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Friday, March 10, 2017

What subjects do artists choose to put in their still life compositions?

This seems like an obvious question and answer but when I looked closer, like my last post, I  realized it is not what I thought. The problem is, I have made assumptions about still life subject matter and what artists choose to paint. I'm writing down my observations and finding examples of contemporary still life paintings. The examples are taken from Pinterest and Google images.

I think top on the list for most artists is the subject of flowers of all kinds. Most of us associate flowers with still life painting. I started with the single flower of which there are many, many examples.

Next is the vase of flowers on a table with drapery.

Then I see flowers with other containers like bowls, cups, teapots, utensils.

There are a lot of glass containers holding flowers.

Teacups everywhere with flowers around, in, and among the teacups. Artists paint flowers on the teacups and place the compositions on flowered surfaces.  The pleasantness of a cup of tea and flowers seem to compliment each other.

I wasn't surprised to find all kinds of fruit in flower paintings. The sweetness of fruit goes with the fragrance of flowers. What did surprise me was how few paintings there are of flowers and vegetables. There are some, but not enough to talk about. I assumed artists put everything under the sun in a still life painting.

I found a lot of flowers in front of a window, inside and outside of the house. The play of light was a huge factor.

And then guess what, flowers on chairs?

The next subject is fruit. Fruit is easy to find and set up and with all the shapes and colors it is the subject of many still life paintings.

There is the single fruit study or portrait.

Fruit painted in a group with drapery.

Fruit in a bowl goes together like flowers and vases.

Fruit painted in many different compositions. It was rare to see fruits and vegetables in the same painting.

Fruit placed inside and outside of windows.

Fruit found on chairs and other pieces of furniture.

There are plenty of paintings of food made from fruit.

From fruit to jelly to bread is a frequent subject.

And finally the apple core of which there are many versions.

Paintings using vegetables followed the same ideas as paintings of fruit. The elaborate fruit and vegetable painting of the 16th and 17th centuries aren't as popular in contemporary work. Artists are more interested in simple compositions, portraits of individual vegetables, detail, color, and lighting.

This is a portrait of Romaine lettuce. Different vegetables interested each artist.

Avocados are a popular subject. This is another portrait and cutting it open is like viewing two vegetables because of the seed. You can't cut a head of lettuce open and get the same effect.

Vegetables, like fruit, are set up in a small group. The focus is on movement, color, and light.

Then comes the larger group and sub groups with variations in size and color.

Compositions had other items like bowls that mimic the shape of the vegetable.

Mason jars are popular suggesting canning while adding a transparent quality.

Baskets are used a lot.


Squash and pumpkins are in many paintings.

Drapery is often used and most of the paintings I found used shelves for the compositions. Rarely did I see other surfaces like chairs, or corners, etc. Vegetables aren't typically mixed with other foods but instead there might be a variety of the same vegetables. There are far fewer vegetable paintings compared to fruit paintings and artists rarely mix fruit and vegetables in the same work.

The next subject is the egg.

Here again is the portrait.

Eggs in a group

Eggs in a composition next to a bowl.

When eggs are also used in a composition they are usually not the center of interest. They add color, variety of shape, and movement.

The egg  shell becomes the portrait.

And the group composition

The inside of the egg is studied often.

This painting shows eggs cooling off in water telling us they have been hard boiled.

Which leads to the hard boiled egg as a meal.

Then there is the pan fried egg for breakfast.

I found a lot of paintings with eggs in a nest. The leads to a whole new group of ideas and how the egg is used.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

What surfaces do artists select for the objects in their still life compositions?

I have asked myself this question to better understand what I want and don't want in my own work. After looking at many painting on Pinterest, I decided to write down my observations with examples to clarify this in my mind and to discover something I didn't know before. I have left off the artist's name and title to stay focused on the painting.

Overwhelmingly the table is used.  Very often cloth and objects drape off the front edge of the table.

The shelf has one or more objects and sometimes part of the object hangs over the edge.

Chairs and other furniture provide a flat surface and break up the picture plane more than a table.

The more I looked the more I found books in paintings used as a surface for objects.

Windows are used outside looking in or inside looking out depending on where the sill is located and the light conditions.

Boxes, mostly made of wood, provide a space, surface, and framing for objects. 

The corner provides three surfaces.

The wall shows a vertical surface with a top view of the object. Looking down on a table there is a horizontal surface with a top view of the object. 

Niche comes from the Latin for nest and has been used in paintings for centuries.

It is my observation that artists automatically use these nine basic surfaces when planning a still life. So I searched for artists who didn't use these ideas or modified them.

This artist used a table with a cloth hanging over the edge but changed it by casting light through the fabric thus making it semi-transparent and adding another element to the painting.

I know there is a table underneath but the artist has down played it and changed the back ground plane so it tilts back unlike a vertical wall. The tilted backgrounds hides the real shape and size of the table.

The surface in this painting looks like a glass table reflecting the objects and a window. The artist has given just enough information without competing with the center of interest.  

In this piece the surface serves its purpose without identifying what or where it is. It is smooth enough to show a reflection and that is all that matters. 

There are a lot of interesting objects out there that act like tables, but are not tables.

Hmm, flowers sitting on a shadow of a chair on a wooden floor instead of a vase of flowers on a chair. 

There are two unknowns in this work, what the jug is sitting on and what to call the background. The jug and negative space are both the same color and value to show off the center of interest, the daffodil.

Letters and words as surface.

The squash is so large that it becomes the surface.

An arial view of a rug on the floor is the surface for the subject.

This painting makes me want to search for new surface possibilities.

I assume the toaster is on a kitchen counter but it is secondary to the surface of the toaster that reflects the plug which is the center of interest. Reflective surfaces can be a place for still life objects.

The copper cup is on a flat surface that functions in realistic space like a table but it isn't a table. Furthermore, it can't be named other than the description of positive, flat shape. The background and foreground can't be names either all of which adds mystery to this composition. The flat shape also creates interesting negative shapes far more than a rectangular table.

I now realize surfaces for objects to sit on don't have to be exactly painted as seen. They can be suggested, hinted at, mysterious, unnamable, reflective, out of context, unseen, and surprising. I'm going to carry these observations into my painting when I set up my next still life. This will allow me to break away from the nine overused standbys as previously described.