View Full Version : Composition for still life

09-25-2010, 06:48 PM
If you saw my last post, you know I need help with still life composition. I have read several books that only had maybe a page or two dedicated to still life composition. Does anyone know any good books that deal with still life composition and if so, please list them here. There is plenty of books on landscape composition but still life is another story. I guess the thing I find hardest about still lifes is what to put in the setup. I've been studying other paintings and wondering why did they put an onion in there or an orange next to the vase with flowers. What was the motivation behind that? Was it due to color or shape or both? Am I putting to much in or to little? How should the eye travel in the still life painting and how to make that happen? The only rule that I know of in any detail is the don't allow the objects to be "kissing". Overlap them or separate them one or the other. Oh and I do know that hard edges draw the eye, and watch the light direction, keep it comeing from the same source. Other then those, not to many more. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. thanks, james

09-25-2010, 10:32 PM
My suggestion would be to search the internet or your art books and look at the still lifes you like. Questions I would ask myself:

Are the items in the still life one large grouping, or are any items separate?
How many items are there?
How much variation in size are the items?
How much variation in distance (front to back) is there?
Are the items related - all fruits, all kitchen items, items found on your night stand, or completely unrelated?

Hopefully you will see some patterns!


09-26-2010, 12:52 AM

I went on to Amazon.com and did a search of "how to paint still life" in books, and these came up:





None of these books are done using pastels, but maybe one or two of them will be helpful to you. I would think oils are the best match to pastels, but I have not seen or read any of these books, so I couldn't recommend them. These are just something for you to consider - it would be easier if one could actually see the books, as opposed to going on line. Maybe a local bookstore will have some of these, so you could decide?

These are links on ehow, with information on approaching a still life painting. There may be some ideas here that will help:





Happy 'mousing around', and I hope this helps you.

09-26-2010, 12:18 PM
i have an old book, you might find it if you do an internet search, it is called PAINTING THE STILL LIFE by Olga Zaferatos. Watson Guptill. She looks at the work of 19 different still life painters and analyses them.

She has a whole chapter devoted to Designing and Activating Space, another on Developing an Underlying Structure, both of
which should give you lots of ideas about composition.

She talks about "Building with Compatible objects". I personally believe in this as an idea. People who take random objects and just chuck them onto a table hoping a still life idea will pop out as a result, are setting themselves up to fail. I believe you DO need to consider why you put certain objects together. Did you choose them because there is an underlying narrative or symbolic connection? If so, that may take you quite a long way. Then, you have to think about the picture plane, the flat shapes you are painting within the rectangle...do the shapes have connections and echoes? Do the colours work really well together? Does the light create interesting shadows which link objects together? Have you created a particular mood, by the clever use of lighting and tonal contrasts?

Arranging your objects is as important as choosing them. You have to DESIGN your picture, which is why I talk about shapes. The background can play a crucial role in holding the composition together. The spaces between objects is very important. Proper balance is important.

One of the best ways to learn about still life is not just to LOOK at other artists' works, but to try to analyse what they did, and why.

so here is some analysis of a few of mine:

Why did I put fruits with a pot and vase of flowers? Because of the echoing shapes and colours, pure and simple. I stuck to a main colour scheme of two COMPLEMENTARY colours - orange/blue, with the addition of a bit of yellow in the lemon, yellow is a close companion to the orange, but putting in the lemon added a little extra variety and prevented monotony.


what about this one? Again, fruits which have nothing to do with vases of flowers...or do they? Here were my thoughts: I wanted a modern look. I felt I wanted tiny touches of echoing colour alongside the main blue/white colour scheme; I went for brilliant colour contrasts; I deliberately tipped-up the perspective for a more contemporary look, and to create interest within the rectangle.


And this? I wanted a "japanese" series, using objects I found while on my travels. Orchids have a distinctly Japanese feeling to them, and worked, I felt, with the other objects. The objects had colour similarities which was helpful. I carefully set this up, you may feel it is even quite contrived, but I didnt mind that. I used a viewfinder, and considered the negative background and surrounding shapes and thought about how they related to the edges of the rectangle. Then, I created lots of interesting "v" shapes, echoing angles, which repeat across the rectangle, I hope you can see this.


