Still life compositions are one of the fundamental assignments new and professional artists study to improve their skills. While a still life piece may seem simple, there are many steps that must be thoughtfully considered.
Before beginning a still life piece, carefully consider what subject matter you want to display, and choose objects that fit. For example: if I choose the subject ‘wine’ I would fill my still life composition with wine glasses, wine bottles, grapes, cheese, crackers, lunch meat, bread, and napkins. Feel free to get creative with the objects you choose, just make sure they hold symbolic meaning to you. Choosing an odd number of objects can help to make your composition more cohesive.
Setting up your still life is a large foundational step in your process- involving a great deal of creativity. When setting up a still life, objects must be arranged to evoke harmony, balance, and unity while still containing their emotional impact within the work. There are many different kinds of compositions that exist: round, triangular, crossed, L composition, and radiating lines. Choosing the correct composition in your piece is crucial to an aesthetically pleasing finished image. When organizing your still life, always notice the negative space evoked by your objects.
The medium you use for your still life must be given thought as well. Color theory should be utilized if you choose a medium containing color, like paint. If your medium does not contain color, like charcoal, then you must focus on values and reflected light only. Repetitive color, color schemes, and color harmony are very important in a colored composition on top of values and reflected light. All of these techniques can be used to masterfully tie a piece of work together.
Lighting within your still life can be harnessed to create complex shadows and contrast. When lighting your scene, use a daylight bulb in your lamp. Aim to place 2/3 of your composition in the light and 1/3 in shadow. This will ensure an even and balanced still life. Make sure when creating shadows, they do not fall at the same levels as your objects; they should either be lower or higher.
Before beginning your still life, always sit comfortably in front of your scene. Make sure you do not have to turn your head or body to look at the scene- you should always be sitting straight on. Moving your head or body when you paint can change your angle of view and can cause you to hurt your neck and back. Never have your easel covering your still life, and position your still life on the non-dominant side of your body. If you were right handed, then you should look over to the left. This all ensures your still life is easy to view.
Always begin with a thumbnail sketch of your still life. When sketching focus on blocking in larger details like proportion, negative/positive space, shadows, and objects in relation to one another. This will help you gain general knowledge of your subject before starting. If you are painting in color, doing a full value study of your still life before doing your colored version can be very beneficial. Always establish where your horizon line is first, and work from there. As you proceed working on your still life painting, take breaks to step back and see your image from a distance. This can help you assess what looks wrong and what looks right. When doing still life paintings, try to work from life as much as possible. While a photograph can be convenient, it does not display value and color as true to life as your eyes do. Remember, having fun and enjoying yourself is the most important part of any painting. When you gain more knowledge in art, you can break ‘rules’ to create highly individual pieces of art. Painters like Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Carvaggio all had an extensive knowledge of how to make realistic paintings before they truly developed their unique styles.
Learning about still life artwork is not only beneficial to artists, but to those in all walks of life. Techniques we use in still life artwork translate to every aspect of our existence. When you dress up, you choose your clothes by coordinating colors- this color theory. Composition is another technique used in still life that has become second nature to most people. We utilize composition in music, when making flower arrangements, landscaping, and even when setting up the table for dinner. Still life helps express and translate these elements.
Feel to read more of my writing on my blog
Good tips, Subodh. Still life is one of my favorite things and I can recognize a good one when I see it but I have a heck of a time setting them up myself. I used to paint still lifes from other people's setups. Now I'm mostly a photographer, but I still have issues setting them up, so I mostly confine myself to natural still llfes that I see in nature.
There are some good tips here that I've either forgotten or never considered in the first place.
Personally, I was never able to stage anything... When I tried, I never liked the results :)
However, I'm always attentive to what appears in front of my eyes, naturally: a wonderful light with shadows, textures, interesting objects, or instances, etc.
For me this also applies to scenes (sceneries), whether it's still life, real life, nature, landscape, urbanscape and all the others.
I read someplace (longtime ago), that the hazard creates the best compositions. They are all there, for me to see them, and generally I do... :)
Edited - PS: my avatar image is a mannequin I saw in front of a souvenirs shop in Mexico, and it really liked it :)
Greetings, Thank you to everyone who has shared their comments. I am glad that my post has been helpful, or even just fun to read, for anyone! I appreciate this community and what it has to offer. You are all so kind, and your words mean a great deal to me.
If anyone has anymore questions, comments, or wants to start a conversation see my website www.subodhstudio.com or email me at email@example.com Thank you all again!
Abbie- I do appreciate you saying something so kind! You words make me feel very enthusiastic! I am glad you have liked what I have written so much, that you took the time to write me back. Thank you.
Bill- I am glad you enjoyed! Your comment made me smile.
