Monday Morning Art School: make that negative space work for you

The background of your painting is a key element of its composition.

Prom shoes, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Last week I wrote about the lost-and-found edge, and techniques to make edges and lines sink. That allows the viewer to focus on other passages that are more important.

The painter has three tools to drive the viewer’s eyes: hue, chroma (saturation) and value. These are the three aspects of color. The human eye is designed to respond to value shifts first, so that’s where we usually start. However, hue and chroma are also important.

Amp up the contrast in any combination of these three elements and you emphasize a focal point. Soften the contrast and the viewer’s eyes can glide past.

Peppers, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas

Negative space is the area around and between the subjects in a painting—it’s what we generally call the background. It should not be an afterthought. Negative space should be carefully designed to be as interesting as the subjects themselves. One of the many ways in which still life is a great training tool is in teaching painters to control this supposedly ‘empty’ space.

Still Life with Partridge and Pear, 1748, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, courtesy Städelscher Museums-Verein e.V.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin was a master of still life. His Still Life with Partridge and Pearshows just how dynamic supposedly-empty negative space can be in a painting. The brushwork is lively, and the light is concentrated on the shadow side of the pear to drive our eye to that edge. Contrast then drives us to look at the snare and then the bird’s tailfeathers and foot. The background seems quick and loose, but it’s very elegant in its design.

Self-portrait, 1771, pastel, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, courtesy Musée du Louvre, Paris, 

Twenty years later, Chardin carried that technique forward in his own self-portrait. The shifting light across the background throws the figure into stark relief. While the focal point is the light side of the face, he makes the shadows earn their keep by creating a vigorous edge down the shadow side of the figure. That line is at least as interesting as the line on the light side of the face, and it’s made visible by the light thrown onto the background.

Tin foil hat, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas

That, of course, was the 18th century, and we don’t tend to paint in such high contrast today. That doesn’t mean we aren’t using the same basic techniques. The modern painter can use any of the following in his work:

  • Heighten the contrast between positive and negative shapes with lighting;
  • Use lively brushwork in the background;
  • Carefully plan interesting negative shapes;
  • Bring background color into the foreground objects and vice-versa;
  • Imply background with brushwork, color and shadow;
  • Eliminate background detail, and just imply a shadow;
  • Break or minimize the edges of tables or drapes. 

The meaning of (some) art

Still life occupies the lowest rung among genres, but it’s also invested with deep meaning—whether or not the artist intends it.

Roses dans un vase de verre, 1883, Édouard Manet, private collection

If archeologists are correct, the objects painted on walls in Egyptian tombs are grave goods meant to go with the deceased into the afterlife. Their meaning is clear. You take into the afterlife what you valued and needed in life.

Still-Life Found in the Tomb of Menna, c. 14thcentury BC, courtesy The Yorck Project 

In western art, there has always been a spoken or unspoken hierarchy of genres, with still life occupying the lowest niche. In Greco-Roman villas, ‘vulgar’ subjects like fruits and vegetables adorned walls and floors. By the Middle Ages, still life was beginning to appear as side notes in more serious paintings. The Northern Renaissance painters treated still life as its own form, with fantastical flower paintings. These pieces seem like overblown bouquets to us, but they in fact depicted flora from different countries at peak bloom. They reflected the dawning European interest in science.

Flowers in a Wooden Vessel, 1606-1607, Jan Brueghel the Elder, courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum

The Dutch Golden Age painters did much to improve the reputation of still life painting. Still life’s job was to reinforce social values. Vanitas painting expounds the futility of worldly pleasures. There is much overlap in symbols with memento mori, which reminds the viewer of the inevitability of death.

Vanitas with a skull, c. 1671, Philippe de Champaigne, courtesy Musée de Tessé 

Common symbols included skulls, time pieces and flowers, as in Philippe de Champaigne’s stark Vanitas, above. Rotten fruit and insects meant decay. Musical instruments told us that life is ephemeral. Fruit, flowers and butterflies spoke to the same truth. My favorite symbol is the lemon, which, like life, is beautiful to look at but bitter to the taste. (Oddly, coffee—which was brought in large scale to Europe by the Dutch East India Company—played no part in still life iconography, despite its addictive qualities.)

