Posted on Wed 23 Nov 2016
A painting of objects or flowers is called a still life. It is a rewarding subject for research, helping to refine your competence in composition, colour and tone and providing a usefully static subject that can be studied for lengthy periods. All too often the objects chosen for a still life are random and ill-considered and this lack of planning results in paintings of little interest to anyone. It does not have to be like this.
All painters learn from those who have gone before and looking at still-life paintings of great artists will inspire you. If you are attracted to a painting try to work out why it interests you.
Unpick the nuts and bolts of the composition. Probably several different elements will combine to thrill. Among these could be arresting subject matter or compelling and probably limited colour, a particular viewpoint or an unexpected juxtaposition of form.
My preferred medium is gouache, which is opaque watercolour. I use Winsor & Newton Designer Colour in tubes, but there are other good makes of gouache paint. I first used gouache to correct and paint over failed watercolour paintings, then I saw the exciting possibilities of the vibrant, dense colour and the opportunities the medium offered for alteration and rethinking a work that was already half completed. Gouache works on a large or small scale and is adaptable and forgiving. I love it.
Red Pear, gouache, (18x18cm)
Colour is the subject here, with an unusually red pear the starting point. The background colours are red, pink and orange; the small green plant brings an anomalous colour, sharpening the mood.
The creative process starts with the choice of subject. Imagine your painting is telling a story in visual terms. Open your mind to shape, colour and form, choosing objects that attract you.
Notice vegetable shapes, for example – bendy spring onions, bumpy broad beans, pears that lean in all directions, geometric cooking equipment counterbalancing the wobbly nature of the natural world, the mesh of sieves and wire baskets. Learn to look at the world with an eclectic eye, gathering a glossary of material to put in your paintings. Try to create a balance and be careful to put together objects, fruit or flowers that are fairly similar in size, as too great a change of scale within a painting is unlikely to work.
Flowers are a popular subject but they do not always stay as still as you would like. Be prepared for your tulips to droop. Perhaps they look better like that, with a more rhythmic shape. Roses shed petals – maybe that is a metaphor you could use to effect. Notice that most artists arrange their flowers with little or no stem showing between flowers and container.
The next stage is deciding how and where to place your still life. Which viewpoint will work best? Arranging it on the floor or a low table to give a bird’s-eye view will intrigue the viewer. Raising the subject to eye level eliminates the ellipse of a vessel; it will simplify and exaggerate the shapes and the spaces between, creating a dynamic image.
Many still-life paintings are set on a table; this provides an excellent inner frame for the objects, holding them together within the confines of the table, which is then referring to the edges of the canvas or paper.
Interior Exterior, gouache, (35x28cm)
The still life on the table in the foreground leads the viewer to the landscape beyond the window.
Light and colour
Where is the light coming from? If you choose to paint a group of vessels, a single strong light source will give you a tonal range that describes the objects and dramatically enhances the three-dimensional in your painting. Placing as contre-jour – is a traditional way of achieving dramatic effect. If you are painting after dark, use a small lamp as a single light source to simplify the shadows.
Your perception of colour changes during the day according to how the light falls on an object. Try putting an object near a window with the light to one side, make a small painting in the morning and then again in the afternoon. Often the late afternoon light will be the most dramatic. Mix your colour to be as close as possible to what you really see. The colour and tone will be different in the two paintings. Check your colour by putting a dab of mixed paint on a scrap of paper and holding it against the object or area you are painting. In the winter colours will look cool and often be grey, sombre and subdued, while in the summer the warm light gives a natural glow to your work.
Colour is as much a part of the subject as the objects and is vital in planning your painting. Consider using coloured paper or patterned textiles when setting out to make an interesting and vibrant image. Limiting your colours and keeping them in a narrow tonal range makes for a harmonious painting.
Colours will rarely be exactly as they come out of the tube or pan, and will vary at different points on the object or background depending where the light is falling.
Paint the objects within the space they inhabit. Air and space is implied by keeping in mind the relationship of one object to another, the spaces between objects and the area behind. Don’t paint the objects in isolation and then paint the background later, rather work over the whole painting, relating one edge and colour to the one next to it.
Once you have decided what you would like to include in your painting make several small, quick drawings of alternative compositions, moving things around and changing your position until you find the most interesting and clear composition. Will it be a very spare composition against a simple backdrop, or a cornucopia with a landscape beyond, through a window or open door?
A close-up of your subject will have immediate impact while a distant view will make the air and space a large part of the subject, intriguing the viewer and compelling them to look again and again. Sitting near your subject and its background is vital if you are making a closely observed painting. I often place my objects within a large cardboard box with two sides cut away to allow light to enter from one side. I cover the inside with fabric or coloured paper. The contained image is much easier to refer to.
Alternatively, place a drawing board covered with cloth or paper on a small table or chair and lean against a wall, and set your still life against that. For a more expansive painting, you could look across a room to a door or window opening to a garden or landscape and invite the audience to enter the scene and inhabit the space. This will require more preliminary drawing and preparation, as you will need to edit extraneous detail to create a coherent composition.
Nasturtium and Inkpot, gouache, (20x20cm)
The stems of these flowers are hidden, emphasising their importance in the composition. Yellow and orange and their complementary blues and violets contribute to a harmonious painting.
In a nutshell
Each painting should have a purpose. This could perhaps record the remains of a meal on the table or be an ordered and thoughtfully organised grouping of objects. Always keep your artist’s eye open for a subject to bewitch the viewer.
Once you have decided what you would like to include in your painting make several small quick drawings of alternative compositions, moving things around and changing your position until you find the most interesting and clear composition and make the most of colour as a vital ingredient in the planning of your painting. A still-life painting is the painter’s equivalent of a poem. Ideas, descriptions and emotions are distilled into an intense and visionary experience in the best of still-life painting just as they are in a poem.
Wendy Jacob is a member and a past vice president of the Royal Watercolour Society. Her work has been selected for the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition, the RA Summer Exhibition, the New English Art Club and the ING Discerning Eye. Find out more by visiting her website - www.wendyjacob.com
This feature is taken from the January 2017 issue of The Artist
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