David- Thank you for taking the time to let me know you enjoyed.
Mary- I am so glad you felt like you were able to learn something! I have been teaching still life for decades now, and I am glad some of my knowledge has been able to pass on to you. Thank you.
Diana- I agree. I think still life is one of the most important building blocks to many creative mediums.
Rodger- I am very honored that you felt a sense of serendipity while reading my post. You have commented on my of my other posts and I always appreciate your support.
Val- I am glad you enjoyed my read, and got something out of it.
Tatiana- You do have a very keen eye! Have you studied still life compositions a great deal? I like to observe the world very closely myself. I enjoy making paintings inspired by nature and Georgia O Keefe of flowers up close so you can see all of their beautiful details.
Angie- You comment is invaluable to me. Thank you for letting me know you enjoyed reading what I took time to write.
If any of you are interested in joining my email list, I create blogs and newsletters each month just like this to spark some discussion in our community! You can subscribe here if you like: www.subodhfineartstudio.com/email-newsletter
No, I don't really focus on still life. I'm a hobbyist travel photographer, but I totally know what you mean and appreciate your wonderful thread and advice, that actually can apply to all compositions. I totally agree that someone has to know and understand the rules, before going for the feelings...
Edited again - I have too many things to say :) I always liked Georgia O Keefe' close-ups on flowers and compositions. You mentioned though names of big artists who went and applied the rules of composition to their artwork, whether it was still life or not.
Subodh, I once started to paint still life and never finished it. Your article is so interesting! I'm going to revisit this painting and see if I instinctively did any of the things you suggest. Thank you for these insights!
Tatiana - I would love to stay in contact if you are interested in learning about still life I teach public and private classes. Feel free to visit my Facebook, website or sign up for my newsletter. If you are located in California I'm teaching classes through Riverside community College' s life long learning program they are free for Students 50 years old or over. Summer classes have already begun if you want to join this week let me know and I can send the information.
This brought up memory from years ago when I was in art school. We had two teachers who had very different approaches to their teaching. One teacher always chose the items with a theme in mind and arranged them carefully, trying her best so that each of us sitting at different corners of the room can see a good composition from our angle. We all appreciated her seriousness and the effort she took. The other teacher just threw some seemingly random items on the floor and told us to draw. We were quite shocked at his way, thinking he was not serious about his job, and that he was taking the easy way out. But he told us he wanted us to have freedom in our art. If we didn't like the way he had arranged the items, we were free to move them around, either physically or on paper. We were also free to move around and draw different items from different angles.
Looking back I would say the first teacher gave us many examples of what good set-ups are; the second teacher on the other hand gave us challenges to create our own composition. We learned different things from different teachers, and I am thankful for both of them.
@Subodh - Wonderful, and thank you! I'm a travel photographer though. If I fail in this domain, I may consider painting still life. What you have is just wonderful. My mother used to paint still life and constantly learning about this at a club of painters she was part of it. I have hundreds of thousands of travel pictures I'm trying to edit and post. Some of them are occasional still life photos, but not more that this.
Good information about how to create an effective still life Subodh. I don't do many still life setups but I guess I should try to do a few. I haven't really been pleased with the ones I have done in the past. I much prefer just to work on a single flower or other subject than to put objects together. But it would probably be a good exercise for this winter when I need something to work on.
MM Anderson- I hope this article will help you to set up your still life.
Tony Murray- Great question Tony. Still life means objects that do not move. Fruit, flowers, a purse, a pencil are all objects that come from life but are inanimate. It is how we capture those objects from life is what makes this a still life.
Tatiana Travelways- Hi Tatiana, you will learn so much from the still life. Good luck to you on your still life and your traveling. I hope your mother is doing well and maybe the two of you can paint together.
I paint compositions often. I use acrylics, oils, pastels, and other materials to create fantasy paintings and sculptures. Some of my favorite subjects are Fantasy creatures and humans. One of my favorite things about painting is that it allows me to incorporate my whole imagination into a work of art. The complete process always starts with a simple idea in my mind. Also, very often, I paint by numbers. I got them from https://paintingbynumbersshop.com/collections/paint-by-numbers-for-adults. It's an excellent activity to train your brain a little bit.
Thanks a lot for this article. Still life is one of my favorite photographic subjects. I don't follow rules, but my eye is trained in composition, this comes from my studies and interests, from my life. My still life are very simple, minimalist, bright, of "fast" creation. I use white backgrounds and leave them like this or I apply textures in post-production. Now I would like to try to use more complex subjects, more "crowded" compositions, aesthetically darker ... To use the backlight as I do in street photography. But I feel a bit slowed down, these are images that don't excite me particularly ... We'll see ...