Take Your Choice, 1885, John F. Peto, courtesy National Gallery of Art

Trompe-l’œil (‘deceive the eye’) has been with us as long as artists have painted, but a specific subset of it—objects on a wall or within a frame—were painted for narrative effect. Books, letters, guns, tools, dead game, playing cards and other art ‘tacked’ up on a wall were popular themes through the 19th century.

Les Anemones, c. 1900-1910 Odilon Redon, courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art 

In the twentieth century, meaning took a radical turn. It stopped being about symbols and became about the artist’s own psyche. Odilon Redon, for example, wrote that he wanted to place “the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.” Pablo Picasso famously said, “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.” Everything Picasso painted was autobiographical.

Still life, 1938, Lee Krasner, courtesy National Gallery of Australia

From there it was a short jump to the position of the later 20th century, when meaning was banished from art entirely. It became about form and color, rather than anything the artist wanted to say.

Despite this, the artist’s own viewpoint inevitably creeps in. Édouard Manet was unfortunately afflicted with syphilis, which was in his time incurable. In his mid-forties, he developed what he thought were circulatory problems, but which was really the locomotor ataxia of end-stage syphilis. Confined to his bed, he could only paint the smallest still lives, but these are exquisite. The one at the top of this page is believed to be his last painting. Nominally a simple vase of roses, it is redolent with the grief and questioning of the end of life.

Monday Morning Art School: composing a good still life

It’s almost winter. Don’t despair. Still life is a great way to tell a story, especially the story of you.

Merry Christmas (blonde Santa doll), oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas. I often paint small still life as warm ups for a day in the studio; all four illustrations in this post are from that exercise.

For many of us, it’s time to move into the studio for winter painting. For students, painting from life is always more instructive than painting from photos. The composition and spatial questions are largely answered for you when working from pictures, often not in a good way.

A still life is any collection of inanimate objects. Don’t limit yourself to flowers, fruit or glassware. I’ve painted toilet paper, Christmas ornaments, a tin-foil hat, money, empty beer bottles—in short, anything that struck my fancy at the time. Be playful, and don’t shy away from patterns; they can enliven and unify the most routine academic exercise.

New hard drive, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas. Reflection, transparency, composition; it’s deceptively simple, isn’t it?

Still life can be deceptively simple or highly complex, as it was in the hands of the great Dutch Golden Age Painters. There is no right number of items to put in a still life, nor must they add up to a primary number. But keep one eye on your level of experience and the amount of time you have for the project. A beginning painter would do well to keep it down to just a few objects. An experienced painter with lots of time can get as exuberant as he wants.

Side light is generally preferable to overhead light, and slight back-lighting gives delicious atmosphere. I strongly prefer natural daylight, but that isn’t always possible. If you must use artificial light, a spotlight isn’t the best thing; it makes harsh, unnatural shadows and narrows the visible color spectrum. Instead, a color-balanced bulb at least six feet away will give you more subtle light. Multiple light sources are fine, as long as they don’t completely cancel each other out. You don’t need intense light to paint; until the 19th century, painters worked beautifully in very dim illumination. As a general rule, it’s best to work on a painting in similar light to where it’s going to be viewed.

Mary’s prom shoes, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas. Still life is a great opportunity to practice leaving things out.

Your still life does not need to be at eye level; looking down into objects is an equally-natural viewpoint.

The arrangement of the objects is more important than the objects themselves. Your goal is a compelling composition. The same compositional elements that make a good painting make for a good still life:

  • Is there a pattern of shadow (lights and darks) unifying the objects?
  • Is there interesting rhythm, repetition and motion?
  • Is the composition pleasantly balanced?
  • Are there a variety of textures?
  • Is there spatial depth?
  • Are there unifying lines and interesting arcs? Look carefully at your diagonals and be sure that they carry you around the composition, not out of the frame.

