Setting up a Great Still Life

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A still life is probably the most painted genre, by both beginning student and trained professional.

Subject matter is unlimited, and the composition can be bursting with objects or consist of a single item.

The still life can be the focus of learning a technique or used to convey a message to the viewer.

The still life is a useful and interesting genre that an artist at any skill level should include in his portfolio.

Basics To Consider

Before selecting the objects, the artist should choose a location. A directional lighting source is important to creating a strong, focused piece. If a bright window is not available, a lamp may be used to create the strong light necessary to produce good shadows.

If the lighting is diffuse, a shadow box can be used to control the direction and intensity of the light that the artist uses to produce shadowing. By creating the correct level of lighting, the artist can draw what they actually see, rather than using imagination to produce shadows and highlights.

Use a simple cardboard frame to view the arrangement that has been created. A student can focus his attention through the viewfinder to ascertain the strength of the composition without the distraction of the surrounding area. It also allows him to determine the extent of his composition and how much area to include in the painting.

Background Story

The student needs to consider what will be the background and foreground of the composition. The background should not overshadow the subject, but should compliment it. An architectural feature such as a window or doorframe gives a sense of place and can draw the viewer’s eye. Drapery is a common element that often is used and can add color to accentuate the composition. Care should be taken when including fabric. It is easy for it to overshadow the composition and detract from the central focus of the piece.

A student may decide to place the objects on a table in the composition and try to create the grain of the wood. Creating faux wood texture is a challenge to a beginning artist, and may not be a successful choice. A plain tablecloth is a simpler foreground that will not distract from the subject. Injecting a pattern onto the tablecloth takes the intricacy up a step and care should be taken that the pattern does not compete with the subject.

An alternative to a distinct background or foreground is a misty interplay of shadow, varying in intensity and color. This allows the viewer to focus only on the objects in the painting and allows the artist to work entirely on the portrayal of the objects in the painting.

Choose Your Battles Wisely

What the artist decides to paint depends on what the goal of the piece is. A student, learning the craft, should select simple items that do not require precision in drawing or perspective. Machine-made items require accurate representation and incorrect drawing or shading can ruin an otherwise nice attempt.

Organic shapes, which by nature vary in shape and size, are far more suitable for the beginning artist, as any imperfections can be attributed to artistic license or natural variations in the subject. As the artist’s skills in observation develop and he acquires the technical proficiency to render images, he may begin including machine-made components to his work with success. All it takes is practice.

Arranging The Tableau

Composition can go in many directions and the level of the artist’s competency plays a significant part in determining how demanding the composition will be.

Neglecting the composition is an error many student artists make. Because beginners are so anxious to start flinging paint, they do not spend the time necessary to develop a sound composition that tells the story they are attempting to depict.

Try a number of set-ups before deciding on the final composition. Take some photos of the scene and see how it looks as a two dimensional image. If the artist does not have a digital camera, he should use the cardboard viewfinder to isolate his composition and study it.


It is a good idea to take photos of the composition for several reasons. If the artist is using perishable items such as flowers, fruit or vegetables, they may wilt, fade or spoil before the artist is done with the painting.

When using natural lighting, the artist will need reference photos when the intensity or angle of the light changes. Even when using artificial lighting, the photographs show in stark contrast the shadows, which may be subtle when viewed with in real life.

Photographs are also very helpful if the composition may be disturbed before the work is completed. The kitchen table artist may have to clear the area to serve supper, and children just cannot be trusted not to touch.

The artist may also edit digital images in a computer program to show facets of the composition that may not be readily seen in person or in standard exposure photos.

Color Your World

The student should consider his palette in the still life painting. There should be a color theme, even if it is subtle. The theme can be warm or cool, but not both.

Too many colors can be jarring, and the rainbow kaleidoscope is confusing and does not allow the viewer to focus on the message.

Artistic license allows the student to heighten and enhance colors to give visual impact. However, too much eye shadow does not enhance the beauty of a pretty girl, and too much color on a painting can have the same effect. It cheapens the wearer. Use restraint and good judgment when enhancing colors.

Vary The Values

A good still life is more than the objects, the colors and their placement. A painting that consists of one value is visually boring, even if there are many interesting colors. There should be strong contrasts of lights and darks. If the majority of the work is similar in value, whether light, dark or med-tone, it may be lackluster. Sharp contrast rouses interest and simulates the action that does not take place in a still life. Contrast in value can act as a traffic sign, directing the viewer’s eye toward the focal point. Part of the reason that a still life may be perceived as boring is there is not enough contrast in values.

A still life is a great learning tool. In addition, it is an important and interesting genre that has many facets, styles and types. Whether a traditional motif, modern vignette or a series meant to tell a story, the still life plays a vital role for the artist. Personal exploration and expansion of skills make still life a principal mainstay in the artist’s portfolio.

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