Old Master's Techniques: Still Life in Oil

90 TUTOR: Grace Payne-Kumar

Have you always dreamed of being able to paint like an Old Master? Through using the Sight-Size method as a visual tool, you can. Marlborough College's Artist in Residence, Grace teaches the methods of Titian, Van Dyke and Velasquez by which the subject is placed beside the canvas and viewed at a distance. This allows the artist to see the overall light effect, training the eye to perceive form without distortion. Grace will work alongside students as they create their own still life painting, training them to measure dimensions, create accurate light and shadow effects and master colour matching.

4 Full Day
Full day course

Course Notes

By looking back to the methods of the Old Masters before the 19th Century, we learn to truly see what is in front of us. In the digital age, artist are often encouraged us to paint from photography - which is already an imitation. However, by painting from life, students are able to understand form and achieve greater realism, depth and atmosphere in their paintings.

This rigorous course is suitable for painters of all abilities. Grace strongly believes that given the correct guidance, anyone can create a masterpiece. Students will gain confidence using oil and refine their skills with Grace assisting each student according to their ability, providing critiques throughout the day.

Testimonial from first time oil painter, Vittoria, at Grace's Edinburgh Drawing School 2023 summer painting course: "Grace is an encouraging and meticulous teacher. I would have never been able to create the painting I have without her help. I will be setting up my own sight-size paintings at home from now on!”

Day One: Composition and Proportion

Students will set up their still life scenes, creating contrasts of height, texture, light and dark. Grace will work with each student to create a harmonious composition, providing exemplary paintings to analyse and objects of inspiration to choose from. Contrasting different textures such as fabric, metal, ceramic, wood, glass, or natural matter (fruit, veg, flowers) is often a visually interesting route.

The Sight Size Method: The subject is placed beside the canvas and viewed at a distance. This allows the artist to see the overall light effect, training the eye to perceive form without distortion. The sight-size method was used by Titian, Van Dyck, Velasquez and most notably John Singer Sargent.

By the end of the day, students will have created an oil sketch mapping out the basic heights and widths of the objects using this method.

Day Two: Light to Dark Transitions


Students will study light, shadow and half tone shapes, training the eye to see what is present in nature. The brain is prone to creating visual shortcuts, but by studying form from a distance, students can understand the planes of objects and reduce them to light and dark tones.

From here, we will work on softening edges and transitions, seamlessly blending from one tone to the next.

Day Three - Colour

Students will learn how to mix accurate colours, understand colour theory, layer paint and separate cool and warm hues.

By simplifying objects into planes, we may understand colour and light transitions better. This is achieved by squinting, careful observation whilst stepping back and using the mirror as a tool to refresh the eye.

The eye becomes tired from looking at the same image for extended periods of time. By looking at both your painting and subject in a mirror, the image is flipped, allowing a fresh perspective on shapes, colour and tone.

Day Four - Highlights and Depth


Grace will assist students in finding points throughout the composition of highlights and darkest darks.

Softening edges is important to create a sense of form moving away from you - for example, in spherical objects.

This is also an important day to reassess proportions, making sure the "big shapes” have not been compromised after applying lights, darks and colour.


Day Five - Accents and Atmosphere

Up until this point, students will have been encouraged to soften any edges. The final day is the time to create accents. This allows the viewer's eye to be lead around a painting, guiding them to the focal point.

Points of high contrast between lightest lights and darkest darks will lead the eye as the most prominent point of the painting. We will also discuss colour motif.

Atmosphere can be achieved by sfumato background effects and darkening large shadow shapes.


Materials List (provided)


Paints: Cadmium red, Yellow ochre, Titanium white, Ivory black, Raw umber and Prussian blue - Windsor and Newton.




Brushes: 6 Hog hair brushes - ideal for oil painting. Hog allows the brush to carry more paint and create impasto effects, combination of flat, round and filbert. Range of sizes 1, 2, 4, 5, 6.


Primed Master's linen canvas - 16 x 12 inch


Oil painting medium and odourless turpentine - Zest-It or spike lavender oil are also appropriate. Please do not bring white spirit due to ventilation limitations.


Still life objects will be provided to help spur student's imaginations, however it is recommended that students bring along 1-4 items. Please refrain from bringing perishables that will not hold their form for 5 days. Also make sure these items will fit within the dimensions of the canvas (16 X 12 inch) - portrait or landscape. Look to James Gillick and William Nicholson's still life paintings for inspiration.


Paper towels


Small Mirror - please bring your own.


Two jars to mix - please bring your own.


Course Tutor

Grace Payne-Kumar

About Grace

Current Artist in Residence at the college, Grace trained and taught at Charles H. Cecil Studios in Florence and has applied the sight-size technique throughout her painting career. She won the Member's Choice Award in the Scottish Portrait Awards 2019, has sold and exhibited her work across the UK, the US, Abu Dhabi and Italy. Grace is also an experienced teacher having taught at The Edinburgh Drawing School and Kelmscott Manor.

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All courses run for 5 days

WK 1 8 Jul - 12 Jul

WK 2 15 Jul - 19 Jul

WK 3 22 Jul - 26 Jul

WK 4 29 Jul - 2 Aug

Morning Courses

9.15AM to 12.15PM

Afternoon Courses

1.45PM to 4.30PM

All Day Courses

9.15AM to 4.30PM