Meyer Lemons Painting Tutorial
STEP 1: The setup
Meyer Lemons. What wonderful fruit. They are slightly warmer in color and sweeter in flavor than conventional lemons. We picked these lemons, put them on a wooden tray lit by the sun from our kitchen window. The plan was to make margaritas with their sweet and tart juice, but as often happens in my life, this fleeting moment inspired me to make art. I grabbed the camera and took a few shots. Yes, we did make the Margaritas. They were delicious.
Goal: Celebration of light and texture
I define my goal for the painting before I start. What I wanted to say about these Meyer Lemons is how the sunlight is captured and stored by these uniquely sweet lemons. Throughout the process, my goal is to make this primary idea clear, so it’s essential that I avoid leaving anything out or put anything in that makes the idea vague. Of course, most important consideration is to create a painting that’s as beautiful and arresting as the lemons were when I first saw them.
STEP 2: Drawing on canvas
Time to explore
I begin by drawing directly on the canvas with a 3B pencil. Drawing freehand helps me explore the composition and get better acquainted with the elements and their relationship to each other. I pay close attention to the rhythm, placement, and orientation of the lemon slices. Spray fix is applied to hold the drawing in place.
Freehand only – no tracing
Although I often use photographs for reference, I always draw my subject freehand and never trace. I find the results of tracing to be lifeless and it doesn’t challenge me enough to understand my subject. In contrast, freehand drawing encourages me to explore, alter the composition, and get much better understanding of all its elements and their relationship to each other. I get a feel of the rhythm of both the placement of elements and their orientation – the directions they lean and how that rhythm creates interesting movement.
STEP 3: Blocking in
Focus on the large dark shapes
Continuing the “drawing” stage, I add form and shadow. For the background, I use a mixture of Alizarin Crimson and Ultramarine Blue, making it cool and dark. With warm light bouncing around the base of the lemons, I paint the foreground shadow with Burnt Umber warmed with a small amount of Transparent Red Iron Oxide. Care is needed here to not over-saturate that warm color so it won’t fight with the colors of the fruit.
STEP 4: Block-in
Transparent colors for depth
Working from the background forward, I block in the midtones. I add a hint of the blue-green cast by the leaded glass window. That color, a near complement to the lemon’s colors, and will help give the lemon’s warmth more intensity.
STEP 5: Block-in complete
Block-in finished, now what?
All elements are now in place. The darkest spaces are established, the lightest areas of the vase and table are indicated, and there is a hint of where highlights will be painted later.
Plums start to take shape
I begin working on the waxy areas of the skin with mixtures of anthraquinone red and ultramarine blue with white creating soft pinks, lavenders, and blues. In addition to lightening the color, adding white colors reduces the vibrancy and cools the color. The result of the mix is perfect for the effect of diffused reflected light and again, help intensify the brilliance of the stronger warm red and oranges and the richness of the cool highly saturated blues and purples.
The light emitted from a translucent material, like the plum’s skin, is far more vibrant than reflected light. Think stained glass windows. To create that effect, I use hot, cadmium red on the plums where the light is traveling through the plum’s skins. Ultimately these colors the edges of these colors will be lightly blended.
STEP 6: Close to the Finish
With shapes, colors, and values in place, I refine them by blending middle tones, deepening the shadows, adding details, and laying in highlights. The lemons are built with transitions of Cadmium Yellow Deep and Cadmium Orange. Their shadows are glazes of Transparent Red Iron Oxide and Alizarin Crimson; the highlights are cool gray tones. The cool grays enhance the vibrancy of the yellows.
STEP 7: Finishing Detail
I build up the value contrast between the background and foreground lemons. Color saturation contrast between the background and pulp in shadow is also increased. The highest saturation is in the areas of greatest translucence – the light through the leaves, and the light through the juicy lemon slices. I use bright highlights sparingly. Thin lines of light green define the leaf edges making them look 3D and thin. The juiciness of the fruit is enhanced by very thin highlights of white along the slice edges and a few of the lemon cells. The last touch is a quick vertical stroke over the wet highlights with a soft fan brush to add soft edges to highlights against the deepest background color.
STEP 8: Finish – my favorite part
Refining through blending middle tones, deepening the shadows, adding details, and laying some highlights. Note that the highlights at this stage are not pure white. I only use pure – or close to pure – white as my final strokes.
Stretched Canvas – acrylic double primed
Paints (M Graham)
In the order arranged on my palette
M Graham Walnut Oil Paints
Cadmium Yellow Deep
Cadmium Yellow Light
Titanium White (quick drying)
Varnish (for restoring color brilliance)
Blair Retouch Varnish
M Graham Walnut Alkyd Medium
Gamlin Aylkyd Gel Medium
Rosemary and Co. Brushes
Hogs hair bristle
4B Graphite Pencil
Metal ruler straight edge
Palette Knife (only for mixing)
Master’s Brush Cleaner
Samples and more
The approach I have taken in Meyer Lemons is similar to the way I have taken with many of my still life painting. You can see the result in my Fruit Collection here. You might also find the short video demonstrations interesting.
If you find this tutorial helpful or interesting, please reply to by leaving a comment, below. I would also love to get suggestions for future tutorials. Thank you!