How to Paint a Watercolor Tomato

Here at Little House in the Suburbs we’ve grown tomatoes dried tomatoes, broiled tomatoes, fried tomatoes, pickled tomatoes, and even laughed at my attempts to stake tomatoes.

Running out of new things to do with tomatoes, by george, we’re going to paint tomatoes.

How to Paint a Watercolor Tomato

by Jeff Atnip

It is always better to use your own reference material, so, lacking any tomato vines of my own, I found a friendly neighbor with plenty. I had the run of the garden and I took a good number of photos. At this stage I had a rough idea of my composition, but I was open to whatever inspiration the garden would offer. After studying the photos back home on my Mac, I decided on using these two. I printed them both out on one sheet of glossy paper.

Paper
I use Arches 140 lb watercolor cold press paper. The lbs refers to the thickness or weight of the paper and the cold press refers to the smoothness. Hot press is smooth and slick, cold press is rough. I prefer the rough surface most of the time because, paradoxically, you can achieve much smoother gradations of color with wet paint…and then use the roughness to simulate rough textures with drier paint. Regardless of what weight and surface you choose, it does need to be real watercolor paper because this paper is designed for rough treatment and even absorption.

Brushes
One is a “round” and the other is a “flat”. They have numbers to designate their size, but I am sorry I do not know what those numbers are. The important thing is that when they are wet, they spring back to their shape. In other words, cheap brushes will get wet and then flop over and stay that way. Round brushes retain their points and the flats retain their knife edge.

Paint
I used Winsor and Newton, Cotman, and Van Gogh brand paints in this painting. These just happened to be what I had on hand. You do want to be sure you are using decent quality paints that have their permanence rating printed on the tube. Cheap school paints can fade quickly. Other than that, the different prices on brands of watercolor paint are usually proportionate to the ratio of pigment to medium in the mixture. The medium is the liquid used to suspend the powdered pigment. More expensive paints have more pigment and thus the color is more intense and goes farther per brushful.

Next I got out my pencil and sketchbook and did a small sketch where I worked out the basic composition and the lights and darks. This is going to be a semi-impressionistic painting and so the background “jungle” of leaves and stems will be suggested rather than painstakingly analyzed and rendered. As I sketch, I keep in mind basic design principles such as the center of interest should not be in the exact center, alternate lights and darks, use interesting shapes, etc… Below is the  sketch.

I decide to make this a fairly small painting. Something that would go nicely in a kitchen perhaps, so I cut a piece of watercolor paper into an 8 by 10 inch rectangle. This will fit a standardized frame. The paper is 140 lb. Arches watercolor paper. After cutting the paper I lay it out on my drawing table and use my sketch to draw out my composition. I also add some liquid masking material to the highlighted areas on both tomatoes. Here it is drawn out on the paper.


Next I find a big enough wide flat container, fill it with water and drop in the paper. I let it soak for about 20 minutes, pull it out and lay it on my drawing table again. Using a broad brush, I begin laying in the colors and letting them spread out on the water soaked paper. Another design principle is to vary everything continually so I lay down a variety of greens. I let the paint run and bleed where it will.


As the paper dries I am able to start applying detail here and there. I can’t wait to paint the red on the tomato, so I go ahead and start.


The rule is: dry paint on wet paper equals more control…wet paint on wet paper equals major spreading and no control. Knowing these rules allows me to control things to a degree. At this stage I begin add darks and I begin defining shapes. I refer to my photos, but I also make full use of my artistic license. At one point the paint was drying too quickly so I misted it with water from an old spray bottle.


Now the fun part comes when I can start adding detail. You’ll notice what is called “lost and found edges”. These are times when a visible edge gradates into nothingness and it is lost. This adds interest and mystery. You will also see shapes transitioning from dark to light depending on their background. This is a phenomenon found in nature. Look at a utility pole which rises out of background greenery and you will see the pole is light against the trees and then dark against the sky. It is a “push-pull” effect that adds excitement to the painting.


And here it is, finished.

If you’d like to try to bring this painting home, tomorrow Jeff is giving these tomatoes away.  Check back tomorrow/Thursday and we’ll tell you how.

Leave a Reply

  1. Wow, totally enjoyed this. I have always admired watercolor, especially for nature journaling. Thanks for the inspiration and a look at each step along the way!

  2. What a beautiful painting! It inspires me to take up my brush and create a painting of my cherry tomatoes growing in my backyard!

  3. Amazing watercolor painting…picked up some great pointers to get my own creative juices flowing. Thanks for a great website and the opportunity to own this painting.