Painting Still Life

Picasso… Caravaggio.. Henri Fantin-Latour, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Francisco de Zurbarán, Braque, Mary Cassatt, Miró…Gauguin. Monet, Manet, Renoir, Adelheid Dietrich. Brueghel, Rembrandt, Dürer, Rubens, Velázquez.

“Brazilian Tree Flowers”
by Betania Bright
18″ x 24″ – Oil on Canvas

Great painting masters from different periods of time and style. One might find it difficult to find something in common between all these artists, as their exquisite paintings and artistic methodologies are so different from one another, but there is something that they have in common other than their geniuses and the love for art: Still Life.

Still Life is the depiction of inanimate objects, from man-made utensils to nature (food, flowers), arranged in a pleasing and harmonic composition. The history of still life paintings goes back to ancient Roman times when wall paintings of flowers and fruits were not unusual to be seen in Italy. The tradition persisted and went through the middle ages, Renaissance, Baroque until our days. A normal painting exercise for those willing to learn academic art and realism, still life is a practical way of learning texture, volume, composition, drawing, values, and proportions.

“Grapes and Apples” by Betania Bright
16″ x 20″ – Oil on Canvas

As a self- taught artist, when I started painting 13 years ago, with no form of academic instructor, the beautiful colors of the fruits in my kitchen caught my eyes as I challenged myself to paint it. Still life painting made me the artist that I am today. In this article, I intend to share my basic painting techniques of still life and a brief simple exercise that anyone from any age can attempt at home with simple painting materials.

To start a simple still life exercise at home, you can use any fruit or vase of flowers that you have available. I will suggest a simple fruit as in the picture below. You don’t need to worry about creating something worthy of competition quality in this exercise, and for now, don’t worry about composition. To most artists, composition will come naturally the more you paint, but it’s also a whole field of work and practice and we are not going into it today. These are only the basic techniques and if you follow my instructions you’ll have a finished work in 3 hours. If you paint in oils you might need more than 3 hours, so my advice is to let the layers of paint dry before continuing, so 3 or 5 days of painting for those using oils.

I chose a simple apple and I put it on a wood table that has a nice subtle reflex. I will use a small canvas pad (9”x12”), and acrylic colors: titanium white, vermilion hue, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, sap green, permanent green light, raw sienna, burnt sienna, raw umber, burnt umber and mars black. It’s very important that you are patient and take your time to draw your still life on the canvas. I know that the desire to paint and apply the brush strokes might make you rush through this part, but the drawing is the most important part of the painting. If you are very experienced in still life, this will not be an issue as painting is nothing more than drawing with the paintbrush, but if you are not familiar, mistakes casually done with the drawing may affect your finished canvas in the end. So take your time. Observe the geometrical forms of the fruit/flower and table that you are drawing.

The second step to paint on your still life is to correctly apply the color values. Color value is the amount of white or black that a color has. To get it right easily first you are going to use titanium white, burnt sienna, burnt umber and mars black, to paint an almost monochromatic image of your still life. The use of values are also important to demonstrate the volume of the object that you are painting. In the image of my apple, on top I used five different value schedules (those little squares) in which I will adjust to the shapes of the fruit that I am seeing. I will also use the values to briefly highlight the subtle reflexes of the apple on the table.

The third and final layer I will use the reds and browns to create the table and apple. For the darker areas, I will use the darker greens mixed with the browns or black. For the background I used a mix of light green, white and black because I wanted a cool green and grayish color. Red and green are complementary colors and interact with each other in the human eye.

I hope with this simple exercise you will become more interested in studying and painting still life.

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