The Up-Hill Road of Still Life

I really struggle with still life painting. I feel my best still life efforts are those in which I invent an arrangement to suit a particular mood or abstract design. In the still life below that is what I did – after painting many bottles in such arrangements from life, I sketched a few imaginary thumbnails and then just painted one I liked.

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Sentinels (watercolour, approx. 28 x 18 cm, 2006)

The drawing and perspective is not very realistic, but it more or less matched the mood I was after. Some late afternoon perhaps, in an empty apartment, when it becomes apparent that the hope you had was hope for the wrong thing. And yet, there is this moment right here, nothing lacking, perfect as it is.

The images below show some watercolours that were painted from life. You may agree they do not convey the same sense of mood as the top one? In any event, I humbly admit that I still have many square miles of canvas/paper to paint before I even approach the foothills of mastery.

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Still Life with Blue Background (Watercolour, approx 40 x 25 cm, 2006)

For me still life is one of the most difficult painting genres. Unlike a landscape, in which the particulars can be easily generalized and modified to match a mood or emotion, the still life seems to always sit too vividly in front of me, and it somehow freaks me out enough to keep me away from trying it.

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Still Life with Onion (Watercolour approx 28 x 19 cm, 2006)

The road to mastery in painting – or anything perhaps – clearly goes up all the way!

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
   Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
   From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
   A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
   You cannot miss that inn.
excerpt from “Up-Hill” by Christina Rossetti

 

12 thoughts on “The Up-Hill Road of Still Life

  1. I think you’ve already found the path you’re looking for — “Unlike a landscape, in which the particulars can be easily generalized and modified to match a mood or emotion, the still life seems to always sit too vividly in front of me” — alter your approach to still life so that it’s more like landscape, paint it as though it were landscape. Some suggestions, create a still life that looks as much like that favorite place that you have painted from the photo — a cloth the colors of the ground, the still life objects, like trees, could be placed in a row toward the back.

    You could paint the still life from memory (while having it available to look at). Maybe you position your easel so that the still life is behind you and you turn to look at it as desired. Or paint the still life from a photograph that you take of the set up. Or — another thing to experiment with — look at the still life through a filtering cloth — perhaps hang a lace curtain between you and the still life — or a clear shower curtain — any cloth that diffuses the scene.

    These are just some suggestions. I’m sure you can think of better ones. Just make the still life more like what you want it to be.

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    1. Thanks so much Aletha for your thoughtful advice. I will certainly try some of these approaches next time I work up the guts to try a still life. I am back home now (was away from home for a week) and cannot wait to get back into the studio. I am all fired up to redo some old watercolours in oil, or perhaps repaint some of the small oils in a larger format. I have pledged not to try anything bigger than around 12 x 16 inches until I get to #100, sort of a baby steps resolution. Don’t think I will be able to resist the temptation though! Thanks again for your comment, it is really appreciated.

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  2. Your paintings are so beautiful!! I love them! 🙂 I find all your still lives lovely but I also totally know what you mean about them not always conveying the “mood” you are after, which is often easier with a landscape. I have always been afraid of still lives somewhat because they seem so definite and the drawing always has to be so perfect in them… that’s one thing I loved about your imaginary still life where you made an unrealistic perspective work so beautifully! While I am not afraid of still lives anymore, after taking a course by Richard Robinson, I find they turn out too “tight” and overly realistic, unlike my landscapes, which I feel convey the mood I am after a little more. I might try some of Aletha’s suggestions too to see if they can help me achieve what I am after! 🙂

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  3. Yes, I like the first still life with the bottles better than the flower still life; it’s more authentic, more real, it conveys a feeling, a moment in time. There’s this feeling of emptiness. It tugs at my heart.

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    1. Thanks for your kind words. I notice that when I “unskewed” the photo I actually ended up titling the bottles to the right – like leaning towers of Pizza. But I have to say the background and greyness do bring out a feeling for me. I am so glad to hear that it also resonated with you. Thanks again.

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  4. I would rather see a still life that expresses itself through the obvious marks of painting it, rather than by its ability to look exactly like a photograph. Georgia O’Keefe’s fruit bowls come to mind. In one of them, titled “Apple Family”, the apples look more like peppers, but you don’t care because they just look so darned luscious. Once you lose the compulsion to make an object look like itself you are well on the way to the creative experience. Keep going after the mood, as you mentioned about the first still life…

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