I never really though of myself as a still life painter, but that’s what I’ve been doing lately. That’s largely because I realized that I’m not very good at working from photographs. I don’t have the equipment for painting outdoors, and besides I tend to like to work in more detail than outdoor painting easily allows for. And I’m not currently attending life painting classes. I do hope to start hiring models at some point, because painting live people is a wonderful challenge. But for now, I’m painting still lifes because they fit into my current working approach, and because I’ve found that I like them.
I have now painted enough still lifes that I’m starting to think about what kind of still life painter I am (and want to be). The big advantage to this kind of paintings is that you have excellent control over composition, lighting, and so on. When some objects, like plants, change over time, in general you can work at whatever pace you like.
- I like simplicity. I have always disliked “kitchen sink” still lifes in which the artist appears to be showing off by painting a big pile of stuff.
- I like cast shadows. I love to use cast shadows as compositional devices and to define the dimensional structure of the picture space.
- I hate kitsch. I dislike still lifes full of ugly plastic toys or pretentious references. It just doesn’t work for me. Likewise, I dislike folksy objects that are in the picture only to bring forth a sense of sentimentality for a perfect past that never really existed (can you tell that I’m not a Thomas Kincaid fan?).
- So far, I’ve avoided surreal still lifes and scenes that are impossible or improbable, such as a ship battling a storm in a teacup. I don’t hate that kind of work, but so far it doesn’t seem to fit the aesthetic that works for me.
- I don’t like still lifes that are about prosperity or plentifulness, such as pictures of expensive wine bottles, sophisticated foods, and other objects that are there because they symbolize old money. I have no problem with money (old or otherwise) but painting tokens of it is uninteresting to me.
*I like simple objects that are challenging to render, such as rumpled cloth and crumpled paper.
- I don’t feel the need to delineate a complex three-dimensional space. Most of the time, I paint objects on a wall or objects that I’m looking down on.
So far, I’m not interested in trompe l’oel.
For me, setting up a still life is an intuitive process in which I try to make it interesting without going over line into folksy, kitschy, or just plain dumb. So far, I like the pieces I’ve done, although I’ve rejected a number of planned ideas that, upon reflection, didn’t work.
I’d love to get comments on how you think about the topic of still life.