Part 2

Project: Still Life

Research Point 2

“Still Life – A depiction of inanimate objects, traditionally flowers and fruit, kitchen implements, food, dead game and hunting equipment. ” (Glossary, The Paintings that revolutionized Art)

Still Life painting in the C16th and C17th was focussed in Holland. Art was still largely religious and carried a message for the household where it was hung. Many artists focussed on elaborate meal compositions which were a Protestant message to remember their Christian values and to let go of worldly possessions. Others featured such things as skulls, wilting flowers and watches to remind us that death eventually comes to all. These all had a ‘traditional’ composition – laid out on a table, various heights and forms.  The colours were muted, almost monochrome. All were careful studies showing true representation of items – like photos.

By the C18th and C19th still life was moving away from religion and depicted far more flowers,  nature and normal household items such as jugs and apples. Becoming more stylised… artists using their imaginations and memory to depict items eg flowers and fruits painted together that wouldn’t have been in season together, adding beautiful fabrics to the composition, no longer just a photo-like image.

Van Gogh’s work took it a step further in the late C19th with works such as Van Gogh’s Chair. His paintings were only recognised as masterpieces after his death – probably because they were just so radical for their time.  He added expression to his work with bold brush strokes and colour, and used altered perspective to draw you into the composition. Matisse continued this trend into the C20th with Picasso taking it to the next level with cubism.  By now Still Life was more a representation of objects through the artists imagination. Sometimes the still life was part of a larger composition including, for example, a room.  The viewer was left guessing/questioning the objects detail for themselves. Still Life was now bold, colourful, abstract. Painted with expression and personal style.

The development of photography now meant that it was no longer necessary to paint true likenesses of objects – it was far easier just to take a photo if that was what was wanted.  This would have been a major reason for the dramatic changes to still life.

Today Still Life continues to be largely everyday objects but those now include lots of plastic and mega amounts of our disposable ‘junk’. The compositions have become more abstract – not so many traditional groupings on a table, many are widely spaced or include surprise objects out of context. Some have no background with the objects stretching to the edges, others seem to have in-proportionately large amounts of background. The range of materials used is now vast. No longer just oil paintings, they are now found in all medium; acrylic, printed, photography, sculpture, installations…

  1. Pieter Claesz (1597-1660)  Dutch painter
anitas Still Life (1630), oil on canvas

Skull (human mortality), snuffed out candle, a watch with key, a book and a glass.  All rather gloomily by todays standards in its dull colours but highly regarded in its time as a message to focus on living a virtuous life and to disregard material possessions. The same objects appear in several different still life eg the glass

A Still Life of a Crab on a Pewter Plate, Oil on canvas

‘Breakfast pieces’ One of many meals he painted, a prosperous household with fancy food.

2. Jan Van Huysum (1682-1749) Dutch

Still Life with Flowers and Fruit (1715), oil on panel

Bursting with detail – bugs and water droplets. True representation with amazing detail. Worked from studying live object but sometimes had to put paintings aside for many months until a certain fruit or flower came into season.

3. Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) French

Still Life, Drapery Pitcher and Fruit Bowl, (1893)

One of several similar paintings showing a variety of fruit on cloth (usually white)

Pyramid of Skulls (1900), oil on canvas

Towards the end of his life he painted several still lifes of skulls (representing death)

4. Van Gogh (1853-90) Dutch but lived in France

Van Gogh’s Chair (1888) Oil on canvas

  • Painted just weeks before his breakdown so although it gives the impression of calm that seems unlikely.
  • It is the artists own chair with his pipe and tobacco on the seat chosen to show that he only needed his everyday possessions around him.  He also painted Gauguin’s chair which had books on to depict his intelligence.
  • Perspective is exaggerated and seems to push the chair towards the viewer.
  • He shows the texture of objects in a bold and simplified way – the wooden chair legs have wide bands of colour outlined in blue/grey.
  • Toned down primary colours – red, blue and yellow

5. Henri Matisse (1869-1954) French

Red Interior, Still Life on a Blue Table (1947) Oil on canvas.

“Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his feelings” (Matisse, 1908) .

The viewpoints vary – the table is seen from above and the vase of flowers from the side.

The colours used are not true to life – he spent much time getting a colour and tone balance that portrayed his desire for tranquillity. Uses strong primary colours together that ought to clash but somehow don’t.

The bowl of fruit is painted in an Art Nouveau style which was a strong influence on him during his early years.

6. Pablo Picasso (1881-1974) Spanish

Vase of flowers on table (1969), Nude and still life (1931), Goat’s skull, bottle and candle (1952)

Cubism. You can just about make these out – I love these, makes you really study all the shapes to work out what is what.

