Sometimes I think the most challenging part of painting a still life is setting it up. There are so many decisions one has to make, such as what objects to use, how many, and where to place them, just to name a few. When I first starting painting still lifes, I was lost about how to set one up. Through trial and error, I have learned a few things since then, although I'm a long way from mastering the set up. Undoubtedly, that mastery only comes after many years of practice.
In the beginning, my first few attempts at setting up my still life arrangements where all pretty much the same. I'd take a few objects and just sort of arrange them in some very basic way. I paid attention to some simple compositional rules, like not having anything dead center, avoid tangents, and try to have the shapes overlap a little, but all of those early paintings seemed to fall flat. They didn't grab my eye or lead it around the painting in any way. I needed to come up with some way to have a... well, theme, for a lack of a better word. The theme idea allowed me to have a context to arrange my thoughts. Now, I realize this may seem obvious, but it actually took me a while to realize this. Almost all of my previous experience with arranging still lifes was in very academic manner. Think dark background, wine glasses or a candle in a wine bottle, or a pile of grapes, so this is what I was recreating for the most part. Thankfully, I never used the candle in a bottle. Once I started thinking in the terms of my theme, I noticed it got a little easier.
Now you may be thinking the theme is something like music or your daughters first years memories, but this is not really what I mean by theme. To me, the theme is more of an abstract thought. For instance, one of my favorite theme ideas is "white water rapids," while another is "hay bales". Now, I'm not literally trying to paint these things in my still life; rather, I use these themes to help me arrange the objects in my still life. Somehow by thinking in these real world terms, I find it easier to come up with interesting compositions. Maybe it's the years I've spent painting landscapes before introducing still life paintings to my repertoire. Either way, it's almost become second nature to me now. The other thing I always try to work into my set ups is the appearance that there is more to the still life than what is painted, like if you could expand the canvas there would be something there.
For this blog, I photographed the progression of setting up a still life. Hopefully, this is interesting to a few of you.
For this still life, my "theme" was waterfalls. This means that I need to have lots of vertical size changes, like the rocks hidden within a waterfall. I also wanted to creat the feeling of depth or that misty atmosphere you sometimes see with very large waterfalls. For this reason, the first thing I did was set up lots of thin layers of material scraps, printed paper and ribbons.
Most of this will get covered up as I add more objects to my still life. Once I start to develop this more, I'll move and re-arrange these objects a bit, but for now this should be good enough to get me started.
My aim now is to build up different layers of height and vertical shapes. In my theme idea, the books represent the rocks at the bottom of a water wall, while the ribbons are the flow of the water. This also make it very easy for me to pick out which objects to use because I need something that gives me that variety in height. I do tend to grab the newer objects that I've acquired before relying on the old stand bys. In this case, my new stuff is that old wooden box and thin blue bottle. It's at this point that I start using my view finder to help guide where I'm placing these objects.
Now it's time to start adding the meat of the arrangement, so to speak. The fruit will most likely be the most interesting things to look at in the finished painting, which I consider the splash of this symbolic waterfall. I usually start this part of the process by first just getting the fruit into the still life about where I want it. Then, looking through my view finder again, I'll start to adjust the position and arrangement of the fruit. Notice how in the next image I have moved the fruit in ways both obvious and subtle.
This is the final arrangement that I'll paint. I've removed the book on the far left since it just sort of felt like it was barely leaning into the painting. I also felt this helped stop the eye from leaving the painting, since the larger dark green book acts like a stop and there's not much on the other side of it to attract the eye toward the edge of the canvas. I added the jewelry in the foreground lower left corner to help fill in this area, while still leaving a lot of open space. The open space invites the eye into the painting and once in, the jewelry and ribbons help lead the eye towards the focal area, the fruit and plate. I echoed the jewelery in a few other places as well, like on the wooden box and right behind the red piece of cloth. These should, hopefully, be nice little discoveries for the eye as it looks around the painting and hopefully continue to re-direct the viewer's eye back toward the center of interest. I also added a few other round shapes, like the watch and white coaster behind the apples, to help repeat the shape of the plate. The last change I made might be hard to notice just by viewing the images, but I rotated the apple right behind the plate so the darker red side of it on the shadow side. Why? Well, for me this is an easier way to paint it. I've found that if I try to have the darker colored side on the light side of the object it's usually a struggle for me to get it to read correctly. This seems to just lend it's self better to the lighting in the arrangement. I missed doing this same thing to the peach right next to it, but that's fine. I don't seem to have this issue with other types of fruit, just apples for some reason.
Well, that's it. This is basically how I come up with the arrangements for my still life paintings. I try to take my time and study the arrangement before diving in and painting it. On this set up, I spent about 2 hours arranging everything and making all the little tweaks I wanted to. I spent a lot of time studying it though my view finder to make sure I'm happy with where everything is. My view finder is divided into halves, creating four quadrants of equal size. I usually try to have an interesting arrangement of shapes in each quadrant of the view finder and to have some of the shapes overlap the quadrants next to it. The only thing left to do now is paint it. That will be the next blog post, so be sure to check back!learning | Still Life
2 Responses to Some thoughts on setting up a still life by George De Chiara
Your posts are always interesting to me... I must admit.. I've never thought about themes... but then I really don't do many still lifes.. (probably because I don't use themes and they've been BORING.)
Love learning from you!
I did a lot of boring still life paintings before I thought of the theme idea. Now I really enjoy doing them with this very abstract though about what they represent running through my mind. It takes a little getting use to and I hope I'm explaining it so others get it. It's really helped me.
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