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Oil Painting Lessons - How To Paint Drapery

Updated on July 28, 2011

Example of Drapery in Painting

Andrea Mantegna's "Dead Christ"
Andrea Mantegna's "Dead Christ"

Creating Emotion Through Objects

For centuries artist's have been painting drapery and fabric to express emotion and create drama and tension. Works of art by Old Masters such as Caravaggio, Mategna, Tintoretto and El Greco utilize fabric in billowing swirls or wet drapery conveying further explanation of their stories. The fabric in their paintings takes on a life of it's own.

Some artist's believe that if you can master drapery, you can paint anything. I don't know if this is accurate, but I do believe it is similar to painting fabric, paper and flesh. All techniques in painting are building blocks and the more you know, the easier it becomes to accomplish effective artwork.

Student Drapery Paintings, from ArtSpace Chiang Mai

Student Painting using a Raw Sienna Scale
Student Painting using a Raw Sienna Scale
Student Painting using Grayscale
Student Painting using Grayscale
Intermediate Student Painting using Complimentary colors (Blue and Orange)
Intermediate Student Painting using Complimentary colors (Blue and Orange)
Student using Grayscale - In Process
Student using Grayscale - In Process
Student's Grayscale Painting Complete
Student's Grayscale Painting Complete


You will need:

  1. White Fabric (not see through and no patterns if possible)
  2. Something to drape the fabric on (Ladder, stacked chairs, tall furniture, ironing board)
  3. Clamp light
  4. Canvas
  5. Oil or Acrylic Paint (raw sienna, white, burnt umber, ultramarine blue)
  6. Brushes
  7. Turpentine (odorless if possible)
  8. Brush Cleaner
  9. Charcoal

Painting Exercise

Start by setting up your fabric. It is best to begin with if your fabric is at least 6' away from you so you can observe it. Hang it so it flows down naturally. If you want to experiment with swagging it to create "u" shapes, try folding a section of it like a fan. Use pins if need be, but make sure it does not appear to be pulling unnaturally at any point.

Setting up your still life is actually part of the art - be patient and take your time. It is common for students to spend an entire class time on just setting up the still life!

Use a clamp light on one angle of your fabric creating a sharp contrast that shows a variety of value scales - try to achieve very dark areas and bright highlights.

Stand back and take 5-10 minutes to just observe the fabric. Count the folds and creases. Look at the values that you can find.

Draw some thumbnail sketches determining what portion of the still life you will draw. Do not attempt to paint the entire still life for the first painting. Just take a small section and enlarge it on your canvas.

Place colors on your palette. White, Raw Sienna and create black by mixing Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber.

Lightly draw your composition onto the canvas. Do not fill in any values at this time - only very light outlines. Blow off any excess charcoal dust.

Mix turpentine into oils and water into acrylics. Start with very thin layers of paint.

Painting drapery is a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle - where shapes fit together. Start with your largest shapes in mid-tone values. Early on, add in your darkest shadows. The darkest shadows should go to black for this exercise, which means you may need to "push" your value scale. If you literally do not see black, make your darkest area black and work from that point, keeping your lightest areas white. Blend very little - just stack shapes to begin with, wedging shapes of value next to one another.

The longer you observe your still life, the more shapes will appear. Work toward smaller and smaller details.

For Acrylic painters - you will need to blend a bit as you go because your paint dries fast. However, if you over-blend, go back and paint sharper lines where needed.

For Oil painters - consider scumbling to blend colors - use a dry clean brush and "scrub" the paint colors into one another, or scrub wet paint over dry paint to help with shading.

This is a process and the more you work on it, the better it will look. If you are using oil paint and your painting becomes muddy and unworkable, allow it to dry.

Good Luck!

Related Articles

If you enjoyed this exercise, please visit my other hubs. I have been teaching painting at ArtSpace in Chiang Mai, Thailand for the past 6 years and am currently putting up my Beginning Painting Syllabus. Please visit my other articles:


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    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 5 years ago from Arizona

      This is super for those of us having trouble with folds. I am going to pin this and bookmark when I get the paints out to some folds.

    • profile image

      Raymond 5 years ago

      This is a great blog. I am pretty much impressed with your good work. You put really very helpful information. Nice Painting own your Site Keep it up.


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      grace 5 years ago

      amazing way of tutuiring

    • profile image

      Shahroz 6 years ago

      u guide me in oil paint plzzzzzzzz