7. Tracey Emin (1963- ) English

My Bed (1999) installation

  • depicts her own unmade bed after spending several days in it following a personal crisis. Many still lifes have objects arranged on top of a white cloth – this is objects in front of a white sheet. I wonder if that was intentional?
  • much of her work is supposed to be personal therapy  – she appears to have lead quite an ‘interesting’ life

8. Jude Rae ( ) Australian

Detergent bottle IV (2008) Oil on canvas

Everyday objects all of similar material but varying shapes and sizes

Large plain background

9. Laura Letinsky (1962- ) Canadian

Untitled Photograph

Food or meals already eaten. Usually laid upon a white cloth. Some grouped together, others like this one are widely spaced. Plain backgrounds.

10. Blaus Boekhoff (  ) German

Stilleben mit coladose  Acrylic painting

Everyday objects of modern life placed randomly together for the picture – you wouldn’t normally find a mobile, makeup, stones and coke can together. Fabulous reflections. Limited pallet of red, blue and silver.


Various authors (2013) The Paintings that revolutionized Art. London, Prestel Publishing

Janes, K and others. (2018) Great Paintings The World’s Masterpieces explored and explained. London, Dorling Kindersley Ltd

Honour, H and Fleming, J (1984)   A World History of Art. London, Lawrence King (page 600-01)

Finger, B and Weidemann, C (2007) 50 Contemporary Artists You Should Know. London, Prestel Publishing Ltd

Downs et al (2007) Drawing Now, Between the Lines of Contemporary Art. London, I B Tauris      (assessed on 28.9.19)–a16-b1854/pablo-picasso-still-life-prints.htm     (assessed on 28.9.19)   (assessed 29.9.19)   (assessed 28.9.19)         (assessed on 29.9.19)

Exercise: Drawing in paint

See sketchbook: Practiced sketching bottle and pot using ellipses (as demonstrated by fellow student Jane regarding my assignment 1 during our meet up at her studio) happy with these now and feel that I’ve got the form correct. Had trouble sketching the roll of masking tape – found it tricky to get the proportions correct so that I wasn’t seeing the table through the centre. Eventually I hit upon using my pencil to measure the dimensions (as you would for a life drawing) and used these to scale up, success! Tried having a pair of scissors in front of composition but found them too tricky to draw.

Tonal study using black gouache (just because I’d bought some and have never tried if before). Not too bad but the top book looks like it’s propped up, angles wrong – must correct that.

Support: corrugated cardboard primed firstly with white acrylic and then mid grey, left to dry overnight. I’ve ordered a couple of other paper pads suitable for acrylic now as I only had Hahnemuhle Mixed Media 310g which is fairly rough (good for watercolour) and Jane had explained how a smooth paper can help the acrylic blend and move.

Took about 4 hours. Lots of referring back to all the colour mixes so see how to mix some of these earthy colours especially for bottle and table.

Getting the laminate wood effect of the table is hard – I tried irregular layers of different colours with a rake brush then added a layer of ochre-ish colour diluted with water – I’ll need to research how others do this.

Top book almost right this time, just a touch out still I think. Top surface of black book is reflecting the light but it isn’t really a lighter tone – decided to show difference between side and top by adding gloss medium to black for top. Yes they look different but I think I needed a hint of reflection too. Happy with the tones along the white paper page edges and how the tinner top book looks darker.

Masking tape ok except for that bottom right corner which is too sharp and doesn’t follow the ellipse – bother.

The little pot is white opaque plastic so needed tones of slightly darker white for the shaded side – pretty happy with the result although could have been blended better. Glass bottle – slight improvement on my green glass bottle in Part 1. Practicing the ellipses definitely helped and the form looks correct and rounded. More variations in tone would help now.

Exercise: Still Life with Flowers

For this exercise I really wanted to push myself a bit by attempting something a little different from my previous still life paintings. I found some flowers in the garden – not many to choose from at this time of year – and after trying out a few sketches in my sketchbook, decided that this probably lent itself to a more rough technique. I love the example picture in the exercise folder where the negative spaces have been filled in last (like in the tree exercise in Part 1) and thought I’d try that. I also decided not to use brushes but to use palette knives, old credit cards and screw driver tip instead where possible.

Support: SAA Acrylic Practice Paper, 330gsm – just arrived in the post!

Ground: mid grey acrylic

Colours: see colour mixes in sketchbook, along with practices for each part

Started by applying thick layer of light blue for jug (rather than cream to blend with background colour) using a palette knife – quite rough but lovely textures. Used edge of credit card to add stems – much easier than using a brush with my shaky hands. Eye level is directly at shelf level so base of jug is straight, top curved upwards. Mixed a few tones of green and used 2 sizes of palette knife to give leaf shapes. Next was tip of screwdriver to give the short flower cases in dark red brown, and flowers with pallet knife in light pink, pink and white. All applied thickly and roughly to give texture and imply depth.

Decided that the composition needed something extra sitting by jug and popped in 3 fir cones – screw driver tip and scratched/moved around with palette knife.

The negative space – Cobalt Blue with fluid medium, applied with brush in diagonal direction. Kept narrow space between objects and blue to outline and highlight the flowers. Jug is too flat still…

Added some tones to jug and bit of detail on the pattern – better. Also added some black to fir cones where in shadow.

