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.