Creating Movement in a Still Life

17 Jul 2009

Whether painting in oil or pastel, Connecticut artist Claudia Seymour avoids static compositions by using line, color, and design to move the viewer’s eye through the painting.     

by Linda S. Price

Persian Bittersweet
2003, oil on linen, 20 x 16. All
artwork this article collection the
artist unless otherwise indicated.

“Still life is inexhaustible,” Claudia Seymour says with the enthusiasm that permeates all her conversations about art and the art world. She should know. She paints still lifes exclusively and never runs out of ideas. Her paintings are usually inspired by props—gorgeous flowers from her garden, luscious fruit from the supermarket, or an antique-store find with an interesting shape or texture. These objects, she explains, are not symbolic of anything deeper. “A pear is just a pear,” says the artist. “I combine lovely objects to create a new message of beauty.”

Seymour is adamant about always working from life. “There is no need to insert a camera between my setup and my painting,” she says. “By painting from photos you are using the camera as a substitute for your eyes and are tempted to become too reliant on the photo. You’re also basically creating two dimensions from two dimensions. When you’re painting from life, you’re much more aware of spatial relationships, color, lights, and darks.”

Integral to Seymour’s setup is the wooden box on wheels (copied from those used at the Scottsdale Artists’ School) on which she arranges her still lifes. The interior is painted the same neutral gray-green she often uses for backgrounds in her paintings. The back opens, allowing her to arrange drapery. The sides have flaps that she can adjust to control the light. An Ott light—a very cool white light that Seymour says is the closest she’s found to north light—illuminates the setup from the left, which means that the color of the background is most intense in the upper-left corner and lighter toward the bottom right. Another Ott light attaches to Seymour’s French easel and illuminates her palette.

In deciding what objects to include in her still life and how to arrange them, the artist’s prime concern, aside from providing variety, is avoiding a static composition. Using line, color, and design, Seymour moves the viewer’s eye around the composition. The lines are often branches, as in Persian Bittersweet, or ribbons, as in such holiday paintings as Winter Radiance. Notes of color, such as red persimmons, are picked up by the similarly colored lady apples, effectively creating a path for the eye. In An Autumn Obi the brown color of the squash is echoed by the flower at the top of the arrangement. Often Seymour designs her painting so that the diagonals create movement. Folds of fabric—frequently on the diagonal—drape over the edge of the table, providing a way to enter the painting. “This is very important,” she explains, “because the eye needs at least one way into the picture—preferably two or three because one can look stagy.” Dried lemon leaves, fruit peelings, and bunches of grapes are other effective devices to break this front plane.

Often Seymour chooses a triangular composition, selecting one object to provide the high point—which she generally places slightly to the right of center—several middle points, and some small objects to set them off. For a background she uses either fabric (preferably without a busy pattern, although she’s been known to turn paisley prints into stripes when necessary), a variation on the neutral gray-green of the inside of the box, or at times, as in Cinnabar Plate, posters from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, which provide an Oriental design that enhances her props. Because she doesn’t have a large number of tables yet wants variety, the artist keeps a file of photos of tables and chests clipped from magazines, catalogues, and books. Some, such as the Chinese cabinet in Bartok’s Mandarins, are products of her imagination.

An Autumn Obi
2004, oil on linen, 20 x 16.

“Some still lifes set themselves up,” Seymour says. “Others can take hours or days to get right.” Once she has the optimum composition and lighting, she turns to her canvas or paper. (The artist is equally adept at oil and pastel.) Seymour has canvases prepared to her specifications by a Brooklyn company. They take Belgian linen, size it with rabbit-skin glue, then double-prime it with lead white—Seymour doesn’t like painting on acrylic gesso. The canvas is lightly toned with a combination of raw umber and blue, with some burnt sienna added if the painting will be predominantly warm. Seymour sketches the scene with a brush and a gray-green mixture of ultramarine blue and yellow ochre, a color that holds up against the toned canvas but doesn’t become obtrusive. Then the artist blocks in local colors, establishing the lightest lights and a few of the darkest darks to set the range. She paints in many layers, glazing at the end to warm up or add depth to the shadows.

“On the last day, I add the details that make the painting come alive for me,” Seymour explains. “By that time the setup has been dismantled—I break it down when I’ve finished my direct observation. Then, when I do the final touches, such as punching up the lights and adding highlights, I’m not concerned with reproducing what’s in front of me and can deal with the painting on its own. That way the painting—rather than the setup—has the last say.” This is also the first time Seymour turns on the overhead lights in her studio so that she can get a better idea of how the painting will look under gallery lighting.

