How Do You Personalize Your Still Lifes?

Uzbekistan Suzani
by Janet Fish, 2008. oil, 60 x 60.
Courtesy DC Moore Gallery,
New York, New York.

I recently attended the opening reception for a display of Janet Fish’s large, colorful, richly populated still life paintings at DC Moore Gallery, in New York, and I visited a class working on simple still life paintings of folded sheets of colored paper at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts. Talking with the artists in both locations reminded me how still lifes provide an opportunity to share some aspect of our lives with those who look at our drawings and paintings.

In Janet’s case, the paintings were composed of colored dishes, ceramic sculptures, crockery, animals, utensils, baskets, fabrics, and views beyond her studios in Vermont and New York. As she has done for decades, the artist selected objects with shapes, colors, surfaces, and functions that appealed to her; and she put them in front of her easel in such a way that there were distinct patterns of bright, warm lights and cool, dark shadows. On one level the paintings were about the abstract patterns established by the decorative and reflective surfaces, and on another level they said a great deal about Janet’s joyous attitude about life. Every one of the paintings was a celebration of the objects and places that enrich her life.

The balance that Janet strikes between abstraction and representation was reversed in the small studies of folded paper being created by students in Diego Larguia’s beginning oil painting class at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts. The instructor recommended the exercise because it simplified the process of judging the relationships between shapes, values, and colors; and it introduced students to the idea that no matter what they choose to paint they will always have an opportunity to tell viewers about their individual thoughts and feelings. “If we allow ourselves to become absorbed in the painting process, we will eventually reveal something personal in our finished paintings,” Diego told the class. “When we fold the sheets of colored paper and decide which view to paint, we have already begun the process of associating the abstract shape with something in our experiences. We may think of the folded paper as a shape that looks like an animal, a person, an object, or building, and then we start to feel something about that representation. The finished painting may still be an abstract combination of angular shapes, but somehow it will reflect the personality of the artist who created it. To prove the point, look at how the other students in the class have folded and arranged their sheets of paper. They are all different because the people who selected them are different.”

Diego Larguia instructs a
student at the New Orleans
Academy of Fine Arts.

Diego then explained that during the remaining sessions of the 16-week course, the students would be painting objects they selected from the inventory of still life props maintained by the school or treasured objects they brought from home. “As you gain confidence and skill, you will start painting real things that have greater significance to your lives, whether you fully understand that significance or not,” the instructor explained. “The wonderful thing about still life painting is that it gives artists the opportunity to present objects that appeal to them, that work well compositionally, and that stand as metaphors for their ideas and feelings.”

I will be writing about Diego’s class for the summer issue of Workshop magazine and sharing more of the photographs I took during the session because I think his teaching will be helpful to others who are studying oil painting and/or still life painting. I’ll also include some of his plein air landscapes recently exhibited at the D.O.C.S. Gallery in New Orleans, so readers will have a chance to appreciate this gifted young artist.

If you draw or paint still lifes, I would like to read about the ways you compose, execute, and personalize those pictures. I’d be especially interested in knowing if you find yourself thinking about the history of the objects or the people who once owned them, the reasons you are attracted to the particular shapes and colors, the meaning implied by the relationships between the objects, or the great still life painters of the past.

M. Stephen Doherty

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

8 thoughts on “How Do You Personalize Your Still Lifes?

  1. I love to paint objects that are saturated with sentiment, or perhaps could trigger a personal trail of related memories. You can see my still life pieces at .

    They are far simpler than Janet Fish’s works – which have always been a favorite of mine for their color, sense of light, and complexity. And I like the idea of painting folded paper – a great exercise in the nuance of light! I’ll have to try that myself in the coming weeks…….

  2. The shows of the work of Gorgio Morandi, recently at the Metropolitan in NY and currently at the Philips in DC, speak volumes about the subject of personalizing ones view through still lifes. Morandi, with his limted number of objects and limited pallet, know the message he wanted tos end and he did that consistantly year after year.

  3. I was just having this discussion with one of my students. I believe it is impossible NOT to personalize one’s still-life paintings ,even if, as a student, you are painting from the teacher’s set up and/or the school’s props. The individual artist’s spirit still comes through.But yes of course, when you choose your own subject matter you are the master story teller , in control of all elements of the visual tale.

    In my own paintings a recurrent motif is the presence of Starlite Mints, those disc shaped pepermints, red and white striped at the edges, and wrapped in cellophane. I love their appearance, and how that small dash of red and white can balance a composition or add a humorous, lively spark to a tableaux of otherwise great serenity. But beyond the visual appeal, the mints remind me of my grandparents. They kept small bowls of them placed around their apartment, something in which which we visiting grandchildren would take great delight. My mother did not allow us to eat candy or sugary treats at home, but when in Rome…!

    I add the mints to my paintings for visual and visceral reasons, and in fond and grateful remembrance of my grandparents who taught me to savor the small joys of life.

  4. In my painting I find that I constantly look to the past for inspiration. Norman Bryson’s book “Looking At The Overlooked” has been influential in my understanding of still life painting. In this book Bryson discusses various types of still life, and creates a language for discussing this genre. In addition to subject matter as a way to create meaning, composition and the style of the artist are equally important. In Dutch Baroque still life, the style and composition express wealth and abundance. On the other hand, in one of my favorite paintings, Cotan’s “Quince, Cabbage, Cucumber, Melon” the artist’s humble style create an image that compells us to contemplate simplicity.

  5. I paint crumpled wax paper wrapped around a collection of pitchers, vases and bottles, I love the transparent and reflective properties.

    I think personalizing your art is identifying what you really find truly fascinating. The final painting is the result of the exploration, and ends up being a portrait of the artist.

  6. I tend to set up and paint things that I’ll enjoy looking at in the finished painting. Even when I paint something that is intended for sale, I paint as though it were just for myself.

    Love to paint: white, reflective vases, lace, brass, cut glass – usually with floral arrangements.

    I tend to use the same objects over and over again.

  7. Generally I keep the composition of my still life paintings simple and spacious. Often there is a reoccurring theme in my work and that is the usage of metal objects be it copper or brass pots, plates, bowls etc. Certain brass props frequently occur in my set ups and often I think about their journey through time, where they were made, who previously owned them and what kind of treatment the props experienced. Some of the props are old and have much character and it kind of makes one wonder if they were cherished heirlooms or in fact they were ever used previously as artist props. I find brass and copper objects very alluring for their warm/cool colors and most especially for their reflective qualities. The reflections that exist in these objects for me personally, evoke symbolic significance. Things that are ordinarily outside of our awareness or field of view are discovered by the artist and shown to the viewer. Emil Carlsen is one my favourite painters and I reflect upon his work, especially his paintings that have metal objects. He has been an influential force and more or less has molded my perception of what metal objects should like in a painting.