I generally start with more stuff than I need, and winnow the selection down as I go. I often end up not including all the elements in my still life, because it’s an opportunity for inventive cropping and judicious editing. The background doesn’t need to be concealed behind a drape, unless you have one conveniently located; this is a chance to learn to leave things out.

Objects can be unified by their shadows, by the pattern of the object on which they’re placed, or by overlapping. Have you achieved that? If not, it’s time to tinker some more.

Toilet paper and hiking boots, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas. My two preoccupations when working in the field.

In the modern era, meaning has taken a back seat to composition, but from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, still life conveyed religious, moral and allegorical truths. Memento mori and vanitas painting dealt with the impermanence of life. The Dutch had their pronkstilleven, which were lush morality tales. None of that appeals to us today, but still life remains a great way to tell a story, especially the story of you.

I often refer to Frances Cadelland Édouard Manetas design mentors But painters should also look at 17thcentury Dutch and Flemish and Impressioniststill life for ideas on composition.

Monday Morning Art School: how to create a compelling still life

If you want to be a good painter, it’s critical that you learn to paint from life rather than from photos.

Baby Monkey, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

The liturgical year has two periods called Ordinary Time. In fact, we’re entering summer Ordinary Time today, since Pentecost was yesterday.

I have taken to thinking of the-time-before-coronavirus as Ordinary Time. My classes would be moving out of the studio now into field painting. That option is now closed, so I’m asking students to create still lives in their own studios.

If you want to be a good painter, it’s critical that you learn to paint from life rather than from photos. Still lives are an essential tool for that. “Still life is the touchstone of painting,” said Édouard Manet, who believed that you could say everything that needed to be said in a painting of fruit or flowers. He spent his last years paralyzed, so he painted brilliant still lives from his couch.

Butter, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas


A compelling still life set-up has all the same elements as a compelling finished painting: unity, rhythm, movement and a focal point. Colin Page’s still lives combine modern color and paint handling with the exuberant excess of Dutch Golden Age paintings. As chaotic as they appear at first glance, he’s consciously directing your eye through his paintings. Your first assignment for today is to look at his still lives and ask:

1.      Where are the diagonals?

2.      Where are the dark punctuation points?

3.      Where are the reds and oranges?

There are lines that are spelled out and lines that are implied. Note how many triangles Colin makes with object placement.

New hard drive, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas


A still life is an opportunity to be witty, incisive, or topical. If you’re having trouble thinking of ideas, browse through this list. Or meditate on what most interests you today. For example, I might enjoy a still life based on my new grandson’s baby gear, which is all around my house right now.


“Remember that a painting—before being a battle horse, a nude woman or an anecdote of some sort—is essentially a flat surface covered with colors, put together in a certain order,” said painter Maurice Denis. While gathering the objects for your still life, be thoughtful in developing a sense of color—not just hue (which is easy) but in value and chroma. That doesn’t mean “matching” different items, but playing them against each other.

Light and shadow

Even more important than the colors of the objects is the color of light and shadow that will unify your painting. Natural light will give you the broadest spectrum, but it’s not always possible. Look carefully at the light you’re using—if it’s an LED it will be a lot cooler than an incandescent bulb, which sheds an almost-orange light. If you can’t figure out what color the light is, check the color of the shadows.

Think carefully about shadow placement. It’s what will unify your composition.

Happy New Year, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas


You can set your composition up on the floor and look down on it, or you can put it at eye level. Looking down gives you the best opportunity for diagonals and converging lines. A composition at your eye level starts with a grid of stately horizontal and vertical lines, which makes it feel lofty and separate.  Most still lives are painted at the same angle as we see things on tables in the real world. That gives the opportunity for both diagonals and verticals.

How will you frame the subject?

The ‘negative space’ around the objects is as important as the objects themselves. Consider these shapes before you start painting. Outlining them with a pencil on your thumbnail is a useful way of analyzing them.

Your homework

Choose five ‘carefully curated’ objects (or more, if you’re ambitious) and create a series of still lives from them in different arrangements. Record them in thumbnail sketches as you go. If you’re lucky enough to have a Lazy Susan, you can set your still life up on it and rotate it to get a sense of how objects can look different from different angles.

