||Still life painting from a villa in Pompeii, c. 70 AD.
Still Life Painting
The still life painting genre is as diverse as its history
is long. From the times of the Egyptians when paintings of food and valuables
were depicted on tomb walls to the floor mosaics and wall paintings of Pompeii
to High Renaissance works of art to contemporary still life painting of today,
the genre has always been one that artists turn to again and again.
that still life painters gravitate toward are also as varied, from items of the
natural world to those crafted by human hands. Through them, still life art
compositions articulate ideas about luxury and excess, religious symbolism,
personal as well as allegorical explorations, and universal human reflections
on life and death.
The still life fine art practice is one that artists have
committed to over the centuries
because the essentials of art can all be
explored including color, form, composition, and light. Artists can look to this
unique genre for the answers that painters are forever trying to find.
Shop Still Life Resources
Still Life Oil Painting Demo
Ismael Checo uses rich color to create an exotic and intense experience of the
world. Here, we present an online exclusive still-life painting demo as an example
of his oil painting technique.
Oil paints from various manufacturers including Holbein, Winsor & Newton,
Bristle and sable brushes from various manufacturers
Mostly lead-primed linen and occasionally a panel made of MDF board primed with acrylic gesso from Liquitex
A mixture of stand oil and gum turpentine
As a final varnish, Rembrandt synthetic varnish from Talens
the Still Life Art Standard
||Still Life with Watch by Willem van Aelst,
oil on canvas, 1665.
Dutch still life painting set the standard for
out-of-this-world virtuosity in the 17th century, and I'll never get
over the unusual mix of objects these artists chose to depict: food of all
kinds, polished silverware and gleaming glass, embroidered and heavily worked
tablecloths, and tons and tons of flowers.
What I sometimes forget was how symbolic all of these
objects were to the audience that had the occasion to view them all those years
ago. And it's also interesting to note that artists often purposefully chose to
depict items that might be a challenge to paint as a way to display their
All of this symbolism and desire to show off resulted in a lot of paintings
that look over the top and a bit unreal. Take floral still life painting for
example. Painting flowers was a popular focus during the golden age of Dutch
painting. Symbolically, artists and viewers were interested in the nature of a
flower's existence—from freshly cut and blooming to wilting and dying—because
of the implied "moral" lesson behind the work, namely that life is
fleeting and death, a certainty.
But fresh flowers in a painting were also a sign of supreme
luxury. During the 17th century, having a bouquet of flowers was
virtually unheard of in even the wealthiest households. In fact, in most Dutch
homes flowers weren't displayed in the way we are used to at all. Instead
blooms were displayed one by one in small vases or tulip-holders designed
specifically to hold relatively few flowers.
By creating this kind of ostentatious floral painting that depicted incredible
bouquets most viewers couldn't ever hope to actually see in person or have in
their homes, artists were accomplishing two things: One, pointing out the
artifice of such displays as a reminder that life is not all about luxury and
putting store in such things is a waste. But they were also subverting that
very message—by displaying such beautiful bouquets in the first place they were
sorely tempting viewers to buy the painting, essentially conveying the idea
that you can't have such luxuries in real life, but this painting will give
them to you and the flowers in this painting will never die.
For us to pay the tradition of Dutch painting forward and to be part of this
engaging and fascinating stii life genre means really understanding the motivation for
the art and the technical execution that it took to get to those amazing final
works and working to toward the painting foundation we need to have our own artistic
Focal Points When Painting Still Lifes
|Reflections in Gold by Gayle Levée, 2007, oil painting still life, 16 x 20.
where to place the elements in a painting can be difficult, but the decisions
are crucial to creating a successful still life. When a composition is done
well, it may go unnoticed; however, a poorly composed piece instantly strikes
the viewer's eye as awkward. The goal of a still life composition is to direct
the viewer's eye through a painting and lead them toward what the artist thinks
is important. Although there is no single right way to do this, there are
specific devices one can employ in order to draw a viewer's eye to a point of
interest, as well as to create the illusion of objects existing in tangible
painters tend to devote their energy to drawing and painting objects
accurately, and find it difficult to create a strong composition. "It's easy to
become overwhelmed by all the possibilities," says artist-instructor James
Sulkowski, who teaches plein air workshops to help students overcome the fear
of decision-making. Some artist-instructors suggest using a viewfinder, which
many artists employ when faced with a large scene. One can purchase a
viewfinder at any art supply store, or make a simple one out of cardboard.
