I have created a number of still life paintings during my fine art career. They were not only painted for my personal enjoyment, but also as a change of pace from landscape painting…and as something unexpected for my collectors. I have since come to realize their valued importance in the development of an artist. I do not even slightly suggest that my still life paintings compare favorably with the master works shown here, but I do not deny that they are valuable in my overall repertoire.

Pieter van Anraadt - "Still Life with Earthenware Jug" - "26.5"x 23.75" - Oil  (1658)

Pieter van Anraadt – “Still Life with Earthenware Jug” – “26.5″x 23.75″ – Oil (1658)

 

Still life painting has a long and valued position in the history of art. As I’ve stated before, I had virtually no exposure to fine art growing up, and even as a professional illustrator, I had little interest in the fine arts. But, my attitude eventually changed and I do regret my disinterest and insensitivity to the finer things.

When I converted to fine art from illustration in 1982, the first exhibit I attended was “Dutch Painting of the Golden Age”, at the Kimbell Museum in Ft. Worth, TX. The exhibit featured many great artists of 1600′s Holland, the age of Rembrandt and Vermeer. The whole exhibit was an eye opener.

"Things English" - 11.25"x 9" - Oil

“Things English” – 11.25″x 9″ – Oil

 

I still clearly remember the amazingly sensitive self portrait Rembrandt painted when he was just twenty-three. There were several still life paintings in the exhibit, all exquisite and typical of the period.

Two that really captivated me were paintings by Jan Baptist Weenix and Pieter van Anraadt. The still life tradition has also been evident in American Art and probably its most famous practitioner is William Harnett.

Jan Baptist Weenix - "The Dead Partridge" - 20" x 17" - Oil  (1650)

Jan Baptist Weenix – “The Dead Partridge” – 20″ x 17″ – Oil (1650)

 

Why is still life painting such a great way to grow rapidly in one’s ability as an artist, and why is it a valuable practice one should adopt throughout their career?

There are a number of reasons, but the number one, numero uno reason is found in the title…still life. The objects don’t move or change…unless of course you’re working with perishables like flowers, fruit and vegetables. But basically, under controlled light, nothing changes.

"Knitted Friends" - 11.25"x 9" - Oil

“Knitted Friends” – 11.25″x 9″ – Oil

"Planters" - 5"x 7" - Oil

“Planters” – 5″x 7″ – Oil

"Fruits" - 9"x 12" - Oil

“Fruits” – 9″x 12″ – Oil

 

Here are some reasons for valuing still life painting:

Light and composition can be easily orchestrated

You choose the objects

Set up can be as simple or complex as you desire

There are no time restraints

Objects are set and immobile, so drawing and accurate placement of objects in space, relative to one another, can be thoroughly studied and drawn.

Objects can be selected to communicate a narrative, a theme, and to aid in color harmony.

Still life provides a great opportunity for study of light, halftone, shadow, reflected light, and how light moves across objects to delineate form

There’s more opportunity to explore various points of view (eye levels)

A thorough study of how light reacts to a variety of textures can be observed…and one can learn to paint those affects

These are some of the benefits. I’m sure there are more I haven’t thought of.

William Harnett - "A Study Table" - 39.87"x 51.37" - Oil  (1882)

William Harnett – “A Study Table” – 39.87″x 51.37″ – Oil (1882)

 

There’s nothing new about the benefits of still life painting. The same principles were taught for generations before the so called “modern age”.

I would make a few suggestions for those starting out. Simplify things by working with the most basic of shapes: cube, cylinder, cone and sphere. From there, when you have attained a good grasp of drawing, begin to add values (shading)…and from there begin adding color, more complexity, and so on.

You might even consider setting up a still life outside and learn to paint under rapidly changing light. Guaranteed, all this will help you as a painter, regardless of your subject of choice.

"Plum and Strawberries" - 9.75"x 10" - Oil

“Plum and Strawberries” – 9.75″x 10″ – Oil

 

Finally, and this is huge, never work from photos when painting a still life. Why in the world would you want to do that? Also, there is a big difference in drawing from life and working from a 2-dimensional photo….no comparison.

 

John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master

To view his art and bio, please click HERE