Finding and Arranging the Items in your Painting

The first thing you need to do to paint a still life is to find some items you want to look at long enough to create a painting. I love dishes and all the paraphernalia you find in the kitchen and dining room. You may like some type of collectible. Anything that will sit still is fair game. It’s a great excuse to get the toys out and play.

And, speaking of playing, play is a good term. You’re trying out compositions by arranging and playing with the items. Move the parts around until the composition feels right.

Use these steps to get started with your arrangement for a still life:

  1. Choose the surface you want to set up on.

Traditionally, items are arranged on a table. Now, on top of the table do you want to arrange some fabric or place a doily or go for the bare look? The upcoming “Setting the Scene: Surfaces and Backgrounds” section talks about surfaces.

  1. Consider the background.

Look at the color behind your surface. Decide whether you want to change it by draping fabric behind as a backdrop. Maybe you want something behind the still-life grouping to balance it – a window or more art?

  1. Find the elements you want to paint and arrange them on the surface in various ways until you find an arrangement you like.

Take into account what you like to paint. Decide whether the items you’ve chosen go together and whether they need to relate to each other.

Moving the items around is like making a drawing, but much easier because you don’t have to erase! Set items in front of other items to create interesting compound shapes. Look for negative areas between the shapes. Balance horizontal items with a vertical item.

Set up an arrangement that pleases you. Play.

  1. Experiment with light.

You can set up a light to create dramatic light and shadows. Some artists go so far as to set up a still life inside a box with just one open end in order to control the light. You can easily pin fabric to the cardboard back as a backdrop. Then clamp a light source to the top.

This way the light on the still life isn’t influenced by overhead lighting or other lights you may need to paint with. Playtime is over and it’s time to get to work on the painting. But that’s no problem because this work is enjoyable.

Setting the Scene: Surfaces and Backgrounds

You probably have an infinite number of choices when it comes to the surface on which you set your still life. You can set up on a piece of furniture or a countertop. You can elevate it by setting it up on a box and draping fabric over the box.

Likewise, you can choose all sorts of backgrounds to frame your items. You can use draped fabric, a wall, a wall with another piece of art on it, or nothing at all – just some colors swirled behind.

Think about the contrast of values and colors with the items you are placing on your surface and in front of your background. Do you want to have items fade into the background? Then choose a background with a similar value to the item. Do you want the item to jump out dramatically? Then choose high contrast values: a light object against a dark background, for example. Colors can be placed next to each other to be a bit dramatic as well. When you place a complement or a near-complement (opposites on the color wheel) next to a color, it almost vibrates with energy. Or maybe you want to explore subtle colors and use analogous colors. The possibilities are limitless.

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