Painters of the middle class

There’s no shame in painting what people love, as long as you do it well.
Two chattering housewives, 1655, Nicolaes Maes, courtesy Dordrechts Museum
If I weren’t in Buffalo, I could fly to see Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age, opening on February 22 at the National Gallery in London. (London and Los Angeles are roughly equidistant from my house, so that’s not as daft as it seems.)
The Dutch Golden Age (the 17th century, roughly) was when trade brought prosperity to the Netherlands. That, in turn, fostered a flowering of scientific thought, military might and culture. The conditions that made this possible were the nation’s recent liberation from Spanish rule, a solid Protestant work ethic, and the development of a new kind of business: the corporation.
The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602. It was the first multinational corporation and it was created by exchanging shares on the first modern stock exchange. This may seem humdrum to us, but at a time when for most of the world wealth and poverty were inherited conditions, it allowed for the creation of thriving merchant and middle classes.
The Eavesdropper, 1657, Nicolaes Maes, courtesy Dordrechts Museum
Until the Dutch Golden Age, great art was commissioned by extremely wealthy people, who essentially dictated the tastes of the times. Suddenly, middle class people were buying art. This radically changed what artists painted.
The Dutch Reformed church and Dutch nationalism informed the aesthetic of Golden Age painting. Catholic Baroque was out; simplicity and Calvinist austerity were in. Dutch art concentrated on reality and ordinary life at all levels of society. The focus on realism is why the period is sometimes called Dutch Realism.
Always that realism was invested with meaning. Significant in this worldview was a rapid growth in landscape painting, particularly as it represented unique Dutch values and scenes. A windmill on a flat plain or a boat at sea may seem like tropes today, but they were symbols of heroism to the audience of the time.
The Dutch painted lavish still lives that seem overly full and overripe to modern eyes. They were simultaneously objects of beauty, symbols of abundance, and full of symbolic meaning. Among these are floral vanitas paintings, done with scientific accuracy while warning us of our ultimate destiny.
The Virtuous Woman, c. 1656, Nicolaes Maes, courtesy Wallace Collection
Genre painting underwent a renaissance, because home and hearth were as important to these middle-class buyers as they were irrelevant to princes elsewhere. Nicolaes Maes was among the most important of these genre painters. After studying with Rembrandt for five years, he hung out his shingle, first in Dordrecht and then in Amsterdam. Like so many artists, he didn’t specialize in the beginning, painting whatever was necessary to make a living. After about 1660 he focused on lucrative portrait paintings. It was a good strategy, because he died a very wealthy man.
The contemporary American artist has two broad market paths open to him. The first is to produce conceptual art that is meaningful to high-flyers in New York. The second is to produce work that appeals to middle-class buyers. If the latter is your target audience you can learn a lot by studying the careers and subjects of Maes and his peers.
There are those who sneer at plein air painting even as it develops into the largest modern movement in painting. But the critical message of the Dutch Golden Age is that there’s no shame in painting what people love, as long as you do it well.

Cleaning vs. painting: the great dilemma

Some people can paint no matter how messy their house is. I’m not one of them.

