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.