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How to set up a still life with Amanda Cooper

Posted on Thu 15 Feb 2018

'Winter is a good time to set up still lifes, practising techniques and working out compositional ideas that will serve you well for the summer,' says Amanda Cooper in the April 2018 issue of Leisure Painter.

'People often ask me how my art group occupies itself in darkest winter; you should see their look of surprise when the answer is always still life. In its defence, still life or naturemorte, forms the basis for all drawing and composition. The sheer unpredictability of shapes means that they can be interpreted in a multitude of styles and media. The art of converting three-dimensional shapes onto a two-dimensional surface is all part of the challenge and translates directly into landscape painting as well. It does not matter how simple the subject – anything goes – from the contents of your kitchen to an old pair of trainers. Van Gogh painted his boots in search of reality, to find the essence of a comparatively mundane object and make it visually interesting. I once mentioned that still life was about making an inanimate object look alive, and one lady of a certain age quipped: I do that every morning when I look in the mirror!'

Your still life set-up

'A glance into the wonderful chaos of your garden shed or tool box will tell a hundred stories, and there are ways of grouping objects to make them look quite naturalistic, if it is not possible to set up in the actual shed. Over the years I have amassed an impressive array of defunct household items, all in the name of still life.

'When selecting objects to draw, try not to be over-sentimental or controlling. Most people tend to gather together far too many objects and colours, but a selection of similar objects can be extremely effective, including hats, bags, jugs, vegetables and foodstuffs of every kind. The list is endless and the more unpredictable the subject, the more fun it makes the whole exercise. The moment that you turn a saucepan on its side, you will be amazed at how your brain fights it and almost tries to ‘right’ it subconsciously. The same brain games occur if you suspend things from the ceiling or turn pots upside down. This is why we have to rid ourselves of preconceived ideas of shape and form, and let our hand do the talking'.

Spanish Straw Bags, watercolour, (60x42cm).

This arrangement in an Andalusian farmhouse was just begging to be done. It goes without saying that the best still lifes are often lurking unobtrusively on the sidelines, waiting to be noticed like a wallflower at a party. Fabric and folds feature regularly in still-life painting and achieving the right tones can be challenging. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, the drawing is crucial – a rather general swoosh of a brush is not usually quite enough.

Find out more about Amanda, her work, workshops and holidays by visiting

Read more from Amanda and follow her step-by-step demonstration to paint Pears in a Basket (see below)  in the April 2018 issue of Leisure Painter

Click here to purchase your copy

How to set up a still life with Amanda Cooper


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