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Still life

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.

Posted in art technique.

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3 Responses

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  1. Anna Sellers says

    I like a still life that makes me make up a story. For exam­ple, your still life that you are cur­rently work­ing on makes me think of how the kids will leave just a few berries so they don’t get blamed for eat­ing them “all”. The one out­side the bowl is the one my youngest will do a drive by and eat when no one is looking.

    I like a still life with toys, but I don’t like the ones that are of “that per­fect world”. I like the dolls with messed up (but not ugly) hair, or the trucks with chips of paint miss­ing or some sense that these were used by real peo­ple. I like com­bi­na­tions of old and new items together that have that sense of “handed down”. Old and new dishes, toys, tools, uten­sils etc.

    I agree that the kitchen sink thing is annoy­ing. A small col­lec­tion of a theme can be nice.

    My favorite still life, no mat­ter what the sub­ject mat­ter, is one that looks like it’s right­ful owner is going to come back any minute and con­tinue doing what­ever it was they were doing before they left. The ones that look overly staged are always a turn off.

    Great think­ing mate­r­ial. Thanks for this post.

  2. cementgirl says

    It’s extremely dif­fi­cult to cre­ate a still-life that is not self con­scious. As a genre they seem to be about THINGs. Yet they aren’t the things but only a por­trait of the things which is pretty hard to jus­tify. It bet­ter be a pretty spe­cial thing to have its por­trait painted. The crum­pled paper bag has merit in being about skill­ful paint­ing or stu­dent prac­tice or as an ANTI–thing state­ment, sort of an anti-still life. But its value as a paint­ing beyond that is neg­li­gi­ble. It adds lit­tle other than a breath of fresh air to the cat­a­log of expres­sion of the human expe­ri­ence which arguably good art always con­tributes to. A lot of peo­ple hate still lifes as vapid in con­tent, but I believe the prob­lem lies in the genre itself. Why make a paint­ing of a group of objects that just as eas­ily could be sit­ting on a shelf in the same loca­tion as the paint­ing unless the objects them­selves are a sym­bol of some­thing else? And indeed as I remem­ber in a foggy way some art his­to­rian say­ing once, still lifes are about pos­ses­sion of the objects painted. And thus one must wras­sel with this salient and his­tor­i­cal aspect of the genre every time one decides to paint one. The whole genre is sul­lied with that most Chris­t­ian sin of desire for and plea­sure in the mate­r­ial world.

  3. David says

    Cement­girl,

    I agree that unself­con­scious still lifes are hard to do. I tend to like work that is sim­ple and unpre­ten­tious, such Duane Keiser’s won­der­ful small paintings.

    And, yes, his­tor­i­cally some still lifes were mainly about abun­dance and pros­per­ity. I sus­pect that your professor’s aver­sion to plea­sure in the mate­r­ial world came less from a deep and ascetic reli­gious faith than from the usual left­ist aca­d­e­mic oppo­si­tion to bour­geois val­ues. I don’t find the genre to be sul­lied by that, as any kind of paint­ing has a broad his­tory that allows the artist to ref­er­ence in many dif­fer­ent ways.



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