My approach to still life painting

by Dorothea Schulz

Setting up and painting a still life is a great exercise in composition and design. The still life artist is master of his composition from start to finish. He alone decides how to arrange the elements, what to include and what to leave out or from which direction the light should fall. There are a few tools which make life easier for the still life painter and a few rules one should keep in mind.

Photo 1 Shadow box














 1. Preparation

If you're lucky you'll find a well-lit spot near a window where you can set-up your still life in natural daylight. But the sun moves and with it the shadows, clouds cover the sun and the shadows disappear. Another problem occurs when there is more than one window in the room. With multiple light sources and light coming from different directions things tend to get difficult.
For this reason many still life painters use a shadow box. A simple version is very easy to build. It not only gives you a 'frame' for your set-up but it allows you to control the access of light. You need:

A big, sturdy cardboard box
A can of black acrylic, matte spraypaint
A cutter

Spray the inside of the box black; you will probably need at least two layers of paint.
Cut two slits of about 15 cm length into both upper back corners; you can use them to fix a drapery behind your set-up.
Cut a window flap (appr. 20x30 cm) into one side of the box. It enables you to light your setup from the side.

Photo 1 (shadow box)

Photo 2 Schematic drawing










Photo 2 (shadow box schematic drawing)

I have mounted my shadow box on an old colourslide projector stand because it has just the right height. Alternatively put a small table on top of your worktable and put the shadow box on it.
I have a simple wooden board which fits into my shadow box; it is varnished, which gives me nice reflections. You can of course use other types of boards (e.g. older wood with a painted or scratched surface) for different effects.

2. Lighting

For lighting I recommend a good daylight spot. I use the artist studio lamp and stand from daylight TM ( I put mine to one side and close to the shadow box. You have to try it out for yourself. Just look for interesting shadows and highlights!

And now for the still life itself; here are a few personal suggestions:

3. Carefully choose your objects

A short time ago someone started a thread in the FB group 'still life painters' and asked for thoughts on how to set up a still life. A lively discussion followed, with quite a few people suggesting to just randomly pick a few objects, then play around with the arrangement and see if one liked how it looked. Personally I am not sure this is the right approach. In my opinion a still life shouldn't just be a random collection of objects jumbled together. It should have an inner logic to it and the objects I paint should have a relationship with each other. In the best case, your painting should tell a story. Sometimes I compose a still life around an item that has personal meaning for me; sometimes it is something I've found which attracted me because of its shape, texture or colour. Or think of your set-up as a cooking recipe; your ingredients' textures and flavours should complement each other. I know there are some celebrity chefs out there who come up with daring food combinations and get away with it – but the've had years of experience behind their backs and know exactly what works and what doesn't. The same goes for still lifes!

4. Keep it simple

When it comes to still lifes, I prefer the works of the 19th century impressionists. Take Manet; his paintings show a few humble, everyday objects in a simple set-up:

Photo 3 douard Manet Pches











Photo 3 (Manet, peaches)

Photo 4 Edouard Manet Bunch of Asparagus










Photo 4 (Manet, asparagus bundle)

On the other hand you have the opulent 17th century Dutch still lifes which were often commissioned by rich merchants. It gave them the opportunity to show off their considerable wealth – a glorious display of conspicuous consumption! Take this one by Willem Heda:

Photo 5 Willem Claesz Heda still life










Photo 5 (Willem Heda, still life with oysters, a rummer, a lemon and a silver bowl)

I greatly admire pastel artists like Leonie Duff ( or Claudia Seymour ( who are masters of the elaborate still life; but again, they have years and years of experience most of us don't.

Photo 6 Leonie DuffAutumn Music















Photo 6 (Leonie Duff, 'Autumn music')

When you're not one of the masters it is better to keep things simple; it enhances your chances to come up with a composition that works. When you start,don't choose too many objects, or too many different objects. You can always add more, if necessary.

5. Look for shapes, colours and values in your composition

A still life is not only about the objects it depicts, it's also about abstract shapes, colours and values and how they interact on the picture plane. I recommend studying Ian Roberts' informative book 'Mastering composition'. He is an oil painter and his book covers different subjects but the rules he explains apply for still lifes as well. Without a good composition a painting falls apart, regardless of how good your painting technique is. Imagine the London Symphony orchestra playing music written by an inept composer; I am sure it would be technically brilliant but it wouldn't make the composition any better.

One of the shapes that works well with a still life is the triangle. A few examples:

Photo 7 Triangle composition1 Photo 8 Triangle composition2

Photo 9 Triangle composition 3

photo 7, 8, 9 (triangular setup)

For 'Jam session' I used another structure, the circle, or, to be more precise, a double circle.

Photo 10 Circular composition









Photo 10 (Jam session, circular setup)

'The important point is to create a structure that will establish the placement of the major masses of your composition and the eye's movement through them. You want ( to have a supporting the wire structure hidden beneath a sculptor's clay.' (Roberts, Composition, p. 19)

6. Take lots of photos

I take a photo of every set-up I try out. It is quite helpful to check your composition on screen. I find it creates a certain distance which makes it easier to evaluate your composition. I also often convert the ones I like into B/W and/or use the 'posterise' funktion. This simplifies your setup and helps to recognize the major shapes. Don't expect your first setup to be successful. It can take hours to come up with a good composition.

Photo 11 Jam session collage




Photo 12 Jam session B W 

Photo 11 (collage of a few set-ups I tried for 'Jam session')
Photo 12 (B/W)


Jam session










Photo13 (posterized version)

Happy still life painting!