This took about 2.5 hours. Great fun working like this and a technique that I’ll pursue and practice further.

Especially pleased with the fir cones – the texture really enhances them and the colours have worked well together. Also the rough blending of the tones in the jug – not so keen on the patterns but the jug itself now looks rounded and solid.

The spacing of the stems is too ‘orderly’ – there should be more cross overs and areas where it’s densely packed. Also adding more height would have improved it. I certainly couldn’t have painted the flowers accurately and with fine detail so I’m pleased that this method gives a good impression of their look.

Shame I had to use a brush for the blue background of negative space but that couldn’t be helped. I tried to keep it rough and flowing rather than giving a smooth layer. Perhaps I should have left a slightly bigger gap around the object edges showing the grey ground? The roughness and variation in paint thickness of the background blue gives the composition more movement and life.

Really happy I tried this – it feels much better being free and flowing rather than attempting to be realistic. More Practice, practice, practice.

Exercise: Still Life with Natural Objects

I wouldn’t be at home to do this painting so chose to try out Gouache paints as they are easier to take away with me than acrylics. Firstly, I watched several YouTube videos on how to use Gouache, this was the most useful one:

  • Hot Press watercolour paper = smooth
  • Cold Press watercolour paper = has texture, bumps
  • Gouache can be rehydrated. Mix bigger batches of colour and if not all used can be left to dry and then used again at a later date.
  • Not easy to remix a colour as it dries lighter.
  • Can do washes (as watercolour) and also applied neat. Don’t apply too thickly though as it will crack when dry.
  • Use watercolour brushes – flat and pointed
  • Start with washes and gradually build up
  • Takes longer to dry than watercolour but less than acrylic
  • Can leave one colour to dry then add another over the top – do not over brush as bottom will be rehydrated ie can’t do a thick layer and expect a wash to cover and change it
  • Start with a layer of water then apply the ground colour – this way the colour is spread evenly

Local shop didn’t have much but got peppers, chillies and aubergine (which I found had a very boring inside once cut). Haven’t got a pretty cover to go underneath so decided to stick with a close up crop. Great vibrant colours!

Hard to get the highlights of light – adding neat white is too stark and adding white to colours changes its appearance too much (see photo 4 above on inside of orange pepper). Left to dry and had a think then tried wetting the part to highlight and rubbing off paint with tissue – yes, much better.

Love the vibrant, bold colours. Making darker tones is easy but I need practice at the lighter ones.

My Still Life Journey and learning

Experimenting with different supports:

  • Nos. 1 and 2 were done on A3 Hahnemuhle Mixed Media 310gsm – slightly rough feel, doesn’t crinkle when wet, grabs the paint.
  • No.3 is on thick cardboard – solid firm base, grabs the paint, ridges in cardboard still visible and give interesting texture. No cost.
  • No. 4 is A3 SAA Practice Paper Satin Linen Embossed 330gsm – light linen texture to surface and smooth to touch, paint glides over surface and would be more easily moved, holds thick paint well and doesn’t crinkle. More expensive.
  • No.5 is Canson Mixed Media Imagine 200gsm – silky smooth surface that frayed just a touch when scratch back, didn’t crinkle even when surface was wetted before ground colour.

All perfectly fine to use. The SAA Practice Paper probably has the best surface for any moving around of paint though it’s expensive so not for too many practice paintings. I also now have a few sheets of Yupo 110gsm paper which I’m told is great for acrylics – a bit flimsy at 110gsm but I’ll give that a try soon.

Experimenting with types of paints and application techniques:

I started off using acrylic with brushes to learn some basics which I feel were coming together by no. 3. It was a great help having fellow student Jane demonstrating sketching bottles and pots using ellipses rather than just freehand. I was able to put this into practice for the glass bottle and glue pot in no.3 and their form is much better than the teapot in no.2 Adding paint mediums also helped at this point changing the effect of the black paint on the top of the book and also allowing the paint to flow better across the cardboard.

For no.4 I wanted to challenge myself a bit and decided to use palette knives instead of brushes and to add the negative space last. This was my first go at using palette knives etc and I absolutely loved the freedom from trying to be totally accurate and add fine detail. The texture of the thickly applied acrylics adds an extra dimension and interest. There is just more life about the painting than when smooth brush strokes are used. I think I’ll be doing lots more of this, it feels right.

Using gouache for no.5 was interesting. The colours are fabulous – so bold and vibrant. I’m sure the paint itself it fine to use but I just need far more practice to perfect it, and maybe a smoother paper. Blending and getting lighter tones without the colours turning pastel is hard – more YouTube and practice needed. But I prefer using acrylics at this stage.

I’m certainly feeling more confident now that I’ve got a few paintings completed. It was taking me several days to build up the courage to start each one, now I’m getting the ground done and by the time that’s dry I’m ready to get going. Can’t wait to experiment some more.


View points, formal and arranged, close-up crops, lower eye level … I need to keep pulling away from traditional object set-ups and explore doing things a little differently.


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