Regardless of the material, it serves the same purpose: a viewfinder allows an
artist to isolate the key elements of a scene, as well as view multiple
compositions before committing one to paper.
with a large scene, it is helpful to ask several questions. Why do I want to
paint this scene? What initially attracted me to it? What content is needed to
attract the viewer and make them feel what I feel? As these questions are
answered, it becomes clear that a given scene is not set in stone. An artist
can alter the scene to suit the emotions or message he or she seeks to share
with the viewer. A still life portrait is meant to spark the imagination and
excite the senses; it should be an image that is begging to be painted or drawn.
If a certain area or image is not appealing, change locations or choose
alternate subjects. Or, one could crop a scene tightly and focus on minute
details that often go unnoticed in a large scene.
recommends that students determine the focal point before applying the brush to
the canvas. "No matter what the circumstances, an artist needs to identify the
focal point of his or her painting and then structure the painting process so
that the viewer immediately understands the center of interest. When painting
en plein air, it is very important to keep that focus in mind so time and
energy aren't wasted on elaborating areas of the canvas that are of secondary
importance." The same also holds true when painting a still life.
artist-instructor Gayle Levée has her workshop students spend hours arranging
elements to create the best composition. She advises that they initially put
together more objects than they think they'll need in their still life artwork,
and then choose one as the focal point. "Place that object first, and then
place the supporting pieces around it," she suggests. When painting a still
life, Levée begins with the focal point, and makes measurements on the canvas
proportional to the center of interest.
in Gold, Levée employs the rule of thirds to
draw the viewer's eye to the vase and fruit (view a demonstration of the
piece). This is one of several devices that can draw the viewer's eye to a
center of interest. This rule, employed in painting and photography, is meant
to yield a more aesthetically pleasing composition. It advises that artists
divide a canvas into three sections both horizontally and vertically, and place
the center of interest at a point of intersection, or in the upper or lower
third of the frame. By doing so, the focal point is taken out of the "dead
center" of the canvas, and the viewer's eye is led across the entire space.
Once a focal point is established, determining the emotions or message it
evokes will help one decide which of the aforementioned tools will most
effectively tell a clear and evocative visual story.
True Stillness in a Still
|recarious Perch by Sarah Siltala, 2007, oil on board, 12 x 12.
Sarah Siltala primarily paints still lifes and landscapes, although she
occasionally draws figures in charcoal to hone her drawing skills. "I am
inspired by nature and its bountiful gifts, whether a fruit, a flower, a cloud,
a tree, or a bird," she says. "Seeing beauty everywhere inspires me to paint."
This is not surprising given that the artist grew up surrounded by the
picturesque landscape of New Mexico, which has attracted plein air artists from
around the world for decades. Sometimes inspiration strikes her instantly, and
other times she has to ruminate on a subject before she is moved to paint it.
Siltala often turns to her
sketchbook in which she keeps various drawings, ideas, and images that inspire
her as she prepares to paint. She spends a considerable amount of time
determining the composition of her still life paintings, seeking to create a
sense of calm and peacefulness in her work. "I'm not attracted to busy
compositions," she says. "Instead I concentrate on one or two main ideas. When
setting up my still lifes I rearrange and usually delete objects so that I am
sure to catch the optimum light and shadow in the final painting." When she is
satisfied with her still life arrangement, she takes several photos of her
final setup for reference in the studio. She often works on more than one
painting at a time, making it infeasible to have every still life set up
throughout the painting process.
cutting and sizing her wood panel, she applies gesso and then sketches her
composition in charcoal. She begins painting with light washes, slowly building
up color. If you were to watch a still life demo from Siltala, you would see
her working in the style of the Old Masters, building layer after layer of
transparent glazes. She cites Corot, Rembrandt, and Inness as her inspirations.
Regardless of the size of her surface, Siltala's pieces take weeks to complete,
because each layer must fully dry before the next can be applied-even though
she uses an alkyd medium to speed up the drying process.
play with each layer as I lay it down, pressing sponges, crumpled fabric, or
plastic wrap into them and lifting off some of the wet glaze to reveal the
previous layer," the artist notes. "After playing with several layers in this
way, an impressionist color field results, with specks of individual color
layers showing through." Siltala considers this layer-building stage to
be meditative, for it requires her to work calmly
and slowly, relying on patience as each layer of paint dries. "It is a very
nice balance to my hectic lifestyle of raising two young boys," she says. "Life
moves very fast, and I believe in taking time to feed the spirit. I'm always
thrilled when patrons recognize a feeling of peace in my paintings, because I
am capturing what I truly seek to express in my work: a quiet moment of peace,
beauty, and simplicity in an often chaotic world."