Still Life Painting Tutorial

Knowing how to compose a still life setting is vital to a successful oil painting.  Floral artwork and a portrayal of food, for example, could be ruined by an imbalance of objects and therefore of composition. So how does the artist arrange a still life?


Composing a Still Life


Some great artists such as Chardin spent many hours carefully composing the objects before painting them. Many consider the composing aspect of a still life to be of equal importance to the painting itself.

Tips on Setting Up a Still Life


For the beginner, setting up a still life can be frustrating. A few guidelines might help.

  • Don’t rule out the most ordinary objects for a still life. Often the most mundane objects, such as a Coca Cola can or even a spoon, from certain angles and lighting conditions will take on interesting aspects.
  • Place two contrasting objects next to each other. A metal tankard next to a rose, for instance suggests interesting contrasts of texture.
  • Place two contrasting colours next to each other. The juxtaposition of a yellow object and a violet object, for instance, will create a focal point.
  • Be aware of the lighting. Try moving the objects in relation to the light source to see how the shadows pool out and how this might bring out the textures of the objects.
  • Again, shadows are often overlooked, but is in fact part of the composition, and can appear as solid as the objects themselves. It is worth paying equal attention to it.
  • The background is also easily overlooked. Consider the background as having equal importance as the objects themselves. Simple and subdued is often effective, but experimentation will yield interesting results.
Be aware of negative shapes. Negative shapes are the shape of the background areas between the objects.




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What is Positive and Negative Space

When it comes to setting up a still life, there are basically two parts to consider.

  • Negative space: This represents the areas between the objects, including the background and the foreground area.
  • Positive space: This represents the focal point of the objects themselves.
The secret to a good still life composition is to give equal consideration to the negative space and the positive space.

Composing a Painting


The question one needs to ask when setting up a still life is whether there is too much negative space in one particular area, or vice versa. A good composition is the general distribution of the negative space and the positive space throughout the setting. The three paintings of a still life illustrates this point.
Here, there are too many objects on the right, leaving too much empty space on the left.
In this painting, large areas of the composition are empty, leaving the composition looking flat.
The objects in this painting are arranged regimentally, making the setting look unnatural.


How to Set up a Still Life
Further consideration might be given to whether the setting looks natural. Contrivances might not be obvious to one who has spent considerable time setting up the still life setting. Asking the opinion of another or revisiting the composition another day might help clarify problems.
Sometimes, an ideal still life might present itself by accident, for instance, discarded toys in the garden, or tools on a workbench. The secret is raised awareness of such everyday opportunities for a painting.

This site comprise of pictures and excerpts taken from my 2 art instruction books. Oil Paintings from Your Garden can be purchased direct from the author, or through Amazon.


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© Rachel Shirley 2010