I hope this gives you a few ideas.


09-26-2010, 01:25 PM
Jackie's examples are clear and direct as elements of a very complex subject
myself, i go to libraries in different towns - always something to flip through in the Art section, more than one visit !
magazines too
and you don't have to buy the thing
whatta concept !
that may not be your opportunity, tho i hope it is

a great find is ' The Illustrators Annual ' published by the Society of Illustrators - it's a harvest of info, and with 500-600 pages judged as best by the best, a ton and a half of ideas

hope that helps
:} Ed

09-26-2010, 03:26 PM
Thanks so much for the adviseb everyone. I'll be checking out those links Chris, thanks so much for posting it. Thanks Jackie for you detailed explanation and examples. It really helped a lot. james

09-26-2010, 03:38 PM
For the Zeferatos book, try your local library - if they don't have it, they should be able to get it for you through an interlibrary loan.


Deborah Secor
09-26-2010, 04:10 PM
Love what Jackie has shown you here, and trust me, she's the expert at this subject!

Of course, don't neglect to go over to the Still Life forum (http://wetcanvas.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?s=&daysprune=-1&f=42) here and poke around, and maybe ask them for book suggestions, too.

Albert Handell said this once, and I believe it's true, "The bad news is, composition may not be taught, but the good news is it may be learned"!! I decided that it would be best for me to start at ABC-123, so I've been painting fruit and vegetables from life (SO traditional), and carefully composing one object, with a strongly cast shadow, on my page for basic, basic practice. I spend time thinking about and analyzing each shape, positive and negative, to see what works and what doesn't. I'm slowly learning.

09-26-2010, 04:56 PM
Something I read once about still life stuck in my head, I'll try to paraphrase it. The idea of a still life was to give an impression of the life behind it - a portrait of the personality of the owner of the objects. Like physical archaeology, a still life tells a story, shows the culture where the objects were used every day.

I know a lot of the early still lifes involved food and that's still a very common theme. This is why when someone else mentioned that the fruits in a still life should be chosen for a particular locality - not putting bananas and apples and oranges together because "that looks as if you just went to the supermarket," I disagreed.

Because we live in America today, we do get fruit from supermarkets and it is shipped in from all over the world, you can get blueberries and mangoes and bananas and apples anywhere in the country. Even if local produce is cheaper, that juxtaposition is an accurate snapshot of how many people live right now - so when I do that, I'm aware that's what my still life is saying about my times and what fruits are available.

I could never get why lemons wound up in them though, because they taste bad. Still, I guess a lot of people cook with them or make lemonade and they're yellow. But why is it that hardly anyone ever puts in a grapefruit? It's as if some fruits are traditional and others not, no matter how popular they are in real life.

Just some thoughts on still life, hope that helps.

09-26-2010, 06:36 PM
Thanks Robert, Deborah, Dan and Don, the insite I am getting from all of you is really helpful. I really appreciated it. james

09-27-2010, 04:52 AM
I could never get why lemons wound up in them though, because they taste bad. Still, I guess a lot of people cook with them or make lemonade and they're yellow. But why is it that hardly anyone ever puts in a grapefruit? It's as if some fruits are traditional and others not, no matter how popular they are in real life.


most amused by this! I use lemons a) for their colour, I like the sharpness of the yellow, it often offsets other quieter colours and b) for their interesting shapes. They are funny too, I found one once with a smiley face on it, in the skin, it sat on my fridge shelf for ages, amusing me every time I opened the fridge.

Grapefruit, however, although they are yellow, are stonking great fruits that are hard to put with other fruits because they are BIGGER, and they are just kinda round. I guess I could think of using them on their own....but with other fruits? Nope, they just dont do it for me.


09-27-2010, 09:36 AM
I've actually used a 'Sweetie', which is a green grapefruit. :-)

Like Jackie, I think they're too big. Also, they're sort of the 'wrong' yellow... shape's just a 'blob'. Lemons have this nice oval shape with knobs.

Now, a still-life with turnips, swedes, potatos... (impish ;-D )

09-27-2010, 01:55 PM
James, here is a link to a thread called "How to Set up a Still Life." There are some very useful and practical tips in here. And I struggle with this CONSTANTLY!!