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How to Paint a Ruby Red Apple

Red delicious apples make great subjects. Their bright red color can be a delightful challenge for the painter. They aren’t too round, and their semi-planar quality seems almost custom-made for painting.

Paints: Panel Paints: cadmium red light, alizarin crimson, cobalt blue, cadmium yellow lemon, titanium white

Tools: Palette, palette knife, brushes, brush cleaner, mineral spirits, paper towels or cloth rags, and a ruler

Reprinted with permission from The Beginner's Guide to Oil Painting by Craig Stephens, Page Street Publishing Co. 2022. Photo credit: Craig Stephens.

Step 1

What Do We See? The light source is from the upper left, which creates a strong cast shadow on the lower right and a very distinct highlight along the top plane of the apple. The value range goes from a deep red-violet/chromatic black to a very intense, vibrant red on the lit side. There is also a nice variety of more muted light tones in the hollow where the stem is located. The inwardly angled planes of the bottom half catch a great variety of reflected light tones.

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Step 2

Blocking in Your Subject I use cadmium red light with a few mineral spirits to block this one in. I start by finding the center of my panel and drawing a vertical axis to hang my form.

The silhouette is wider at the rounded top, the sides taper toward the rounded top, and the sides taper towards the bottom. The cast shadow is a narrow irregular ellipse at the bottom right. I also make a few marks to indicate where the reflections and core shadow are.

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Step 3

Mixing Your Colors I start with alizarin crimson and a little cobalt blue to mix a very dark red-violet. Moving down, I add more alizarin crimson and the cadmium red light.

Finally, I add a little bit of cadmium yellow lemon and just a touch of titanium white. This color group will be for the core shadow, reflected light, and vibrant lit parts.

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Step 4

Next, I take the three top dark red violets and add titanium white. These new tones will be for some of the less saturated light tones at the top of the apple as well as the rim of more violet reflected light on the side.

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Step 5

The final color group that I need to mix contains going to use a green-based neutral. This will set up a complementary contrast that will make the reds look very vibrant.

I mix a medium green with cobalt blue and cadmium yellow lemon. I then, add titanium white to it until I match the value of the background. I add cadmium red light to this mixture to dull it down and make it a little warmer, but not too much because I want it to maintain its green character. For the foreground, I add more titanium white to this mixture and a small amount of cadmium yellow lemon. Going back up to my original green mixture, I add titanium white until I match the average value of the cast shadow. I then add some vibrant mixed red from the middle region of my first color group. This tones my mixture down and makes it a little darker. This tones my mixture down and makes it a little darker. I make sure I have at least two values and temperatures for my cast shadow.

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Step 6

Painting I start with the very darkest red violets for the core shadow, occlusion shadow, stem, and reflection of the shadow.

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Step 7

I move on to the vibrant reflected light on the lower plane above the cast shadow reflection and the more violet-reflected light on the right edge. I also indicate some of the more muted light tones on the top of the apple near the stem.

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Step 8

I continue to the more vibrant reflected lights on the bottom left of the apple and the vibrant light halftones where the light is striking it higher up. I am careful to observe some of the light red-violet reflections on the lower left side.

At this point, I also add some background color so that I can evaluate my color relationships more accurately. Right now, the apple is blocked in but looks kind of patchy.

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Step 9

Next, I tackle the cast shadow and roughly paint in some foreground color around it.

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Step 10

I continue painting, spreading my background and foreground colors all the way to the edges of my panel.

The final part of the process is to address the patchiness that I mentioned earlier. I soften the internal edges until the form starts to hold together. I also soften the outside edge, especially on the upper-right side, so that the form is a little more integrated into its surroundings. For the final step, I add the bright highlights with my knife. Pure white would probably work, but I prefer to add a tiny bit of cadmium yellow lemon to warm it up.

Some Notes of Bending: When I was teaching high school, my students would ask me about blending. They were mesmerized by smooth gradations going from one color to the next. The mechanics of blending colors is a skill that is fairly easy to learn, especially with oil paint, which takes a long time to dry and stays workable for an extended period. Creating smooth transitions between colors is a useful skill, and you will use it from time to time. However, over the course of doing thousands of little paintings, I have come to the conclusion that my paintings look more spontaneous and lively if I can place two carefully observed colors next to each other and have them function as intended without blending. The more comfortable you get with painting, the more you will start figuring out the kind of look you are drawn to. I prefer a more painterly look. But many very fine painters choose a more finished, naturalistic style.

This apple study is a great example of when more blending made sense to me. There were so many tonal shifts that it looked very patchy to me until the very end when I softened—synonymous with blended—all of those internal edges.

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Step 11

Reprinted with permission from The Beginner's Guide to Oil Painting by Craig Stephens, Page Street Publishing Co. 2022. Photo credit: Craig Stephens.

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