Why work from a real object
Still life is a great genre for beginning artists. Particularly when you are working from a real object. This is because having a real object is more inspiring and less prescriptive than copying a photo. You can move the object around and choose the best angle. You are also not limited by the colours that the camera imposes on your object in a photo. Another quality of having a real object in front of you is that you can integrate subtle information from senses other than your vision. For example, your mood may be influenced by how the flower smells and you will have a greater awareness of what the subjects texture is like.
Paint one object successfully then build up your complexity
When painting flowers, a flower with few defined petals is much easier than one with lots of ruffles. For example; a daisy has defined petals, which you can easily see the shapes of and paint one petal at a time, but a rose has lots of ruffled petals creating many shapes and shadows, which can get confusing for a beginner.
I also suggest you start with a single flower and perhaps a couple of leaves to soften it. It can be a challenge to get a soft flowing wet in wet effect when trying to do a whole bunch of flowers because you need to work all over the composition before it dries out too much. The bigger the bunch of flowers, the more complex the design and your ability to maintain a feeling of control is harder because you can get caught up in one area and forget to develop the painting as a whole.
On a similar principle to the flowers, when I teach still life I like to demonstrate one piece of fruit each week and then get students to put together an arrangement featuring those fruits they have already studied and feel confident doing.
- In brief, the fewer objects the easier to get the sense you are leading the process and know where you are going
- Always view your object from the same angle and distance
- Once set up your still life don’t disturb it
- Keep to a simple palette of colours and get the tone right
- Pay attention to where your light hits the object, consider using a spotlight
- Don’t forget the shadow and reflected light
- Try to set up your still life in front of a plain background to judge tones better
- Try to develop the painting as a whole rather than finish one section at a time
- Try and complete the artwork in one or two sessions, particularly if you have an object, such as fruit or a flower, which is perishable
- Choose colours that compliment and balance each other
- Don’t draw the object too small on the paper, do a few compositional tonal sketches before you settle on the best
- If you have a natural object, such as flower or fruit, you have to finish it while it is still fresh
Further thoughts on the immersion experience while painting a still life
The experience of intense concentration on a single object could be compared to a meditative experience. Even in a single simple object you can find so much interest in the details you can feel engrossed while painting it. It is amazing how you can spend over an hour looking at something and still discover more detail. This could be compared to mindfulness. It certainly fosters an appreciation for the beauty in the everyday objects that surround us. Also, it is more special to work from a real object, such as a flower, because you know that it is continually changing giving you a reminder of the temporary nature of existence.