Whether you are just learning to draw or paint or have many years of experience under your belt, a still life is an excellent way to practice your rendering skills. Unlike working on location or from a live model, you can control the weather, keep the lighting consistent, and your subject is unlikely to fidget, want to chat, or need a potty break. But do be aware that for an interesting picture, you must have an interesting still life; you can’t just throw things on a table and call it good. Here are some suggestions to make your still life setup creative, interesting and well-balanced.
Variation. This is the main watchword for still lives; variety is the spice of life, and a still life needs spice, too! Give the viewer some different things to look at by varying the sizes, shapes, textures and colors of your setup. Imagine how a brilliant, velvety red rose would look against a fuzzy white shawl, with a shiny black glazed pitcher in the background! Make sure you use contrast to your advantage—don’t make everything light, or dark, or soft, or shiny. Mix it up and your picture will be much more lively!
Elevation. Also when setting up your still life subject, try to vary the elevations, as well—either use taller things to contrast with shorter, or use props to create different levels. For example, you could place boxes of different sizes under a drape and arrange items on the differing levels created, or you could stack smaller things on books of varying sizes.
Focal Point. While you do want a variety of objects in your picture, you should give the viewer something to home in on so that your picture draws attention in the first place. You will want to have one main subject to act as the star of the show, and once the viewer is drawn by this, the supporting players will be there to add variety and interest. The best results are usually obtained by selecting one really fascinating piece, such as a gorgeous cut-glass vase or a brightly-colored kite, then choosing a few other items that provide contrast in color, size and texture. In this picture by French painter Anne Vallayer-Coster, the ham is clearly the star of the show, but there are a lot of supporting players that add a variety of textures, colors and shapes to create interest.
Themes. Most people think of a vase of flowers or a bowl of fruit when they think of a still life subject (or both, as seen in the picture at top, by Flemish artist Clara Peeters). These are fine, but you should also try to come up with more creative setups. Pick a theme for your still life, and then try to come up with all the things that could fit the theme. You might choose music as a theme, and you could feature a beautiful old violin as your main subject and then add in the bow, some sheet music, a metronome, a pair of opera glasses and some white gloves. You could pick food as the theme, but instead of the typical bowl of fruit, you could use vegetables instead, or even candy displayed in different dishes and scattered across a cloth. As a student, I drew a still life of the “heavy metal” theme, composed of spiked and studded leather cuffs and belts from my own rockin’ wardrobe!
Personalization. Did you know that you can actually make a portrait out of a still life setup? Instead of making a direct likeness of your sitter, use meaningful objects from their life, such as mementos, awards, and any items that reflect their personal interests or hobbies. If your client is a baseball enthusiast, for example, you could make a still life from their own collection: maybe an autographed ball or glove, a pennant from a favorite team, a pair of tickets and a game schedule, even a box of Wheaties with their hero on the front. Or instead of a theme, use many different items to represent all of their interests, like posters of favorite movies, favorite books, musical instruments, travel souvenirs and so forth. Use your imagination and get creative! This is a great way to make a special, personalized picture for someone who is shy or uncomfortable with the idea of having their portrait made.
See my breakdown of a Vincent vanGogh's still life, here: http://allsortsartbyali.blogspot.com/2014/11/van-goghs-stillleben-mit-gelbem.html
Make sure your still life has a strong focal point! These tips will help: http://allsortsartbyali.blogspot.com/2015/05/painting-composition-101-creating.html
At top: Still life painting by Flemish painter Clara Peeters, from Wikimedia Commons
Still life with ham by French painter Anne Vallayer-Coster, from Wikimedia Commons