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The Art of Still Life Painting
When learning to paint, one of the first lessons beginning painters have is doing a still life. This is because still life paintings consist of important elements that are used across all types of art — composition, theme, light, perspective, etc. — and offer complete control over these elements as well as the subject.
Still lifes are similar to photographs in that they are a moment frozen in time, yet the artist has the benefit of 3-D subjects to give the work depth and dimension. And, whether you sketch your morning coffee cup for fun or paint a carefully composed ensemble, your still life will take on its unique character and meaning through your interpretation.
We’ve put together these steps to help you learn the process of creating a still life. The painter who created this demonstration used the Arteza Acrylic Paint Set of 60, as it has all the colors he needed and a creamy consistency making it easy to use.
Steps to Still Life Painting
Deciding what you’re going to portray is the first thing to consider. If you can’t decide, take a look at examples of other artworks in books, magazines, or on the internet. We recommend you begin using just a few items with simple shapes.
1. Arrange your items
Composition means arranging things using the elements of design — line, shape, color, value, texture, form, space — to get a pleasing image that keeps the viewer’s eyes moving across the canvas. A few things you can do to create a strong configuration include:
- Avoid placing your subjects “dead center,” as this will create a very weak, uninteresting configuration.
TIP: Follow the “Rule of Thirds” to get the most interesting composition. Divide your canvas into three equal sections, both vertically and horizontally, to get nine equal boxes. You can use very faint lines to draw these if you need to. Place or overlap your items in either the far left or right boxes.
- Items may overlap each other, but the overlapped article should remain recognizable. The end result will be more interesting if it consists of both overlapping objects and those with space between them. Avoid having your objects touching or “kissing” at their edges.
- Place everything away from the perimeters of the canvas. Avoid having your object right on or off the front edge.
- If the distance between the upper and lower edges of the composition is smaller than the distance between its right and left edges, then the canvas should be positioned horizontally. If the vertical distance is larger, then vertical positioning is more suitable. If the width and height are equal, either orientation will do.
- Place a bright light on one side of your easel to ensure you get strong shadows.
2. Draw the objects on the canvas
When drawing your items, notice the elliptical shapes of the mouths of cups, vases, or saucers. Depending on your point of view, it is important to get this shape accurate to make those items look correct.
Notice how the artist drew the plate holding the lemons in this example. The plate looks like a flattened out circle, forming an ellipse. An ellipse has two axes: the rotation axis and the width axis. The rotation axis (the axis of symmetry) is the line that divides the length of the ellipse into two equal parts, which will mirror each other. The width axis is the widest part of the ellipse (the diameter of the circle). Since the back of the plate is farther away from the viewer, it will appear flatter and have less of a curve, while the front of the plate, which is closer to the viewer, will have more of a curve, allowing the inner part of the plate to be visible.
3. Add blocks of color
Begin in all the large general areas with the most predominant colors, working from your darkest to paler tones. Shadows can be cooler or warmer, it depends on the lightning. If the lighting is warm, the shadows will be cool, and if the lightning is cool, the shadows will be warm.
Also, it’s important to keep in mind the variety of hues that are noticeable on white things. See how the vase has some shades of yellow, blue, and green? This is from the reflection of the lemons as well as the other surfaces next to the vase. Next, make sure all areas are filled in with color.
4. Make the background and foreground interesting
The objects in your painting are the focal point, but to make them stand out and to liven up your work, add details to the areas in back and in front of them. Here, the artist added more yellow to the wall behind the scene to tie it to the lemons on the table. He deepened the shadows cast on the table and placed reflections on the vase and plate to give them more volume
5. Add the fine details
Now it’s time to use your smaller brush and add specifics. In the example, the artist started with the vase and sharpened the lip of the opening as well as brightened the highlights. He added particular elements to the lemons such as the end where the stem was and the inside sections showing the pith and the rinds of the sliced lemons.
- Begin your drawing on the canvas with the items that will be in the background, since those that will be in the foreground will be overlapping them.
- Acrylic paints are pretty opaque, so don’t be afraid to make mistakes; they may be easily fixed by painting over.
- Since acrylic paint is synthetic, it is not advisable to mix more than 2-3 colors together. Mixing more tints together can cause the outcome to be a “muddy” color.
We hope this mini-lesson in creating a still life has been helpful and inspiring for you. The best part of practicing still life painting and drawing is that you always have an available subject. And, you can use other mediums besides acrylics, such as oil paint, watercolors, or gouache. You can draw everything from fruit to books to dishes to your favorite collections. By creating your own still lifes, you’ll be following in a long history of still life painting that has been around for centuries.