#137 – The Art of the Still Life

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Today I took 225 photos.  Mostly of the same thing, over & over & over again.  Until I found just the right angle, just the right light, just the right balance between objects to create the perfect still life.

I wanted to focus your attention on it today, because for most people, they probably don’t realize how much work is involved!


Because I like to paint still lives and I also love to collect shiny, brightly colored objects, I have created a sort of prop-room you might say:


I like my house to be light, airy, and tidy, so I don’t keep all of my wonderful collectables out on display.  I’d probably have to go on a scary hording show if I did!  So I keep a method to my madness.  Everything is somewhat organized and in one place in my basement.  I switch things in and out throughout the year so that my home always seems fresh and different. This also helps for when I need to find just the right thing to go with the flowers and fauna I love to paint!

First I make my initial selections of objects, I begin to arrange them, and I check for a really good light source.

Next I take my camera out and start to snap photos, tons of them.  What I am doing is similar to what artists did hundreds of years ago.  Back then, artists would create view-finders.  They were generally pieces of cardboard with a rectangle cut out in the center.  The artist would walk around its subject, looking above, below and to all sides looking for the best perspective.  I am lucky enough to live in the twentieth century, so my view finder is a digital camera!  But I do just that, I check the perspective, above, below, side-to-side and I focus on the negative space.  Negative space is the area that is not a formal object such as air, wall, table, floor…they are the spaces that are not the focus of the painting but truly are what makes a good still life.

What one wants to do is create visual movement.  You want the viewer’s eye to follow from one side of the painting to the other and up and down.  You guide a viewer’s eye by the strategic placement of an object.  Aspects such as sizes, placement in front or behind, color…all sorts of things should be considered to visually stimulate the viewer’s senses.  I think the best example I have found is from Paul Cezanne. Take a look:

Curtain, Jug and Fruit - Paul Cezanne

Cezanne uses the folded table clothe to guide you through his painting, as well as his famous use of the knife which is almost like a blatant arrow forcing your eye in the direction of the apples.  This is why so may people spend so much time studying the masters, without modern technology, they figured all of this out.  We are indebted!

So back to my camera viewfinder.  I look inside the lens and I focus on that negative space.  I begin to shift the objects while looking through the lens.  Then I may add something, or subtract something, or focus on whether a handle should face in or out, should the lemon tip face the subject matter or away?  I keep looking at every single variable I can think of until I come upon what seems to me, to be a balanced composition.

This takes quite a bit of time, that is why I have been so frustrated with rushing through this 365.  The finished work is of such a higher quality when you stop to observe, which is the purpose of an artist’s eye to begin with right?  To help the world to observe the beauty in anything and everything.

You can also add in the added stress of not trying to be too cliché.  We are all working with the same bowl of fruit.  For hundreds of years, a lilac has been a lilac.  Blooming, dying, over and over again… How do you find a different perspective? A different observation? What makes yours different than the thousands that have come before you?

Well for me, it’s color.  This is about the only thing I am sure of.  So I will work with that.

So first I will show you some bad compositions and then I will show stills that I think have the right elements.

These two are ho-hum.  I look at them and think, so what?  the lemon still life has the perspective of a straight line.  The lilac still life’s proportions are all off.



Now check these out:

 Like this 2 Like this 5 Like this one7 Like this one13

The lemon still life has lights and darks, shadows, and round curves which make your eyes follow those circular movement.

The lilacs also follow circular paths in and out of the flowers.  I also cropped some of the flowers to make your eye look inward.  If you have the window and wall above the flower arrangement, your eyes look all over but never really focus or settle.

Well, out of 225 photos, I am happy with 4.  I will begin these still lives after the weekend.  I’m a little nervous about trying to catch all the mirror reflection. Oh well…

  BRING IT! I’m up for a challenge!


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