On My Easel #3: From Lemons to Lemonade

old italian pitcher with lemonsOn My Easel is a series of articles that records the trials and tribulations of my own personal painting journey. Yes, I am a working artist and lately, I have been getting ready for my upcoming annual still life show at Kneeland Gallery.

This old Italian pitcher has been collecting dust on my kitchen self, when one day, those decorative lemons on the vessel just seemed to jump out at me. I dusted off the pitcher, and ran off to the grocery store and bought some lemons with the concept and title already in mind, “Lemons to Lemonade”.


“If life deals you lemons make lemonade” -Proverb

The Concept:


Once I returned from the grocery store, I immediately set up my props. I wanted a fresh, country appeal to this painting. So, I chose the white doily and sliced open one of the lemons…I enjoyed its zesty scent. The ‘bluebird’ was the bird of choice for this cheery painting. I felt good about the set up – it had good energy and I was confident about this project.

However, little did I know that the title,Lemons to Lemonade” would literally foreshadow the agonizing process of this painting…

The Start:

Lately, my ‘starts’ have been more refined than my bolder approach towards blocking in. But with either approach, I generally begin my still life paintings with a sepia toned under-painting. For this ‘start’, I began by mixing raw umber and burnt sienna together and then thinned the mixture. I used this monochromatic color to nail the basic shapes, light patterns and shadows of the composition.  I am inspired by the Dutch masters who often worked in this manner.

oil painting underpainting

At this point I began to block in the color. My plan was to keep the colors harmonious, so I chose to use blues, oranges and warm yellows. So far so good…

still life oil painting demonstration

The Middle:

The middle part of any project, art related or not, can be the toughest. This is the time when we can get lost and lose focus –  and I did just that! In fact, I struggled with this painting for days and stopped photographing the stages because I was certain that this one would be fit for the dreaded – TRASH!

italian pitcher with lemons country lemonade

Then the painting’s name, “Lemons to Lemonade” hit me like a ton of bricks – Here I was, literally struggling with what seemed to be a ‘lemon’ of a painting! So right then, I decided to make ‘lemonade’ out of this situation. As soon as I changed my negative attitude, the painting turned from sour to sweet! Meaning…that one should make the best of bad situations. What a life lesson.

“When fate hands us a lemon, let’s try to make a lemonade”-Dale Carnegie
“If you have a lemon, make lemonade.” -Howard Luck Gossage

The problem was, I struggled with the weird shaped handle and then I got stumped on choosing the background color. The colors I experimented with were ruining the feel of the whole painting. Meanwhile, my juicy lemons were drying and shriveling up! Now, I wish I documented those various stages, but that was the last thing on my mind at the time – lol!

  • Finally, after trial and error – wiping and repainting, I decided upon keeping the warm sepias in the left-hand side with a gradation of cool tones as it progressed to the right side and into the light.
  • I chose a lavender blue shade which compliments the yellows and oranges.

still life set up painting demonstration

The Finish Line:

As most of you know by know, I add birds and often butterflies, and sometimes even a monkey, to my still life paintings. Once again, the Dutch Masters did it, so why can’t I?

  • I like to wait until the majority of the painting is completed before I add my ‘live’ subjects.
  • I start with the same sepia under-painting, just like the pitcher above.
  • Then I block in the color and add the details last.

still life oil painting demonstration

So, I am really glad that I stuck with this painting and was once again reminded of this age-old proverb, “If life deals you lemons make lemonade”

Italian pitcher and lemon oil painting with bluebird

bluebird oil painting

I hope you enjoyed this post or have a similar story to share for moral support, please leave a comment! ~Lori 🙂

You might enjoy reading these other informative articles:

On My Easel: Still Life Oil Painting Demo #1

On My Easel #2: The Challenge of Painting Blown Glass

How to Paint Iridecent Bird Feathers and Make Them Glow (video)

How to Paint Animal Fur (video)

How I Destroyed a Painting to Make it Better

3 Steps to Set Up & Light a Still Life Painting

Still Life Painting: Create Your Own Small Universe

Water Soluble Oils: Facts, Tips & Why I Use Them

How to Use the Rule of Thirds: Composition in Art


  1. Six_33 February 5, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    The Universe is so synchronized!
    Enjoyed your article.
    On my desk is a heart shaped glass bowl of candy filled with Country Made lemon hard candy.
    My real name means third. I love lemons. And, I picked your Twitter name to read through and RT something because I am an avid RTr. So, I am retweeting this article. I really like the proverb and your painting is pretty. The evolution of your drawing I can see the light shining on it and the pottery looks so real. I am a stick figure artist, but I admire artists who can draw and paint.

