Choosing what to paint or draw for a still life can feel overwhelming, however it’s such great practice for observation, composition and deciding what to include and leave out of a picture.
It’s also a great way to practice rendering tone, texture and colour. Here are some things to think about when deciding how to set up your still life.

What objects to paint or draw

The easiest thing to paint or draw is something that’s accessible to you, if you need to go out and source or buy objects you’re less likely to get started on your piece. You’re surrounded by objects that would make good subjects.

Food, particularly fruit or vegetables are a good place to start. They may be simply shapes but they provide great exercise for rendering tone and matching colour and texture. Mugs, jugs and plates provide excellent and difficult ellipse practice and bottles and cutlery can be studies in light and reflection.

You might have a naturally occurring still life set up on a shelf with plants and ornaments, or you could use a temporary scene like an empty plate with knife and fork, or a pile of books or letters.

Here is a list of ideas for objects to include in a still life:

  • Food: fruit, vegetables, fish, meat (cooked or uncooked), hot dog, sandwich, prepared meals, packets, empty or closed, cake, pie, biscuits, tea, coffee, bottle (empty or full)
  • Things from the house: kitchen equipment, cleaning equipment, bathroom accessories, ornaments
  • Books or stationery: open, closed, in a pile, newspaper, letters, scrunched up paper, folded paper
  • Clothing: draped, folded, hanging on a washing line, jackets, trousers, socks, jumpers, underwear
  • Suitcases or bags: empty or full, open or closed
  • Work equipment: stethoscope, tools, art materials, cooking utensils, uniform items
  • Time pieces: watch, clock, timer
  • Hobbies: wool, fabric, crafters tools, musical instruments, sporting equipment, awards
  • Flora: vases of flowes, dried flowers, bunches of flowers
  • Fauna: dead creatures, insects, butterflies, skulls, bones

 

Storytelling

The most effective still life paintings tell a story through the objects they present and the way they are arranged.
A meal set out with knife and fork with a watch laid next to it could be of a person waiting for a date who has been stood up, for example. Or just a simple set up of tea and biscuit with a newspaper makes you think of taking a break and relaxing.

Or you could choose a selection of objects that are personal to a particular person to paint an indirect portrait of them, or a pinboard with postcards and memories of a particular time, or a cabinet of curiosities full of ornaments and bits and bobs.

Setting up and lighting your still life

It’s important to consider your set up if you’re painting from life.
If you know that the lighting in your room is going to change considerably while you are painting or drawing, put your still life inside a large cardboard box with one side cut out so you can see what you are doing and a hole cut in the side or the top through which you can shine a lamp for lighting. Pin some fabric inside the box so you’re not working against a cardboard background.

Otherwise, set up a simple backdrop with a base and back (I use two canvases propped at right angles to each other) and drape some fabric over for a simple, undistracting background.

The strength of the lighting sets the mood of your painting. Experiment with a daylight lamp at different angles and distances from your still life. The nearer it is the stronger the contrast between light an dark, which enhances the drama of the scene. See how the mood becomes more interesting in the still life photo of bottle and glass just by altering the light source.

You coul, however, choose a more evenly lit scene to give a sense of light and calm.

Bottle lighting  

Composing a still life

Composition is all about arranging the elements in your picture so they balance, it’s easier to think of what doesn’t work really, if you have an object that’s too large, bright, separate to the arrangement so that it becomes distracting, the viewer will find the picture difficult to look at.

Every picture needs a focal point, where you want your viewer’s eye to be directed. It’s good to have something that leads your eye into a picture towards the focal point. In landscape this could be a path or a river, and in a still life this could be a fold of cloth or a shadow, as well as an object.

A really easy way to compose your picture is by dividing your image into thirds horizontally and vertically and making sure that a focal point is at one of the points where the lines cross. This is called the rule of thirds. Many mobile phones and cameras will have a function that overlays a grid of thirds either while you are taking a photo or if you crop it.

Quick composition tips:

  • Odd amounts of items look better, so arrange objects in groups of 1, 3, 5 and so on
  • Either overlap objects or have gaps between them (or a mixture) rather than have them touching
  • ¬†Repetition of shapes works well, as does variety of size
  • If you have a camera phone, take photos of your set up and crop to see what looks most pleasing
  • Use your crop tool on your photos in your camera phone to overlay the rule of thirds grid so you can see where points of interest are.

Composing a still life is a matter of trial and error to a large extent, and it should be, because playing around with different configurations will be the way you come up with the best arrangement. There is a lot of theory behind composition but try to learn to trust your eye.

Playing with ideas for composition:

If you have any tips for still life ideas, let me know!

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