Steps Toward a Still Life

Jan_Bruegel_(I)_-_Bouquet_of_Flowers_in_a_Ceramic_VaseNever have I had any inclination toward still life painting. I love looking at them, and I marvel at the details good artists put into their still life paintings.  Just take a close look at this gorgeous painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder.

Have  you ever seen anything so exquisite? And this isn’t the only still life that shows such richness in detail. A quick search only will yield results from amazing artists all over the world.

I love these paintings, but I’ve never imagined myself ever attempting to paint one. Not really. There was a brief moment back in autumn of 2017 when I was inspired by a “goonie” squash at an art club meeting  but that fleeting moment of madness passed quickly.

In the past, I’ve actually been somewhat critical of still life artists — not critical of their talent, but critical of their methods. Or, perhaps, skeptical might be a better word. What I’m talking about is their need to arrange and re-arrange a few objects over and over, searching for that “just perfect” arrangement. I’ve read about artists who take hundreds of photographs while setting up a still life.

Hundreds? Really? Why?

For that reason alone, still life painting has been very unappealing to me. I don’t want to fret over an arrangement. I don’t want to make dozens of thumbnail sketches or take hundreds of photographs. I don’t have the patience for still life painting.

Of course, neither do I have the skill required for detailed paintings, but I am working on that, and I’ve come to a place in my studies where I can see the value of painting a still life. Even though it’s not something I have a lot of interest in doing, it’s nevertheless an important part of the learning process. And who knows? If I try it, I might just like it.

Last year I did make a few still life paintings with poster paints and newsprint. They were exercises from Arnold Fletcher’s book on oil painting. I enjoyed them, and I learned a lot about focal points and how we look at art.

And then, as another exercise from Fletcher’s book, I painted my little potted plant on a windowsill. I like that little painting, and I love what I’ve learned from it. I know there will be future exercises from Fletcher on still life painting, and I’m willing to give them a try, to follow along with his lessons, and learn as much as I can.

By chance, I recently picked up an art magazine that included a few tips and practices for still life drawing. Remember that little tomato that helped me understand the importance of learning to see?

That same article offered another suggestion: Practice finding the focal point. We can do this, the author, Roz Stendahl, says by setting up objects (she recommends either three or five) and making thumbnail sketches. Make four sketches. Make another four. Make four more. Oh, gee, do I have to do this?

Well, why not do it and have fun with it?

As a way of keeping it fun, I went back to the same five objects/shapes from Fletcher’s poster paint and newsprint exercises:

  • A plate
  • A bottle
  • A cup on a saucer
  • A bowl
  • A pitcher

I didn’t have these objects sitting out in front of me. I just drew them from my IMAGINATION. Remember that word? It’s my word to live by this year. I re-arranged these imaginary items over and over, and it was fun to make quick little sketches.

Here’s one of my sheets with a few sketches:

Thumbnails (2)

Okay, fun aside, what was I supposed to be learning from this? Since I wasn’t really working with actual objects, for me it wasn’t so much about finding a focal point as it was about coming up with an arrangement I liked.

After completing twelve thumbnails, I looked them over and — you’ll notice a little X on one shown above — and I chose the one I liked best. In looking at them again today, I’m no longer quite so sure that’s my favorite, but that’s irrelevant now.

My next step was to see what such an arrangement might really look like. That actually turned out to be a bit more problematic than I’d thought. I didn’t have a suitable bottle. Hmmm, guess a Coca-Cola bottle will have to do! My attempts at using a real plate didn’t work. I could not get one to stand up against the wall. And the only pitcher we have is a large plastic one my husband uses for his lemonade. I didn’t actually have a cup and saucer, either. So, a cup sitting atop a bread plate had to do. I did have a bowl, though, and what a lovely bowl it is. All white and shiny, and, oh, my… I’m not really going to paint this am I?

Still Life 2 (2)

Oh… about the background. I wanted something interesting, so I took an old painting and propped it against the wall. It’s a bit like the “window sill” idea from my potted plant painting.

So, back to the question. Am I really going to attempt painting this still life arrangement. I don’t know. It was fun, and I do like the arrangement. But I don’t want to attempt painting a Coca-Cola bottle, and I really don’t want to try painting that plastic pitcher, or the paper plate.

I do want to paint something inspired by this, however. I want to look closely at whatever objects I find and arrange. I want to pay attention to the shadows. I want to take note of the highlights. I want to challenge myself a bit and further my art education by doing so.

The results will definitely be interesting.

And so it is, I’ve taken my first hesitant steps toward still life painting. Oh, what a trip this is going to be!



  1. I agree about setting up still lifes. I’ve done many over the years (see and although I admire tremendously Cezanne and the meticulous way he set up his compositions, I, like you, have never been able to do that. In fact, philosophically, I don’t really approve of it because one should be able, by the strength of the painting, make any arrangement satisfying and exciting. So, in fact, I tend to go to the other extreme, and more or less set up things randomly or as they fall. I do agree with that last longer paragraph of yours. Good luck, for we sure need that too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, I like your artwork The Begonias on Red certainly caught my eye. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t really want to spend time with tedious arrangement and re-arrangements. I think there’s probably a middle ground in there somewhere that I need to find. I do think it will be fun to play around with still life painting, and I know it will help me improve my painting skills.


      1. Thanks Judith. That painting, if you read about it, was done straight off in one blast. If you look at Soutine’s still lifes, they give you a great idea of what’s possible – painting from the eye and the heart, and not the brain.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Still Life painting will be another interesting thing for me to learn. I don’t expect to become very good at it, but I know my painting techniques will improve as a result. I’ll try to keep in mind, though, that even while I’m learning (and using my brain) I need to paint with my heart, too. 🙂


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