hear what you could tell me, when you have time. Fond greetings and thanx, Caroline

    1. John Morfis says:

      Hi Caroline.

      My go-to medium for the past several years is simply alkali refined linseed oil. I use Gamblin brand. I have written here a long time ago about some fancier painting mediums and I still have these mediums but don’t use them much. I keep a bottle of Gamblin’s neo megilp around for two reasons.

      • If I wan’t to lay down a toned ground, it dries faster and makes the surface a wee bit slick, which I actually prefer!
      • If I have some fast approaching deadline and need to scumble/glaze a bit.

      The second reason on that list almost never happens.

      So back to your original question: You can just glaze with linseed oil and your paint. It will be slow to dry so it’s important that the painting lays down flat for a while. As long as the coating is thin and there is paint in it, it shouldn’t take more than 1-3days to dry. A thick layer of linseed oil with no paint will take forever to dry.

      I would say, less is more & keep it simple

      By the way, 95% of the painting I do is direct… meaning I attempt to put the correct color down immediately. I can do this well with subjects I am very familiar with. If i tackle something new, challenging, and complicated I will resort to a grisaille on occasions.


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