My studio on a bad day, by Carol L. Douglas
I saw my friend Karen at the Farmers Market on Saturday. “Do you paint every day?” she asked me. I had to laugh. I hadn’t picked up a brush in almost a week.
True, I worked non-stop from June until the end of September. On October 1, I declared myself on vacation and spent the week with my grandchildren and some treasured friends. Sadly, that wasn’t the end of my time off. There was still mail to answer, a piano tuner to call, and windows to be cleaned before winter. A summer without a hausfrauleft this place downright grimy.
OK, so it wasnt’ the only bad day.
I’ve written before about the difficulties of working from home. They’re my problem and not my husband’s. His office is next to my studio, the two spaces separated by a glass wall. He spends his days staring at monitors. Apparently, this transforms him to another dimension. He can plug away without noticing anything. On the other hand, I’m irritated and distracted by disorder. Let it get bad enough and I’m completely immobilized. I find it confusing, and distracting.
This is a common problem, but one I hear about mostly from other women artists. I’ve always thought of it as a uniquely female problem, one of the few gender differences I’d admit to. Last week I had coffee with Rockland painter Stephan Giannini. He was as distracted as me, but about his roof. I guess it’s not about gender after all, but about what side hustles demand your attention.
Butter dish, by Carol L. Douglas
I know two professional cleaners. I asked them how long it takes to turn over a summer rental unit compared to cleaning their own homes. They figured they could turn a rental property over in two hours or less. (The biggest time-consumer is the laundry.) Their own homes took much longer. I asked them why.
“Every time I turn my back there is a mess being made around me!” said Sarah Wardman, who has four young kids.
“Cleaning my own house always takes longer than it would for a cleaner to do because I get sidetracked with tidying, or little put-off projects,” said Naomi Fiehler Aho. Naomi retires at the end of the year, which will allow her to make art full time.
I forgot how fun some of these things were to paint.
Later, I ran into D., who is an artist who also owns a seasonal rental. He and his wife do the turnover together. It takes them longer than the pros—basically a full day between the two of them. “But our own home is a wreck,” he added, laughing.
My friend Toby has convinced me to embrace the ideas of KonMari, although nothing ever really stays joyously, starkly, beautiful in my house. Three years after moving here, our closets, attic basement, and, especially, kitchen are bursting at the seams. This winter, I’m going to be systematically weeding out. I don’t like doing it, but it will make for a better season next year.
But before that happens, I need to make this place surface clean. Nova Scotia painter Poppy Balseris coming to visit tomorrow and we’re going to paint.

Courting dementia

By Carol L. Douglas

Since I was a young woman, people have debated whether there’s a connection between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease. Aluminum in cookware and in antiperspirant were both singled out as possible triggers for dementia. Recently, a reader sent me a link to a story that screamed: “Doctors Now Have Warning: If You Use Aluminum Foil, Stop It or Face Deadly Consequences.”

I have no comment on the food safety of aluminum foil, although I doubt that is peer-reviewed. My Dear Reader sent it to me because she knows that when online political conversations get too stupid, I put on a virtual aluminum hat to block the signals.
This sometimes takes the form of a small still life I did several years ago, above. When I can’t make time to paint, I do these small paintings to keep my mind and hands limber. They never take more than an hour. They’re just intended for my personal amusement.
By Carol L. Douglas
This week, I can’t even paint still lives. The days are getting longer, which means it will soon be time to go outside to paint. But looming over every March day, like a great black blot on the landscape, is our income tax return.
“In bouillabaisse you are likely to find almost anything, from a nautical gentleman’s sea-boots to a small China mug engraved with the legend ‘un cadeau de Deauville,’” wrote PG Wodehouse, and the same is true of our tax code. And just like Bertie Wooster faced with that soup, we shrink from stirring it.
“Taxes are what we pay for civilized society,” is a quote from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. It came from a legal decision written in 1927, and it’s inscribed over the door of IRS headquarters. Holmes was born in 1841 and served in the Civil War. I doubt he’d recognize much about the modern tax code.
By Carol L. Douglas
I doubt he’d be able to even file it. About 56% of American taxpayers rely on paid preparers to do their return. Another 34% use tax preparation software, making a total of 90% of taxpayers who seek some form of help. Revenues for the tax preparation industry (the people, not the software) are around $10 billion a year. That’s because nobody who’s not a trained preparer can understand the tax code.
I do not mind paying my taxes, but I do mind the endless record-keeping necessary to keep from paying too much. I mind the occasional midyear summonses to explain myself, and I especially mind the fact that I get to pay income tax in more than one state.
At any rate, as you probably already suspect, there won’t be much painting done this week in my studio. If you want me, I’ll be at the dining room table, courting dementia.

A @#$% of a hangover

Still life by Carol L. Douglas.

