Sunday, 22 January 2012


Still Life: Pewter and Silver Vessels and a Crab.  Willem Claesz.  Oil on oak. 54.2x73.8cm

This week, I visited the National Gallery in London, had a wonderful couple of hours sketching kids with their teachers in the room with all the Turners and Constables, and before leaving the gallery, my sketching buddy dragged me up to the Still Life room. I was a bit reluctant, to be honest, because I tend to find old still life paintings rather too contrived for my liking!  I also am a fan of the Impressionists, rather than the Realists of old.

She wanted me to see this picture, a classic Dutch still life which fascinated her because of its excellence.  The limited range of colour, the glow of the objects – even the lemon peel seemed to have a glow of its own -  the AMAZING texture of the draped slk cloth – it was almost photographic, but somehow went far beyond the work of the camera.  It was painted between 1633-7, long before the invention of the camera, so there is no chance that the artist worked from a photo, as so many do today.  It is in the Haarlem tradition of the so-called “monochromatic” still life.

I, rather,  was immediately drawn to the design/composition. The underlying structure of the image unfolded in front of my eyes.  It is a slightly strange sensation, but one I relish.    I believe that an artist needs to be able to divorce himself from the “shopping list” in front of him ….in this case, jug, bowl, crab, plate, lemon, glass, salt cellar etc,  or in the case of a landscape, 1 mountain, 6 trees, 1 path, 5 clouds…and stop concentrating solely on how best to paint every individual object.  When the artist begins to be aware of the design of the image,  the underlying important shapes and rhythms, the connections and movements as well as the colour, the tones, and the individual objects,  then he or she will really begin to grow as an artist.   

Looking at the image upside down – a neat trick to use with your own work from time to time – begins to help us to “see” the painting with fresh eyes.  We stop looking at the texture of the cloth, the clever painting of the peel of the lemon, and instead, we begin to see the main elements of the composition.  We can see how the simple largest tonal areas are massed and carefully placed to balance within the rectangle, and beyond that, we begin to spot how the artist creates rhythms to draw our eye across the composition with clever use of repetition of circular and oval forms - albeit subtly, and as a secondary note if you like, because of the close tones - colour is not a major player in this image.  Underlying geometric ideas take precedence in this painting – one main vertical and one main horizontal, supported by a series of interlinking curves.  We have echoing shapes, not just in the objects, but even in the negative spaces between objects - notice how the curved sides of the salt cellar and glass perfectly echo the curving legs of the crab!  I just love discovering little things like that.

  I realise this explanation is far too brief and is a gross simplification, but it is just a beginning.  If you can see what I can see here, then you have made a start.

The word “composition” means “design”, or the putting of things together.   A painter may know nothing much about composition, yet he is unconsciously composing every image he creates. However, it is quite likely that without any knowledge of, and consideration of some of the possibilities of composition, the artist is likely to be dominated by the bits and bobs within the subject matter - like - how to paint the bricks in the wall,  the tiles on the roof, the shine on the apple, rather than by ideas about placement and design of groups of shapes, of a linear framework, of rhythms and movements, of repetition - and more. This takes a bit of effort to begin with, but then once your awareness is awakened, it becomes second nature.   I hope you agree with me that this subject merits looking at more deeply, folks,  so further blogs on this subject to come, watch this space!  In fact, if you haven't signed up to receive the blog by email, now might be a good time to do so!

Just for fun, and because it is yummy and gorgeous, (you will notice, judging by my reaction, that it is obviously more to my personal taste!) here is a vibrant Gauguin still life:

Still life with Mangoes   Paul Gauguin

This time, colour is an important factor ...but perhaps you can  "see" some of the underlying structure?


  1. another excellent post - and I agree, I prefer the Gauguin whilst respecting/admiring the more photographic image.

  2. I could not of gotten this at a better time! I am a beginner, struggleing with my first studio oil painting. Oils are really new to me, but I have been using pastel and watercolor for a bit now. The underlying abstract pattern has been a quest of mine now for awhile, I mean, the understanding of it. I have experimented seaveral times with using it, making it work for me somehow - - I love reading your posts as they DO REALLY add to my learning and understanding.. Thanks so much for caring enough to have a blog like this !!!! Love the Gauguin!

  3. Ida, and Vivien, thanks for these comments. Ida,I can recommend a book by Greg Albert, which de-mystifies compositon - I think it is called "The Simple Secret to Better Painting", try Google. It is not an easy subject to get a grip of, but he does make it very accessible. Hope you can find it.

  4. excellent post, very interesting and i have ordered the book you mentioned above,thanks for sharing!


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