Wednesday, 28 August 2013


Roses on a glass table.  Pastel on paper

I recently had an email from someone who was struggling with setting up a still life arrangement.  He said "My painting seems to lack something , but I really don't know what.  I tried very hard, but it is really DULL.  What did I do wrong?"

His picture was, in fact, simply boring.  It showed an apple, an orange and lemon on a table top.  That was IT.  It was quite a good exercise in painting fruits...but it was not a painting.

So I thought I would briefly look at some of the things you can consider , to help towards an interesting painting.  It just isn't good enough to plonk a few fruits on a table, and expect it all to look fab just because you decided to paint them.

It is always a good idea to keep the objects, and the colours,  simple....too many shapes and colours can result in a painting where all the objects are jostling for attention.  If you do decide upon a complex arrangement of objects of differing shapes, then it is best to simplify your colour choices, this will give the painting unity immediately.   Good still life set-ups do not happen by accident - not even "found" ones, like the leftovers on a table after breakfast, for instance...the painter still has to choose the arrangement from the objects in front of him, he has to "design" his painting.

I ALWAYS, ALWAYS, advocate the use of thumbnail sketches.  I use a little viewfinder, holding it close, or further away, to find interesting compositions.  Then, I will do quick thumbnail sketches to see if I like the design within the rectangle, or square.  I use tone - usually simplifying into three main tones, dark, medium and light - or perhaps four or five ...light, 2/3 mediums and one dark tone.    I do not allow myself to take too long over these little thumbnails, but I always squint like crazy to see the overall arrangement of tones.. Working with tone rather than just outlines means that you are working out the distribution of light and dark AREAS within the rectangle.  This is vital. imho.

But you could potentially cut out this step with a couple of modern innovations.

We are SO lucky today;  we have the use of digital cameras, and the most useful thing a digital camera can do is instantly show you what a group of objects might look like within the confines of a rectangle. Gone are the days of waiting for your pictures to come back from the chemist!  Now we can shoot our scene, and look at the results instantly.  So..I am not suggesting you work from the photo - you will always see more with your own eyes, and after all, a still life setup is always vastly bigger than a photo....but the camera can be a most helpful tool to show you a potential composition.

Take your pictures, and put them onto your computer.  Then you have yet another tool.  You can crop your pictures, to make them different shapes, and in so doing, you may well find a new composition you didn't spot before.

Here, the high viewpoint helped to provide an interesting background to the objects. Do look at the placement of the fans and the little dish, they were positioned thoughtfully so that there were lots of  lovely echoing curving forms.  The colours in the pot and the large fan are repeated on the tabletop, despite the fact that the cloth was just white.

A "still life" doesn't always have to be objects on a table!
Always remember that the "negative spaces" around your objects include the surface they are sitting on AND the background.  The background often causes problems , and it is because it has been left as an area where nothing is going on.  You need to find ways to link background and foreground.  Yes, I know you can use draped fabric, but frankly - yawn, yawn.  Bit old hat isn't it?  You can do better than that.  Change your eyeline...for example, looking down on your subject will give you an automatic background.  Use good lighting - you might find some lovely shadows on the wall behind.  Use curtains, windows, wallpaper, chairbacks, the room (as in my roses on the glass table at the top) -  link the colours of the background to the colours in your still life - use your imagination to stretch yourself, and find ways to make your still life exciting and memorable.

Think about the kind of impression you want to make on your viewer.  Do you want your still life to be dramatic and energetic?  Quiet and contemplative?  Moody and emotional?  Do you want to tell a story?  How will you go about achieving any of these aims? have to think about this.  A still life can be just as powerful an image as any other - provided you spend time considering your setup, choosing your objects and colour scheme carefully, and doing more than just putting a few fruits on a table with a bottle of wine and a bit of draped cloth behind.

you may not like the tipped up perspective on this one....but it was rather fun to paint!  It was a bit of an experiment on my part. I am not entirely sure it was successful mind you.....

Here I kept the colour scheme very simple, and allowed the black background to link with the objects and with the bottom of the picture too.  There is a narrative quality - I could have called this "Oriental memories" since I painted it after returning from a trip to the far east, where I collected the objects.   I think it is important to explain that actually, it took me quite a long time to set this up .  I knew early on that I wanted a long, narrow shape, since the objects and their shadows seemed to lend itself to that shape. The lighting is important...the shadows help to link the objects together with their surroundings.  When I began with the thumbnail sketches, I discovered that there were lots of echoing V-shapes working across the rectangle - I was rather thrilled by this discovery, as they really helped to make the image more exciting...the V at the base of the box, the shadow of the little white pot, the shadow of the black dish, and the deliberately placed chopsticks.  I love to use echoing shapes!  I made changes to the placement of the objects in order to capitalise on this.

Following on from the bed scene above, a still life scene can be set up outdoors too:

There are lots of excellent and inspiring still life images in books and on the internet too.  I really recommend you spend time looking at the works of painters of old, and painters of today, to see the ways artists have found to make their still life images compelling and memorable.  


Shirley Trevenna:

Anuk Naumann:

Pamela Kay:

Barbara Stewart

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful, Jackie. I have been thinking of going back to doing a few flower paintings, still life ones. You have given me a good amount of things to think about to make them better! As always!


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