Still life by Carol L. Douglas.
I was busy hanging a show of my own new works. It was a mixed bag—some expressive pastels, but an over-reliance on black and a few things that weren’t framed, which is my bête noire. Then the alarm clock rang and flung me back into reality. No new show, no new works, only the staleness of returning to work after a long hiatus.
Picking up ones’ brushes after a long lay-off is daunting. I’ll start by ‘playing scales’ with a small study. That’s what the still lives here were done for, but I’m more likely to paint the snow-covered branches outside my window today. From there, I’ll move to something more significant. I may be borrowing trouble by anticipating rustiness, but that’s the usual outcome of too long away.
Still life by Carol L. Douglas.

Still life by Carol L. Douglas.
That’s if I can navigate the mess my studio became over Christmas. It’s an inviting, open space in an otherwise small house. People have a way of stashing unfinished projects in there.
Last week was the first week of Christmastide. My house rang with joy, particularly after my grandson discovered the sounds a good piano can make.
The prior week, however, was my semiannual week of medical tourism in Rochester. This leads to my only New Year’s resolution, which is that we must find doctors in mid-coast Maine. On-the-road colonoscopy prep may make for a good story, but it eats up time and energy.
Today is also the official opening day of income tax season. Having just resolved my last tax question right before Christmas, I’m not in any hurry to play again. If I add to that the 903 emails that came in while my laptop was stashed under my bed last week, I might almost feel gloomy.
Still life by Carol L. Douglas.
Still life by Carol L. Douglas.

Luckily, the sky is blooming into another beautiful day. There is an interesting boat in dry-dock at the North End Shipyard, which Captain John Foss tells me is the Jacob Pike, built in Thomaston in 1949 as a sardine carrier, now in service as a lobster smack. Since I have to go out later this morning, I’ll stop and look at her more carefully.
I went downstairs and turned on the Christmas tree lights and immediately felt better. In modern America, we’ve moved the season of Christmas forward to start on Thanksgiving and end on Christmas Day. Among us old-timers, the lights remain on, stubbornly, until Epiphany.

Performance anxiety

Tinfoil Hat, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas
In three months, God willing, I will finish a career of 21 years as the parent of a schoolchild. Hearing a child wail, “I’m going to fail my test” is a sadly regular occurrence. Mercifully, hearing him or her wail, “I failed my test” is usually pretty rare.
We all tend to anticipate disaster, of course. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” the Bible tells us. It’s good advice. Whether it’s the results of a biopsy, an exam, a financial challenge, or in a personal relationship, worry is superfluous. When things go really wrong, worry never makes it better.
I had a painting teacher who once announced to us, “You’re all terrified!” I was intrepid enough to come to New York for her classes, I told her, and I wasn’t afraid of no stinking brush. But the truth is, I am sometimes beset by nerves when starting a new painting. We all are. It’s a dive into the unknown.
A drink in the afternoon, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas
What helps? Painting every day at the same time is the best answer. It tells the brain, “we are working now; knock off your nonsense,” and the brain behaves. Regular work habits allow you to get right into the creative mode and minimize distractions.
Of course, it’s early March and I can’t do that. It’s time to do taxes. That requires all my concentration (and can shatter my nerves). But this too shall pass, and the snowpack is melting. Spring really is right around the corner.
Plastic wrap #2, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas. Also known as Portrait of the Artist as a Bookkeeper.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

The world’s longest winter

Happy times in my Saturday class.
We’re really plein air painters in my studio, and by late March we are fidgeting and whining to go outdoors. This morning it’s 4° F. out there, however, which is how the whole winter has gone. We’re inside and we still must paint. So what do we do? Fish among common household objects, of course, to create still-lives that both challenge and entertain.
Brad painting gift bags.
Nina’s second painting! Whoo hoo!
Nathan and Jingwae are prepping for college, so a reflective glass arrangement suited them. (Carol T. opted for that, too.) Brad and Sandy decided to paint luminescent gift bags. And Nina—just starting her second painting—did a still life of apples in a Chinese antique scoop.
Sandy painting gift bags.
 We’ll be having a student show opening June 1 at VB Brewery in Victor. Mother Nature may be keeping us indoors, but we still must paint.

Nathan painting reflective glassware.

Jingwae painting reflective glassware.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!