    • Lori McNee February 5, 2011 at 3:11 pm

      Thanks for taking time to comment. I love how you are reading this, “Lemons to Lemonade” post while your glass bowl filled with lemon drops sits on your desk! Will you say hi to me on Twitter please? I would love to connect there…

  2. Judy Warner February 6, 2011 at 4:24 am

    I read this while dreading returning to a painting that won’t seem to work–it always helps to hear that I’m not the only one! Will keep the lemons in mind.

    • Lori McNee February 7, 2011 at 9:24 am

      Thanks Judy. I am grateful to be a support in some small way!

      Lori 🙂

  3. Vanessa February 6, 2011 at 5:06 am

    Beautiful painting! I think it turned out wonderful. And thank you for showing the various stages of development. I can surely relate to the “lemons to lemonade” feeling. Sometimes, especially in the early stages of a painting, you can feel as though things are moving along perfectly (especially in the monochromatic stages for me). And once you begin adding the layers you can sometimes feel as though you are departing from a beautiful picture. but then like you said, it has to go through a journey to get where it’s going. And I think that’s where we learn the most as artist.

    By the way, the blue bird really seals this piece. Your paintings are exquisite!

    • Lori McNee February 7, 2011 at 11:06 am

      Hi again Vanessa,

      Yes, that darn middle section stumps a lot of us! I agree with you, sometimes I really like my fresh starts, but there is not enough paint to make it a painting…so I have to add more and then, at times, the painting falls a part! That is what happened to this one – I am glad I worked through it!

      Thanks for your input-

  4. Jacki newell February 7, 2011 at 8:13 am

    Lori, I want to thank you for sharing your struggles with this painting. Your paintings are so amazingly beautiful, I often wonder if they are ever difficult for you. It feels good to know that I’m not the only one that “gets stuck” in the middle of a painting. I’m so glad you fought through it and ended up with something so beautiful.
    God bless.

    • Lori McNee February 7, 2011 at 9:27 am

      Hello Jacki,

      I really am grateful to know that my ‘struggle’ has helped other artists in some small way. Thank you for your kind words about my art and this post. I just wish that I would have recorded some of the horrible, muddy stages that the painting went through…it was quite graphic, lol!


  5. manjitsingh matharoo February 14, 2011 at 2:29 am

    so so fine and loving !!!1

    • Lori McNee February 14, 2011 at 12:15 pm

      Thank you!

  6. Steve Martinez February 26, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    Thanks for sharing. There are many times that I would get to that middle part of a project, then all sorts of thoughts would come, challenging even my very foundations. Needless to say, as an amateur painter, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one. Thanks. Just wanted to let you know that I stopped by. One of these days, it might be worth something.

  7. Cher Compton March 24, 2011 at 10:38 am

    What an inspiration. This is the first time I have seen your work and I have learned so much from this one piece. Thank you.

    • Lori McNee March 24, 2011 at 1:31 pm

      I am so glad I stuck with this painting Cher! I am grateful my struggles helped others. 🙂 Thank you for the great feedback.


  8. Queenie Marie A. Maquilang October 19, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I have a painting right now which I have been laboring for months. I can’t seem to place the shadow at the right place and get the right shade. 🙂 I am glad I read this post and the comments that follow because it tells me that this is common occurrence and I am not alone in this kind of situation.

    • Lori McNee October 21, 2011 at 1:27 am

      Hello Queenie Marie, you are NOT alone on this! In fact, many talented artists struggle with their paintings on a daily basis! I am glad you found this post helpful and inspiring.

      Thank you for the visit-

  9. Donna Ham December 12, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    I love this painting and I enjoyed reading your thought process as you progressed. I love the pitcher and the handle that you said gave you some trouble. I tried my hand at a still life in oils this past year. You have made me want to give it try again. Truly love your paintings.

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