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Setting up a Still Life

August 23, 2017




Still Life painters make a painting twice - once when they set it up, and again when they make the painting.  There is definitely an art to a good set up and here are a few guidelines I have found that help.


1. Anything can be a still life object.  Although fancy items like teapots, jugs and compotes are nice options for a still life painter, the most mundane things will do.  Gift Boxes, empty cardboard fruit containers, shoes, tools, a cup of coffee, old shirts or pillowcases, a pile of junk mail, a stray piece of fruit or even an onion can make a wonderful arrangement.  Once you start keeping your eyes peeled for things to paint, you will see them everywhere.  It's the color and shape that catches my eye, not the object's actual purpose.  If you are willing to let go of the notion that the arrangement has to be logical or even understandable, that's when the fun starts.



2. Copy the Masters.  Something I have done may times when trolling for an set up idea is

to look at great still life painting (or ANY genre of painting) and set up something like it.

Here is my version of a Dutch still life based on a painting by Pieter Claez.  I set it up inside a wooden "box" that I bracketed together to control the light and the shadows. Cloth ends up being one of the main characters in my set ups, making a nice stage or set of shapes for the objects to play against.  I find thicker cloth and synthetic material make the best folds.

      Lincoln Perry, a figurative painter friend, once suggested I think of my set ups as dramatic narratives based on "The Raft of the Medusa" by Gericault or "Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Leutze.  Plates could be topsy-turvy rafts on a blue cloth and the cutlery could be splayed like the falling people.





3. Light the set up with spot lights. Good lighting can enhance the mood of a set up, increase the value range, pump up color, and give you surprising light shapes to focus on instead of the outlines of each object.  Once I have a set up I like, I will hold up a clip light and move it all around to see what kind of shadows I can make.  The shadows more than the objects themselves often help me chose a composition. I have even spot lit the wall behind a set up so the objects are cloaked  in shadow, suggesting a landscape with the bright sky above.



4. Arrange groups of things to form one larger shape. Think of Morandi. Consider the major outline of an arrangement.  Does it have a variety of shapes and heights?  Grouping  objects can make them lose their individual identities and functions, leaving a more monumental, evocative and abstract shape.  Instead of always separating objects, consider the "herd and stragglers" style of grouping that has a main group and one or two things set apart off to one side. 



5. Consider the bird's eye view of a set up.  Regardless of where your vantage point will be while painting, if the view looking straight down on the set up (with the aid of a ladder or step stool) isn't interesting, the other views won't be either.  Inevitably, if I do not like a set up and look down on it, the objects are too evenly spaced from each other or lined up in a row.  Gabriel Laderman used to tell his students at Queens College to think of a still life set up as a solar system. Something has to be "the sun" and everything else is a planet orbiting around it, with very small objects or moons orbiting around the "planet" objects as well.



6. Prop and adjust the objects so they are at interesting angles.  If a stable, classical set up sounds boring to you, don't have everything sitting perfectly flat on the table.  Cezanne used pennies under his apples and fruit to get them into positions he liked.  I use coins, erasers, pieces of cardboard, books and small flat boxes to set just about everything off the vertical.  



7.Think of your still life as a landscape and visa versa. When I first started painting outside, thinking of a complicated scene as a still life helped me pick and chose what to include and what to leave out.  Returning to the still life after painting the landscape, I am now more interested in the space and masses and forms than before, instead of focusing on the objects and their detail first.  Landscape painting also helped me stop setting things up in such a literal way - as on a kitchen counter - but instead to look for rythmns, overall arcing movements and opportunities for atmospheric perspective to lessen hard edges.

     Painting outside has helped my studio painting and that still life work ended up benefiting my landscape painting.  The sense of space and atmosphere and imposed order that must be addressed in landscape painting made me develop different solutions to resolve a painting than I would have if I had remained inside.  While drawing and clarifying a still life set up or object gave me a sense of specificity that I took outside and used in the mid and foreground of a landscape to keep my forms from staying too vague.



8. Think outside the box, or in this case the table. Who says a still life has to be on a table?  Vallotton used to rumple a sheet on the floor and litter it with fruit and a large jug so he could paint looking down.  Maybe you could set something up on top of the fridge so you have to look up at it.  Lopez-Garcia painted his bathroom sink.  One of my favorite settings for a still life is an open cabinet - there's an intrinsic mystery and wonder to peeking in a cabinet.





















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