The artist loves the last step of painting details almost as much as that first day of sketching when she’s convinced the painting is going to be wonderful. But she confesses to suffering from what she calls “the misery of the middle.” “It’s when I think I was either stupid or brain dead when I started the painting and wonder if it will ever be finished,” says Seymour. Yet she believes that a painting can almost always be fixed and says she’s only abandoned a few. “The problem,” she explains, “usually is that there aren’t enough darks in the objects.” The artist points to the red peppers in Indian Country Pot and admits they were once a disaster. Then, because she happened to have a brush loaded with black paint, she outlined a few of them, giving them greater depth. It worked, as it did with an amaryllis in another painting, in which she discovered she had to use black to set off the edge of a bud. “In some ways it’s the darks, rather than the lights, that do the modeling,” she notes. “But I’m also getting bolder about pushing the light. I used to think it would look too cheesy if certain elements were too bright, but now I go for the effect and make light edges pop.”

The Cinnabar Plate
2004, pastel on La Carte pastel
card, 19 x 15.

Seymour’s palette consists mainly of Old Holland oil paints and includes cadmium red medium, alizarin crimson, and Gamblin perylene red, the latter a quite transparent paint that falls somewhere between the orange-leaning cadmium and the blue-tinged alizarin. She also uses French ultramarine, cobalt blue, Naples yellow light, cadmium lemon, cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium orange, burnt sienna, and burnt umber. Asphaltum from Gamblin, a transparent gray-brown that makes a good glaze for deepening shadows, is a recent addition. To lighten colors she chooses Old Holland yellow light, which looks white but has a slightly yellowish cast that helps to keep the lightened color from becoming too cold. Only for the brightest white highlights on china and glass does she use either flake or titanium white. Ivory black completes her palette. Because she cleans her palette after every painting session, she takes careful notes on her color combinations.
Her medium is Liquin, used sparingly. Seymour’s favorite brushes are Signet and Grand Prix bristle brushes, mainly filberts and flats. She prefers filberts for the way they hold paint and allow her to build texture. For her final detail work she relies on Winsor & Newton and Creative Mark sables.

The artist considers it a compliment when people say they can’t tell the difference between her oil paintings and her pastels. “I’m not a strokey pastel painter,” she says. “I like to make things look solid.” She works almost exclusively on Wallis paper, which she says allows good color coverage. Seymour first executes a detailed drawing with fine willow charcoal and indicates the major shadows. Next, she blocks in the local color with hard Nupastels, after which she studies the painting carefully, making sure all the sizes, proportions, and relationships are correct while they can easily be changed. Then she moves on to the softer Terry Ludwig and Girault pastels, her so-called “workhorses.” Because her limited studio space denies her the luxury of laying out all her pastels, she works in layers, going from hard to soft, laying out collections of colors she is using on paper towels. She finishes up the highlights and truly intense colors with very soft Great American or Schmincke pastels. Between layers and at the very end, she takes her paper outside, gives it a whack to shake off any loose pastel dust, and sprays it lightly with Lascaux aerosol fixative. “Used properly and sparingly,” she says, “fixative is a godsend.” The artist “absolutely, but not always” blends the pastels with her fingers, explaining that she usually blends her backgrounds because she doesn’t want any texture showing through, and she often blends pastel depicting glass and porcelain objects. Other times she uses a stick of Girault pastel close in color and value to blend softer pastels together. For Seymour, pastel pencils are not only terrific for details but also work as blending tools in design-heavy areas. Whether she’s working in oil or pastel, Seymour says, “My goal is always to make my painting even more beautiful and luminous than the setup.”

About the Artist
Surprisingly, Claudia Seymour is a relative latecomer to art. She took her first art class in 1996 as something to do with her time when her son went away to college. Silvermine School of Art, in New Canaan, Connecticut, was close by, and Seymour was lucky enough to find a very encouraging teacher in her first drawing class there. She went on to study painting privately and at the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan, where her she studied with Eleanor Moore and the late Richard Pionk. As her abilities and confidence grew, she entered juried shows, and today her list of exhibitions and awards is long. Seymour is a member of Oil Painters of America and Pastel Society of America, and she holds signature memberships in the International Association of Pastel Societies and Allied Artists of America. She is the current president of the prestigious Salmagundi Club—only the second woman to hold that office since its founding in 1871. The artist is represented by Hoorn-Ashby Gallery, on Nantucket, Massachusetts; Handwright Gallery, in New Canaan, Connecticut; and W. H. Patterson Gallery, in London. For more information, visit www.claudiaseymour.com.


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Comments

on 20 Jul 2009 5:58 AM

I have just found this article in the magazine and have kept it open all weekend.  I paint still-life's because I can set them up and have them in front of me. I am grateful for Claudis's tips and the beautiful examples to study.  

on 27 Sep 2011 12:03 PM

The Table of Contents for the September 2009 issue of American Artist .

on 15 Aug 2012 11:02 PM

My office is also a conference room on the third floor of a building on 46th Street in Midtown New York